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The Balance of Power: Prescription, Concept, or Propaganda?

  • Ernst B. Haas (a1)


“The Soviet Union is now engaged in an audacious attempt JL to upset the established balance of power prevailing in Europe.” This statement was used by C. L. Sulzberger, writing in the New York Times for March 23, 1952, to open a discussion of the Soviet offer to establish a unified and neutral Germany. It symbolizes the startling renaissance of the balance of power concept in recent years not only in the pages of learned journals, but in the daily press and in radio as well. This rebirth is probably attributable to the effort to reconsider the notions concerning international relations generally held during the League of Nations period, notions which emphasized open diplomacy, collective security, and the use of arbitration instead of unilateral force. The apparent futility of these methods seemed to call for the reintroduction of more meaningful concepts into the analysis of international affairs, and the balance of power thus reappeared as part of the general trend to re-establish the primacy of power as the key to the understanding of interstate relations. There would be no difficulty in this development if the term “balance of power” were free from philological, semantic, and theoretical confusion. Unfortunately, it is not. The term is defined differently by different writers; it is used in varying senses, even if not defined exactly at all; and, finally, it is the focal concept in several quite distinct theories of international relations. The purpose of this article is the clarification, not only of the verbal differences in meaning, but also of the applied meanings of the “balance of power” phrase as they vary in accordance with the intentions of the users. The necessity for such an attempt may be demonstrated by an introductory discussion of the variety of thought on this topic, in terms of substantive meanings no less than in terms of systems of classification.



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1 Stubbs, W., Seventeen Lectures on the Study of Medieval and Modern History, Oxford, 1886, p. 225.

2 Cobden, R., Political Writings, London, 1878, pp. 111–14.

3 Gulick, E. V., The Balance of Power, Philadelphia, 1943, pp. 1415; Pollard, A. F., “The Balance of Power,” Journal of the British Institute on International Affairs, II (1923), pp. 6off.

4 Stern, A., “Das politische Gleichgewicht,” Archiv für Politik und Geschichte, IV (1923), pp. 4849.

5 Bucher, L., “Über politische Kunstausdrücke. II. Politisches Gleichgewicht,” Deutsche Revue, XII (1887), pp. 333–39.

6 Kaeber, E., Die Idee des Europäischen Gleichgewichts in der publizistischen Literatur vom 16. bis zur Mitte des 18. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 1906, pp. 2225, 31–33, 33–35 see also Nys, E., “La théorie de l'équilibre européen,” Revue de droit international et de législation comparée, xxv (1893), pp. 4954.

7 Morgenthau, H. J., Politics Among Nations, New York, 1948, pp. 125, 134–45.

8 Wright, Q., A Study of War, Chicago, 1942, II, pp. 743–66.

9 It is of some significance that the terminological confusion is not confined to West ern writing. Raymond L. Garthoff has shown that even though the Russian political vocabulary has separate expressions for most of the usages cited, in practice loose application creates exactly the same difficulty as in English so far as classification and analysis are concerned. Garthoff concludes that, from an examination of 250 citations using some form of balance of power expression, this summary can be made: 136 in stances of balance meaning general “relation of forces,” especially in the class struggle; 87 instances meaning a “general distribution” of power; 17 instances of balance mean ing “equilibrium” and 10 instances of balance meaning “preponderance” or hegemony. In discussions of international relations, the Soviet use of the term “balance of power” generally connotes an equilibrium of forces between the “imperialist” and “socialist” worlds, and is therefore associated with short-term policies of peaceful coexistence. “The Concept of the Balance of Power in Soviet Policy-Making,” World Politics, Iv (October 1951), pp. 88–90, 102–3, 108–9.

10 Bolingbroke, , Works, Philadelphia, 1841, II, p. 257.

11 U.P. despatch in Los Angeles Times, September 1940, cited in Vagts, Alfred, “The Balance of Power: Growth of an Idea,” World Politics, I (October 1948), p. 86.

12 Curban, Real de, La science du gouvernement, Paris, 1764, VI, pp. 443ff.

13 Henri de Rohan, De l'intérest des princes et estats de la Chréstienti; Duplessis-Mornay, Sur les moyens de diminuer I'Espagnol; both cited in Stieglitz, A. de, De l'équilibre politique, du légitimisme et du principe des nationalités, Paris, 18931897, I, pp. 21ff. This work contains brief analyses of all the major pamphlets and treatises on the balance of power before 1800, and an analysis of the opinions of most writers on international law since Grotius.

14 K. Frantz, Untersuchungen über das Europäische Gleichgewicht, cited in Jacob, K., “Die Chimare des Gleichgewichts,” Archiv für Urkundenforschung, VI (1918), pp. 359–60.

15 Pollard, , op. cit., p. 59 (italics in original).

16 Lasswell, H. D., World Politics and Personal Insecurity, New York, 1935, ch. III.

17 Hauterive, De l'état de la France à la fin de I'an VIII, cited in Stern, , op. cit., p. 32.

18 Donnadieu, L., Essai sur la théorie d'équilibre, Paris, 1900, p. 111.

19 Spykman, N., America's Strategy in World Politics, New York, 1942, pp. 2125.

20 Leckie, F. G., An Historical Research into the Nature of the Balance of Power in Europe, London, 1817, pp. 4, 242ff., 292, 303, 350ff.

21 Höijer, O., La théorie de I'équilibre et le droit des gens, Paris, 1917, pp. 5259.

22 Pradt, D. de, Du Congrès de Vienne, Paris, 1815, 1, pp. 6769, 75, 84ff., 95, 104.

23 Stern, , op. cit., pp. 3134.

24 Bucher, , op. cit., pp. 336, 338.

25 Bolingbroke, , op. cit., pp. 249, 258, 266, 291; Fox, W. T. R., The Super Powers, New York, 1944, pp. 161ff.

26 Moore, J. B., International Law and Some Current Illusions, New York, 1924, p. 310.

27 Morgenthau, op. cit., passim; also Schuman, F. L., International Politics, New York, 1941, pp. 281ff.

28 J. J. Rousseau, Extrait du projet de paix perpetuelle de M. I'abbé de Saint-Pierre, cited in Donnadieu, , op. cit., pp. 910.

29 Ratzel, F., Politische Geographie, Munich, 1903, cited in Kaeber, , op. cit., p. 4.

30 Donnadieu, , op. cit., p. xx. See also the description of Sir Eyre Crowe in the famous State Paper of 1907, in which the “universal law” approach predominates.

31 Sorel, A., L'Europe et la Revolution française, Paris, 1908, I, pp. 1990, 30–35.

32 Fay, S. B., Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, article on the balance of power, I, pp. 395–99.

33 Gooch, G. P.. “European Diplomacy Before the War in the Light of the Archives,” International Affairs, XVIII (1939), p. 78.

34 Fay, , op. cit., p. 396. Stieglitz is to be counted among those in agreement with the guide-and-system theory.

35 Hume, D., “On the Balance of Power,” Essays Moral, Political and Literary, London, 1889, I, pp. 352–53.

36 For a study of the relationship between balance of trade and balance ofpower theories, cf. Pribram, K., “Die Idee des Gleichgewichts in der älteren nationalöonomischen Theorie,” Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft, Sozialpolitik und Verxualtung, XVII (1908), pp. 128; see also Gilbert, Felix, “The ‘New Diplomacy’ of the Eighteenth Century,” World Politics, IV (October 1951), pp. 138.

37 Dupuis, C., Le principe d'équilibre et le concert européen, Paris, 1909, pp. 104–5.

38 The text of the speech and of the treaty are cited in Nys, op.cit, pp. 47–49.

39 ibid., pp. 55–56.

40 Vattel, E. de, Le droit des gens ou principes de la loi naturelle, III, pt. 3, pars. 28, 33, 48, 43. 44, 47, 48, 49, 50; Sir Phillimore, R., Commentaries upon International Law, London, 1871, I, pp. 468511. Examples of this usage are found most commonly in the writings of statesmen. They will be cited below.

41 For examples, see Kaeber, , op. cit., pp. 4447.

42 Anon, , Considerations on the Relative State of Great Britain in 1813, London, 1813, pp. 8–4.

43 Cited in Stieglitz, , op. cit., I, p. 51. See also the facile use of the doctrine made by Bonald in (1) justifying Napoleonic expansion and (2) asking for a lenient peace in 1815 (Moulinié, , De Bonald, Paris, 1915, pp. 390–97).

44 Schmidt, F. J., in Preussische Jahrbücher, CLVIII (1914), pp. 115; also Oncken, H., Das alte und das neue Mitteleuropa, Gotha, 1917, passim.

45 Meinecke, F., Probleme des Weltkriegs, Munich, 1917, p. 134. In his important Die Idee der Staatsrason in der neueren Geschichte, in which he claims to be analyzing the doctrine and philosophical meaning of the raison d'état idea completely dispassionately, the same argument shows up rather prominently in the last chapter, dressed up in terms of historical necessity.

46 Jacob, , op. cit., pp. 349, 351, 354–55.

47 My conception of propaganda may be expressed in Leonard W. Doob's definition: “Intentional propaganda is a systematic attempt by an interested individual (or individuals) to control the attitudes of groups of individuals through the use of suggestion and, consequently, to control their actions” (Propaganda, New York, 1935, p. 89). It is clear that this postulation does not assume that the propagandist himself accepts the material or shares the attitudes he attempts to disseminate. I cannot accept the definition of propaganda offered by Doob, in Public Opinion and Propaganda (New York, 1948, p. 240), since it seems almost indistinguishable from the more general concept of ideology.

48 For a masterful analysis of this aspect of the balance of power, see Vagts, , op. cit., pp. 8889, 100ff. I have explored the ideological significance of the concept with respect to European diplomacy in the 1830's in my doctoral dissertation, Belgium and the Balance Power, Columbia University Library.

49 von Justi, J. H. G., Die Chimäre des Gleichgewichts von Europa, Altona, 1758, p. 60.

50 Ibid., p. 65. Albert Sorel's estimate of the invocation of balancing terminology by statesmen is a similar one. Since he denies that balancing policies are deliberately chosen by diplomats and since he urges that only the search for unilateral hegemony motivates policy, he argues in fact that the use of the term by statesmen implies a disguised hankering for superiority and no more (op. cit., p. 34).

51 Curban, Real de, op. cit., vi, p. 442.

52 See, e.g., H. N. Brailsford and G. Lowes Dickinson, as quoted in Schwarzen-berger, Georg, Power Politics, London, 1940, p. 123, and also the author's own comments, which also tend to equate power politics with power balance.

53 Spykman, , op. cit., pp. 121, 103–4.

54 The extreme example of this body of thought is represented by Wolff with his concept of the civitas maxima and the role of the balance of power in preventing its destruction (Ius Gentium Methoda Scientifica Pertractantum, pars. 642–43, 646, 651, Classics of International Law, no. 13, 1934). Also Pufendorf, Ius Naturae et Gentium. Book VIII, ch. 6, ibid., no. 17, 1934.

55 Metternich, , Aus Metternichs Nachgelassenen Papieren, Vienna, 1882, 1, pp. 32ft., a section entitled, “Maxims on Which the Actions of My Political Career Have Been Based.”.

56 Haake, Paul, J. P. F. Ancillon and Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm IV. von Preussen, Munich, 1920, p. 40. Of Ancillon's own works, see his Ueber den Geist der Staatsverfas- sungen und dessen Einfluss auf die Gesetzgebung, Berlin, 1825, pp. 16–19, 313–14, 317–31, and Tableau des revolutions du système de I'Europe, Paris, 1806, IV, pp. 5–19.

57 Sir Webster, Charles, British Diplomacy, 1813–1815;, London, 1921, pp. 62, 218; and Castlereagh's memorandum of October 30, 1814, for Alexander I, cited in Angeberg, , Les traités de Vienne, Paris, 1864, pp. 399401.

58 Gentz, , Fragmente aus der neutsten Geschichte des politischen Gleichgewichts in Europa, St. Petersburg, 1806, pp. 18.

59 Ibid., pp. 10–14.

60 Ibid., ch. II.

61 Ibid., ch. Iv.

62 Brougham, , Works, London, 1872, VIII, pp. 412.

63 Ibid., pp. 12–13, 33–38.

64 Ibid., pp. 70–71, 77, 79–80, 80–83.

65 Ibid., pp. 91–93, 100–2.

66 This difficulty may be demonstrated by the perhaps unconscious ease with which some modern writers present a balance of power picture as description and then readily switch to a prescriptive continuation of their discussion, despite the semantic and logical problems implied in this procedure.

67 I am indebted for this suggestion to Professor Oliver J. Lissitzyn.

The Balance of Power: Prescription, Concept, or Propaganda?

  • Ernst B. Haas (a1)


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