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date: 16 August 2017

Soft Balancing

Summary and Keywords

Soft balancing is a conceptual product of one of the academic debates triggered by unipolarity in world politics. Examination of the soft balancing debate from 2005 to 2016 and critical evaluation of the progress and problems of the soft balancing research program suggest that the significance of the soft balancing debate does not lie in the answers offered by soft balancing scholars. Rather, its significance rests in the question that scholars pose for analysis under unipolarity—the underbalancing phenomenon—and the later endeavor to expand the soft balancing program beyond unipolarity. The future of the soft balancing program depends on continuous scholarly efforts to further clarify the concept of soft balancing, theorize a generalizable model of soft balancing across different cases, as well as demarcate the boundary of soft balancing theory from other research traditions.

Keywords: soft balancing, balance of power, unipolarity, institutional balancing, realism, empirical international relations theory


Soft balancing is a conceptual product of one of the academic debates triggered by unipolarity in world politics. After the 9/11 tragedy, U.S. foreign policy turned to unilateralism in its war on terror. In 2003, the United States and the United Kingdom decided to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and supported terrorist groups. However, other major powers, such as France, Germany, Russia, and China, refused to authorize the U.S.-led invasion in the United Nations. Prominent international relations scholars, such as Stephen Walt (2005, 2006), Robert Pape (2005), and T. V. Paul (2005), characterized this behavior as “soft balancing” because the purpose of this policy was to frustrate, delay, and undermine U.S. legitimacy and power under unipolarity.

This soft balancing argument was challenged by many IR scholars, including as Brooks and Wohlforth (2005), Lieber and Alexander (2005), and Art (2005/2006), owing to its unclear definition and problematic theorization. The debate over soft balancing was further escalated and expanded by other scholars, who have refined the soft balancing concept and employed the theory beyond the U.S. unipolar system (e.g., He & Feng, 2008; Saltzman, 2012).

The soft balancing debate, as conducted in the 2005–2016 period, can be seen as the unfinished endeavor of different schools of international relations scholars to explain the lack of balancing under unipolarity. The significance of the debate does not lie in the answers soft balancing scholars try to offer, but rather in the question scholars pose for analysis under unipolarity—the underbalancing phenomenon—and the later endeavor to expand the program beyond unipolarity. The future of the soft balancing program depends on continuous scholarly efforts in further clarifying the concept of soft balancing, theorizing a generalizable model of soft balancing across different cases, and demarcating the boundary of soft balancing theory from other research traditions.

The soft balancing research program needs to pay more attention to the effects and implications of soft balancing behavior for power transition in the international system. Power transitions in the soft balance of power world will be different from previous hard power transitions in history, although it might not necessarily be peaceful.

Unipolarity and the Soft Balancing Debate in International Security

The soft balancing debate was officially ignited by a special section devoted to soft balancing in International Security, one of the most prestigious journals in the international relations field. While Pape and Paul propose a soft balancing theory to explain the resistance of second-tier powers to the United States’ unilateralist policy in the Iraqi War in 2002–2003, Wohlforth, Brooks, Lieber and Alexander refute the existence of soft balancing behavior and the theorization of the soft balancing argument. Three major points distinguish soft balancing theory.

First, Pape (2005) suggests that U.S. President George W. Bush’s unilateralist national security policy after 9/11 was the major reason other major powers conducted “soft balancing” against the United States. Pape defines soft balancing as “actions that do not directly challenge US military preponderance but that use non-military tools to delay, frustrate, and undermine aggressive and unilateral US military politics. Soft balancing using international institutions, economic statecraft, and diplomatic arrangements has already been a prominent feature of the international opposition to the US War against Iraq” (2005, p. 10).

Second, Paul (2005, p. 47) argues that there was no traditional hard balancing after the end of the Cold War because states “do not fear losing their sovereignty and existential security to the reigning hegemon, a necessary condition for such balancing to occur.” However, the United States’ increasing unilateralism and its post-September 11 tendency to intervene militarily in sovereign states and forcibly change regimes pursuing anti-U.S. policies (such as Iraq) caused second-tier major powers to worry about their security and autonomy in the system. Therefore, they adopted a nonconfrontational approach—that is, soft balancing—to resist the unilateralist pressures from the hegemon in the system.

Third, the soft balancing school of thought is rooted in Stephen Walt’s balance of threat theory. As Walt (1987) suggests, states do not balance against powerful states, but rather against threatening ones in the anarchic international system. The “lack of balance” in the post-Cold War era can be attributed to the fact that the United States did not pose explicit threats to second-tier major powers. However, Bush’s unilateralism after 9/11 seemed to change this nonthreatening or benign hegemon perception of the United States in the international system. As a result, other states started to use other means—soft balancing—to tame America’s power (Walt, 2005, 2006). Soft balancing constitutes a preliminary or preparation stage for later hard balancing against the United States.

One policy implication of this soft balancing thesis is that U.S. policymakers should be fully aware of the negative impacts of other states’ soft balancing efforts in world politics. However, if the United States changes its behavior, that is, if it regains its “benign hegemon” image, then the decline of U.S. power due to the traditional balance of power logic might be avoided. Unlike power transition theorists or historians, who believe that the rise and fall of great powers is inevitable (Organski, 1968; Kennedy, 1987), soft balancing theorists imply that the United States can still maintain its hegemonic status if it moves its unilateralist policy toward a nonthreatening and benign direction.

Theorists who oppose the soft balancing theory attack it from three perspectives. First, Brooks and Wohlforth (2005) suggest that balancing or balance of power is an outdated concept in the world of unipolarity, as is the soft balancing argument. They launch an argument in favor of U.S. or unipolar exceptionalism, which contends that unipolarity is different from bipolarity and multipolarity in history. The balance-of-power behavior applies to a bipolar or multipolar world, but not to the unipolar system, because the United States is too powerful to be balanced. The idea of soft balancing, they state, serves only the interests of some international relations scholars who seek a reference point or a familiar framework from past experiences of multipolar and bipolar international politics. Logically, the soft balancing argument is a castle built on sand because of its weak theoretical basis.

Second, Lieber and Alexander criticize soft balancing theory by suggesting that the so-called soft balancing is typical diplomatic friction among states, which is normal in world politics and happened occasionally even before U.S. global hegemony after the Cold War. In particular, they point out that “discussion of soft balancing is much ado about nothing. Defining or operationalizing the concept is difficult; the behavior typically identified by it seems identical to normal diplomatic friction; and, regardless, the evidence does not support specific predictions suggested by those advancing the concept” (2005, p. 109).

Last, anti-soft balancing theorists suggest that other reasons can explain the close cooperation among second-tier states under unipolarity. In other words, the United States or U.S. unilateralism is not the driver of the so-called soft balancing behavior. Brooks and Wohlforth (2005) propose four alternative explanations of economic and security cooperation among second-tier powers: economic interests, regional security, policy disputes, and domestic incentives. In particular, they argue that common economic interests can explain Russia’s military sales to China and India and its nuclear transfers to Iran; regional security can account for EU’s defense cooperation; and domestic politics and policy disputes can answer the question why German, Turkish, Russian, and French governments said “no” to the United States on the Iraq War.

Although clearly two schools of thought are represented in the soft balancing debate in International Security in 2005, both groups share a key, but problematic, assumption. First, unipolarity or U.S. unilateralism is seen as the major source of this anti-American phenomenon, no matter whether or not it is called soft balancing. While pro-soft balancing scholars suggest that U.S. unilateralist policy has triggered the dissatisfaction of other second-tier powers, who start to “push back” through nonmilitary means, anti-soft balancing scholars emphasize that the unipolarity or the unbalanced power distribution in the international system has dissuaded other states from militarily challenging the unipole.

As for how to explain the policy discord between the United States and some major powers, all parties simply deny any forms of balancing and point to other domestic and economic reasons. Just because both groups of scholars share this embedded unipolar assumption, the International Security soft balancing debate in 2005 can be considered a more policy-oriented discussion than a scholarly exchange. The reason is that both sides focus on U.S. policies as well as policy reactions from others under unipolarity while ignoring the conceptualization of balancing and soft balancing beyond unipolarity.

The Post-International Security Debate—Ten Years of Soft Balancing Scholarship

After the International Security debate, the soft balancing research program flourished in three ways. (The focus in our discussion is on the pro-soft balancing research, although there is some empirical research along the line of anti-soft balancing arguments—e.g., Howorth & Menon, 2009) First, many scholars extend the concept of soft balancing to explain various foreign policy behaviors of small and middle powers under unipolarity. This type of research enriches the soft balancing literature and enhances the application of soft balancing theory from major powers to other types of powers in world politics (e.g., Oswald, 2006; Grigorescu, 2008; Chaziza, 2014; Cantir & Kennedy, 2015; Pempel, 2016).

For example, relying on soft balancing theory, Whitaker (2010) argues that some African countries—the United States’ closest allies, such as South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Mali, Namibia, and Niger—have adopted soft balancing so that they can say “no” to some key U.S. initiatives, including the war on terror, the International Criminal Court, and the U.S. Africa Command. However, Whitaker argues that this type of soft balancing is among friends, not among enemies. Although it will slow the implementation of U.S. goals in the region in the short run, it is not a threat to U.S. hegemony. Instead, it may serve U.S. interests in a long run because these countries share similar goals with the United States, including democracy, free market, and an end of terrorism.

Although Whitaker shares Walt’s, Pape’s, and Paul’s theorization on soft balancing behavior, she holds a relatively optimistic view about the consequences of soft balancing for the United States. They argue that soft balancing efforts by second-tier powers will not only erode U.S. hegemony, but may also cause a turn to hard balancing (i.e., military alliances) against the United States in the future. On the contrary, Whitaker suggests that African countries’ soft balancing is just “a check on the excesses of US power” (2010, p. 1126). As mentioned before, it might not necessarily be a bad thing for the United States in the future.

In a similar vein, Friedman and Long (2015) employ soft balancing theory to examine Latin American opposition to the United States in the period 1898–1936. Soft balancing, they maintain, does not only happen in the 21st century under global unipolarity between second-tier powers and the unipole. Instead, more than a century ago, Latin Americans conducted a soft balancing strategy to develop new international norms against military intervention from the United States. This soft balancing effort actually led to “a tidal shift in US policy on military intervention lasting from the 1930s into the 1950s and arguably thereafter” (Friedman & Long, 2015, p. 122).

Three contributions are worth noting in Friedman and Long’s article on soft balancing. First, while most soft balancing scholars focus on contemporary cases, Friedman and Long examine historical cases in Latin America through multinational archival sources. It not only strengthens soft balancing theory itself, but it also provides a new research angle on the studies of Latin American international relations.

Second, Friedman and Long extend the application of soft balancing theory from global unipolarity to regional unipolarity. As their research shows, soft balancing can take place as long as there is an unbalanced power distribution in a regional system. In other words, soft balancing is not a unique behavior of second-tier powers against the unipole in the international system. It can be a useful strategy by weak states against a regional hegemon as well.

Third, Friedman and Long, like Whitaker, believe that the consequence of soft balancing is not necessarily negative toward the United States. Friedman and Long argue that Latin American countries’ soft balancing efforts led the United States to adjust its military intervention policies in the Western Hemisphere, which “produced great benefits at considerably lower costs.” Therefore, “[s]oft balancing need not be feared [by the United States]” (Friedman & Long, 2015, p. 121).

Some scholars, rather than employing existing soft balancing theory to contemporary and historical cases, actively refine the concept of soft balancing and soft balancing theory. He (2012, p. 156), for example, challenges the conceptualization of balancing by suggesting that it is “inadequate in addressing states’ countervailing strategies in dealing with threats and other powers in the anarchic international system. Military alliances and arms build-ups are not the only balancing strategies states can use to pursue security under anarchy.” Therefore, using military means to differentiate soft versus hard balancing is also problematic. He (2012, p. 162) suggests that balancing should be defined as “a state’s strategy to change its relative power vs. its rival’s to its own advantage for pursuing security under anarchy.” Soft balancing theory—that is, relying on nonmilitary means to countervail pressures from other states—cannot capture all the dynamics of balancing.

He proposes a negative balancing theory, a new framework to subsume soft balancing theory in explaining various state strategies in dealing with external threats. In particular, He argues (2012, p. 154) that

a state’s balancing strategies are shaped by the level of threat perception regarding its rival. The higher the threat perception, the more likely a state will choose positive balancing; the lower the threat perception, the more likely a state will choose negative balancing.

In case studies, He challenges the traditional notion that soft balancing is a strategy for weak states to deal with strong states in world politics. In his case study of U.S. negative balancing against Russia after the Cold War, he argues that a stronger state like the United States can also use a negative balancing strategy to undermine a weaker adversary, just as the United States did in promoting NATO expansion. In related research, He and Feng (2008) also explore how the United States has used various soft balancing strategies to undermine and constrain China’s power and influence after the Cold War. They suggest that the United States used international institutions to undermine China’s power and influence through constraining China’s weapons proliferation behavior in the areas where U.S. interests are involved. Moreover, they state that the real purpose of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is not containment or hard balancing against China, but a “soft-balancing strategy, which aims at undermining China’s military capabilities and relative power position across the Taiwan Strait” (He & Feng, 2008, p. 391).

Similar to He and Feng, Saltzman (2012) also challenges the notion that soft balancing only applies to the situation of weak states versus strong states under unipolarity. Saltzman (2012, p. 145) points out that “soft balancing is a strategy chiefly designed to constrain and limit emerging powers or threats while avoiding hard balancing, buck-passing or bandwagoning.” In case studies, he applies soft balancing theory to explain U.S. policies toward Japan during the interwar period, when there was a multipolar world in the international system. In particular, he argues that the United States first employed a policy of strategic “diplomatic noncooperation” to deny the legitimacy of Japanese imperial expansion in Asia.

Then the Roosevelt Administration pursued an institutional approach to constrain Japan’s aggressive behavior. Although the United States’ soft balancing efforts did not stop Japanese aggression in World War II, Saltzman argues that, “as a foreign policy strategy, soft balancing allows policymakers to engage emerging threats without the use of military force where such force is not always possible or necessary” (2012, p. 145). In other words, soft balancing was still a rational behavior for the United States in dealing with Japanese threats during the interwar period, although it was not effective in reality.

Following a similar reasoning, Kennedy (2016) also argues that soft balancing is not necessarily a strategy for relatively weak states against a regional or global hegemon. He suggests that EU and NATO efforts to address the frozen conflict in Transnistria can be explained as soft balancing against Russian influence in Moldova. According to his analysis, “soft balancing is a logical strategy for stronger actors when the conflict is not as salient as for the weaker actor” (Kennedy, 2016, p. 512).

To a certain extent, Saltzman and Kennedy share He and Feng’s view regarding a necessary condition for soft balancing to happen, which is the level of threat. When the level of the threat is low, states will more likely adopt a nonmilitary approach, that is, various soft balancing strategies, to cope with outside challenges. By focusing on the level of threat instead of the concentration of power, this group of scholars expands the application of soft balancing from unipolarity to other types of international system. If Friedman and Long contribute to a vertical expansion of soft balancing theory by covering both contemporary and historical cases, this group of scholars enriches soft balancing theory horizontally from unipolarity to nonunipolar worlds.

Some scholars also explore different types of soft balancing strategies. Kelley (2005) suggests that “strategic noncooperation” is a soft balancing strategy that can better explain the resistance of some European states against the United States in the Iraqi War in 2002–2003. He (2008, 2009) introduces an institutional balancing theory to explain how states, especially the United States, China, and the Association of Southeastern Nations (ASEAN), have conducted balancing strategies against each other through multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific. According to He, institutional balancing is an important type of soft balancing through which states rely on rules and norms of institutions instead of military power in order to constrain and undermine the behavior of target states. In a similar vein, Contessi (2009) also suggests that multilateralism has been used as a soft balancing tool for China to expand its power and influence in Africa and the Arab world in the post–9/11 era.

Besides multilateral institutions, norms or normative power can also be used as a soft balancing tool. Ferguson (2012) argues that China and Russia have adopted “soft” or “normative” power assets as a balancing means to deal with pressures from the United States. These soft or normative power assets refer to alternative norms, such as the concept of “sovereign democracy,” which treats foreign support for domestic democratic movements as a form of external meddling in their internal affairs (Ferguson, 2012, p. 213). These alternative norms aim to counterbalance the so-called color revolution in Central Asia. Ferguson suggests that through institutionalizing alternative norms, such as “sovereign democracy” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China and Russia can not only offset U.S. pressures on human rights issues, but also help China and Russia to counterbalance U.S. interests in Central Asia.

Many scholars have identified economic statecraft as a useful soft balancing tool. In Saltzman’s study of U.S. soft balancing against imperial Japan during the interwar period, economic sanctions or embargo efforts are seen as a soft balancing tool of the United States to constrain Japanese expansion in Asia (Saltzman, 2012). Nurgaliyeva (2016) examines how Kazakhstan used economic soft balancing strategies to countervail pressures from Russia. In particular, Kazakhstan’s economic soft balancing efforts include its participation in the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline project and its economic cooperation with Turkey as part of a free trade zone. Nurgaliyeva argues that through the BTC project and close economic ties with Turkey, Kazakhstan successfully keeps “the overpowering influence of Russia in check, while at the same time maintaining cooperation and a close working relationship with its neighbour” (Nurgaliyeva, 2016, p. 103).

In a word, scholars have started to open the toolbox of “soft balancing” and are examining how different types of soft balancing can facilitate states’ efforts to pursue security and power in the anarchic international system. The detailed categorization of soft balancing contributes to the “depth” dimension in studies of soft balancing because it not only asks whether and why states choose soft balancing strategies, but also focuses on how states adopt certain strategies and how they work or do not work.

Problems and Prospects

Despite the proliferation of soft balancing research, three unsettled problems or analytical weaknesses are associated with studies of soft balancing. First, most scholars take the concept of soft balancing as granted, without questioning its definition and measurement. As mentioned before, in his International Security article, Pape (2005, p. 10) defines soft balancing as a strategy through which second-tier powers can “use nonmilitary tools to delay, frustrate, and undermine aggressive unilateral U.S. military policies” under unipolarity. Soft balancing scholars often quote this definition in their own works, although they sometimes modify the concept slightly.

Pape’s conceptualization of soft balancing has some limitations. On the one hand, it limits the application of soft balancing as a unique behavior against the United States under unipolarity. On the other hand, it loosely broadens the range of soft balancing to include almost any nonmilitary actions by weaker states to deal with stronger ones. As mentioned before, many soft balancing studies have gone beyond unipolarity and anti-U.S. unilateralism. Their efforts can address the first limitation of this concept but become inadequate to solve the second one. Consequently, soft balancing in practice is loosely used to include almost any nonmilitary behavior of states in world politics.

In an analysis of Venezuela’s foreign policy, one scholar points out that “Chavez’s main innovation in his soft-balancing approach, however, has been to use heavy investments abroad” (Corrales, 2009, p. 98). Here foreign investments become a soft balancing strategy of Venezuela against the United States. It is not to suggest that foreign investment or other economic statecraft cannot become a soft balancing tool. The problem is whether all foreign investments can be seen as a soft balancing strategy or whether only Chavez’s foreign investments constitute a soft balancing policy. Therefore, one challenge for soft balancing theorists in the future is not only to ask what soft balancing is or what behavior can be seen as soft balancing. More importantly, theorists need to identify what is not soft balancing. In other words, soft balancing theory needs to be falsified in order to have more explanatory power.

The second unsettled problem has to do with the fact that, unlike hard balancing, no theoretical consensus has been reached on when states engage in soft balancing against other states. In the 2005 International Security debate, Pape (2005) and Paul (2005) suggested that U.S. unilateralism in a unipolar international system is a necessary condition for second-tier states to choose soft balancing to tame U.S. power and influence. However, it cannot explain why some second-tier powers and middle and small powers, such as the UK, Australia, and many Eastern and Central European countries, did not follow the soft balancing path as France, Germany, and Russia did. In a similar vein, mere system-based variables (i.e., the concentration of power or the fear generated from US unilateralism) cannot explain why some close allies of the United States in Africa publicly reject U.S. polices.

Consequently, scholars are investigating domestic and ideational variables to explain this puzzle. Whitaker (2010, p. 1109) points out that the soft balancing behavior of African countries cannot fully explain “without exploring domestic political pressures.” In particular, Whitaker (2010) suggests that domestic public opinion against the United States is one of the driving forces behind the soft balancing choice by small African countries, such as Mali, Namibia, and Niger. In the studies of soft balancing beyond U.S. unipolarity, scholars also investigate domestic variables to explain soft balancing behavior.

Dursun-Ozkanca (2016) maintains that Turkey has conducted a soft balancing strategy to block coordination and cooperation between the EU and NATO. In explaining the motives behind Turkey’s soft balancing policy, Dursun-Ozkanca points out three main reasons: Turkey’s resentment at being excluded from European security developments; lack of trust of the EU, and the unresolved Cyprus problem. All three reasons are rooted in some domestic politics and elite perceptions; none is a system-level variable.

Similarly, in explaining U.S. soft balancing against Japan during the interwar period, Saltzman (2012, p. 133) argues that U.S. soft balancing against imperial Japan was a “compromise or a suboptimal alternative resulting from domestic and external conditions that prevent the selection of other foreign policy strategies that may look more appropriate to engage emerging powers.” Here, Saltzman’s soft balancing model combines both international and domestic factors.

To a certain extent, this soft balancing model oriented toward domestic variables follows the neoclassical realist research tradition, which contends that a state foreign policy is shaped by both the international system and domestic constraints (Rose, 1998; Lobell, Ripsman, & Taliaferro, 2009). However, both this soft balancing modeling in particular and neoclassical realism in general suffer a similar analytical weakness, which is a less theorized transmission belt of domestic variables. In other words, scholars can choose different domestic variables, such as elite perceptions, public opinion, and nationalism, to justify their “soft balancing” stories in a particular country. However, the domestic transmission belt’s lack of theorization makes it difficult to generalize a soft balancing model from one case to another.

For example, Whitaker’s soft balancing argument for Africa that is based on public pressure cannot easily explain Turkey’s soft balancing policy against the EU, which is more rooted in elites’ perceptions and resentments of the EU. Similarly, Saltzman’s domestic-constrained, suboptimal model of soft balancing may offer an interesting story to explain why Franklin Roosevelt chose a “short-of-war” strategy against imperial Japan, but it has difficulties accounting for other cases, such as Asian countries’ soft balancing against China (Beeson, 2009; Chan, 2010; Manicom & O’Neil, 2010; Khanna, 2011; McDougall, 2012). Therefore, the next challenge for soft balancing theorists is to develop a generalizable model to explain more cases with fewer domestic variables.

Finally, soft balancing theorists need to demarcate their research boundary in studies of foreign policy. As mentioned earlier, one danger soft balancing theorists encounter is claiming too much but ending up explaining too little. In other words, soft balancing cannot include all types of nonmilitary behavior in world politics, as some soft balancing researchers have implied. Instead, soft balancing scholars need to recognize that soft balancing is only one type of state strategy that policymakers can use to pursue their interests in world politics. Other strategies may include the examples of hedging, bandwagoning, buckpassing, and distancing. How to differentiate soft balancing from other state behaviors and how to clarify the research domain of soft balancing are two of the toughest tasks that await soft balancing theorists in the future.


Soft balancing is a dynamic research program introduced by some prominent international relations scholars to explain the coordinated resistance of second-tier powers against U.S. unilateralist behavior after 9/11. However, many scholars have debated and questioned soft balancing theory regarding its ambiguous conceptualization and ad hoc theorization, as well as its limited application under unipolarity. Although anti-soft balancing scholars have presented excellent criticisms of soft balancing theory, soft balancing as a new research program has flourished in the past decade.

Soft balancing scholars have made three new contributions since the 2005 International Security debate. First, soft balancing theory has expanded to explain the strategies of small and middle powers under different types of international and regional systems, as well as across contemporary and historical cases. Second, some scholars have challenged the conceptualization of soft balancing and have deepened the theorization of the soft balancing literature. Last, different types of soft balancing strategy have been further categorized, theorized, and tested through rich empirical cases.

However, there are three limitations in the studies of soft balancing. First, the concept of soft balancing still needs to be further clarified. In particular, how to measure soft balancing versus non-soft balancing behavior is still an unsettled question for soft balancing theorists. Second, the current theorization of soft balancing behavior relies too much on various domestic variables, while sacrificing the generalizability of soft balancing theory across different cases. Third, the research boundary of soft balancing is not clearly delineated. So far, soft balancing seems to cover everything from economic to security decisions, as long as one puts an adjective before soft balancing—for example, economic soft balancing, political soft balancing, and strategic soft balancing. The theory runs the risk of explaining too little by claiming too much.

In sum, the future of soft balancing programs depends on how scholars utilize and refine, but not abuse, the concept of soft balancing in explaining state behavior beyond the unipolar international system. If the rise of China triggers a power transition in the international system, hard balancing may steal the thunder of soft balancing because military alliances and arms races are more efficient and effective in dealing with external threats in a power transition period. The United States’ pivot toward Asia after the 2008 financial crisis has partially endorsed the forthcoming hard balancing world between the United States and China. However, how second-tier or middle and small powers will react to the power competition between the rising China and the declining America is still too early to say.

Traditional balance-of-power theory may suggest that these states can either balance against threats (or power) or bandwagon for security and profit (Waltz, 1979; Schweller, 1994). Soft balancing, however, might provide an alternative strategy for other states to deal with uncertainties during the power transition. Soft balancing might even become a main strategic choice for great powers, especially the United States and China, to compete with one another due to the mounting danger of military conflicts between two nuclear powers. It is time for soft balancing scholars to investigate the effects, outcomes, and implications of soft balancing toward the international system. A soft balance-of-power world might be more peaceful than other types of balance-of-power worlds in history.


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