Balance of Power

Balance of Power
   A term with several meanings, most widely associated with the principle whereby military and political power is so distributed among nations that no one state wields overwhelming power with which to dominant the others. A state of equilibrium can be produced by ensuring that any threat of predominance by a single country or alliance is counterbalanced by the existence or creation of a group of nations of approximately equal power. In the case of the Great Powers of Europe up to 1914, the concept was generally applied across the Continent, although a balance could be - and continues to be - applied to a region. Statesmen and rulers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were acutely aware that any nation that sought to overthrow the existing political balance constituted a menace to peace and stability, although the growing power of one’s neighbor need not necessarily portend imminent conflict. Nevertheless, coalitions were frequently formed - usually after fighting began - precisely to redress the imbalance created by the overweening power of a nation seeking to revise the political situation in Europe. The cases of Louis XIV and Napoleon serve as prime examples of this, as do Imperial and Nazi Germany in the twentieth century. Moral issues seldom arose; when mutual advantage demanded it, Christian states cooperated with Muslim Turkey, Protestant states aligned themselves with Catholic ones, and democracies worked with autocracies. The maintenance of the balance of power generally aids in the preservation of sovereignty and the avoidance of conflict, but its principal purpose is not the maintenance of peace, but rather the survival of the strongest powers, often at the expense of weaker ones. Those favoring equilibrium of this kind do so through a conservative instinct for the political and military status quo, with the preservation of international order the primary function over considerations of justice, civil rights, or national self-determination. Hence, those who in 1815 convened at the Congress of Vienna and parceled out German, Polish, and Italian territory to the contending Great Powers did so with little or no interest in satisfying the nationalist aspirations of the various ethnic peoples of Europe. Borders shifted on the basis of political and strategic expediency; language and culture seldom influenced decisions of statecraft until the mid-nineteenth century.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Gullick, Edward. Europe’s Classical Balance of Power: A Case History of the Theory and Practice of One of the Great Concepts of European Statecraft . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1955;
    Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 . London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1957;
    Schroeder, Paul W. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 . Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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