An idea which in a historical sense refers to a distribution of power between states so that no single state or alliance has an overwhelming or preponderant amount of power.

Is it that easy to define?

There has been much historical debate as to what the term means in practice. We need to begin by considering power as the capacity of an individual or an organisation to achieve its objectives. It may take many forms: political, economic and military. In a basic historical definition the balance of power is linked to the nation-state.

A problem is that the balance of power can often actually just mean the distribution of power at a given time. For example as enshrined in the Treaty of Vienna in 1815. This is slightly different to there actually being a genuine balance. But what it does indicate is that the balance of power is a shifting phenomenon. This is quite clear post cold war with the USA left as the only world superpower whilst other powers such as the EU and the United Nations attempt to create a more stable international system.

There have been many ways outlined to classify the balance of power. Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff (1990) see four key tenets:

  • Nation-states are the key actors in an international system composed of independent sovereign states.
  • Domestic and foreign policy are clearly separated areas of national policy
  • International politics is a struggle for power in an anarchic international environment
  • States have different capabilities to achieve goals and defend interests

A few 19th definitions of the Balance of Power
Fenelon in 1835 defined it as: “action by the state to keep its neighbours from becoming too strong… because the aggrandisement of one nation beyond a certain limit changes the general system of all the other neighbours… attention to the maintenance of a kind of equality and equilibrium between neighbouring states.”
In 1886 Stubbs stated: “The Balance of Power, however it be defined, that is, whatever the powers were between which it was necessary to maintain such equilibrium, that the weaker should not be crushed by the union of the stronger, is the principle which gives unity to the political plot of modern European history.”
So where does this get us?

What one can see from this is the significance of the idea of a balance of power for international politics. Further one can also see the possible problems that can occur when an attempt is made to challenge that balance, for example World War I or World War II. One also needs to bear in mind the problems that can be caused by an artificial balance of power such as that prior to World War 2. A balance does not mean no change at all, rather it reflects an ordered change which is consented to by the major and lesser powers at a particular time. But in reality in often means lesser powers accepting the decisions made by greater powers, for example the Munich Agreement which saw Adolf Hitler and Germany being given Czechoslovakia. It is often just a means of expressing power politics.

Balance of Power
Red Dwarf - Series 1 - Episode 3

At the start of the episode, Lister and Rimmer are busy carrying out an inventory of Red Dwarf's cargo. Lister is bored to death, but has to obey Rimmer because Rimmer has hidden all of his cigarettes away and is holding them hostage. Rimmer teases Lister, saying that for each day he obeys orders, he can have a cigarette. Fed up with being bossed around by Rimmer, Lister walks off to the mess hall for a drink.

Upon returning to the sleeping quarters he asks Rimmer if he can turn him off temporarily so he can spend a night with a hologram of Kristine Kochanski. Rimmer says no, and Lister can't argue because the hologram disks have also been hidden. When Rimmer tells Lister to shut up because he's Lister's superior, Lister says that he's going to take an exam and become an officer, which would Rimmer's superior.

I'm going to pass the exams and become an officer.
Oh, come on, wise up, Lister!
You'll have to salute me, Rimmer! You'll have to call me "Sir!" You'll have to give me Kochanski! And me cigarettes!

The next morning, Rimmer wakes up and is dressed up by Holly, who replaces his own holographic arm with Petersen's holographic arm and refuses to say where Lister has gone. When he asks the Cat where Lister is, he growls angrily about his fish stash, and Rimmer is then beaten up by Petersen's arm. Walking around, Rimmer eventually finds Lister watching a revision video in the teaching room. He mocks Lister because he doesn't even appear to be taking the situation seriously, taking notes on chocolate wrappers and drinking beer. Rimmer gives Lister a few impromptu engineering questions, and when he is unable to answer, asks Lister how he expects to pass. Lister tells him that he's taking the chef's exam.

These are basic engineering precepts, Lister! How do you expect to pass the engineering exam?
I don't. I expect to pass the chef's exam.
Chef? You want to become a chef?
Not really. I just want to become your superior.
But a chef? A white hatted ponce? That's not a real officer!
It outranks you, smeg-for-brains!

Lister starts to tease Rimmer, and Rimmer storms out in a huff. While Rimmer is flicking through his astroengineering textbooks with the skutters, Lister walks in, holding a beautiful cake he made himself. Seeing that Lister actually has a chance of passing the exam, Rimmer changes tack and tries to suck up to Lister instead. Lister immediately asks him to give him Kochanski. Again, Rimmer refuses.

The next morning is the morning of the chef's exam. Rimmer is disgusted to see that the only last-minute revision Lister is doing is of sticky buns. Rimmer tries to stop him from getting to the exam room. Lister, one last time, demands that Rimmer let him turn on Kochanski's hologram. Rimmer, one last time, says no. Lister walks through Rimmer, and goes in to take the exam.

During the exam, Lister is pleasantly surprised to see a holographic Kochanski walk into the room. She tells him that she never loved him, and that he might as well not take the exam. Lister is about to follow her advice, but becomes suspicious when she starts using Rimmer's mannerisms. He tells Rimmer to come out, and orders him to leave. Rimmer is in no hurry to leave, considering that he has been left with Kochanski's right nipple and hips, but does so anyway. When he finishes the exam, Lister takes the envelope with his results out, but refuses to tell Rimmer what happened. When he is pushed by Rimmer to say how he did, he jumps happily up into the air and shouts, "How did I do, Mr. Lister, sir!"

Future Echoes (episode 2)
Waiting for God (episode 4)

The contents of this writeup are in the public domain.

Balance of Power is a complex simulation of Cold War era global diplomacy, released initially for Macintosh, PC and Amiga in 1988, and then updated for those platforms in the 1990 edition. The game places you in the shoes of either the American or Soviet leaders for the period between 1989 and 1997, then challenges you to increase your global prestige at the expense of your opposite number over that period, without triggering a nuclear conflagration.

This is not easy to do. The opposing Superpower can be very capricious, and it's all too easy to spark off Armageddon with an ill-judged intervention in Cuba, Nicaragua, or even Chad - and God help the player who tries to rock the boat in Europe. The 1990 edition introduced a multipolar mode, giving several other nuclear capable countries (hello China!) a ticket to the Mutually Assured Destruction party.

It's an enjoyably complex, and rather chilling, strategy title, which provides a fascinating insight into the fraught, paranoid world of Cold War diplomacy. It's now available as abandonware on the Internet - but don't forget to read the manual.

Balance of Power, a political principle which first came to be recognized in modern Europe in the 16th century, though it appears to have been also acted on by the Greeks in ancient times, in preserving the relations between the different States. The object in maintaining the balance of power is to secure the general independence of nations as a whole, by preventing the aggressive attempts of individual States to extend their territory and sway at the expense of weaker countries. The continued existence of Turkey as a European state has long been due to the operation of this policy among the Christian governments of Europe.

Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

Balance of Power defines the relative strength of a political actor against its rivals. The term can also be used to denote the situation when the weight of a smaller actor can sway the outcome of a conflict between two large and roughly evenly matched actors. With the balance of power, the smaller actor is in the advantageous situation of forcing concessions from the larger actors who compete for its alliegence, assuming they feel they individually are more likely to do business with the small actor rather than with themselves.

For example, in a parliament a large left wing party and a large right wing may be forced to do deals with a smaller centralist party, like passing legislation with amendments to suit what the centralists want.

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