Changing Times

Alternatives to the Balance of Power as a Basis for International Order

Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson

University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies

MA International Studies and Diplomacy 1998/9

International Relations, Essay 1

November 23, 1998

It was time for a change.

Ending in 1919, World War I had been this century's first total war, a war in which the countries involved mobilized almost all their citizens (Carruthers, 49). When it was all over and the death toll had reached around 15 million people (Nye, 59), there was a wide consensus that such a calamity should not be allowed to happen again. Prevention required an understanding, and Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, thought he understood the situation quite well. The root cause of the war, he claimed, was,

that venerable thing which we used to call the "balance of power"—a thing in which the balance was determined by the sword which was thrown in the one side or the other; a balance which was determined by the unstable equilibrium of competitive interests; a balance which was maintained by jealous watchfulness and an antagonism of interests which, though it was generally latent, was always deep-seated (Craig, 46).

Balance of power had been a prevalent notion during much of world politics since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 established that each state should have exclusive supreme sovereignty over the citizens within its borders (Scholte, 19-21). Balance of power in itself can have many meanings, but in practice, especially between 1815-1914, it refers to an inherent stabilizing mechanism of the states system wherein no one country is allowed to gain a power advantage relative to the other states. When one state would seem to be gaining an unequal amount of power in terms of land, military, or other resources, the other states would naturally, if not consciously, react by halting the expansion, in effect "balancing" the power. Naturally, this in most cases involved violence, which made Wilson's analysis of balance of power as "determined by the sword" seem particularly appropriate.

The effectiveness of Wilson's initial efforts to end wars by attempting to remove the concept of balance of power can be seen in the events merely 20 years later. The second world war exceeded the first in its size and violence. The following years then saw the rise of the United State and the USSR to superpower status, each with its own "sphere of influence," using the threat of aggression in an attempt to prevent what many saw as the possibility of World War III. For all the idealistic rhetoric of the post-WWI climate, the notion of "balance of power" seemed to be firmly entrenched in world politics, to the extent that the realist camp proclaimed that it was inherent to the states system itself.

Alternatives to Balance of Power

But does order in international relations really necessitate the balance of power concept? Is the only alternative to worldwide lawlessness that the modern world abide by a system which guarantees that, to maintain order, at least the threat of violence will be used? Does international order even necessitate the existence of a state, possessing sovereignty over a particular area of the earth and a certain subset of the world population, as a primary player in world politics (Bull, 8)?

Dr. Edward Keene, Lecturer in International Politics at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, illustrated the predominance of the balance of power concept in contemporary world politics by asking the following question: What if there existed a leader who guided his/her state based on purely altruistic motives—an extreme incarnation of Jimmy Carter, for instance? In abandoning traditional balance of power politics and only making policy based upon the welfare of other states, how would that state fare? The implication here is that state would be "eaten alive," as it were; as any good realist would realize, the other states would take advantage of any gestures of goodwill in an attempt to consolidate their power. But are there no possible situations that would allow for altruism in world politics?

In what has become in the United Kingdom a classic study in international relations, Hedley Bull's The Anarchical Society readily admits that there are in fact several alternatives to the balance of power concept, some of them more plausible than others. Some of them rely on the familiar system of states, while others form a different system altogether. While Bull's analysis of each alternative is certainly not the last word on the subject, a few selections from his enumeration is a good place to start the consideration.

A Disarmed World

The balance of power depends on violence or the threat of violence by one or more states in the system to counteract another state's rise in power. This assumes on both sides the presence of weapons. For one state to become any sort of threat by expansion assumes that the state has the ability of aggression. To counteract this expansion, the other state(s) must also be armed. Removing this variable, then, has the consequence of making a balance of power meaningless, because there would be no military power to balance (Bull, 226).

In the real world, as Bull notes, any complete disarmament of the world is not an option. Even if it were somehow possible to destroy all weapons on a worldwide level (which possibility would seem odd, given that individual states cannot even eliminate certain weapons within their own borders), violence would still be possible, if only on a "primitive level" (Bull, 227). Each state would still have the ability to increase its relative threat, if only by growing more trees from which to make clubs.

World Government

Somewhat more realistic is the option of a higher entity to which all the states in the world would be subject. This could either present itself as a loose confederation of states entering into an agreement of cooperation, or the states could be fashioned in a similar manner to the structure of the United States, in which each state has some autonomy but power over the entire system is consolidated in one geographical area. This would immediately solve the "Jimmy Carter" problem, for states could then afford to be altruistic without fear of being taken advantage of, as either the worldwide legal system would prevent misuse or coordinate the altruistic process in the first place. Analogous to farmers in Oklahoma sending hay to feed the Texas cows during the drought of 1998, states would be free from a threat of aggression from other states, allowing them to freely exercise altruistic intentions.

The formation of a world government is a more plausible alternative, since it is evident that such formations have taken place on a smaller scale throughout history. Indeed, governments can be formed in several ways, mostly through conquest or consent. Herein lies a problem: plausibility does not necessarily begat probability, or even desirability. If we are seeking an alternative to the violence present or implied in a balance of power, a world government by conquest is hardly acceptable. On the other hand, the probability of the current system of states voluntarily forming a world-wide government seems as low now as it did to Bull in 1977 (Bull, 253).

A New Mediaevalism

Another alternative to the balance of power is to revert to the worldwide situation that was found immediately before the rise of the current international system of states. In the Middle Ages, the West was organized by multiple layers of authority, each of which shared sovereignty with the others. These layers of sovereignty were overlapping and were not supreme; authority was shared among rulers, the vassals beneath them, and the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor above (Bull, 245).

A secular alternative to such an organization, in which multiple governments share authority over a geographical area, might be possible today. Such a crisscrossing of authority could result in a more stable world system, reducing the inherent trend of violence between powers, since these powers would in many cases share authority (Bull, 246). This alternative is even more plausible than the others, since already it can be seen that governments are becoming interdependent in economics and technology, the United Nations is now a familiar part of world affairs, and Non-Governmental Organizations are increasingly prevalent. For these reasons, Bull admits that to a secular "neo-mediaeval order" being possible (Bull, 255), although he doubts whether it would be inherently more orderly than the current balance of power situation (Bull, 246).

One other similar alternative which Bull seems to immediately dismiss is that of "pairs and groups of states—the pairs and groups which Karl Deutch calls 'pluralistic security-communities'—among which there have been not only long periods of peace, but also long periods in which neither party has seriously expected that disputes would be resolved by resort to force" (Bull, 273). Just as it is unthinkable that the United States would go to war with Canada or (in modern times) Great Britain, other states could conceptually form similar "pluralistic security-communities" in which violence would simply not be an option—it would indeed be unthinkable.

Such configurations are plausible, already existing within the present states system, and should immediately make one question why in these areas armed conflict is not accepted by the parties involved. One would expect great interest in such a system that not only promises an alternative to balance of power politics but has even shown itself to exist in the contemporary states system. Bull however, while granting that the concept of this scenario being extended on a worldwide basis may "offer hope," he quickly qualifies his statement by asserting that "we have no present reason to expect that... such a vision will be realized" (Bull, 274).

Losing Your Mind—Modernization and Psychological Homelessness

About the same time Bull was examining interactions between states, Peter and Brigitte Berger along with Hansfried Kellner were considering the interactions between individuals on a social level. In 1973 they published The Homeless Mind, in which they examine the social life-world of an individual, the "web of meanings that allow an individual to navigate his way through the ordinary events and encounters of his life with others." In particular, they find that each social life world is actually a product of the individuals who "inhabit" it—that is, all interpretation of events in a certain society are brought about by a set of rules and norms that have in turn been created by that society (Berger, 12).

In looking closer at how these social life-worlds are created, and in particular the process of modernization, they noticed several trends. First of all, they realize that technology has changed our lives—something that is evidenced from such items as varied as books (made possible by the invention of the printing press only several hundred years ago) and automobiles (brought about by the creation of steam engines and then internal combustion engines). Not only has modern jet airplanes made inter-continental travel a matter of hours instead of weeks, advances in communication in the 20th century have allowed instantaneous communication between any two points on the globe. Technology is therefore considered a primary carrier of modernization (Berger, 103).

Not only has technology changed our lives, it has moreover changed the way we think. The authors find that recently the carrier of technology has rapidly brought together many diverse societies, connecting previously distinct, self-contained social life-worlds. This plurality of life-worlds is therefore a fundamental result of modernization:

Through most of human history, individuals lived in life-worlds that were more or less unified... [C]ompared with modern societies, most earlier ones evinced a high degree of integration... For the individual this meant quite simply that the same integrative symbols permeated the various sectors of his everyday life. Whether with his family or at work or engaged in political processes or participating in festivity and ceremonial, the individual was always in the same "world." Unless he left his society, he rarely, if ever, would have the feeling that a particular social situation took him out of this common life-world. The typical situation of individuals in modern society is very different (Berger, 64).

As populations grow, societies expand, and technology enhances communication, the individuals in each society are introduced to many ideas that are alien to those shared by the community. Many advances in science also are not in perfect accord with beliefs previously held by the community. The individuals come to understand that their ideas are not necessarily universal ones. Truths that were held to be universally self-evident are now seen to be highly localized. This inevitably gives the individual great doubts about the validity of beliefs formerly unquestioned.

It is at this point that the authors recognize a curious trend in modernization: to counteract the confusing signals resulting from the plurality of life-worlds, individuals have a tendency to alleviate this confusion by creating a distinction between the private and public aspects of their social life-world (Berger, 65). The private sphere life allows the individual to retain his/her previously-held beliefs while interacting with multiple cultures and ideas in the public sphere. While religion was an integral part of the community even in early America, for example, religious beliefs are now generally considered personal notions that one separates from public life, culminating in the legal "separation of church and state." In the process of combating feelings of anxiety brought about by a pluralization of social life worlds, individuals have alienated themselves from society and lost their identity; modernity has resulted in a psychological state of homelessness.

Germs, Steel, and Smoking Guns

To understand how a homeless mind relates to the modern states system, it will be beneficial to gain a perspective on how both of these came about. It is immediately apparent that modernization, the concept of a system of states, and the balance of power are all associated with Euro-Asia, in particular Western Europe. Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, explains the origins of complex societies and technology (and hence, modernity) as essentially a realization of differences in geography in conjunction with a chance disproportionate distribution of domesticable plants and animals. In short, " production [leads] to high population densities, germs, technology, political organization, and other ingredients of power. Peoples who, by accident of their geographical location, inherited or developed food production thereby became able to engulf geographically less endowed people" (Diamond, 386).

While interesting, the validity of Diamond's explanation for the unequal distribution of technology and society need not concern us here. We instead consider the actual historical evolution of societies and technology, something that, while an integral part of Diamond's theory, is nonetheless a distinct element that may be separated from his argument and considered somewhat objective on its own account. As he notes, even as recently as A.D. 1500 less than 20 percent of the world's land area was organized into anything similar to the modern state, with marked boundaries and set laws, while today the only land that is not divided is found in Antarctica. By "comparing modern societies at different levels of organization, by examining written accounts or archaeological evidence about past societies, and by observing how a society's institutions change over time," Diamond is able to group historical societies into four basic groups: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state (Diamond, 266-267).

The earliest grouping of society was into bands, consisting of 5-80 people, most of them relatives. They had no permanent single base of residence, the land was held in common by the entire group, and there was no distinction in society besides that of age and sex: all able-bodied members searched for food. There were no laws, no social stratification, and no treaties between bands. Although probably all humans lived in bands until at least 40,000 years ago, and most still even 20,000 years ago, in modern times bands may be found living autonomously in only a few remote areas in such places as New Guinea (Diamond, 267-269).

Bands were somewhat larger, usually having hundreds of members, and had a specific area of land that served as a fixed settlement. Typified by those still occupying much of New Guinea, bands consist of more than one formally recognized kinship group (clans) which exchange marriage partners. Bands, like tribes, have no bureaucracy, police force, or taxes, and still have an "egalitarian" system of government, with decision-making shared by all in the community. Since society is small enough that everyone is known by name, disputes can be settled by the families involved (Diamond, 270-272).

Chiefdoms were larger still than tribes and bands, numbering in the thousands, making it no longer possible for all members of the society to know each other personally. Diamond here makes an important observation: "With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them" (Diamond, 273). While this may seem somewhat pessimistic, it does illustrate the need for the societal institutions that were created by chiefdoms.

A chiefdom had a chief that held a recognized office and had a monopoly on the right to use force. The chief could be recognized by distinguishing apparel. The large population required large amounts of food, resulting in a particular subset of the society being delegated as food gatherers. There was therefore social distinctions, with chiefs, servants, craftspeople, and food-gatherers each apportioned a specific task in the society (Diamond, 273-276).

What we would consider modern states developed between 1,000 and several thousand years ago, appearing a different times in different parts of the world. Even in modern times states have been seen to form out of chiefdoms (Diamond, 278). Although Diamond does not make the distinction, the earlier states were independent—they could not really be said to be part of a system of states. Each state had limited contact with other states because of limitations in travel and communication, part of the technology carrier of modernity. The modern system of states is usually accepted to have begun with the Westphalian settlement of 1648, which legitimized a commonwealth of sovereign states (Watson, 186), while the concept of balance in the international system originated around the same time (Bull, 101).

We see then throughout history a steady process of society forming different structures with which to govern interaction. Whenever societies would reach a size in which they were forced to interact with other societies, they would form "metasocieties," as it were, effectively making the new institution their basis for identity. The states system, having evolved only a few hundred years ago, is an extremely young institution when compared with the tens of thousands of years over which societies has been evolving. Can we realistically claim after such a short period of time that the balance of power is the only solution to global order?

The State and Society

While Diamond sees population density, in conjunction with the problem of food production, essential elements in the evolution of societies into their current "states," as it were, analyzing state and state system formation solely as a result of the tendency to consolidate power is inadequate. It is evident that these bureaucratic structures arose out of a certain need, such as food production for the entire society. These structures were therefore constructed out of the societies themselves to solve particular societal problems.

In fact, if one looks at the overall history of the formation of the modern sovereign state in conjunction with the technology carrier of modernity presented by Berger, Berger, and Kellner, it is immediately evident that the modern state system was formed at a time when several important events were occurring. First of all, populations had grown to such an extent that virtually the entire world was known to some societies, culminating in the first voyage around the world in 1522 (Magellan Group). Technology had led to advancements in communication, especially with the invention of the printing press in the previous century.

Reminiscent of Berger, Berger, and Kellner, Bull notes that, "awareness of other societies... reveals conflicts of interest or ideology that do exist" (Bull, 270). Brzezinski is further in agreement:

The paradox of our time is that humanity is becoming simultaneously more unified and more fragmented... Humanity is becoming more integral and intimate even as the differences in the conditions of separate societies are widening. Under these circumstances proximity, instead of promoting unity, gives rise to tensions prompted by a new sense of global congestion (Bull, 263).

If this modernization, through advances in technology and communication, along with an increasing interaction between various societies, results in a pluralization of social life-worlds and consequently a dichotomy of public and private life, the entire states system can be seen as a socially-constructed response to modernity on a global scale, resulting in a dichotomy between the domestic and the international.

Indeed, "Sovereignty... is an inherently social concept. States' claims to sovereignty construct a social environment in which they can interact as an international society of states, while at the same time the mutual recognition of claims to sovereignty is an important element in the construction of states themselves" (Biersteker, 2). As Wendt explains, "Sovereignty is about the social terms of individuality, not individuality per se, and in that sense it is an historical contingent social identity rather than an inherent quality of stateness... The quality of being sovereign, then, presupposes an institutional framework in which it is recognized by others," recognizing that, "it would be meaningless to say that Robinson Crusoe had sovereignty over his island" (Wendt, 247).

The Future of Society

Does the recognition that the contemporary states system is a social product created from a lost sense of individuality brought about by an awareness of other cultures through advances in communication provide any hope of alternatives to the seemingly inherent rule of "balance of power?" It is possible. Wendt, according to Ringmar, believes that "if social interaction determines both what we are and what we want to do, then new forms of interactions may create new forms of states with interests that are less likely to be in conflict with each other" (Ringmar, 281). Cox recognizes that,

The old Westphalian concept of a system of sovereign states is no longer an adequate way of conceptualizing world politics. Sovereignty is an even looser concept. The old definitions conjuring up visions of ultimate and fully autonomous power are no longer meaningful (Cox, 52).

Reminiscent of Bull's alternative of a "neo-mediaeval order," Cox sees the current emerging world order as a multilevel structure:

The old state system is resolving itself into a complex of political economic entities... World cities are the keyboards of the global economy. Rival transnational processes of ideological formation aim respectively at hegemony and counterhegemony. Institutions of concertation and co-ordinatation bridge the major states and macro-regions. Multilateral processes exist for conflict management, safekeeping, and regulation and service-providing in a variety of functional areas.... The whole picture resembles the multilevel order of medieval Europe more than the Westphalian model of sovereign independent states that has heretofore been the paradigm of international relations (Cox, 53).

If we therefore look at relations between states not just as struggles for power but as socially constructed ways of interaction, this gives us more insight into the existence of the so-called "pluralistic security-community communities" which Bull so readily dismisses. Wendt contends that "states under anarchical conditions have no reason to be hostile to each other or to feel threatened. Hostility and threats are instead the results of how states interpret each other's signals and how they respond to them" (Ringmar, 278). Wendt illustrates this clearly:

In a conflictual system, power and interest matter, but what makes a system conflictual is an underlying structure of common knowledge. The threat posed to the United States by 500 British nuclear weapons, for example, is less than that posed by five North Korean weapons, because the British are friends and the North Koreans are not, and amity and enmity are social, not material, relations. In that sense, it is "ideas all the way down" (Wendt, 243).

These communities of states where military conflict has become unthinkable are then products of society itself, based upon a shared identity. Identity, the core element of modernization consciousness, is being redefined on a global scale. While cross-cultural interaction at first does produce a "psychological homelessness," it is possible that increased and prolonged contact will eventually alleviate this by creating common cultures and new identities. Even Bull recognizes the formation of a common culture in world international society, at least among the elite, sharing "common languages... a common scientific understanding of the world, certain common notions and techniques that derive from the universal espousal of governments in the modern world of economic development and their universal involvement in technology" (Bull, 305).

Since the balance of power paradigm is socially constructed, it follows that the current relationship between states can be altered by social change, and this may be happening. It is a paradox that, while our contact with each other created a psychological feeling of individuality, that same contact may eventually increase our feelings of identity through the course of societal evolution. While technology at first increased our feelings of alienation, technology may in the end bring us closer together.

The bounds of the earth have been reached—there are currently no other societies to cause us to feel further alienated. A recognition that we are all part of a global society, and with that recognition the demise of the balance of power system, may not happen overnight, but there are many signs that we are headed in that direction. In time, the change that Wilson hoped for may be eventually be brought about by change itself.

Works Cited