Randall L. Schweller
The balance of power—a notoriously slippery, murky, and protean term, endlessly debated and variously defined—is the core theory of international politics within the realist perspective. A “balance of power” system is one in which the power held and exercised by states within the system is checked and balanced by the power of others. Thus, as a nation’s power grows to the point that it menaces other powerful states, a counter-balancing coalition emerges to restrain the rising power, such that any bid for world hegemony will be self-defeating. The minimum requirements for a balance of power system include the existence of at least two or more actors of roughly equal strength, states seeking to survive and preserve their autonomy, alliance flexibility, and the ability to resort to war if need be.
At its essence, balance of power is a type of international order. Theorists disagree, however, about the normal operation of the balance of power. Structural realists describe an “automatic version” of the theory, whereby system balance is a spontaneously generated, self-regulating, and entirely unintended outcome of states pursuing their narrow self-interests. Earlier versions of balance of power were more consistent with a “semi-automatic” version of the theory, which requires a “balancer” state throwing its weight on one side of the scale or the other, depending on which is lighter, to regulate the system. The British School’s discussion of balance of power depicts a “manually operated” system, wherein the process of equilibrium is a function of human contrivance, with emphasis on the skill of diplomats and statesmen, a sense of community of nations, of shared responsibility, and a desire and need to preserve the balance of power system.
As one would expect of a theory that made its appearance in the mid-16th century, balance of power is not without its critics. Liberals claim that globalization, democratic peace, and international institutions have fundamentally transformed international relations, moving it out of the realm of power politics. Constructivists claim that balance of power theory’s focus on material forces misses the central role played by ideational factors such as norms and identities in the construction of threats and alliances. Realists, themselves, wonder why no global balance of power has materialized since the end of the Cold War.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.
The “Euro-crisis” poses a fundamental challenge to the European integration process not only in economic but most of all in political terms. It is far less clear, however, to what extent the crisis is also a problem for the EU’s international standing and role. So far, no consensus has emerged among academics and policymakers on whether and how the financial and debt crisis has had an impact on the EU’s foreign policy.
Roughly speaking, three different perspectives can be distinguished in the debate: One perspective stresses that, under the impression of the crisis, foreign policy has increasingly become an instrument of economic power-politics. The term “geo-economics” captures the idea whereby economic policies have turned from more positive interdependence—where cooperation is mutually beneficial—to an area of conflict and competition for market access, financial investments, and natural resources. The second perspective emphasizes that EU foreign policy is determined mainly by structural and long-term developments that are not directly related to the crisis. Accordingly, deficits and shortcomings in the EU’s external relations are due to well-known and well-analyzed factors such as the lack of coherence in EU policies, the missing consensus among member states on many foreign policy issues, as well as the economic decline of Europe and the West in relation to the “rising powers.” At a maximum, the financial and debt crisis has to some extent reinforced some of these long-standing developments. Third, some analysts and politicians negate any significant impact of the crisis on EU foreign policy.
It seems likely that the crisis led to an erosion of the financial and budgetary basis of foreign policy—even if it was more pronounced on the national than the European level. It also accelerated a trend toward the economization of political priorities resulting—among other things—in deepening conflicts among EU member states. These developments have in turn eroded both the effectiveness and the soft power of the EU’s foreign policy. The crisis therefore not only places a strain on the European integration process but also presents a central challenge for the EU as an international actor.