Who’s Afraid of a Balance of Power?

The United States is ignoring the most basic principle of international relations, to its own detriment.

U.S. President Donald Trump with other world leaders on the first day of the G-20 economic summit on July 7 in Hamburg, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump with other world leaders on the first day of the G-20 economic summit on July 7 in Hamburg, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

If you took an introduction to international relations course in college and the instructor never mentioned the “balance of power,” please contact your alma mater for a refund. You can find this idea in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and the ancient Indian writer Kautilya’s Arthashastra (“Science of Politics”), and it is central to the work of modern realists like E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Robert Gilpin, and Kenneth Waltz.

Yet despite its long and distinguished history, this simple idea is often forgotten by America’s foreign-policy elites. Instead of asking why Russia and China are collaborating, or pondering what has brought Iran together with its various Middle East partners, they assume it is the result of shared authoritarianism, reflexive anti-Americanism, or some other form of ideological solidarity. This act of collective amnesia encourages U.S. leaders to act in ways that unwittingly push foes closer together, and to miss promising opportunities to drive them apart.

The basic logic behind balance of power theory (or, if you prefer, balance of threat theory) is straightforward. Because there is no “world government” to protect states from each other, each has to rely on its own resources and strategies to avoid being conquered, coerced, or otherwise endangered. When facing a powerful or threatening state, a worried country can mobilize more of its own resources or seek an alliance with other states that face the same danger, in order to shift the balance more in its favor.

In extreme cases, forming a balancing coalition might require a state to fight alongside another country it previously regarded as an enemy or even one it understood would be a rival in the future. Thus, the United States and Great Britain allied with the Soviet Union during World War II, because defeating Nazi Germany took precedence over their long-term concerns about communism. Winston Churchill captured this logic perfectly when he quipped “if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed a similar sentiment when he said he “would hold hands with the devil” if it would help beat the Third Reich. When you really need allies, you can’t be too choosy.

Needless to say, “balance of power” logic played an important role in U.S. foreign policy, and especially when security concerns were unmistakable. America’s Cold War alliances (i.e., NATO and the hub-and-spoke system of bilateral alliances in Asia) were formed to balance and contain the Soviet Union, and the same motive led the United States to back an array of authoritarian regimes in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Similarly, Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 was inspired by fears of rising Soviet power and the recognition that closer ties with Beijing would put Moscow at a disadvantage.

Yet despite its long pedigree and enduring relevance, policymakers and pundits often fail to recognize how balance of power logic drives the behavior of both allies and adversaries. Part of the problem stems from the common U.S. tendency to assume that a state’s foreign policy is mostly shaped by its internal characteristics (i.e., its leaders’ personalities, its political and economic system, or its ruling ideology, etc.) rather than by its external circumstances (i.e., the array of threats it faces).

From this perspective, America’s “natural” allies are states that share our values. When people speak of the United States as “leader of the free world,” or when they describe NATO as a “transatlantic community” of liberal democracies, they are suggesting that these countries are supporting each other because they share a common vision for how the world should be ordered.

Shared political values are not irrelevant, of course, and some empirical studies suggesting democratic alliances are somewhat more stable than alliances between autocracies or between democracies and nondemocracies. Nonetheless, assuming that a state’s internal composition determines its identification of friends and enemies can lead us astray in several ways.

First, if we believe shared values are a powerful unifying force, we are likely to overstate the cohesion and durability of some of our existing alliances. NATO is an obvious case in point: The breakup of the Soviet Union removed its principal rationale, and herculean efforts to give the alliance a new set of missions have not prevented repeated and growing signs of strain. Matters might be different if NATO’s campaigns in Afghanistan or Libya had gone well — but they didn’t.

To be sure, the Ukraine crisis arrested NATO’s slow decline temporarily, but this modest reversal merely underscores the central role external threats (i.e., fear of Russia) play in holding NATO together. “Shared values” are simply insufficient to sustain a meaningful coalition of nearly 30 nations located on both sides of the Atlantic, and all the more so as Turkey, Hungary, and Poland abandon the liberal values on which NATO supposedly rests.

Second, if you forget about balance of power politics, you’re likely to be surprised when other states (or in some cases, nonstate actors) join forces against you. The George W. Bush administration was taken aback when France, Germany, and Russia joined forces to block its efforts to get Security Council approval for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a step these states took because they understood that toppling Saddam Hussein might backfire in ways that would threaten them (as it eventually did). Yet U.S. leaders couldn’t grasp why these states weren’t leaping at the opportunity to remove Saddam and transform the region along democratic lines. As Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice later admitted, “I’ll just put it very bluntly. We simply didn’t understand it.”

U.S. officials were equally surprised when Iran and Syria joined forces to help the Iraqi insurgency following the U.S. invasion, even though it made perfect sense for them to make sure the Bush administration’s effort at “regional transformation” failed. Iran and Syria would have been next on Bush’s hit list if the occupation had succeeded, and they were just acting as any threatened state would (and as balance of power theory predicts). Americans have no reason to welcome such behavior, of course, but they should not have been surprised by it.

Third, focusing on political or ideological affinities and ignoring the role of shared threats encourages us to see adversaries as more unified than they really are. Instead of recognizing that opponents are cooperating with each other largely for instrumental or tactical reasons, U.S. officials and commentators are quick to assume that enemies are bound together by a deep commitment to a set of common goals. In an earlier era, Americans saw the communist world as a tightly unified monolith and mistakenly believed all communists everywhere were reliable agents of the Kremlin. Not only did this error lead them to miss (or deny) the rancorous Sino-Soviet split, but U.S. leaders also mistakenly assumed that non-communist leftists were likely to be sympathetic to Moscow as well. Soviet leaders made the same error in reverse, by the way, only to be disappointed when their efforts to court non-communist Third World socialists frequently backfired.

This misguided instinct lives on today, alas, in phrases like the “axis of evil” (which implied Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were part of the same unified movement), or in misleading terms like “Islamofascism.” Instead of seeing extremist movements as competing organizations with a variety of worldviews and objectives, U.S. officials and pundits routinely speak and act as if our foes were all operating from an identical playbook. Far from being powerfully united by a common doctrine, these groups often suffer from deep ideological schisms and personal rivalries, and they join forces more from necessity than conviction. They can still cause trouble, of course, but assuming all terrorists are loyal foot soldiers in a single global movement makes them look scarier than they really are.

Even worse, instead of looking for ways to encourage splits and schisms among extremists, the United States often acts and speaks in ways that drive them closer together. To take an obvious example, although there may be some modest ideological common ground between Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and the Sadr movement in Iraq, each of these groups has its own interests and agendas, and their collaboration is best understood as a strategic alliance rather than as a cohesive or unified ideological front. Launching a full-court press against them — as Saudi Arabia and Israel would like us to do — will merely give all of our adversaries even more reason to help each other.

Lastly, ignoring balance of power dynamics squanders one of America’s chief geopolitical advantages. As the only great power in the Western hemisphere, the United States has enormous latitude when choosing allies and thus enormous potential leverage over them. Given the “free security” that America’s geographic isolation provides, it can play hard-to-get, take advantage of regional rivalries when they occur, encourage states and nonstate actors in distant regions to compete for our regard and support, and remain watchful for opportunities to drive wedges between our current adversaries. This approach requires flexibility, a sophisticated understanding of regional affairs, an aversion to “special relationships” with other states, and a refusal to demonize countries with which we have differences.

Unfortunately, the United States has done the exact opposite for the past few decades, especially in the Middle East. Instead of exhibiting flexibility, we’ve rigidly stuck to the same partners and worried more about reassuring them than about getting them to act as we think best. We’ve deepened our “special relationships” with Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia even as the justification for such intimate support has grown weaker. And with occasional exceptions, we’ve treated adversaries like Iran or North Korea as pariahs to threaten and sanction but not to talk with. The results, alas, speak for themselves.

Notice to readers: I will be taking a short hiatus from my duties here at Foreign Policyin order to finish a book. I’ll resume my column in February 2018, unless world events drag me back into the fray. Please do your best to keep things quiet until then. Best wishes to all for a joyful holiday season and a peaceful and prosperous 2018.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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