World Power Balance

This paper explores the concept of power balance in international relations. States and individual leaders seek power for two reasons. Power is capacity to influence others and capacity to defend oneself against aggression. The fear of aggression from the other and desire to dominate the other is what drives states towards either armament or alliances. Traditionally, armament was the sure way of acquiring relevancy and influence across borders (Weiss, 21).

In the world of today, power balance relies more on collective security than any individual nation’s might. The United Nations plays an important role as a power balancer. Despite established collective security mechanisms, the realization of collective security is highly depended on the commitment of the major powerful nations or blocs e.g. the US, Emerging European Union and China.

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Power is a dynamic concept that can only be understood in context. In international relationships, power is defined as the goal towards which all states and leaders tend (Krasner, 8).

This position towards which all states and leaders tend is characterized by capacity to influence others. Influence over others can be exercised in a coercive way, via persuasion, through cooperation or by direct competition e.g. in trade for given scarce resources (Weiss, 58).

A state with more power has capacity to influence issues around the world more than other states. Any world leader is considered powerful when his or her influence on international matters is of more considerable magnitude than others. Power comes with having a privileged position warranted by either higher access to resources or higher knowledge in given issues (Krasner, 124).

State power is determined by state’s economic status and military endowment. Through liaising or formation of alliances, some powerful entities have been formed that wield a lot of influence or power international. An example of such an entity is the NATO which wields much military power and thus has a lot of influence in world power balance.

The main reason why governments or states seek to be influential or powerful in the international scene is that power equals security (Krasner, 177). The most powerful of all nations is one whose economy is stable and diverse enough. It is the resources at one’s disposal that determine the resources that can be at his or her disposal in the near future.

Such a country also has enough military security guaranteed by its level of military sophistication and prowess (Krasner, 178). It is not enough to have resources; the resources have to be modifiable into capacity with swift expedience. In a state of war, the state that manages to deploy and respond with highest expedience often gains an upper hand.

It is not just in physical war but even psychological or ideological war; expediency and propaganda often determine level of influence of a nation in world politics (Krasner, 182). The most powerful country on earth has to have capacity to wade off any danger against its sovereignty plus its strategic interests across the globe. The US has enjoyed the status of super power for quite sometime now because of its capacity to defend itself and its strategic interests around the globe.

When it comes to capacity, distinction is made between soft capacity and hard capacity. Soft capacity is knowledge, culture and ideology driven. Hard capacity refers to infrastructure based source of influence. Soft power is achieved when a nation is able to sway others by persuasion to follow its ideology, values or cultural dictates (Krasner, 33).

This is often achieved through propaganda and other forms of information dissemination aimed specifically at some form of brainwashing. Hard capacity or power is coercion based and is highly depended on form of military weaponry and economic muscle of a state. Countries are classified as either hyper powers, superpowers, great powers, regional powers or middle powers (Thakur, 120). After World War II, the Unites States of America, the Soviet Union and Britain emerged as the super powers (Thakur, 126).

Balance of power refers to the distribution of power among states; it refers to how much power each international actor or state wields (Brown, 107).

Power between states is balanced either through armament or formation of alliances. To avoid aggressive action from other nations, states develop weaponry that would be used for retaliation or defense. Most powerful nations can not afford to attack each other because they all have nuclear war heads.

The formation of alliances can be traced back to the days of King Louis XIV of France. France, which was a powerful state tried severally to wield hegemonic powers over the rest of Europe (Leggiere, 9). Europe had many small states and their only way of surviving against France was by forming alliances. Alliances help nations gain capacity to protect sovereignty through pooling resources together.

The fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the powerful emperor who had enormous influence in Europe was occasioned by the formation of the sixth coalition. The sixth coalition consisted of “Russia, Prussia joined with Austria, Sweden, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal” (Leggiere, 25).

Apart from armament and alliances, sometimes one nation acted as a stabilizer or balancer of power. For a long time in Europe, Great Britain was the sole balancer of power (Krasner, 45). It had economic muscle and military capacity. It did not form any permanent alliances but rather worked with different sides as per prevailing circumstances.

The royal navy was the most powerful navy in the whole of Europe (Brown 108). Napoleon would have run over the whole of Europe had it not been for the antagonistic presence of England. Even after the fall of Napoleon, England consistently approached European matters with the vantage position of power balance holder (Brown, 109). It only sided with sides with the aim of maintaining European stability and power balance.

The emergence of global balance of power systems was triggered by the World War I. prior to World War I, Europe was stabilized by involvement of Britain, America had its own power structure and so did the Chinese and the Indians (Thakur, 128). The alignments occasioned by World War I alignments led to shift in power structures or power balance spheres.

The world became the stage with actors, the different alignments, trying to gain global influence or presence. Before World War II, European actors had some global influence or informed the global power struggle. However, the effects of World War II led to the struggle for supremacy pitting only the US against the Soviet Union (Thakur 127).

This bipolar struggle led to the formation of NATO while the other countries became allied to the Soviet Union (Brown, 121). This led to formation of two blocs around which most nations of the world coalesced. Britain could no longer remain flexible in its foreign policy because it neither had resources nor the necessary military muscle to be a balancing presence.

It is after World War II that fear of mutual annihilation led to restraint on both sides of the power balance. War was not an option because it was likely to lead to use of nuclear weaponry that could only spell disaster for the whole of humanity (Thakur, 159). What followed was a vicious cold war driven by propaganda and arms race.

Ideological propaganda pitting capitalism against communism dominated the struggle for global supremacy. The Right portrayed communism as an evil that reneged on every personal freedom while the Left alleged that capitalism was based on diabolic selfishness.

The fall of the Soviet Union, which was occasioned by untenable precepts of communism e.g. communal ownership or state ownership of all property, left the United States of America as the only super power. However, the wearing effects of the world wars and the cold war, had led to acknowledgement that nations had to come together or cooperate for peace to prevail on earth.

Human realists or realism theorists understand power as a goal (Brown, 44). States seek to develop because they desire a privileged position in the world power balance. A privileged position is given by the amount of coercive or persuasive influence a country has over others. Realism looks at the world from a conflict point of view.

As a theory it states that the world consists of states that are dangerous because they have offensive weapons (Brown, 45). A state of anarchy can be discerned where every nation or state lives in fear of the other and tries to arm itself against possible aggression from neighboring states. The move towards alliances and working together as states is necessitated by need to survival. Liaising is the only rational option for the states because without it maintaining sovereignty becomes untenable.

Human realism was expounded by Morgenthau and holds that realism per se has its roots in the nature of the human beings (Brown, 114). Each person, according to Morgethau is a power maximiser or aims at lording over others through accumulation of property or by way of ideology (Brown, 115). Although there have been theorists like Mandelbaum who argue that state concerns or engagements with each other are often altruistic, Mearsheimer, in his ‘offensive realism theory’ disputes such assertions (World Policy Journal).

According to Mearsheimer, “States are instead power-maximizing units that must survive in a threatening world and that are always looking out for number one” (World Policy Journal). Each state basically aims at maximizing its power at the expense of other nations or states. From the realists point of view, liaising or cooperation between states is necessary to avert conflict that would arise from mans desire to maximize power.

Collective security refers to the efforts by states to guarantee security by liaising with others. Collective security is achieved through alliances that concentrate and consolidate economic or military might (Weiss, 6). Any aggression against a state in the alliance is treated as aggression against the entire alliance.

There are regional alliances such as NATO which works to ward off outside aggression but also mitigates conflicts between members of the alliance. Other groups like the UN aim at fostering security for all nations through member states taking unilateral action against any aggressor state (Weiss, 7).

The League of Nations was formed after World War I as a way of enforcing collective security and encouraging the upholding of human rights within member states (Krasner, 181). Unfortunately, the organization easily disintegrated because the major powers of the time did not join it. The US snubbed it while Germany withdrew citing claiming that the league infringed on German sovereignty (Weiss, 21). After world war 11, efforts to revive the League of Nations resulted in the formation of the United Nations.

The United Nations was designed basing on the lessons learnt from the failures of the League of Nations (Weiss, 22). It was hoped that the United Nations would succeed because it had full backing of the USA. To gain support and commitment from the five major powers in the world, which included France, China, Britain, Soviet Union and the USA, they were given veto powers by the UN Charter (Encyclopedia of the New American Nation). The countries with Veto powers were also given permanent membership on the Security Council.

The work of the Security Council was to deliberate and make decision aimed at maintaining global security or international peace. All the members of the United Nations pledged to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” (Encyclopedia of the New American Nation). The United Nations success’ first threat came in the form of antagonism between the Soviet Union and the US.

During the cold war, the collective security mandate of the UN failed because the state members were divided along two ideologies or power blocs. The cold war showed clearly that collective security is only possible when the major powers are committed to peace. At the moment, many of the challenges the UN security experiences are operational (Weiss, 13).

The case of the League of Nations illustrates the many challenges to collective security. Collective security works only when all states, especially the major world powers, are committed to it (Thakur, 46).

This commitment by all states creates a level of trust in the alliance or group that is necessary for collective security to be realized (Weiss, 8). A recent development where the US and its allies defied a UN security resolution and waged war in Iraq threatens the power balance maintained by collective security (Thakur, 48).

The only reason why world peace did not degenerate as a result of such action is that other powers were indifferent; they did not have a stake or supported the war. The beginnings of the League of Nations were troublesome because the US, the major super power, did not endorse it (Thakur, 6).

The second challenge that often threatens collective security is veto powers given to some nations or states. The League of Nations did not succeed because it gave every state veto power thus any nation could block crucial decisions. Collective security thrives on fear of sanctions or unilateral action from other states.

Economic sanctions are often not possible because states are not thoroughly interdependent. Actually, some countries are more economically independent than interdependent while others are more depended than independent (Weiss, 11).

Despite challenges or threats to collective responsibility, outlined in the foregoing paragraph, the UN’s relevancy has increased over time. The UN is involved in serious arbitration between countries and in peace keeping missions in countries ravaged by civil strife (Thakur, 40).

This means that collective security has grown dimensionally as to include resolving or tackling of crisis within member countries. Some cases warranty facilitating diplomatic discussion while others warranty using military engagement. The cases of states waging war against others have greatly reduced to a scanty few since World War II.

State power has many differences from collective security or collective defense. The power of a state is defined by the sum of its resources i.e. economic muscle, military power and ideological strength. Collective security or defense is given by such resources as well; however there is pooling of resources (Krasner, 152).

State power is defined by how much influence each individual state can wield and protect its stability. Each country has to defend its sovereignty despite being allied to an alliance that offers collective security.

Any country that joins a collective security treaty or pact still has the opportunity of bolstering its power (Weiss, 123). This can be done through research aimed at improving military infrastructure, economic empowerment or development measures and other pursuits. However, each treaty stipulates given measures that members have to adhere to. Most collective security pacts require countries to contribute troops to a general pool (Weiss, 125). The troops are maintained by resources contributed by members as per agreed ratios.

In our world of today, most states seek to bolster and exercise their power through trade deals. Developing countries as expressed during the Doha round of talks want fair trade (Krasner, 77). The developed world through such measures as subsidies and bilateral trade pacts aim at gaining competitive advantages economically (Brown, 116).

Those that have managed to develop their economies are able to influence the developing world and discussions on global matters more substantially than the economically weak. Although search for military armament around the globe has been lowered due to relative world peace assured by collective security, many countries still have very high military budgets. Leading the table is china whose military spending has raised eyebrows in the recent past (Krasner, 181).

Developing countries have not been left behind in seeking to bolster their military prowess. A recent case of a ship carrying heavy military equipments being hijacked by Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean is a good indicator that African countries consider developing their military power very seriously. Collective security, we can conclude, does not mean countries totally abdicating the search for power.

This paper explored the issue of power balance in international relationships. Individual’s fear of each other and desire to be better than others is at the heart of power struggles between states. The state pursues power on the international scene because power means influence, capacity and security. There are two traditional ways of attaining power or security.

A state can either beef its resources and military prowess or liaise with others to achieve the same. Given most countries can not afford the required levels of resources to fully protect their sovereignty; formation of alliances is the only rational choice for them.

Over time, the idea of collective security has been developed leading to formation of institutions like the United Nations. As discussed in this paper, collective security works but it is highly depended on the commitment of the major or great powers around the globe.

Works Cited

Brown, Chris. Understanding International Relations. 2nd Ed. Westminster: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001

Encyclopedia of the New American Nation: Collective Security – The United Nations and the cold war. Retrieved 9th December, 2009 from nations-and-the-cold-war.html#ixzz37F7fuSP1

Krasner D. Stephen. Power, the State, and Sovereignty: Essays on International Relations. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2009

Leggiere V. Michael. The Fall of Napoleon: The Allied Invasion of France, 1813- 1814. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Thakur C. Ramesh. The United Nations, Peace And Security: From Collective Security To The Responsibility To Protect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Weiss G. Thomas. Collective Security in a Changing World. New York: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993


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