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International Security 29.2 (2004) 159-201

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Unanswered Threats A Neoclassical RealistTheory of Underbalancing

During the late 1630s, Charles I concentrated his energies on the construction of a new royal palace at Whitehall. Designed in the classical style by John Webb, the new Whitehall was to be the fulfillment of the king's lifelong dream to replace the sprawling and obsolete palace that he had inherited from the Tudors with one that would match the splendor and majesty of the Louvre or the Escorial. Charles I desired nothing else than that his surroundings should reflect the magnificence of his rule: "Here, at last, would be a seat of government appropriate to the system of 'Personal Rule' Charles I had established since dispensing with Parliament in 1629. At least until 1639, it was from here that Charles could expect to govern his realms, resplendent amid Webb's Baroque courtyards and colonnades, during the next decade and beyond."1

In making such ambitious plans, Charles I displayed supreme confidence that his regime would not only survive but thrive well into the future. Unfortunately for the king, his reign did not last out the 1630s. If the conventional historical wisdom that "the collapse of Charles I's regime during the 1630s appeared 'inevitable'" is correct, then Charles obviously suffered from self- delusion—an unreality all too characteristic of remote and isolated rulers.2

International politics, too, has seen many instances of this type of folly, where threatened countries have failed to recognize a clear and present danger or, more typically, have simply not reacted to it or, more typically still, have responded in paltry and imprudent ways. This behavior, which I call "underbalancing," runs directly contrary to the core prediction of structural realist [End Page 159] theory, namely, that threatened states will balance against dangerous accumulations of power by forming alliances or building arms or both. Indeed, even the most cursory glance at the historical record reveals many important cases of underbalancing. Consider, for instance, that none of the great powers except Britain consistently balanced against Napoleonic France, and none emulated its nation-in-arms innovation. Later in the century, Britain watched passively in splendid isolation as the North defeated the South in the American Civil War and as Prussia defeated Austria in 1866, and then France in 1871, establishing German hegemony over Europe. Bismarck then defied balance of power logic by cleverly creating an extensive "hub-and-spoke" alliance system that effectively isolated France and avoided a counterbalancing coalition against Germany. The Franco-Russian alliance of 1893 emerged only after Bismarck's successor, Leo von Caprivi, refused to renew the 1887 Reinsurance Treaty with Russia for domestic political reasons and despite the czar's pleadings to do otherwise. Thus, more than twenty years after the creation of the new German state, a balancing coalition had finally been forged by the dubious decision of the new German chancellor combined with the kaiser's soaring ambitions and truculent diplomacy.

Likewise, during the 1930s, none of the great powers (i.e., Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, Italy, and Japan) balanced with any sense of urgency against Nazi Germany. Instead, they bandwagoned, buck-passed, appeased, or adopted ineffective half measures in response to the growing German threat. A similar reluctance to check unbalanced power characterizes most interstate relations since 1945. With the exception of the U.S.-Soviet bipolar rivalry, a survey of state behavior during the Cold War yields few instances of balancing behavior. As K.J. Holsti asserts: "Alliances, such a common feature of the European diplomatic landscape since the seventeenth century, are notable by their absence in most areas of the Third World. So are balances of power." Holsti further notes: "The search for continental hegemony is rare in the Third World, but was a common feature of European diplomacy under the Habsburgs, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Wilhelmine Germany, Hitler, and Soviet Union and, arguably, the United States."3 In a continuation of this pattern, no peer competitor has yet emerged more than a decade after the end of...


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