Home > Free Essays > Warfare > World War I > The Balance of Power: Wars Causes

The Balance of Power: Wars Causes Essay

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: Jun 29th, 2020


The rationale for the balance of power is that stable balances will create self-enforcing peace. In this case, the cost of war is the same as the value of peace, and nations prefer to remain in peace as long as the equilibrium persists. If there in an imbalance in the cost of war and the cost of peace, then the weaker powers begin to consider their survival above anything else. As a result, they become more resolved to go to war to protect their remaining sovereignty. On the other hand, the major powers will use their abilities to demand more from the weaker powers and end up provoking them to war. This paper will look at the reasons that cause wars to occur. The paper will consider the case of the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and its significance in the World War I in explaining the balance of power.

The balance of power has relied a lot when talking about the structural theory, which aims to explain how society functions. As such, powers are expected to have an attitude of accepting a particular situation the way it is presented. They then prepare to deal with the situation accordingly. Thus, when the reality is a balance of power, then the environment will favor structural conditions that are peaceful. The idea of the balance of power is ancient, despite the fact that it has been a major influence in the modern theories and studies of international relations.

The rise to prominence of the balance of power

The balance of power became a core component of modern realism because the notion of power rose to become dominant in the recent studies of international relations. However, the balance of power can carry many meanings and the existence of different interpretations complicates the application of the concept. For example, it can relate to a policy aimed at sustaining an individual state of affairs. On the other hand, the balance of power can be an actual state of affairs as described earlier, where the cost of peace is the same as the cost of war. Irrespective of when the phrase is used, the balance of power will always refer to the conditions of the balance of the policies of establishing balance.

The powerful side can reduce its weight to achieve balance or the opposite can happen, where the lighter side gets more weight. Balance as such reflects the activities and intentions of alignment against a prevailing power or a threat. An example is when the Great Britain was balancing power by exercising the power to intervene and restore or create a status that would create a balance of power with the conditions that were explained earlier. This happened in the period between 1815 and 1870.

When considering the balance of power as an explanation of peace and war, it is possible to explain the origin of the World War I and many other wars that serve as major studies in international relations. According to Fromkin, the World War I started because there was an ignition that destabilized the existing balance of power in the world. First, Germany had begun increasing its power by advocating preemptive war against France and Russia. This was about a decade before the start of the war. Thus, the lack of a balancing actor in the affairs of the nations that were initially involved in the war became a major factor leading to the eventuality of war.

The theories explaining the balance of power

Other than the structural theory explanation of the balance of power, the institutional theory can also serve as the underlying theory for understanding the concept of the balance of power. Doyle dedicates a section to discuss liberalism, where the author offers the idea that all states must have a similar means of measuring power (157). This way, they are able to reach a compromise of limiting their aggression towards each other and maintain the trustful relationship.

According to Doyle, there is no single solution to world peace (99). The main assumption is that rational cooperation will defeat the tendency to go to war. However, there must be institutions that facilitate cooperation among different powers for the cooperation to persist. The presence of the institutions is one requirement, while the other requirement is sufficient support and respect for the institutions.

States have a choice to balance their power with aggressors or allow the aggressors to dictate terms of peace. Usually, the terms of peace involve the weaker state yielding its autonomy and authority. The motivations for yielding to the stronger power depend on the existing status of the balance of power. Here, the theories of realism and liberalism play a major role in explaining a particular state’s action. They also help to explain the coalitions that formed and led to the World War I, as described by various scholars such as Doyle and Fromkin in various quotations presented in this paper.

According to Fromkin, the World War I started after a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (8). The conflict was significant in explaining the events that transpired later to form the World War I. It also helped to point criticism of the claim of the balance of power as the fundamental motivation for the existence of peace among states. Nevertheless, as narrated by Fromkin, the war between the two small states went on to create a global crisis because bigger powers were taking sides and joining the war to demand that their enemies meet their bargain demands (8). However, the enemies also went to war not because they had an overall advantage of winning, but because they had too much to lose by agreeing to the demands of the defiant parties.

Thus, an alternative concept of the balance of power ensued and led to the war. Scholars like Frankel have referred it to as chain ganging (41). It refers to a situation where one state sees threats against another state as threats to its security. Therefore, such a state will go to war because it is protecting itself from the symbolic defeat of the friendly state (Frankel 41). This would explain why the entire European continent ended up in the war after the Austria-Hungary and Serbia war took off.

The intention here was to maintain balance. Chaining themselves to their allies and forming large coalitions would make the two equal partners in the world and the equality of the cost of war and the cost of peace would make them choose peace (Ikenberry and Inoguchi 47). However, the events leading to the formation of the two equal powers did not have the luxury of time, as the war was ongoing in the two smaller states. The entry of bigger powers, such as Germany also caused more agitation and war, which caused the formation of the coalition partners. In any case, nations were responding to the challenge of the balance of power.

They might have had separate motivations for joining different sides of the war, but the underlying fact was that they did that because they wanted to restore the peace that existed before or as Doyle puts it, they were balanced against the capacity of threat. The bigger nations wanted to protect their sovereignty and that of their allies (168). Thus, Fromkin concludes well by stating that the World War I was not the same conflict as the Austria-Hungary and Serbia conflict (8). The main war happened because the great European powers had a struggle for supremacy. In this case, each saw that the benefits of war were more than the cost of war.

Irrespective of the motivations of war, it is important to understand that nations cannot find a reason for war without a pretext. Thus, the elimination of war pretexts also serves as a mechanism for maintaining a balance of power. It is at this point where the reasoning of liberalism comes in.

As the lectures explained, the core idea of liberalism is that states will consider rational cooperation rather than go to war. This was what transpired after the World War I. Nations maintained their balance of power through mutual respect of their individual institutions and their cooperative institutions. Despite the institutions created to define the relationship between nations and reduce the tendency of a hegemony developing and declaring war, there was still hopelessness among nations.

If conditions such as the ones that led to World War I reoccurred, then nations would be unable to rely on the concept of liberalism. Such situations present no possibility of a bargain. Without bargain, a nation sees the only option is to go to war for self-defense and, at least, gain some benefits. Moreover, when there is an option of chain ganging, weaker states find the motivation to go to war, even when the fundamentals do not favor them. They join wars because they know that it is possible to take a back seat and only contribute their little resources as the major powers in their coalition take all the effort to defeat the enemy. The weaker states could then take part in the final stages of the war or step up to direct peace efforts after the exhaustion of the major powers from the different sides of a war.

Liberalism relies on the fact that humans are good-natured and favor freedom for the individual. In this regard, the major reason for going with liberalism as a concept that would support the balance of power comes from the following idea: The concept states that individuals have a right to be treated as equals and be protected by the law, while having the duty to consider and treat others as ethical subjects at the same time (Toledo 53). The idea of individual rights and responsibilities expands to cover the relationship between independent states. Therefore, for liberalism to work in ensuring a balance of power, it has to allow domestic and international institutions thrive, limit the attractiveness of war, and increase the payoff of alternative bargains.

In all the above considerations, the first task is to define peace and then go on to declare conditions that will support that peace. After that, the burden for states will be to respect and sustain those conditions, such that the balance prevails. When considering this fact of first defining peace, it is clear that there will be no single way of declaring and sustaining peace. This is the same thing happening with theories of balance of power. They are varied, yet they all somehow aim to support the same conception where structures, ideologies, or possible outcomes limit the possibility of war.

Going back to the notion of realism, there will always be a state that is more powerful than other states. When such a state goes on to become very powerful, it will enjoy a better bargain than other states. Other states will gather against the major state and form a force big enough to counter the threat of the major state. On the other hand, if realism was to persist, there would always be a threat posed by a hegemony power. In this regard, smaller states are always considering and making efforts to avoid death. Their collective action results in the balance of power. They can actively make coalitions and work on their internal defenses at the same time. Viewing the balance of power in the way explained here makes it is possible to see this as a continuous process with differing theoretical explanations, based on the way a person looks at the concept.

Critiquing the balance of power

An arising question out of the discussion is: What would happen if there would be no sufficient ability to prevent war? Would war be a resolve used to maintain the balance of power? For example, can one country, even hegemony, declare war to sustain the status quo? In this case, its motivation would be to weaken other states and compel them to continue being under its territory. This question and the conclusion of this paper raise more questions that many scholars continue to explore as they discuss the motivations of war and peace among nations. One can look at war as a persistent threat or a means to an end. It is impossible to ignore the realism perspective.

The only conclusion that can provide enough room for further inquiry and sustain the observations and facts made so far is that the theory explaining the balance of power, such as the realism and liberalism concepts reviewed in this paper, does not offer all the answers. However, the paradigm points to the right direction that can provide additional answers. Liberalism has played a major role in explaining the nature of individuals and states, as well as the international system (Cox, Dunne, and Booth 149-150). Understanding this concept makes it possible to see the reason for war to occur and the options for stopping or preventing war.


In the end, the balance of power and any structure or policy that seeks to preserve the international balance of power are essential. They play an important part in stabilizing the societies that exist among nations that consider themselves sovereign. In addition, this essay has delved into concepts of realism and liberalism as motivations for the balance of power. It shows that in either case, the stakes of war serve as the main reasons for pursuing the peace option.

At the same time, there is the presence of factors that limit the enjoyment of peace present opportunities for triggering a war. Thus, nations are in a persistent state of reducing their vulnerabilities and exposure to war. Their collective actions present a balance of power, irrespective of the motivations underlying those actions. In fact, a particular nation may not be aware of the effect it has on the realization of the balance of power.

Works Cited

Cox, Michael, Tim Dunne and Ken Booth. Empires, Systems and States: Great Transformations in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Doyle, Michael W. Ways of War and Peace: Realism, Liberalism and Socialism. New York: Norton, 1997. Print.

Frankel, Benjamin. Ed. Realism: Retestaments and Renewal. Portland: Frank Cass and Company, 1996. Print.

Fromkin, David. Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

Ikenberry, John G., and Takashi Inoguchi. Eds. Reinventing the alliance: U.S.- Japan Security Partnership in an Era of Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Toledo, Peter. “Classical Realism and the Balance of Power Theory.” Glendon Journal of International Studies 4 (2005): 52-63. Print.

This essay on The Balance of Power: Wars Causes was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Essay sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar

certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2020, June 29). The Balance of Power: Wars Causes. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-balance-of-power-wars-causes/


IvyPanda. (2020, June 29). The Balance of Power: Wars Causes. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-balance-of-power-wars-causes/

Work Cited

"The Balance of Power: Wars Causes." IvyPanda, 29 June 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/the-balance-of-power-wars-causes/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Balance of Power: Wars Causes." June 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-balance-of-power-wars-causes/.


IvyPanda. "The Balance of Power: Wars Causes." June 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-balance-of-power-wars-causes/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "The Balance of Power: Wars Causes." June 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-balance-of-power-wars-causes/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Balance of Power: Wars Causes'. 29 June.

Powered by CiteTotal, online bibliography maker
More related papers