Balance of Power v.s. Empire

I recently picked up an old friend, a text that I read in the early days of my personal education into realist foreign policy — Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy – and found myself reflecting for several days on this passage in the first chapter.

Theorists of the balance of power often leave the impression that it is the natural form of international relations. In fact, balance-of-power systems have existed only rarely in human history. The Western Hemisphere has never known one, nor as the territory of contemporary China since the end of the period of warring states, over 2,000 years ago. For the greatest part of humanity and the longest periods of history, empire has been the typical mode of government. Empires have no interest in operating within an international system; they aspire to be the international system. Empires have no need for a balance of power. That is how the United States has conducted its foreign policy in the Americas, and China through most of its history in Asia.

Reading about the 19th and early 20th centuries, I found myself wondering — will a healthy and robust balance of power between the US, China, India, Europe, and possibly Russia and Japan, emerge in the 21st century? Empire, and the balance of power, both work well for preserving international order when they function. When they don’t function, the result is often war and disaster.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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21 Responses to Balance of Power v.s. Empire

  1. Felix says:

    I think that the rise of multinational corporations and a globalized middle class may shift the priorities of even powerful nation states in favor of maintaining the geopolitical status quo (or at least away from direct conflict)

  2. T. Greer says:

    If you can wade through messy political science jargon, I highly recommend you read Victoria Tin-Bor Hui’s War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe. Hui basically makes the same case as Kissinger – empire, not balance of power should be viewed as the norm, and the European experience should be seen as the deviant case. Her explanation for why Europe so deviaated is fascinating. (A review of the book should appear on my site some time in the next month. Those at do not do the book its justice.)

  3. IJ says:

    The formation of the United Nations system and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation seem to be in line with the philosophy: ‘Empires have no interest in operating within an international system; they aspire to be the international system’.

    But questions are now being raised: is the Washington-based IMF biased? What should be NATO’s new strategy? Should the UN Charter apply equally to all powers; for example, was the intervention in Iraq legitimate? As a sign of the times, the government in Britain has been obliged to hold a public inquiry [Chilcot] into Iraq.

    The various submissions to Chilcot raise general points. Are the values of the UN worth upholding? If so, the enforcement system depends on nations volunteering to spend blood and treasure on the UN’s behalf.

    What’s more, the balance of global power is changing. So are values. A few years ago the trend saw the General Assembly adopt ‘Responsibility to Protect’ [R2P], placing a duty on each government to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. If the governments failed to protect, the international community was expected to intervene. However nowadays there’s little enthusiasm for intervention on any grounds.

    Introducing international rules that can be enforced seems the answer for economics and politics.

  4. I concur with Kissinger. A balance of power is an artistic creation designed by statesmen. It is not natural. What is natural is Will to Power. Everything else is an effort to constrain that natural desire within a framework that is acceptable to the largest number of people because what is natural, is also very dangerous.

  5. tdaxp says:

    Agreed with the comments.

    It is in our interests that the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic be executive committees of the bourgeoisie.

  6. McKellar says:

    Even the Westphalian ‘Balance of Power’ wasn’t wholly peaceful, it was rather a ritualization of warfare and conquest. The different great powers, the players in the game, all agreed to abide by certain rules even as they were fighting each other, just like athletes abide by rules as they compete against each other in sports.

    When one power decides that they have more to gain by breaking the rules they do by keeping the rules in place, that’s when you have devastating conflicts, and the potential for great empires to emerge.

    The Balance of Power, then, isn’t maintained so much through international law and debate, but through the international system of acceptable competition and conquest, i.e. economic investment, culture, the control of immigration.

    T.Greer: What’s her fascinating explanation? Everyone seems to want to keep it secret, or at least force me to actually buy the book.

  7. Europe had a balance of power because it had an offshore balancer (Britain, then the USA and Britain in alliance) that would tip the scales against any would-be hegemon, with financial and naval power mostly, and land power as needed. That is what Churchill meant by saying Britain guaranteed the liberty of Europe. There was no one to play that role in Asia, though imagining that role for Japan, as an alternative to reality as it actually played out, can be interesting.

  8. Guest469 says:

    @Lexington Green
    That would actually be a terrible idea. Japan is a country that evoke rather unpleasant historical memories. For her part, Japan regards other Asian states with something between contempt and disinterest.
    I would also call into question the feasibility of balancing a great power like China with any of her diminutive neighbors.
    IMHO, there can be no balance without the presence of the United States. One end of the balance sits China, on the other end sits America, and ASEAN sits where she likes along the scale to avoid either the USA or PRC being too becoming too powerful. Unfortunately PRC and USA are not equal in power and adding Japan and South Korea to the mix makes it even less balanced so ASEAN nations tend to support China diplomatically in the UN and elsewhere.

  9. No, I don’t mean Japan should do this now. I mean it is an interesting question why Japan did not do so in the past, for example supporting regional kingdoms in what later became a unitary China, to prevent a single government controlling the whole landmass.

    Agreed that today, the USA is the Asian balancer. The USA is the offshore balancer for all of Eurasia, where Britain had been the offshore balancer for Europe. See Barry R. Posen, Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony, International Security, Vol. 28, Number 1, Summer 2003.

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  11. Max Kennerly says:

    Were one a Marxist, one would say that the current globalist capitalist system is, in fact, the empire, and that all of the real policy-makers of “US, China, India, Europe, and possibly Russia and Japan” could meet annually at a sky lodge, perhaps in Davos.

  12. Curzon says:

    This has gotten some great discussion, thank you all.

    I can’t tell if the lessons of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries are totally inapplicable, or a helpful reference, to 21st century Asia.

    On the one hand, Europe is unique in how its geography made it easy for multiple states to emerge and for a balance of power to emerge. Kissinger is right in that this is the exception to the history of the world. Asia today has one emerging great power, China, which may be able to set the stage as an Empire and call lots of the diplomatic shots.

    Or will it? It’s also possible that China could be sufficiently balanced out by India, Japan and China, like France or Germany rising to take control of Europe, with either Japan or possibly the US playing the role of offshore balancer.

  13. T. Greer says:

    @MCKELLAR: As I said, an extended review of the book will be posted at my place sometime over the next month. Send me your e-mail address (to and I will be sure to send a note your way when it is published.

    But to give you a two paragraph preview from my notes on the book:

    Hui contends that the states can overcome the marginal returns and rising costs of expansion (as described by Paul Kennedy et. al) by increasing their economic capability, military strength, and developing better strategy making apparatuses as they build their empire. While all states seek to do this, not all do it the same way. Some may expand, make alliances, or most damagingly, “relying on intermediate resource holders” to meet the demands of the state. The surest option is to reject these later alternatives (which are either stop-gap measures or policies that will actually weaken the state – see next paragraph) and actually increase the state’s ability to extract resources from the population and territory it controls.

    In contrast to options that increase the state’s extractive capacity and control over its resources are options which mobilize resources by relying on intermediate resource holders. Hui calls such actions “self-weakening expedients.” These policies (hiring of mercenaries, tax farming, use of loans, sales of public office) are ultimately self weakening because they, “erode central authority, strain [the state’s] fiscal resources, and even damage fighting capability in the long term (33)”. Ultimately, these self-weakening expedients will undermine attempts at empire.

    Hui’s thesis then, goes something like this: the reason universal empire succeeded in China but not in Europe is because the domination-seekers in China relied on self-strengthening reforms to consolidate their conquests (thus avoiding marginal returns) whilst those domination seekers in Europe relied on self-weakening expedients to consolidate their conquests (thus falling prey to marginal returns).

    That is the essence of Hui’s argument. She gives a large number of case examples to back up her thesis, and also pens more than a few interesting thoughts as to why European states came to rely (up ’til the Napoleonic wars) on intermediary actors to accomplish their goals the states in ancient China simply increased the government’s capacity to dominate society.

    @Lexington Green:

    What time period are you imagining this happening? When China had a functioning multistate system (600-221 BC – and perhaps the 3 kingdoms to 5 dynasties period as well, though I would have to be convinced that it counts) the Japaense lacked anything resembling a state, much less a military that could act as a balancing force. Or does your counter factual propose that the development of Japanese civilization is sped up a millennium or so?

  14. Rommel says:

    Perhaps Lex means the period following the Russo-Japanese War and Japanese modernization. No one in the world – save Britain and the US (and certainly no Asian ‘state’) – had the will or power to challenge their naval supremacy in the Far East. If Japan had played her cards right, picked better allies and avoided some of the costly military mistakes on the mainland then she might have actually been in a great regional position at the end of the Second World War. War with the United States (and Great Britain) was not inevitable, IMO.

  15. McKellar says:

    @T. Greer – Thanks.

    As I read modern Chinese history, in particular the civil wars of the early 20th century to 1949, I was struck at how inevitable reunification seemed to all the parties involved, “the government’s capacity to dominate society” having moved from a practical to a absolute ideological plane.

    It would have been so easy for China to splinter into a Europe-like assortment of smaller nations then, but every faction leader, every warlord, every revolutionary seemed to assume that one would eventually win out, and they had better ally with that one power as soon as possible. Regional independence was simply not an option to be considered.

    I would even argue that that ‘all or nothing’ attitude towards empire extended to the Japanese as well. As a distant cultural scion of the ancient Chinese empire, the Imperial Japanese saw themselves as a faction destined to take over the whole, like the Mongols, Manchu, and other had down before them. Simply being one Asian nation among many didn’t make any sense.

    Lexington Green’s balancer theory makes a lot of sense in more modern contexts, from British support of Portugal to Soviet support of Mongolia. How about with the Roman Empire? Did they arise because of the fall of once-vital balancers (Greece, Egypt, Persia)? How about the development of banks and their ability to quickly move power (money) around the continent?

  16. T.Greer, it is not a well-developed speculation on my part. My speculation is based simply on the fact that a large island with the potential to generate military and naval power existed off the coast of Asia, yet it never filled the role of offshore balancer that England/Britain/USA filled in the last five centuries.

  17. IJ says:

    From a comment above: Introducing international rules that can be enforced seems the answer for economics and politics.

    Towards the end of ‘Diplomacy’, Kissinger criticises the international legal system we have had in the past.

    “The failure to give the League of Nations a military enforcement mechanism underlined the problems inherent in Wilson’s notion of collective security. The ineffectual Kellog-Briand Pact of 1928, by which nations renounced war as a means of policy, showed the limits of exclusively legal constraints. As Hitler was to demonstrate, in the world of diplomacy, a loaded gun is often more potent than a legal brief.”

    And if international law is to become effective, who should pay for its enforcement?

    Barnett suggested that US policing actions should be funded by big exporters in Asia – there was an implicit agreement that they would take their trade surplus and flow it back into US debt instruments.

    We surely need in the future a tangible guarantee of not just loans, but reimbursement for countries that commit to UN approved missions.

  18. SJPONeill says:

    I’m not sure in is correct to state that “…Empires have no interest in operating within an international system…” regardless of their aspirations – the gap between aspiration and acheivement is often a large one. I think that empires did successfully and stablely operate within an international system from the 16th until the last 19th century, possibly up until the beginning of WW1. If you consider “…the US, China, India, Europe, and possibly Russia and Japan…” as empires instead of the more politically correct nations, just as the US and USSR were more like empires than anything else 1945-91, then there is a good chance for stability and, if not peace, then certainly spats and clashes than wars.

    To say however that balance of power has worked ir probably no more true than saying a saucer can balance on top of a stick on its own: yes, it can for a second but in the absence of a stabilising factor i.e the spin, it will soon fall. The line “…Empire, and the balance of power…” should more correctly be “…Empire and the balance of power…”

    The trick will be to get the political correctness looney tunes to accept a logical return to imperial ways, means and semantics…

  19. Guest469 says:

    Yes Minister: Sir Humphrey explains Foreign Policy

  20. T. Greer says:


    Regarding Rome – Arthur Eckstein wrote a book titled Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome which attempts to answer that very question. I have not read it, but it is near the top of my reading list. (If you cannot tell, I am a great fan of taking IR theory and applying to the past. It is too fun not to attempt, IMHO).

    Regarding China – One notices that the periods of Chinese disunion shrink in length the closer to the present one comes. I think this reflects a psychological change as much as it does a technological one – whereas in the Warring States period the peoples of China viewed themselves as distinct as the peoples of Europe do today, by the time Mao came around the Chinese not only thought of themselves as one people, but were completely convinced that their destiny as a people was to be ruled by a centralized, imperial bureaucracy.

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