The balance of power in international politics

balance of power’ in international politics dominated Europe for over five hundred years. The core of the concept of the balance of power is anti-hegemonic. It suggests peace and stability are best achieved if no single nation dominates a region or the world. It also presumes that states are rational actors, and can and will band together in their own interests as a counterweight to any nation or empire dominating its neighbors.

The influence of balance of power theory seems most clearly illustrated in the War of Spanish Succession, which ended in several treaties concluded at Utrecht in the Netherlands between 1713 and 1714. The war began when the king of Spain, Charles II, was childless and dying. Louis XIV of France and the Austrian emperor Leopold I had equal claims upon the throne, as both had a Spanish Hapsburg princess as a mother and a Spanish Hapsburg princess as a wife. Charles left the territories to Philip, the second grandson of Louis XIV. The Austrians declared war, and all of Europe mobilized to prevent the consolidation of power under a single French monarch. At the end of the war, Phillip renounced his claim on the French crown and became only Phillip II of Spain (“Peace of Utrecht,” Encarta, 2008). The nations involved in the war divided the other territories in question reasonably evenly, to prevent a single nation or family dynasty from dominating Europe. French-English tensions, as a result of the Utrecht treaties, eased temporarily. Because power and land was proportioned out to nations historically in conflict, and because of the relative stability that was created afterwards, this was seen as justifying the balance of power theory.

However, peace was not permanent. The so-called Seven Years War, also called one of the first ‘total wars,’ eventually spiraled into a war to determine colonial dominion in the Americas and India. It pitted Prussia, Great Britain, and Hannover on one side and Austria, Saxony, France, Russia, Sweden, and Spain on the other. The Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763, however its apportioning of territories was not as equitable as the Peace of Utrecht. By strengthening the Hanoverian Dynasty and Prussia, it did counterweight some of the influence of Spain and France abroad. Britain was one of the great winners of this peace, for the Treaty of Paris effectively secured the dominion of Great Britain over most of North America and England. The Seven Years War was also revolved by the Treaty of Hubertusburg which gave Prussia possession of Silesia, and established Prussia as a leading power in Europe and a particularly notable counterweight in Europe to nearby France (“Seven Years’ War,” Encarta, 2008).

But once again, this balance of power did not last for long, and France began to reassert itself with the ascent of Napoleon. The Congress of Vienna took place after the Napoleonic expansion of Europe, and attempted to reinstate some sort of homeostasis to Europe, after Napoleon’s sweeping attempt to dominate of the Europe, Russia, and Africa. France was stripped of all of the territory conquered by Napoleon. Also, the powers of Europe were consolidated: the Dutch Republic was united with the Austrian Netherlands to form a single kingdom, Norway and Sweden were joined, and Swiss neutrality was guaranteed. “In addition, Russia received the major part of the former duchy of Warsaw as the kingdom of Poland, with Alexander I as king; Prussia received West Prussia” (“Congress of Vienna,” Encarta, 2008). The most significant development of the Congress was not simply the re-balancing of power but the new influence of larger nation-states or empires


To some extent, Paul Kennedy’s contention that the stronger economy in a war will invariably emerge the victor in the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy if one only reviews the economic outcome of major wars. After all, by the end of a war, a likely victor will seem less economically depleted than the likely loser. But it is true that if a nation cannot feed its troops, mutiny or desertion is possible, and if it cannot feed the populace, the people will no longer support the government after a certain point, and merely focus on struggling to survive. A war effort reveals economic weaknesses in the nation’s infrastructure, and an economy is not defined simply monetary wealth but also its wealth of national resources, technology, and the intelligence of its populace so that the nation can develop new technology and engage in effective military strategy.

Ultimately, that a stronger economy leads to strength in victory seems to be confirmed by America’s dominance in World War I and World War II. America, partially because it entered World War I fairly late, had military might and fresh manpower to influence the final outcome, as well as substantial territory and popular will, bolstered by a relatively strong economy. Germany in particular had depleted its financial capital to wage war, and Russia, after the ascent of the communists had to pull out. Indeed, the latter action was perhaps inevitable given that Russia was unable to feed its populace and wage war. Superior technology also enabled the winners to dominate — as World War I was the first war to deploy artillery fire, aircraft, and submarine warfare on a mass scale, thus economic solvency to develop new technology became more important.

In World War II, America effectively rebuilt Europe at the end of the conflict, a testimony to its economic strength at the end of the war. Although the Great Depression had weakened the American economy, relatively speaking it was more prosperous than Germany and Japan, and had more natural resources. Most importantly of all in ending the war, it had superior technology in the form of the atomic bomb — America’s strength as a technological power enabled it to emerge victorious, with fewer causalities. Ironically, Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies drove some of Germany’s most capable sciences from the nation, some of whom transferred their intellectual capital to the United States. America had the economic capital to develop such new technology, and support technological development as well as to sustain its people, while by the end of the war, the people of Germany and particularly Japan were starving, and beset by America’s superior technological military force.

Works Cited

Congress of Vienna.” M. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2008

March 7, 2009.

Peace of Utrecht.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2008

Seven Years’ War.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2008

March 7, 2009.

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