Balance of Power

… a core concept in Global Context and Atlas105

Concept description

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines balance of power as the posture and policy of a nation or group of nations protecting itself against another nation or group of nations by matching its power against the power of the other side.

Encyclopaedia Britannica elaborates:

“One of the most fundamental concepts in international relations, balance of power refers to the existence of an international system or order in which imbalances or concentrations of power (e.g. in military and material capabilities) among certain states will necessarily be checked by the powers of other states in order to ensure their survival and preserve their autonomy. This counterbalancing will ultimately lead to restoring equilibrium and balance to the international system. Thus, when a state’s power rises to the point where it threatens the security of other powerful states, measures will be taken by the other states to counterbalance or restrain the rising state and maintain the status quo. This could involve mechanisms such as increasing internal military expenditures and forming coalitions.”

And that:

“The term balance of power came into use to denote the power relationships in the European state system from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. Within the European balance of power, Great Britain played the role of the “balancer,” or “holder of the balance.” It was not permanently identified with the policies of any European nation, and it would throw its weight at one time on one side, at another time on another side, guided largely by one consideration – the maintenance of the balance itself. Naval supremacy and its virtual immunity from foreign invasion enabled Great Britain to perform this function, which made the European balance of power both flexible and stable.”

Different meanings

Randall Schweller (2016, reference below) summarizes the different ways the concept of balance of power has been applied by international relations theorists:

“While the balance of power is arguably the oldest and most familiar theory of international politics, it remains fraught with conceptual ambiguities and competing theoretical and empirical claims. Among its various meanings are (a) an even distribution of power; (b) the principle that power ought to be evenly distributed; (c) the existing distribution of power as a synonym for the prevailing political situation; that is, any possible distribution of power that exists at a particular time; (d) the principle of equal aggrandizement of the great powers at the expense of the weak; (e) the principle that our side ought to have a preponderance of power to prevent the danger of power becoming evenly distributed; in this view, a power “balance” is likened to a bank balance, that is, a surplus rather than equality; (f) a situation that exists when one state possesses the special role of holding the balance (called the balancer) and thereby maintains an even distribution of power between two rival sides; and (g) an inherent tendency of international politics to produce an even distribution of power.

See also, International Order.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Global Affairs and International Relations (core topic) in Global Context and Atlas105.


Encyclopaedia Britannica (2008), Balance of power, at, accessed 10 March 2019.

Randall L. Schweller (2016), The Balance of Power in World Politics, Oxford Research Encyclopedias, at, accessed 10 March 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark and Bryan Roh, last modified 10 March 2019.

Image: Wikipedia, at, accessed 10 March 2019.