Simple Yet Complex

Hence, a balance of power dispute at the international level – which one must note rarely occurs in world history and as a result we are living in an exceptional and unique period of world history – is a lot like a dispute on an individual level, in the sense that between the two main disputing parties, everyone else has the choice of siding with either one or the other or “hedging” between the two parties and remaining neutral, with “hedging” having been deemed an untenable and unsustainable position over the long run according to some scholars. 

And as mentioned before, the three most important factors as to why a balance of power dynamic had to arise in the international system even though we had become accustomed to a unipolar system led by America towards the end of the 20th century is for one the “nuclear stalemate” between the three major powers of the international system, namely, America, Russia, and China. It is believed that nothing can establish a balance of power between two nations more rapidly and more efficiently than a nuclear arsenal. Second, the ‘distribution of power’ as a result of globalization and technology is yet another factor for today’s balance of power dynamic in the international system. And third, we are in an age of declining European empires, which also contributes to the emerging balance of power. 

Hedley Bull also made the distinction between a ‘simple’ balance of power system versus a ‘complex’ balance of power system. The former constitutes two major powers of virtually equal power, whereas the latter constitutes three or more powers with varying levels of power. In a complex balance of power, the most powerful country in the system may not be able to dominate because the two other major powers can join forces in order to balance against the most powerful country. Thus, our balance of power system in this day and age is largely a complex balance of power system, although no balance of power system is considered to be purely simple or purely complex. In reality, our balance of power system is somewhere between simple and complex. 

In addition to the simplicity and complexity of the balance of power is the “general and local” dimensions of the balance of power which Bull highlighted. In short, the general balance of power between the major powers affects local balance of power dynamics virtually everywhere. Also, huge problems arise for a major power when it operates based on an ideology like liberalism that underpins a hegemonic course of action while everyone else in the international system is operating based on the balance of power principle. As John Mearsheimer wrote: 

“When a powerful country pursues liberal hegemony, it runs the risk that others will follow the dictates of realpolitik. This greatly increases the likelihood of miscalculation, which could lead to a crisis or even a war. For example, a liberal state might genuinely believe that its policy is benign or even noble, while another state, operating according to realist principles, might view the same policy as threatening. The liberal state, simply because it acts under a different ism, would probably fail to understand this.” 

As a result, the status quo is operating based on a mindset or a “cognitive criterion” that is entirely different than the mindset and cognitive criterion which pervades international society at the moment. One should also take a step forward from the balance of power and towards the issue of power itself. Scholars of international relations have argued that power can be defined in one of either two ways. For one, power is considered to be synonymous with the outcomes of interactions between states. Also, power is seen as being “all about control or influence over other states.” And what is perhaps important to note here is that both the outcomes of interaction and control and influence and thus power do not hinge entirely on material considerations. There are moral and psychological considerations or “soft power” factors which also go into both outcomes of interaction as well as control and influence, and these are considerations and factors which we will perhaps discuss down the road and in a separate blog post.

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