History and Government Faculty Publications

Balance of Power

Document Type


Publication Date


Journal Title

The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies



First Page


Last Page





Balance of power theory has been the focal point of international relations (IR) political theory, especially concerning the various generations of realism – one of the main theories in this field of academic study. Under realism – classical realism, structural realism, and neoclassical realism – the three “generations” of the theory, power remains a major consideration in any calculation. For any scholar seeking to oppose the arguments of realists, balance of power is an important point of rebuttal or repurposing in order to undercut a power-centric position.

Thus, balance of power has been used in a variety of ways with a range of different definitions. Most revolve around the idea of balancing the amount and accumulation of power among great powers in world politics. Past events – such as World War II between 1939 and 1945 – have pointed to the importance of understanding balance of power as a consistently fluid process that affects systems drastically through balancing. Numerous other periods are also important in light of balance of power politics. From Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War to contemporary calculations of China’s rise vis-à-vis the United States, balance of power considerations are very important to some analysts. Moreover, a discussion of balance of power politics also inform other related areas of study including buck-passing and bandwagoning – options for states when considering what to do when confronted by a powerful actor in world affairs.


Balance of power, realism, liberalism, power