The Structure of the Balance of Power

Hence, there is a structural change in the global balance of power rooted in the 20th century Cold War which has largely persisted to this day and age, even though the balance of power system went into decline in the early 21st century only to resurge soon after. As Hans Morgenthau wrote: “Today the balance of power of Europe is no longer the center of world politics around which local balances would group themselves, either in intimate connection or in lesser or greater autonomy.” He added:

“Today the European balance of power has become a mere function of the world-wide balance of which the United States and the Soviet Union (now the Sino-Russian bloc) are the main weights, placed on opposite scales. The distribution of power in Europe is only one of the concrete issues over which the power contests between the United States and the Soviet Union (or the Sino-Russian bloc) is being waged.” 

And as Henry Kissinger wrote, Russia is essentially a paradox, in the sense that Russia has both served as part of the equilibrium in the balance of power system while posing a threat to the equilibrium at the same time by extending beyond its borders at times and as we are witnessing today. Kissinger also argued that the balance of power operates under three conditions. For one, states freely align with other ones “depending on the circumstances of the moment” so that equilibrium can be established. Second, none of the alliances are predominant. And third, the cohesion of the alliances is relatively low so that there are either “compromises or changes in alignment.” 

If these conditions cease to exist and the alliances become rigid, then it is likely that compromise and diplomacy will fail between the two alliances, and it would be “only a question of time before some crisis would drive events out of control.” And once these alliances solidify and then become rigid, it becomes hard to break them given that “the consequences of abandoning an ally were deemed to be more risky than fulfilling one’s obligations.” 

However, the balance of power is likely to stick and equilibrium can be maintained between the two alliances, blocs, or poles as long as one alliance, bloc, or pole does not seek a hegemonic course of action. Richard Nixon, whose foreign policy was shaped largely by the image of Kissinger and the concept of the balance of power, said the following in the 1970’s:

“We must remember that the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended period of peace is when there has been balance of power. It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises.”

He added: 

“I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance.” 

Hence, and as Hedley Bull concluded: “The balance of power remains a condition of the continued existence of the system of states, and limited wars that affect the distribution of power among the great powers contribute to it.” In a sense, things are now the way they are supposed to be in the international system, despite the war in Ukraine, given that all the aforementioned conditions of a balance of power system are in place. It is only the subjective notion of one’s belief system, culture, and religious extremism which could arise out of these alliances, blocs, or poles which in turn could thwart these conditions, thus giving rise to the rigidity of today’s alliances, blocs, and poles and thus leading to a crisis of immense consequence and cost.

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