Balancing in the Balance

The balance of power has been a concern long before the field of academic international studies ever existed. Rulers, historians, politicians, and philosophers have all been concerned with the notion: what does it mean to have a balance of power? Are such balances stable? Can they only exist between independent polities, or within polities as well? Are balances the product of deliberate policies or institutional design, or are they the unintended consequences of other actions? Is a balance even desirable? Centuries of pondering such questions preceded the inauguration of international studies as a distinct academic realm in the early 20th century, making this a central concern not only for those in the modern academy, but for much of the entire rich history of reflections on politics.

After so much ink has been spilled one might think that there is nothing more to say — nothing new, at any rate. This would be a mistake. Jørgen Møller’s recent ISQ article, which reflects what William Wohlforth calls a “sea change in scholarship” about balances of power, makes the dramatic claim that we should be concerning ourselves not with the recurrence of balances, but with the very *existence* of balances in the first place. Widening his focus beyond the European great power system that served as the raw material from which earlier generalizations about tendencies to balance were derived, Møller suggests that this European outcome was actually something of an anomaly. Balances of power between sovereign states in Europe, he argues, came about in Europe because of a measure of independence of social groups within those polities from the organs of institutional power and authority — an internal balance, so to speak, between the state and social groups.

The contributors to this Symposium advance several trenchant criticisms of Møller’s argument, both “internal” critiques that accept the basic logic of the argument but raise questions about particular cases or assumptions, and “external” critiques that take issue with the way that Møller treats “balancing” in the first place. Participants include William Wohlforth, Deborah Boucoyannis, Stuart Kaufman, Benjamin de Carvalho, and Victoria Hui. Møller replies at the end.
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