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Reconceiving the balance of power:a review essayFENG ZHANG*

Abstract. Richard Littles new book has considerably widened the scope for thinking aboutthe balance of power in International Relations (IR), both by beginning to provide aconceptual history of the idea and by expanding existing balance-of-power models. Hisconcept of the associational balance of power is an important corrective to the prevailingrealist understanding of the balance of power. However, Little does not explore more fullythe relationship between the balance of power as a myth and a reality. Moreover, theusefulness of distinction between adversarial and association balance of power is not givena direct evaluation against the historical record, nor is his own composite model of thebalance of power partly based on the distinction fully developed.

Feng Zhang is a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations, TsinghuaUniversity, Beijing. He is the author of Rethinking the Tribute System: Broadening theConceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics, Chinese Journal of InternationalPolitics, 2:4 (2009). His research interests are East Asian international politics, Chinasforeign relations, and IR theory.

Richard Little. The Balance of Power in International Relations: Metaphors, Mythsand Models (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 317 pp.

For a long time the concept and theory of the balance of power has capturedthe imagination of International Relations (IR) scholars and foreign policypractitioners alike. It is certainly the most fundamental and cherished idea withinrealism. Richard Littles book is the latest attempt to explore the balance of powerin IR theory, and he does this in a very sophisticated and original way. Anespecially noteworthy and valuable aspect of the book is that, in contrast to anumber of recent works which still seek to test balance-of-power theories as foundin realism against historical evidence,1 Little has begun to offer us a refreshingconceptual history of the balance of power by providing a new (albeit incomplete)genealogy of the idea. The book thus represents a truly novel approach to studyingthe balance of power in IR theory and practice.

* I wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of thisarticle.

1 See, for example, T. V. Paul, James J. Wirtz, and Michael Fortmann (eds), Balance of power: Theoryand Practice in the 21st Century (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004); Randall L.Schweller, Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 2006); and Stuart J. Kaufman, Richard Little, and William C. Wohlforth (eds), TheBalance of Power in World History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). For a review of theseworks, see Daniel H. Nexon, The Balance of Power in the Balance, World Politics, 61:2 (April2009), pp. 33059.

Review of International Studies (2011), 37, 641651 2010 British International Studies Associationdoi:10.1017/S0260210510001282 First published online 29 Nov 2010


Little sets out to develop a theoretical framework that identifies and accountsfor the important and remarkably distinctive role that the balance of power playsin IR (p. 12). Two central questions seem to have guided the study. First, how canone conceive of the balance of power in IR? Second, why has the balance of poweremerged and persisted as a central and complex concept in IR despite thesurrounding controversy (p. 13)? He attempts to answer these questions bydeveloping a balance of power framework based on metaphors, myths and models,by analysing four canonical texts,2 and by formulating a composite view of thebalance of power himself.

The book makes a number of distinctive contributions, yet also suffers fromsome notable flaws. In addition to providing an interesting genealogy of thebalance of power, another important aspect of the book is the distinction Littlemakes between an adversarial balance of power and an associational balance ofpower.3 It draws on Hedley Bulls well-known distinction between internationalsystem and international society.4 Little has also self-consciously tried to bridge theAmerican realist and English school perspectives on the balance of power from thestart. But although he has created much space for a more pluralistic conception ofthe balance of power, his own composite model offered at the end of book isunderdeveloped. A second weakness of book lies in his unconvincing attempt toportray the balance of power as a myth both in European political history and inthe four theoretical texts he examines. In fact, the idea of the balance of power asa political myth could have been one of the most important contributions of thebook. But in the end one is left unsure about the extent to which the balance ofpower has been a European myth.

The balance metaphor and the concept of power

Little approaches the first question how to conceive of the balance of power by treating it first as a metaphor. The metaphors for adversarial and associationalbalances of power are a set of scales (p. 40) and arch/body (p. 67) respectively.It is in Chapter 2 on metaphors and Chapter 3 on the relationship between thebalance of power as metaphors, myths and models that Little begins to offer aninteresting though somewhat thin and incomplete conceptual history of the balanceof power. In doing so he has carried forward earlier works by Vagts, Wright,Sheehan, and others.5

2 The four texts are: Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace,5th edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973); Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study ofOrder in World Politics, 3rd edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002); Kenneth Waltz, Theory ofInternational Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979); and John J. Mearsheimer, TheTragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001).

3 Specifically, an adversarial balance of power means a situation where great powers monitor thematerial power possessed by all the other states in the international system and endeavour tomanipulate the resulting distribution of power in their own favour as a means of enhancing theirchances of survival (p. 11). By contrast, an associational balance of power means a situation wheregreat powers recognise that they have a collective responsibility to maintain order in theinternational society and that as a consequence they are required to establish and maintain thebalance of power (p. 12).

4 Bull, The Anarchical Society.5 Alfred Vagts, The Balance of Power: Growth of an Idea, World Politics, 1 (1948), pp. 82101; M.

Wright, The Theory and Practice of the Balance of Power (London: 1975); Michael Sheehan, TheBalance of Power: History & Theory (London: Routledge, 1996).

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Treating the balance of power as a metaphor is a novel move. As Little pointsout, scholars have rarely explored the implication of such a treatment (p. 30).However, his attempt to spell out the implication by drawing on the cognitivelinguistic literature on metaphor seems to have introduced complication andconfusion into his discussion on power. He argues that the balance metaphor hasa transformative impact on the concept of power (p. 48). Specifically, it moves usaway from an agency-based conception of power and towards a structuralconception of power. It tells us less about the power possessed by the participantsas agents and more about how the power possessed by the members of the systemdefines the structure of the social setting (p. 47).

However, if we distinguish between power and the balance of power as twodistinct concepts, then it is easy to see that, while power can be defined in a varietyof ways as an attribute or property,6 a relation,7 or a structure8 the balanceof power is usually regarded as a structural conception in the IR literature. Itsmany meanings notwithstanding, it generally refers to a particular distribution ofpower in the international system. And systemic power distribution is a structuralconcept. It is not clear why we need to rely on the role of metaphor in order tounderstand the balance of power as a structural notion. While Littles discussionon the balance metaphor is interesting and original, he seems to have reached afamiliar conclusion via an unconventional way. And while it is perhaps true thatmost IR theorists have failed to appreciate the metaphorical significance of thebalance of power concept, most IR theorists would surely recognise it as astructural notion.

The balance of power: what myth?

Next Little tries to establish the mythopoeic status of the balance of power.Following a post-positivist perspective, he argues that the reason why positivistshave attempted to build balance-of-power models is because for the past fivecenturies the international balance of power has been inextricably linked to apolitical myth, that has become progressively more deeply rooted, that associatesthe concept with the stability and survival of a system of independent states (pp.601). The myth is told in terms of ideological narratives that depict how apolitical equilibrium will emerge to preserve the independence of individual statesand ensure the survival of the European states system. Such narratives are deeplyimbedded in the way that Europeans have thought about international politics overthe past five hundred years and they provide positivists with the basis for testable

6 This is traditionally how power is conceived of in IR. Most realists today still favour this conception.See, for example, Waltz, Theory of International Politics, pp. 1912; Robert Gilpin, War and Changein World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 13; Mearsheimer, The Tragedyof Great Power Politics, chap 3.

7 The original formulation is Robert Dahl, The Concept of Power, Behavioral Science, 2:3, pp.20115. But also see Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, Two Faces of Power, AmericanPolitical Science Review, 56:4 (December 1962), pp. 94752; Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz,Decisions and Nondecisions: An Analytical Framework, American Political Science Review, 57:3(September 1963), pp. 63242.

8 Steven Lukes discusses this kind of power in his Power: A Radical View, 2nd edition (Basingstoke:Palgrave, 2005).

Reconceiving the balance of power 643

models that yield determinate outcomes (p. 61). The balance of power takes on thecharacteristics of a political myth because it not only generates an explanation forwhat has happened in the past, but it also makes a case for how states shouldoperate in the future (p. 72).

This is an interesting and appealing argument. But Little needs to clarify a bitmore whether he means that the balance of power has been a political myth inEuropean history or whether he only intends to argue that the four theorists heexamines have been influenced by a mythical understanding of the balance ofpower and hence their own balance-of-power models developed as academicprojects also contain a considerable mythopoeic dimension. In order to make themyth argument convincing, three steps are needed. First, Little has to provide anaccount of the rise and perpetuation of the balance of power as such a myth.Where did the myth come from? How has it been used and sustained? Second, toargue that the four theorists have engaged with myth-making, as he does inChapters 47, he has to identify profound ideological narratives in their models.Third, to spell out the full implication of treating the balance of power as a myth,he has to confront the question of whether the balance of power has actuallyoperated in European political history in practice and if so, how to treat therelationship between balance of power as a reality and the balance of power as amyth.

In fact, Little does not take the third step. Admittedly, this is beyond the scopeof the book. But then this is the problem: a more careful research design is neededto show the mythopoeic element of the balance of power. It seems, however, thatthere is ample literature to suggest that the balance of power has been utilised asa tool of statecraft not only in European history, but also in the history ofAmerican foreign policy.9 Indeed, Littles own historical analysis often reveals thatthe balance of power has played the role of an essential guide to foreign policy,particularly in his discussion of the significance of the balance of power principlein the Utrecht settlement of 17131714 (p. 271). The relationship between thebalance of power as a reality and a myth is therefore an interesting question toexplore.

As for the first step, Little uses Gucciardinis History of Italy to account for theorigins of the balance of power myth-making, and discusses Churchills 1946 IronCurtain speech and Bushs Introduction to the 2002 National Security Strategy toexplore the mythopoeic role of the balance of power in the contemporary world.These evidence, however, are insufficient and selective. Even from a purelypost-positivist perspective, such an account of the balance-of-power myth isunconvincing.

Littles treatment of the second step is somewhat disappointing. At the end ofeach chapter in which he analyses a theorists work, he devotes a paragraph or twoto pointing out its mythopoeic dimension. But his arguments on their myth-makingare not always convincing. To be sure, from a post-positivist perspective, all IRworks must contain a mythopoeic dimension since there can be no completely

9 See, for example, Edward Vose Gulick, Europes Classical Balance of Power: A Case History of theTheory and Practice of One of the Great Concepts of European Statecraft (New York: W. W. Norton,1955); Sheehan, The Balance of Power; John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1982); and Christopher Layne, Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategyfrom 1940 to the Present (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

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neutral social science work (p. 85). But to argue on the basis of this minimumstandard is neither interesting nor fair to the major arguments of the four works.

For example, Little cites Bulls concern with international economic and socialinjustice and his hope that mankind can endeavour to alleviate these injustices asevidence of the ideological dimension of Bulls model (p. 166). Yet in fact Bull hasnowhere said explicitly that the balance of power can or should accomplish sucha task. Moreover, Bull has tried very hard to avoid any political connotation ofhis work and strongly cautioned that The search for conclusions that can bepresented as solutions or practical advice is a corrupting element in thecontemporary study of world politics, which properly understood is an intellectualactivity and not a practical one.10

On Waltz, Little says that there are two aspects to his ideological stance. Thefirst is an aversion to war and a recogn...