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Who’s Afraid of a Balance of Power?

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If you took an Introduction to International Relations course in college and the instructor never mentioned the “balance of power,” please contact your alma mater for a refund. You can find this idea in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and the ancient Indian writer Kautilya’s Arthashastra (“Science of Politics”), and it is central to the work of modern realists like E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Robert Gilpin, and Kenneth Waltz.

Yet despite its long and distinguished history, this simple idea is often forgotten by America’s foreign-policy elites. Instead of asking why Russia and China are collaborating, or pondering what has brought Iran together with its various Middle East partners, they assume it is the result of shared authoritarianism, reflexive anti-Americanism, or some other form of ideological solidarity. This act of collective amnesia encourages U.S. leaders to act in ways that unwittingly push foes closer together, and to miss promising opportunities to drive them apart.

The basic logic behind balance of power theory (or, if you prefer, balance of threat theory) is straightforward. Because there is no “world government” to protect states from each other, each has to rely on its own resources and strategies to avoid being conquered, coerced, or otherwise endangered. When facing a powerful or threatening state, a worried country can mobilize more of its own resources or seek an alliance with other states that face the same danger, in order to shift the balance more in its favor.

In extreme cases, forming a balancing coalition might require a state to fight alongside another country it previously regarded as an enemy or even one it understood would be a rival in the future. Thus, the United States and Great Britain allied with the Soviet Union during World War II, because defeating Nazi Germany took precedence over their long-term concerns about communism. Winston Churchill captured this logic perfectly when he quipped “if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed a similar sentiment when he said he “would hold hands with the devil” if it would help beat the Third Reich. When you really need allies, you can’t be too choosy.

Needless to say, “balance of power” logic played an important role in U.S. foreign policy, and especially when security concerns were unmistakable. America’s Cold War alliances (i.e., NATO and the “hub and spoke” system of bilateral alliances in Asia) were formed to balance and contain the Soviet Union, and the same motive led the United........

© Foreign Policy