Balance of power (international relations)

idea that national security is enhanced when military capabilities are distributed so no state is strong enough to dominate

The balance of power theory in international relations suggests that states may secure their survival by preventing any one state from gaining enough military power to dominate all others. If one state becomes much stronger, the theory predicts it will take advantage of its weaker neighbours, thereby driving them to unite in a defensive coalition. Some realists maintain that a balance-of-power system is more stable than one with a dominant state, as aggression is unprofitable when there is equilibrium of power between rival coalitions.


  • An equal distribution of Power among the Princes of Europe as makes it impractical for the one to disturb the repose of the other.
    • Anonymous, Europe's Catechism (1741), quoted in Michael Sheehan, The Balance Of Power: History & Theory (1996), p. 2
  • As super-powers had successively risen towards domination of the Western World, from Spain to Imperial Germany, England had thrown her weight into the opposite scale, along with other powers of lesser might than the super-power. At first instinctive, this policy eventually became deliberate, enshrined in the doctrine of the balance of power, and re-stated, in terms of opposition to Germany, by Sir Eyre Crowe in 1907 in a classic memorandum. To side with the weaker against the stronger was doubly wise; it prevented the strong becoming over-mighty, while it preserved England herself from the fate of those states who were misguided enough to ally themselves with powers much greater than themselves. For example, Holland's alliance with England in the wars against Louis XIV cost her her independence of action and began her decline; while Austria in the Great War ended up as the helpless satellite of her great partner, Germany.
  • History shows that the danger threatening the independence of this or that nation has generally arisen, at least in part, out of the momentary predominance of a neighbouring State at once militarily powerful, economically efficient, and ambitious to extend its frontiers or spread its influence, the danger being directly proportionate to the degree of its power and efficiency, and to the spontaneity or "inevitableness" of its ambitions. The only check on the abuse of political predominance derived from such a position has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence. The equilibrium established by such a grouping of forces is technically known as the balance of power, and it has become almost an historical truism to identify England's secular policy with the maintenance of this balance by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single State or group at a given time.
    • Eyre Crowe, Memorandum on the Present State of British Relations with France and Germany (1 January 1907), quoted in G. P. Gooch and Harold Temperley (eds.), British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914, Vol. III: The Testing of the Entente, 1904–6 (1928), p. 403
  • Ranke had faith in the capacity of the great powers to strike a balance with one another, and thereby to avoid that dominance of one continental power over all the others which Napoleon had all but achieved. His faith was not misplaced. Between 1814 and 1907 there were seven congresses (of sovereigns or premiers) and nineteen conferences (of foreign ministers) at which the principal diplomatic issues were discussed and, in large measure, settled. Though lacking all the institutional trappings of the international order of our own time, these regular summits in fact performed a role not so very different from that played today by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The treaties they signed and agreements they brokered did not prevent war, but they limited it, so that no European crisis in the hundred years between the Congress of Vienna and the assassination at Sarajevo escalated into a full-scale conflict involving all the great powers. This was no small achievement.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), pp. 92-93
  • Action by a state to keep its neighbours from becoming too strong...because the aggrandisement of one nation beyond a certain limit changes the general system of all the other neighbours...attention to the maintenance of a kind of equality and equilibrium between neighbouring states.
    • François Fénelon, quoted in Michael Sheehan, The Balance Of Power: History & Theory (1996), p. 2
  • "Balance of power" means only this—that a number of weaker States may unite to prevent a stronger one from acquiring a power which should be dangerous to them, and which should overthrow their independence, their liberty, and their freedom of action. It is the doctrine of self-preservation. It is the doctrine of self-defence, with the simple qualification that it is combined with sagacity and with forethought, and an endeavour to prevent imminent danger before it comes thundering at your doors.
  • Almost any student who has read the usual books, if he were asked to mark what was the foremost idea of the three centuries that intervene between the year 1500 and the year 1800, would reply that it was the idea of the balance of power. The balance of power, however it be defined, i.e. whatever the powers were between which it was necessary to maintain such equilibrium, that the weaker should not be crushed by the union of the stronger, is the principle which gives unity to the political plot of modern European history.
    • William Stubbs, Seventeen Lectures on the Study of Medieval and Modern History and Kindred Subjects (1886), p. 225