Balance of power

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This article is about a term used in international relations and parliamentary democracy. For alternative uses, see balance of power (disambiguation).

Balance of power is a central concept of realist theories of international relations. Within a balance of power system, a state may choose to engage in either balancing or bandwagoning behavior. In a time of war, whether a state chooses correctly, to balance or to bandwagon, the decision may well determine the survival of the state.

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A doctrine of equilibrium

A balance of power exists when there is parity or stability between competing forces. As a term in international law for a 'just equilibrium' between the members of the family of nations, it expresses the doctrine intended to prevent any one nation from becoming sufficiently strong so as to enable it to enforce its will upon the rest.

The basic principle involved in a balancing of political power, as David Hume pointed out in his Essay on the Balance of Power, is as old as history, and was perfectly familiar to the ancients both as political theorists and as practical statesmen. In its essence it is no more than a precept of commonsense, born of experience and the instinct of self-preservation; for, as Polybius very clearly puts it (lib. i. cap. 83)

"Nor is such a principle to be despised, nor should so great a power be allowed to any one, as to make it impossible for you afterwards to dispute with him on equal terms, concerning your manifest rights."

As Professor L. Oppenheim (Internal. Law, i. 73) justly points out, an equilibrium between the various powers which form the family of nations is, in fact, essential to the very existence of any international law. In the absence of any central authority, the only sanction behind the code of rules established by custom or defined in treaties, known as 'international law', is the capacity of the powers to hold each other in check. If this system fails, nothing prevents any state sufficiently powerful from ignoring the law and acting solely according to its convenience and its interests.

Historical perspective

It was not, however, until the beginning of the 17th century, when the science of international law assumed the discipline of structure, in the hands of Grotius and his successors, that the theory of the balance of power was formulated as a fundamental principle of diplomacy. In accordance with this new discipline, the European states formed a sort of federal community, the fundamental condition of which was the preservation of a 'balance of power, i.e. such a disposition of things that no one state, or potentate, should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this settlement, it was held to be the interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms, when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed upon, or assailed by, any other member of the community.

This 'balance of power' principle, once formulated, became an axiom of political science. Fénelon, in his Instructions, impressed the axiom upon the young Louis, Duke of Burgundy. Frederick the Great, in his Anti-Machiavel, proclaimed the 'balance of power' principle to the world. In 1806, Friedrich von Gentz re-stated it with admirable clarity, in Fragments on the Balance of Power. The principle formed the basis of the coalitions against Louis XIV and Napoleon, and the occasion, or the excuse, for most of the wars which desolated Europe between the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1814).

During the greater part of the 19th century, the series of national upheavals which remodelled the map of Europe obscured the balance of power. Yet, it underlay all the efforts of diplomacy to stay, or to direct, the elemental forces let loose by the French Revolution. In the revolution's aftermath, with the restoration of comparative calm, the principle once more emerged as the operative motive for the various political alliances, of which the ostensible object was the preservation of peace.

Parliamentary politics

In parliamentary politics, balance of power usually refers to the position held by one political party, or a coalition of minor parties, whose support of a minority parliament (i.e., in any system based on proportional representation), can give a major party enough votes to be able to form a stable government. This can be achieved either by the formation of a coalition government, or by voting with the party in power to prevent its defeat in a motion of no confidence.

Federalism

In federations, the term "balance of power" is used in reference to which level of government is favoured in the division of power. In confederations (decentralised federations), it is more likely that the balance of power will be in favour of the sub-national level of government (that is, states or provinces). Canada is an example of such a federation. The Commonwealth of Australia is an example of a federation in which the balance of power has shifted in favour of the central (federal) government; although the states were constitutionally intended to be preponderant, the federal government has become dominant through various means.

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Reference

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