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The Balance of Power in the Balance


This article reviews four recent books on balancing and the balance of power. Both in isolation and when taken together, they provide strong analytical and empirical warrants against the proposition that balance of power equilibria represent the “normal condition” or “natural tendency” of international relations. They also reflect the growing dissensus among realists concerning how to conceptualize and operationalize the key concept of “balancing.”

The author argues that their analysis implies a tripartite distinction between balance of power theory, theories of power balances, and theories of balancing. Recognizing this distinction undermines many objections to expanding the concept of balancing to include “nontraditional” variants, but it also helps elucidate why we should eschew describing nontraditional balancing through the language of hard and soft balancing.

Even a more expansive conception of balancing, however, fails to insulate balance of power theory against mounting disconfirming evidence. While one might be able to salvage a “weak” variant of balance of power theory, realists are probably better off adopting a more nuanced and comprehensive approach to power-political competition. The entire field would benefit from treating “balancing” and the “balance of power” as objects of inquiry in their own right, rather than as the province of realist theory.