Balance of Power Theory: What is It and How is It Maintained

Balance of Power Theory: What is It and How is It Maintained

There is a theory in international relations suggesting that states can ensure their survival and global affairs can remain undisturbed by maintaining a power equilibrium that prevents a single state from becoming too powerful. This is called the balance of power theory. This theory is also related to the defensive realism and offensive realism theories of international relations.

Explaining the Balance of Power Theory in International Relations: Background, Definition, Examples, and Criticisms

Background: Origin and Theory Development

Scottish philosopher David Hume traced in his “Essay on the Balance of Power” the origin of the theory from the ancient Greeks. Political scientist Nathan Dinneen published a paper in 2018 that analyzed speeches of the Corinthians delivered from before the Persian Wars to the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. His analysis revealed a persistent thesis on Corinthian foreign policy that centered on the imperial ambitions and leveling tendencies of city-states to prevent the emergence of a single tyrannical power within the ancient Greek society.

The concept reemerged in the Renaissance period during the 15th century across various Italian city-states. The first leaders who promoted the need to deter the rise of a dominant foreign power through balancing were Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Ruler of Florence. Historian and Medici family supporter Bernardo Rucellai introduced the phrase “balance of power” to historical analysis in his “De Bello Italico” which discussed the foreign policy of Florence and narrated the French invasion of Italy in 1493.

Internationalism led to the doctrine of the balance of power. International relations in Europe were grounded on greater cooperation among nations and states. The concept of balance of power was referenced during a series of negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Peace of Westphalia treaties in 1648. Another series of treaties called the Peace of Utrecht were signed in 1713. The doctrine was referenced multiple times in these binding agreements among Spain, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Savoy, and the Dutch Republic.

Nevertheless, following the development of the idea of international law by Hugo Grotius and his successors during the 17th century, the balance of power was formulated as a fundamental principle of diplomacy. It also became an axiom or assumption of political science. It served as the groundwork for the formation of a coalition against Louis XIV and Napoleon while also providing European leaders with a reason to rationalize various European wars between 1648 and 1914. Great Britain promoted the principle up to the First World War.

Definition: Key Argument and Related Theories

The balance of power theory is a particular theory in international relations that argues that states can ensure their survival and that peace can be maintained through a power equilibrium that prevents a single state from becoming too powerful. The main argument centers on the idea that a single state should be prevented from gaining enough military capabilities that can dominate the others. Hence, if one state becomes too strong, the theory predicts that it will take advantage of weaker states. The oppressed states will be compelled to unite in a defensive coalition.

Several theories in international relations are also related to the balance of power theory. The structural theory of defensive realism maintains that balancing occurs if a state becomes too powerful as other powers would build up their forces and form a balancing coalition. An opposing structural theory called offensive realism agrees that threatened states tend to balance against perceived enemies but also argues that the balancing is often inefficient and can even provide an aggressive state with opportunities to exploit weaker states.

The balance of threat theory is a related but different theory explaining that states form alliances not as a response to power but to counter perceived threats. Another theory called soft balancing became evident at the end of the Cold War and was developed after the Iraq War in 2003. It describes non-military forms of balancing that occur when weaker states acknowledge that they cannot match the military capabilities of a stronger state but it can still approach balancing through a combination of economic, diplomatic, and institutional methods.

Examples: Maintaining the Balance of Power

Several real-world examples have demonstrated adherence to the core tenets and arguments of the balance of power theory. The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 was an international response aimed at preventing another world war and correcting the previous mistakes of the international community prior to the Second World War. The international organization is responsible for maintaining peace and security, promoting cooperation and dialogue, and intervening in emerging tensions between or among state actors.

Another example is the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO in 1949. This collective defense alliance between several Western countries was formed to counter the threat of the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. Take note that the Soviet Union gained substantial military capabilities after the Second World War and was locked in an arms and tech race against the United States. NATO remains committed to enforcing collective defense in the event that one of its members is attacked.

Several theories and doctrines have also emerged based on the balance of power theory. The nuclear deterrence doctrine of nuclear-armed states argues that the possession of nuclear weapons can prevent or discourage a nuclear attack. The related but distinct theory of mutual assured destruction is based on the idea that countries with enough nuclear capabilities would never use their nuclear weapons out of fear of retaliation. Mutual destruction is assured because launching a nuclear attack would be met with a similar retaliation.

The emergence of non-military alliances and foreign policy directions in the 21st century demonstrated the applications of balance of power. Examples include the creation of the European Union as a political and economic union among European countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN as another similar union among countries in Southeast Asia. The first BRIC Summit held in 2009 also marked the rise of countries such as China, Brazil, and India seeking to challenge traditional Western power.

Criticisms: Opposing Arguments and Evidence

Scholars and realists William Wohlforth et al. disproved the balance of power theory through several instances in history in which balancing failed to prevent the rise of a powerful state-like actor and prevent cross-border conflicts. These include the failure of several groups to balance against Assyria in the first millennium BCE, the failure of Hellenic successor states of Alexander the Great to oppose the Roman Empire, and the failure of various political groups in ancient China to balance against the Qin Dynasty during the Warring States period.

Foremost British international relations scholar Martin Wight also captured the absence of practical merits of the theory. He specifically explained that most state systems throughout the course of history ended under the control of a single empire. The dominance of the United States in a unipolar world and its continuous expansion of political and economic influence have also left realists wondering about the absence of a global alarm to restore a balance of power or a single alliance that would provide a real challenge to American dominance.

There are other examples showcasing the limitations of the balance of power theory. These include the outbreak of the First World War which marked a failure to balance against the rise of German aggression, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that created a unipolar world dominated by the United States, the proliferation of nuclear weapons to more state and non-state actors which undermines the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, and the maritime dominance of China despite the presence of ASEAN.


  • Dinneen, N. 2018. “The Corinthian Thesis: The Oratorical Origins of the Idea of the Balance of Power in Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.” International Studies Quarterly. 62(4): 857-866. DOI: 1093/isq/sqy037
  • Gilbert, F. 1949. “Bernardo Rucellai and the Orti Oricellari: A Study on the Origin of Modern Political Thought.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 12: 101-131. DOI: 2307/750259
  • Hall, I. 2006. “Systems of States. The International Thought of Martin Wight. DOI: 1057/9781403983527_5
  • Howard, S. E. 1925. “British Policy and the Balance of Power.” The American Political Science Review. 19(2): 261-267. DOI: 2307/2938920
  • Wohlforth, W. C., Little, R., Kaufman, S. J., et al. 2007. “Testing Balance-Of-Power Theory in World History.” European Journal of International Relations. 13(2): 155-185. DOI: 1177/1354066107076951