Recovering a Balance-of-Power Principle for the 21st Century

May 26, 2022

Writing in Foreign Affairs at the start of 2021, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, now senior American officials in charge of policy towards China, argued that a balance-of-power framework was needed for the region of East Asia. Using Henry Kissinger’s study of the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna as a guide, they described such a balance as potentially serving as the foundation of “an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate.” From what I could discern, the article received surprisingly little attention, and the extent to which this thinking now drives America’s China policy remains hidden to those outside the White House. Nonetheless, the mention of such an approach to diplomacy, particularly at a time when a consensus considers the international order to be in a moment of systemic transition, is an idea worthy of investigation.

The term “balance of power” is one of the more overused and misunderstood in the modern English lexicon. It is invoked across a range of disciplines and industries, usually to describe the arrangement of certain subjects or phenomena in relation to one another. The journalist Brian Windhorst, for example, recently described the playoff series between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks as one in which the “balance of power [was] constantly shifting” between the teams over the course of seven games. In an entirely different context, Rae Hart writes in the Jacobin that the “balance of power in the economy” must move “away from capital and toward working people.” Such variances in meaning seem to confirm the historian Albert Pollard’s view — one nearly 100 years-old — that the term “may mean almost anything; and it is used not only in different senses by different people, or in difference senses by the same people at different times, but in different senses by the same person at the same time.”



For those concerned with American foreign policy, the concept suffers from lazy usage, a reality which gives rise to certain misconceptions around its purpose and its nature. For some, the concept is synonymous with the measure of material power, whether military, economic, financial, or technological. For example, Michael Horowitz has written of how advancements in AI can affect the balance of global power. Others see it as a tool or method of statecraft, but this tends to be of a certain school of thought — one that is colored by stark power considerations devoid of ethical principles. Along these lines, Stephen Walt has criticized the lack of a balance-of-power approach in American statecraft, yet the concept is seen to be soulless, a mechanical creation operating in an inanimate system. Like other realists, the concept of a balance of power is seen to be a hard-headed, sober approach to the distribution of power in an anarchic system of states.

Like so many other terms that are regularly invoked in the study and practice of international politics — for example realpolitik, raison d’état, prudence, nationalism, internationalism, and world order — there is a generational need to re-examine the intellectual and historical roots of these concepts, how they have evolved over time, and the ways they are used and misused in the modern day. This is because scholars and practitioners have not so much arrived at certain truths of international politics as settled on certain perceptions, ones conditioned by the time in which they live. Ideas themselves, as Alfred Vagts once put it, “are like rivers arising in a swamp or moor region rather than in a mountain spring, and often they see the light of day only after they have run for miles through subterranean caverns.”

With this reflection as a guide, this essay examines certain interpretations of the balance of power concept throughout history. It is selective rather than comprehensive, and it aims to shine light on an older, seemingly forgotten variety of the idea. Specifically, it illuminates the view that seeking such a balance is not always intended for naked self-interest and self-help. Instead, we might look to older conceptions of a balance among powers, particularly those ideas that grew up in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Here a fundamental principle was that the objective of a balance of power rested not solely in the preservation of one’s interest, but in a wider interest, or unity, of the whole.

What might that be today? The exact application, if any, remains an open question, yet the basic insight here is that the concept of the balance of power should be understood as something more than a mechanical or immoral method of statecraft. It is instead an approach that can hold as its objective an ethical order deemed legitimate by the principal states or groups of states in a regional or international system. In grasping this older conception of the balance of power, we can embody an approach to statecraft that not only sees the relationship between power and ethics as intertwined but also provides a more robust intellectual framework in this period of systemic international transition. The Russo-Ukrainian War has made the most fundamental questions — of power, morals, law, institutions, and order — starkly relevant once again. For policymakers and analysts, returning to and expanding our understanding of those concepts we take for granted, the balance of power among them, is a first step towards planning for and calibrating a future international system.

American Conceptions of the Balance of Power

At various points in the first half of the 20th century, the balance of power was derided as an outdated and immoral form of diplomacy. Considering it a traditional practice of European nations, American leaders tended to see it as inherently destabilizing and an approach to politics that held great dangers for the United States. President Woodrow Wilson, who has the distinction of having ushered in a major intellectual spring of American statecraft, based his views, in part, on a philosophical aversion to the balance of power. Echoing the calls of the British politicians Richard Cobden and John Bright nearly a century before — the latter had called it a “foul idol” — Wilson stood before the Senate in January 1917 to argue that “Only a tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe. … There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.”

The failure of the League of Nations to thwart aggression in the 1930s, and the power politics that engulfed East Asia, Eastern Africa, and Western Europe over the course of that decade, led Wilson’s democratic successors in the Roosevelt administration to champion a similar message. Speaking after the conclusion of the Moscow Conference in October 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull affirmed that what the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union were planning for the post-war world would, and must, put an end to the balance-of-power system that had plagued global politics for centuries. A similar line was taken by Franklin Roosevelt, who, in what would be his last address to Congress on March 1, 1945, described the purported achievements of the Yalta Conference. “It ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries — and have always failed.”

Such statements, combined with the tendency of American statesmen to remain non-committed or “disentangled” from the politics of the European powers in the 19th century, can lead us to view the record of American diplomatic history as one traditionally averse to the balance of power concept. But is this the case?

It is no secret that American leaders have been conscious of this phenomenon in international politics. In 1787, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 11 that the United States needed to be the arbiter of the balance of European competition in the new world. Decades later, the famed Monroe Doctrine of 1823 had as its principal aim the consolidation of American power in the Western hemisphere, but as Charles Edel has rightly noted, to say that American leaders were uninterested in the European balance of power would be a discredit to their international thought. Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt grasped this concept, and while he ostensibly kept the United States out of European balance-of-power arrangements, he thought about the world balance on a more global scale — a premise that led him in part to the idea of needing to be dominant in the western hemisphere. “No other president defined America’s world role so completely in terms of national interest, or identified the national interest so comprehensively with the balance of power,” Henry Kissinger wrote of the 26th president. The record of American diplomacy in this regard led some, including Hans Morgenthau and Alfred Vagts, to argue that such notions, attractive or not, have always been a focus for leaders in Washington. Morgenthau went so far as to say that, with the exception of the War of 1812, the United States had regularly “supported whatever European power appeared capable of restoring the balance of power by resisting and defeating the would-be conqueror.”

If the balance of power as a method of statecraft was more veiled in the 19th and early 20th centuries, its application during the period of the Cold War seemed to become more apparent. Arnold Wolfers wrote in 1959 that the concept had become “intimately related to matters of immediate practical importance to the United States and its allies.” Kissinger and Richard Nixon are perhaps the American statesmen most associated with the balance of power given their policy towards China vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. As a scholar, Kissinger had cut his teeth on the study of the Congress of Vienna and the European system in the first decades after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, but while he valued this systemic arrangement as a practitioner, he also believed that the concept had fundamentally changed. “Today’s striving for equilibrium should not be compared to the balance of power of previous periods,” he told an audience gathered in Washington in 1973. “The very notion of ‘operating’ a classical balance of power disintegrates when the change required to upset the balance is so large that it cannot be achieved by limited means.” He had in mind here the modern intensity of ideology — specifically between liberalism and communism — and how these conflicting positions ultimately prevented a common notion of legitimacy. Similarly, although for different reasons, Stanley Hoffman described the irrelevance of the term: “The balance of power familiar to students of history is the past; there is no future in our past.”

Other writers in these decades saw it differently, however, and the balance-of-power concept became further associated with the giants of the realist school of international relations. Scholars such as Kenneth Waltz and, later, John Mearsheimer, held that the balance of power, more so than a conscious method of statecraft, was simply the reality of international politics. In other words, nation-states — operating independently and instinctively — would, naturally develop toward a system in which a balance of power was the best they could hope for. It was, Waltz argued as early as 1954, “not so much imposed by statesmen on events as it is imposed by events on statesmen.” The motivations for pursuing a balance of power thus came to be seen as a kind of natural condition, one created by the conscious or unconscious pursuit of material power.

Recovering an Older Interpretation

Scholars of Western political thought have detected approaches resembling the balance of power as far back as Ancient Greece. Traces are indeed discoverable in the writings of Xenophon, Thucydides, and Polybius, among others. The Scottish polymath David Hume was one of the first writers to recognise these older influences. “The maxim of preserving the balance of power is founded so much on common sense and obvious reasoning, that it is impossible it could altogether have escaped antiquity,” he argued. “If it was not so generally known and acknowledged as at present, it had, at least, an influence on all the wiser and more experienced princes and politicians.”

The more recognisable form of the balance of power, however, both in its theory and application, has its roots in the 15th-century diplomacy of Italian city-states. It was in this period that powers like Venice, Milan, Naples, Florence, and the Papal States developed alliances to balance against one another (one example was the triple alliance of Florence, Milan, and Naples against Venice). As Francesco Guicciardini phrased it, these states

were unremitting in the watch that they kept on one another’s movements, deranging one another’s plans whenever they thought that a partner was going to increase his dominion or prestige. And all this did not make the peace any less stable, but rather made the powers more alert and more ready to bring about the immediate extinction of all those sparks that might start a fire.

Importantly, it was in these years that writers began to conceptualize and advocate such a practice, one that could be used as a tool or mechanism by statesmen of the time.

Into the 17th century, the number of writers examining and opining on the balance of power grew rapidly. The reasons for this are diverse. On the one hand, these decades were a period of great advancement in the natural sciences, particularly physics, which gave rise both to new approaches to understanding the world and to efforts to apply these methods to the study of human societies. “The modern law of inertia, the modern theory of motion,” Herbert Butterfield once described, “is the great factor which in the seventeenth century helped to drive the spirits out of the world and opened the way to a universe that ran like a piece of clockwork.” This had an important influence on those concerned with politics between societies. More so than in the preceding centuries, there was a feeling that the problems raised by political and economic competition could be solved by new, discoverable solutions. The balance of power had become, as Martin Wight once noted, the “political counterpart of Newtonian physics.”

As one of the great historians to examine the iterations of the balance of power concept in European history, Wight highlighted, among other phenomena, the dominant religions of the period. The “earliest stable balance” on continent, he argued, had been that between the Catholics and Lutherans, codified in the Peace of Augsburg. There was also the influence of the theory of “mixed constitution,” which had its origins in Platonic and Aristotelian political philosophy and worked out its modern form in the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany. But one of his great illuminations was the balance-of-power approach employed by William III, who negotiated the first and second Grand Alliances of 1689 and 1701. Both groupings were initiated in peacetime and designed to counter the power of France on the European continent. Though William died shortly after the second agreement, his efforts helped to bring into existence the treaties of Utrecht in 1713. The profound aspect of this diplomatic achievement was this: The balance of power principle was geared at upholding a larger moral framework, namely the “res publica Christiana” throughout Europe.

Into the 19th century, this view concerning the purpose of the balance of power was championed by the likes of the German historian Arnold Heeren, who said of the balance of power, “What is necessary to its preservation has at all times been a question for the highest political wisdom.” To see it as a simple exercise of balancing material capabilities, he warned, was to misunderstand its purpose. “Nothing […] but the most short-sighted policy would ever seek for its final settlement by an equal division of the physical force of the different states.” In other words, those aiming at a balance of power would need to hold in their minds an understanding of its ultimate purpose.

In the same century, another German historian wrote what became one of the most important reflections on the balance of power concept. Leopold von Ranke’s 1833 essay titled The Great Powers set out to examine the European order between the reign of Louis XIV and the defeat of Napoleon. The balance of power, he argued, was the key to maintaining such a system. Moreover, there was something unique about how the concept was understood in this period — something that, in equal measure, legitimized and justified its existence. In his mind, that the European powers were part of a wider European civilization, with a shared history between them, allowed them to develop and implement a balance of power, while this balance, when executed properly, allowed each society to continue to develop according to the values it held universal.

The Return of Statecraft and the Role of Ideas

The writing here has been an exercise in recovery rather than reconstitution. Its aim has been to shine light on older and diverse approaches to the concept of a balance of power, as a way of broadening the discourse around future American foreign policy in an increasingly multipolar world. Older approaches, concepts, and ideas of statecraft become buried under the succession of events and, more consequentially, shaded by the mythical notions that grow up around these moments or periods of history. It is the responsibility of historians and scholars of international politics to, from time to time, excavate and re-examine these earlier precedents. This is not to reveal truths as much as insights, ones that might be seized upon by the official or analyst looking for a guide in the maelstrom of immediate objectives.

The balance-of-power concept as understood in the United States today tends either to carry the dark undertones highlighted by Richard Cobden and John Bright and advanced by Woodrow Wilson, or to be viewed as the soulless approach of self-styled realists. What is lost is a different interpretation, one that sees the balance of power as a purposeful approach to statecraft, one that can and ideally should serve as a foundational framework for negotiated settlements that ascribe to the international politics some semblance of order.

On a practical level, there is opportunity for governments to approach future cooperation and competition through this lens. In the Indo-Pacific, governments — even those in Europe — seem to be jostling for position. Perhaps there are benefits to be gained by aiming first for a balance of military and economic power, and then toward some structures that might facilitate both dialogue and decisions about major questions in the region. Important, however, is that the powers principally concerned hold as their ultimate objective not outright victory but a negotiated order that can employ an ethical or moral basis that governments deem legitimate in this period.

In this way, we might go some way toward reversing, or at least recalibrating, the understood purpose of a balance of power in foreign policy. Such a view echoes ideas put forward by Hedley Bull, Richard Little, and Michael Sheehan, who have seen in older interpretations some important guides for contemporary policymaking. Sheehan, who has written an excellent historical study of the term “balance of power,” argues that modern understandings should return to its “Grotian form” (named after the Dutch diplomat and jurist Hugo Grotius). Writing in the period of the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), Grotius articulated norms and laws which, because societies shared common characteristics and experiences, could be applied to larger international context. It is the same rationale that underpinned the work of later scholars of international law, such as Lassa Oppenheim, who wrote in 1905 that a “law of nations can exist only if there be an equilibrium, a balance of power, between the members of the family of nations.”

Through this understanding of older interpretations, we arrive, too, at a more fundamental aspect of statecraft. Specifically, try as some might, ethical considerations cannot and should not be viewed as separate from or subordinate to considerations of power. At the highest level of policy, these aspects — power and ethics — are fused together in ways that a great deal of modern commentary on international politics obscures. To take one example, when a writer like Eliot Cohen, one of the great thinkers in American foreign policy over the preceding decades, calls in Foreign Affairs for future American statesmen and women to turn away from grand strategy and toward statecraft, we are forced to pause. For not only is grand strategic thinking, properly understood, an essential dimension of statecraft, but at its root is the most fundamental dilemma of politics — how to strike the balance between ethics and power — which Western thinkers (to say nothing of other civilizations) have been grappling with for millennia. And far from a seminar exercise, the question plays out in real time. Looking at the Russo-Ukrainian War, for example, the moral question is a simple one to answer. The political, not so much.

It is this acceptance of the ever relevant, if intractable, dilemma of power and ethics that brings us to a final point: the role of ideas in domestic and international order, and the necessity of strategists, especially those focusing on the longer term, being able to recognize and grapple with the influence and impact of such phenomena. When asked what set George Kennan apart from other distinguished American diplomats of his era, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin remarked of his friend that:

Interest in ideology. Intellectualism of a certain kind. Ideas. Deep interest in, and constant thought, in terms of attitudes, ideas, traditions, what might be called cultural peculiarities of countries and attitudes, forms of life. Not simply move after move; not chess. Not just evidence of this document, that document, showing that what they wanted was northern Bulgaria, or southern Greece. But also mentalités.

If we can accept as a precept the relevance of ideational, as opposed to solely mechanical, thinking in statecraft, we can move toward understanding how ideas themselves have changed over time, and whether, if at all, older interpretations are relevant or applicable to modern realities. “Ideas are nothing but the unremitting thought of man, and transmission for them is nothing less than transformation,” the philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote. In our own time, recognizing the way in which the concept of the balance of power has morphed over centuries allows us to grasp both its complexities and its potential applicability to present and future statecraft.



Andrew Ehrhardt is an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Image: Wikimedia Commons