Recovering the Balance of Power for the 21st Century
Writing in Foreign Affairs at the start of 2021, Kurt Campbell and Rosh Doshi, now senior American officials in charge of policy towards China, argued that a balance-of-power framework was needed for the region of East Asia. The term “balance of power” is one of the more overused and misunderstood in the modern English lexicon. For those concerned with American foreign policy, the concept suffers from lazy usage, a reality which gives rise to certain misconceptions around its purpose and its nature. Like so many other terms that are regularly invoked in the study and practice of international politics — for example realpolitik, raison d’état, prudence, nationalism, internationalism, and world order — there is a generational need to re-examine the intellectual and historical roots of these concepts, how they have evolved over time, and the ways they are used and misused in the modern day. With this reflection as a guide, this essay examines certain interpretations of the balance of power concept throughout history. What might that be today? The exact application, if any, remains an open question, yet the basic insight here is that the concept of the balance of power should be understood as something more than a mechanical or immoral method of statecraft. At various points in the first half of the 20th century, the balance of power was derided as an outdated and immoral form of diplomacy. The failure of the League of Nations to thwart aggression in the 1930s, and the power politics that engulfed East Asia, Eastern Africa, and Western Europe over the course of that decade, led Wilson’s democratic successors in the Roosevelt administration to champion a similar message. Such statements, combined with the tendency of American statesmen to remain non-committed or “disentangled” from the politics of the European powers in the 19th century, can lead us to view the record of American diplomatic history as one traditionally averse to the balance of power concept. It is no secret that American leaders have been conscious of this phenomenon in international politics.
If the balance of power as a method of statecraft was more veiled in the 19th and early 20th centuries, its application during the period of the Cold War seemed to become more apparent. Other writers in these decades saw it differently, however, and the balance-of-power concept became further associated with the giants of the realist school of international relations. Scholars of Western political thought have detected approaches resembling the balance of power as far back as Ancient Greece. The more recognisable form of the balance of power, however, both in its theory and application, has its roots in the 15th-century diplomacy of Italian city-states. were unremitting in the watch that they kept on one another’s movements, deranging one another’s plans whenever they thought that a partner was going to increase his dominion or prestige. Importantly, it was in these years that writers began to conceptualize and advocate such a practice, one that could be used as a tool or mechanism by statesmen of the time. Into the 17th century, the number of writers examining and opining on the balance of power grew rapidly. As one of the great historians to examine the iterations of the balance of power concept in European history, Wight highlighted, among other phenomena, the dominant religions of the period. Into the 19th century, this view concerning the purpose of the balance of power was championed by the likes of the German historian Arnold Heeren, who said of the balance of power, “What is necessary to its preservation has at all times been a question for the highest political wisdom. In the same century, another German historian wrote what became one of the most important reflections on the balance of power concept.
The writing here has been an exercise in recovery rather than reconstitution. The balance-of-power concept as understood in the United States today tends either to carry the dark undertones highlighted by Richard Cobden and John Bright and advanced by Woodrow Wilson, or to be viewed as the soulless approach of self-styled realists. On a practical level, there is opportunity for governments to approach future cooperation and competition through this lens. In this way, we might go some way toward reversing, or at least recalibrating, the understood purpose of a balance of power in foreign policy. Through this understanding of older interpretations, we arrive, too, at a more fundamental aspect of statecraft. It is this acceptance of the ever relevant, if intractable, dilemma of power and ethics that brings us to a final point: the role of ideas in domestic and international order, and the necessity of strategists, especially those focusing on the longer term, being able to recognize and grapple with the influence and impact of such phenomena. If we can accept as a precept the relevance of ideational, as opposed to solely mechanical, thinking in statecraft, we can move toward understanding how ideas themselves have changed over time, and whether, if at all, older interpretations are relevant or applicable to modern realities. Andrew Ehrhardt is an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
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