At first glance, it would seem that the world we live in is starkly unipolar – defined by US hegemony in a post-soviet world. While US hegemony is unquestionable, the notion of an emerging balance of power is still possible. Waltz definition for BOP theory includes a bipolar world. For this reason, the USSR-US dichotomy provided a staple framework for the theory. But the end of the Cold War introduced an era of seemingly unprecedented unipolarity characterized by US hegemony over global politics. Neoliberal institutionalism and democratic peace theorists have long argued that the balance of power theory is defunct and irrelevant in a post-Cold War era. BOP theory suggests that countries around the world would exhibit balancing in order to counter US hegemony, but democratic peace theorists argue that, democracies are less aggressive, and thus elicit less defensive responses. In other words, the US isn’t the same at the Roman Empire because the former is democratic, which permits free trade and self-interest. If this were the case, it could challenge the very nature of BOP theory in that, nations may not perceive hegemonies as threatening but rather, non-democracy as threatening. Is that perhaps why alliances between democratic hegemonies and democracies in the periphery have persisted, such as NATO & the EU? However neorealists like Kenneth Waltz and Mearsheimer might argue that the world is currently in a transitional phase, in which balancing will eventually occur. Evidence of that is China’s rise as an industrial power; Russia’s annexation of Crimea & South Ossetia; the emergence of BRICS; heightened conflicts in the Middle East; and the rise of violent, anarchical militias largely in response to US “hegemony”. All of these are reasons to believe that, balance of power theory was merely “warming up” after the Cold War.
But since the end of the Cold War, American hegemony has remained uncontested, at least, wholly. Neorealists have argued the end of the Cold War would result in a break up of the EU and a rebalancing of powers to counter US domination (Mearsheimer). In the 1990s, this may have seemed almost impossible – considering the allure of democracy, and the collapse of the USSR. Even in today’s world, the possibility of a US-European detente seems improbable, especially with a rising threat of terrorism; and the rise of the Far East (Russia & China). But since the attacks of September 11th, the US has plunged itself into a series of endeavors which have earned it both the lauding and criticism of its allies. The conflict in Syria, and Eastern Europe, with regards to Russian interference, is a sign of a resurgence of the East, possibly as a response to US expansiveness over the last decade. It could be argued, perhaps in Mearsheimer’s favor, that a balance of power is in fact emerging, led mainly by Russia & China. The question is how enduring it will be; and whether European nations will follow. Seeing that neoliberal institutionalists see democracy as an exception to the “realist paradigm”, they might argue that Russian & Chinese led power-balancing is the result of their desperate attempt to resist democracy. In this scenario, neoliberal institutionalists might argue that balancing occurs to resist authoritarianism; not necessarily to resist hegemony. For this reason, the characteristic of benign hegemony has been attributed to the US (Axelrod).
From the perspective of the neoliberal institutionalist, international institutions have served to mitigate the threat of hegemony, primarily as a result of the triumph of democracy which is rooted in self-interest. Peace is the nature of democracy; and therefore is usually only interrupted when authoritarian regimes become threatening. The relationship between democracies is rationally cooperative here, a sort of complex interdependence (Keohane).
Waltz & Mearsheimer would argue against this notion. Whether or not a country is democratic, in their view, does not affect its instinct to seek relative gains. The unit of focus is the state and system, versus the individual (Waltz).
Unconventional to all of these approaches is the constructivist claim, which essentially argues that cultural norms, beliefs or constructs, have produced scenarios in which balancing occurs in the past, and seek to explain perhaps why or why not balancing may occur in the future (Wendt). This school which is almost sociological in nature, challenges the very theories which realism and even neoliberal institutionalism rest upon, specifically the assumptions of static cultural and political norms. Motives such as security, survival, power and relative or absolute gains are social constructs; even states, war, and the balance of power. In today’s world, constructivists would likely argue that the balance of power paradigm is outdated and that other motives such as cultural preservation and sovereignty take equal if not more precedence among states and individuals. Therefore, the struggle in today’s world can be seen as a pursuit of these ends both by hegemonies and by countries in the periphery.
The aforementioned approaches each tackle the notion of the balance of power in their own right. While there is a clear distinction between them, it appears, they share some similarities too, especially between the neorealist and the neoliberal. However in sum, it would appear almost negligent to reduce the global political paradigm, and the state of the balance of power today, to one particular approach. Instead, I argue that a careful balance, no pun intended, of all the claims could help us to better understand the direction in which international relations, both the reality and the field, is headed.
It seems that the idea of a balance between the static nature of states and individuals and the socially constructed assumptions of the behavior of states and individuals — that is, a combination of the realist, liberal and the constructivist are not mutually exclusive. Alluding to Samuel Huntington, I believe that while states, or civilizations, do share many characteristics such as the need for survival and security – the means by which they are achieved are very different and are often drastically dependent upon the cultural norms of that given state’s society. But while cultural norms shift across different regions, some remain static – and these, I argue, help us to understand the international political reality of today. Within that context, it seems that a balance of power is in fact emerging in response to US hegemony, but that this balance has taken a new form largely due to the emergence of democracy and the dissolution of the USSR. Therefore the claim that a balance of power must emerge as the result of bipolarity, seems insufficient. Two possibilities seem most probable; a more coherent anti-US coalition could form in the international political arena in the case of increasing US war campaigns; or cooperation among these states due to an alleviation of US aggression, both of which reflect a sort of “balancing” that ought to occur.
Huntington, Samuel P. “The clash of civilizations?.” Foreign affairs (1993): 22-49.
John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security 19: 3 (1994).
Keohane, Robert, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, 1984.
Robert Axelrod, “The Emergence of Cooperation Among Egoists,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 75, No. 2. (1981).
Waltz, Kenneth, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, 1959.
Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, 1999.