Balance of power is a term commonly used in international relations. Its use is sometimes not clear. It could mean different things to different people or by the same people at different times. In this unit, we will examine the meaning and various uses of the term.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  Discuss the term ‘Balance of Power’; 
  2.  Explain the meaning of stable equilibrium; 
  3.  Discuss Alliance formations in Europe; 
  4. Discuss the relevance of the ‘Balance of Power’ theory. 


3.1 What do we mean by Balance?

The word “balance” may evoke the image of a pair of scales with weights in either pan of such amount that the scales are posed in equilibrium. The “balance of power” in this sense is then intended to describe a situation in which two states or two groups of states, or all the states of the world grouped around two centers, are conceived to posses of roughly the same amount of power. In this way there will be no dominant power among the competing nation-states, groups or alliances. According to Tunde Adeniran, a Nigerian Professor of international relations, balance of power is derived from:

  1.  the existence of a number of sovereign political actors with specific, but unequal powers;
  2. the existence of some small, intermediate and great nation-states; without any of them having the authority and power to control others; and
  3.  persistent competition, periodic confrontation and possible conflict among them.

Since our discussion will revolve around the word “power”. It is important that we understand the meaning of the term, what it means in international relations, the importance and relevance of that concept and how it manifests itself in international relations in the period of our study. We did this in the last unit.The balance of power, like national interest, is a concept, which recurs with great frequency in international relations. As it was said while defining power, it is the ability of one entity to modify in a desired direction the behaviour of another entity. The phrase means that, neither

Germany nor Russia; England or Austro-Hungary; Prussia or France; USA or USSR is able to destroy the other without unacceptable losses. None is able with degree of consistency to modify the behaviour of the other and not to change its own, or is able to cause the other significantly to modify its behaviour in a question, which it judges to involve a vital interest.

The balance of power, can also be used to describe a situation in which the power of two states or group of states is roughly equal and this carries the implication that, at least over some period of time, if the equality is disturbed, action will be taken to restore it. It carries the implication of stable equilibrium.The balance of power concept is unfortunately also used to describe a situation of unbalance. This had led to a lot of confusion. When some statesmen say, “the balance of power must be in our favour”, they imply the need for superiority. In another sense, the phrase “this caused a change in the balance of power” implies that the occurrence in question of something concrete caused the changed in the distribution of power. For example, let us go into a period, between 1853 and 1858, Prussia in the 1870 – 1971, Franco-Prussian war and the emergence of Germany as a united nation changed the balance of power in Europe.

From the above, a balance of power premise may refer to an attempt to establish or maintain an unbalance in one’s favour, or to a decision to enter the balance of power game. An example can be found of maintaining equilibrium in Britain’s policy in the 19th century. The British Foreign Minister, Castlereagh at Vienna in 1815 tried to create a situation, “just equilibrium” whereby he believed that the safety of Britain could be threatened if any one mainland state held a position of excessive dominance; (See C.K. Webster: The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh). He believed that Britain should participate in the Concert of powers designed to uphold the 1815 settlement, but his successors were of the opinion that Britain’s interest could better be served if Britain withdrew from European Affairs, but only interviewing when necessary to prevent any power or group of powers from gaining ascendancy.

Furthermore, the balance of power was particularly reflected in Europe during the 19th Century. It was then, “the only system which, in a world of so much as at the mercy of force, made it possible for a considerable number of small states to remain in existence at all”. The existing states were not necessarily equal in power (e.g. Russia was stronger than Austro-Hungry: but not stronger than Britain; so also were Prussia, France, Turkey, the Balkan States etc.) and did not have to extend their domain or territory to maintain the balance of power whenever one increases her own. The balance was usually rectified or preserved through a reshuffling of alliances, e.g. Britain joined France to fight Russia in the Crimean War. The process gave the smaller states independence of action and real political autonomy in that they, and not the larger states, could shift allegiances readily and alter the patter of alliances. In Europe at this time, the constant switching of alliances between Prussia, Russia and France and Austro-Hungary ensured a balance of power. It was therefore fluid, not constant and was bound to create mistrusts among Allies. Although it helped maintain peace, it has also been accused of being the cause of wars.

As can be seen from the above functions, the nation or nations that would hold the balance should be strong enough. This is where another problem of the balance of power concept comes in. For any nation strong enough to maintain a balance would want it to be in her own favour. For, what sense is there for a nation who holds balance to remain only as strong as the enemy? Of course, security lies in having an edge over one’s potential enemy or enemies. That was precisely the policy of Britain in the early 18th and 19th centuries and that of Metternich in the mi-19th century and of Bismarch after 1871.

It is for this reason that Hans J. Morgenthau, the power-politics apostle, concluded that since the end of the 18th century, wars and not the balance of power policy have prevented one single state from achieving total domination over others. He, therefore, felt that we should not rely much on the theory of the balance of power because it is unrealistic, uncertain, and rather inadequate for explaining state behaviour, especially the moral consensus and national restraint during the years from 1648 to 1914.

Self Assessment Exercise

What do you understand by the ‘Balance of Power’ in the international system?


In the final analysis, the balance of power is generally believed to achieve the following:

  1.  prevent a single state, or group of states, from becoming too powerful and thereby establishing its superiority
  2.  maintain the status quo and ensure that the system, or any of its constituent parts do not collapse;
  3. preserve the security and stability of the international system; 
  4. ensure that aggressors and potential aggressors are checked; and 
  5. do everything necessary to maintain peace and prevent war. 

In conclusion, our major practical approach will cover the period between the 1815 Vienna Congress (after the final defeat or Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo) to the Unification of Germany in 1870 – 1971. During this period, despite the fact that France was defeated, she was rehabilitated, brought up the rank of a world power as Russia, all in the name of maintaining a balance of power. The great architects of this period were Prime Klemans Von Metternich (1773 – 1859): Russian Tsar Alexander I (1777 – 1825) and Prince Otto Von Edward Bismarch (1815 – 1898). The balance of power was maintained by the decision of the European states and their practice of non-interference in the internal affairs of member-states; collective opposition to revolts or revolutions; the formation of alliances; diplomatic bargaining and the creation of buffer states.


We have discussed the notion of Balance of Power in the international system, but especially as it existed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are tremendous lessons to be learned from this, especially in respect of developments in the international system in contemporary times.


  1.  Discuss the Concert of Power, as it existed in Europe.
  2. How relevant is the “Balance of Power” theory in contemporary times?


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