In his inaugural address, President Bush spoke of 'shaping a balance of power that favours freedom.' What have the end of the Cold War, environmental issues, international crime and humanitarian interventions done for the balance of power? Is it a concept worth bothering with and do we need to worry about new centres of power?
THE NOTION OF A `BALANCE OF POWER! STILL RESONATES, at one level, because it provides such a good title for any snapshot of the current distribution of strength and authority in the international system. It is a guide to who is up and who is down in the continuing struggle for domination and influence.
At another level it helps make sense of the workings of that system, explaining why old rivals suddenly form alliances and old allies fall out, why arms races and even wars begin, and, on occasion, why there can be outbreaks of reasonableness and calm. And then, at yet a further level, it moves from being a partial interpretative device and becomes a distinctive view of the world. In this sense it is as much prescriptive as descriptive, arguing why an aspiring great power with radical intentions must be `balanced, or what must be done to avoid a major war and maintain a global equilibrium, even as weapons are accumulated and antagonistic groups eye each other nervously.
At each level the balance of power approach has long had its critics. The concept is bound up with the realist' tradition, which is now regularly dismissed as the ultimate in old thinking. At its most simplistic, realism starts with a model of the international system as being hopelessly anarchic. Its inspiration has been found in gloomy musings about human nature and the folly of idealism, as if international politics is only animated by the lust for power, a self-feeding compulsion to aggrandisement contained only when countered by another similarly-motivated power. States, the most coherent units within this system, are obliged to organise their own security rather than rely on some international organisation to do it for them. They normally do this through reliance on military power.
The critics argue that this model is obsolescent. Reality is diverging from `realism: They warn that attempts to impose classic balance of power models on the contemporary scene miss the new types and structures of power arising out of the swirling patterns of international trade and financial markets, creating complex inter-dependencies that shape and channel political activity.
The old models are also, they claim, insensitive to the growing importance of the norms of human and minority rights when pitched against those of states. Instead of remaining caught in this flawed security framework, dominated by the distribution of raw military power, many critics urge that more attention be paid to the new security agenda geared to eradicating disease and poverty and preventing environmental catastrophe. These issues are beyond the capacity of individual states to resolve and can only be addressed at a global level.
To the critics the persistence of old thinking is frustrating. Politicians, along with their foreign policy advisers and academic courtiers, still appear boxed in by the old models. Take two stories in the International Herald Tribune of 28 December 2000 - as it happens the day I began to write this article. One front page story carries what might seem to be a wholly atavistic headline - German Bid for Dominance Resisted by France. The main headline - Will Gaullist Grandeur Obstruct a New Europe? - carried the real message. The story was about France's bid to hold on to parity with Germany in voting rights at the EU's December Nice summit, despite having only two-thirds the population. The conclusion was that President Jacques Chirac's reluctance to relinquish a distinctive leadership role for France appeared as rigid and archaic, and that, although he had conceded this …