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.