Balance of Power: Whatever Happened to the Balance of Power?

In his inaugural address, President Bush spoke of ‘shaping a balance of power that favours freedom.’ What have the end of the Cold War, environmental issues, international crime and humanitarian interventions done for the balance of power? Is it a concept worth bothering with and do we need to worry about new centres of power?

The World Today
7 minute READ

Lawrence Freedman

The notion of a ‘balance of power’ still resonates, at one level, because it provides such a good title for any snapshot of the current distribution of strength and authority in the international system. It is a guide to who is up and who is down in the continuing struggle for domination and influence.

At another level it helps make sense of the workings of that system, explaining why old rivals suddenly form alliances and old allies fall out, why arms races and even wars begin, and, on occasion, why there can be outbreaks of reasonableness and calm. And then, at yet a further level, it moves from being a partial interpretative device and becomes a distinctive view of the world. In this sense it is as much prescriptive as descriptive, arguing why an aspiring great power with radical intentions must be ‘balanced’, or what must be done to avoid a major war and maintain a global equilibrium, even as weapons are accumulated and antagonistic groups eye each other nervously.

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