Hedge Your Bets

In short, alliances are both a function and a manifestation of the balance of power principle in international affairs and international relations, and in turn, the basic aim and purpose of an alliance is protection and to thwart the hegemonic designs and efforts of a major power which has adopted a hegemonic course of action. In the last century or so, we have seen such alliances arise as in the case of the “Allied” forces against Nazi Germany, and then NATO in response to Soviet global hegemony. And in the 21st century, China and Russia rose in order to balance against America’s hegemonic designs and efforts. 

In addition to arguing that the balance of power is a “configuration” in the international system aimed at addressing global domination and hegemony, Morgenthau also wrote: “The aspiration for power on the part of several nations, each trying either to maintain or overthrow the status quo, leads of necessity to a configuration that is called the balance of power and to policies that aim at preserving it.” 

And if alliances are a function and manifestation of the balance of power, then one might be curious to know what the function and purpose of a balance of power is in the international system. There are two functions and purposes of the balance of power, as Morgenthau argued. For one, there is the function of establishing stability in the international system. And second, there is the function of ensuring “freedom of one nation from domination by the other.” Morgenthau wrote:

“One of the two functions the balance of power is supposed to fulfill is stability in the power relations among nations; yet these relations are…by their very nature subject to continuous change. They are essentially unstable. Since the weights that determine the relative position of the scales have a tendency to change continuously by growing either heavier or lighter, whatever stability the balance of power may achieve must be precarious and subject to perpetual adjustments in conformity with intervening changes.” 

Morgenthau added: “The other function that a successful balance of power fulfills under these conditions is to insure freedom of one nation from domination by the other.” As a result, we can understand both the demise of the American unipolar moment as well as the instability of the international system at the moment through the dual function of the balance of power principle. 

We have mentioned before that the two main options for smaller countries in a balance of power dynamic is to either “bandwagon” with the dominant and hegemonic force, or to join in an alliance aimed at “balancing” against the dominant and hegemonic force. But there is also a third option, namely, hedging between the two scales in a balance of power dynamic. The purpose of hedging is to preserve one’s independence. India is a prime example of a nation which is hedging in the international system at the moment in order to preserve its independence. 

But as Morgenthau wrote: “Owing to the essentially unstable and dynamic character of the balance, which is not unstable and dynamic by accident or only part of the time, but by nature and always, the independence of the nations concerned is also essentially precarious and in danger.” Hence, small nations are either dominated by bigger powers, or they are caught in the middle of the competition between two bigger powers. Such is the way things operate in the international system, and as mentioned before, it is not about the way things should be, but about the way things actually are in the present moment. 

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