In neither world war, then, did the United States enter for considerations of the balance of power. In both, the entry of the United States so quickly and completely tilted the balance of power in favor of the side it joined, that had the United States been regarded as an element in the balance, the wars in the form they took would never have broken out. After World War I, the United States withdrew in disillusionment. After World War II that recourse was not open, although many in the Truman administration feared it and worked to prevent it. It took time before it became apparent, either to Americans or to any others, that the balance had been shifted permanently during, and to some extent as a result of, the war. It took time before it was realized that Britain would not recover, that France was not a world power, and that noncommunist China would not become the guardian of the Far East. Yet, paradoxically, while the postwar hope of a concert gave way, just as it did after the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), to an ideological confrontation, the balance of power was being restored.
It has often been argued that the balance of power is really an imbalance of power. If the balance is to work at all, there must be at least three parties, such that any two can overpower the third, should its activities become too threatening. More than three is better; but three is the minimum. The idea of balance as implying some sort of equality gives way readily to the idea of balance as superiority of force on the side of the existing order. The balance between two powers or groups—sometimes called the "simple" balance—is altogether too unstable. It requires a degree of vigilance, of preparedness, of national concentration on defense, which is ultimately intolerable. The Cold War implied just such a balance, of course, and it should come as no surprise that the rhetoric of the Cold War, on both sides (although recent attention has been given to that of the West), did not speak of balance at all, but looked to victory. That is a characteristic of the simple balance.
It was well recognized that the United States and the Soviet Union were in direct and unique competition. The appalling consequences of nuclear war introduced a new kind of stability. The so-called balance of terror or balance of deterrence ensured that each nuclear power was anxious not to give the other power any sort of signal that would justify an attack, and was also anxious not to identify such a signal. This caution was compatible with, and even required, an arms race. It was not by accident that for a time the chief danger to stability was thought to arise in an area—western Europe—where nuclear power could not be used with any advantage, yet which was regarded as vital. Talk of tactical nuclear weapons showed more wishful ingenuity than realism, and much of the American emphasis on strategic nuclear superiority derived from the knowledge that only such superiority could counter Soviet geographical advantages in Europe.
If it was compatible with an arms race, the American-Soviet balance was also compatible with an ideological struggle waged with vigor on both sides. It is false to claim, as some revisionist historians now do, that the Cold War was started and maintained only by the United States; and that the Soviet Union, much weakened by the world war, was merely pursuing the traditional aims of Russian policy. (Those aims had been opposed by Great Britain for a century, and it is odd to find the Left arguing that a policy of oldfashioned imperialism is acceptable and, in essence, advancing the doctrine, if not of the balance of power, at least of spheres of influence.) The ideological struggle reflected the knowledge of both great powers that they contended in a fast-changing world; and the Cold War began to lose intensity, not when the protagonists decided to abandon it but when world circumstances changed and new elements began to contribute to the balance—lacking nuclear capacity, it is true, but disposing of real force. It became almost conventional to speak in terms of a world of five poles—the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, China, and Japan—to which perhaps the oil-producing states should be added. These poles differ from the great powers of old in that they are not of the same sort. Only two are nuclear in any serious sense. Other differences readily suggest themselves. It is as a consequence of this development that serious discussion of the balance of power is again taking place.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a student of Clemens von Metternich and Otto von Bismarck, naturally introduced the concept of balance into his discussions of foreign policy; he would not have done so if the preconditions had not been there. Yet, while he spoke of Soviet policy as "heavily influenced by the Soviet conception of the balance of forces" and as "never determined in isolation from the prevailing military balance," he was more apt to speak of American policy as seeking a "balance of mutual interests" with the Soviet Union and as moving toward détente through a "balance of risks and incentives." Such language was chosen with an American audience, and with the preconceptions that Kissinger believed Americans have, in mind. Nevertheless it shows two elements almost wholly lacking in classic balance of power theory: the recognition that nations may now offer domestic rewards and suffer domestic penalties in the conduct of international relations, and the conviction that the domestic penalties will be too great without an agreement on restraint—deliberate if tacit—by the opponents. The balance of power is seen not as replacing cooperation, but rather as requiring it.
The Cold War ended with a whimper, not the civilization-ending "bang" some analysts predicted. The Soviet Union simply chose to withdraw from the superpower competition. With the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States became incontrovertibly the world's dominant economic-military power (a title it had actually had for much of the Cold War). Without an apparent foe to challenge its security, the major question confronting U.S. foreign policy was what would succeed the Cold War's bipolar balance of power. The issue among academics and political commentators was whether the United States should (1) emphasize its dominant position as a "unipolar" global power, or (2) seek a leading role in a tripolar or multipolar system.
The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer advocated the former. Krauthammer defined "unipolar" as meaning the United States should act unilaterally in resolving international matters that threatened its national interests. Acknowledging that the United States had lost the dominant economic position it had held during the early Cold War years, he nevertheless asserted that America remained the principal center of the world's economic production. An aggressive, determined U.S. foreign policy, backed by the world's greatest military prowess, Krauthammer argued, could dominate world politics. Perhaps in the future the United States might become the largest partner in a multipolar world; until then, however, he wanted Washington leaders to continue acting unilaterally. He concluded that "Our best hope for safety is in American strength and will, the strength and will to lead a unipolar world, unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them." It would be a Pax Americana in which the world would acquiesce in a benign American hegemony.
Other analysts envisioned a multipolar post–Cold War world, probably comprised of three or four power centers, in which the United States would remain the most affluent and powerful but would not be hegemonic. Joseph Nye, for example, suggested that a U.S. long-term unilateral hegemony was "unlikely because of the diffusion of power through transnational interdependence." Preferring the term "multilevels of power," Nye endorsed preserving a strong military but predicted that the United States would not be able to dominate or direct the economic and political centers in an interdependent world. Thus, Washington should cooperate with like-minded nations in meeting such international concerns as conflicts between world markets, the acquisition by small nations of unconventional but destructive weapons, the international drug trade, environmental dangers of technological society, and diseases that can spread across continents.
Lawrence Freedman, who shared Nye's basic conception, focused on America's successful strengthening of democracy in Asia and western Europe after 1945. This, he argued, had created valuable political-military allies who rebuilt the world's economic foundations, promoted political democracy, and played the crucial role in halting communist expansion. In due course, these nations began competing with American business for world trade and investments because the United States had encouraged European economic unity and a prosperous Asia-Pacific rimland. Freedman foresaw that these European and Asian allies would press for a greater post–Cold War role in international affairs and, if Washington accommodated their expectations, all parties would benefit. If, however, the United States chose to deal unilaterally with economic and trade issues, there could be greatly increased tensions or even military conflict.
Both Freedman and Nye anticipated that states outside the American-European-Japanese centers would likely pose the gravest threat to global stability. During the Cold War the super-powers had been able to dampen most conflicts in Third World regions; it proved more difficult thereafter. The demise of bipolar constraints made violent confrontations stemming from festering ethnic, tribal, nationalist, religious, and territorial disputes more likely. And indeed, as John Lewis Gaddis reminded us, the first post–Cold War year "saw, in addition to the occupation of Kuwait, the near-outbreak of war between India and Pakistan, an intensification of tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a renewed Syrian drive to impose its control on Lebanon, and a violent civil war in Liberia." It seemed a harbinger of things to come.
In Nye's view, attempting to deal unilaterally with these and other looming upheavals would place a heavy burden on the American treasury and national will. Far better, he argued, to seek multilateral cooperation to control the peripheral troubles. Failure to contain regional conflicts could put global stability in jeopardy.
President George H. W. Bush's formation and direction of an international coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991 had the trappings of both unilateral determination and multi-lateral cooperation. In his victory speech of 6 March 1991, Bush called for a "new world order" that would enable the United Nations to fulfill its obligation to provide for the collective security of the weaker nations, and for a U.S. program that would assist in stabilizing the Middle East.
Bush's visionary statement generated much discussion in the months thereafter, but skeptical voices were quickly heard. Henry Kissinger, now a political commentator, lauded President Bush's building of a coalition to defeat the Iraqi aggression, but he derided the notion of a new world order. "The problem with such an approach is that it assumes that every nation perceives every challenge to the international order in the same way," he wrote, "and is prepared to run the same risks to preserve it. In fact, the new international order will see many centers of power, both within regions and among them. The power centers reflect different histories and perceptions." In Kissinger's view, the essential thrust of the new American approach should be the recognition of regional balances of power to establish order. "History so far has shown us only two roads to international stability: domination or equilibrium. We do not have the resources for domination, nor is such a course compatible with our values. So we are brought back to a concept maligned in much of America's intellectual history—the balance of power."
Kissinger was correct to point to Americans' complicated relationship with the balance of power, but it was also true that the nation's leaders had often—and especially after 1945—consciously sought the equilibrium he so valued. The 1990s witnessed numerous regional, ethnic, and nationalistic struggles; U.S. officials, finding few of these conflicts fundamentally threatening to the global equilibrium, stayed out of most of them. When they did intervene, humanitarian concerns were a key motivation—the American military and economic response to such episodes as upheavals in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo were aimed in large measure at reducing human suffering and restoring local political stability. Even then, intervention happened at least in part because Washington policymakers determined that these upheavals, if allowed to spread, could in fact upset the regional balance of power.
American decision makers understood that the military component of the global equilibrium increasingly shared center stage with other elements as the world became more interconnected. The impact of technology, most notably personal access to various forms of global communications—worldwide telephone systems and television networks, and later the Internet—was impossible to ignore, and the 1990s witnessed economic interdependence that found manufacturing, banking, and merchandising virtually ignoring national borders. In search of continued economic growth and prosperity, Americans increasingly embraced the idea of globalization. President Bill Clinton stressed the interconnectedness of global economic affairs and the necessity of U.S. leadership in this area.
Few in Washington disagreed, and the 2000 presidential campaign saw much more agreement than disagreement between the two major candidates about how the United States ought to exercise leadership in the world arena. Once in office, however, the administration of George W. Bush immediately moved to adopt a starkly unilateralist approach of the type espoused by Charles Krauthammer and others. The Bush team ignored or refused to endorse several international treaties and instruments, most notably the Kyoto agreement regarding environmental pollution standards, and insisted on pursuing a missile defense system that would involve the abrogation of the 1972 ABM treaty and, perhaps, stimulate a new arms race. Even though these policy decisions provoked serious objections from America's allies, and more strenuous protests from other nations, there seemed little concern in Washington about searching for an international consensus.
Critics of George W. Bush and of unilateralism complained that the approach indicated a failure to see the fundamental limits of American power, even in a one-superpower world. The critics achieved a measure of vindication with the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001. The assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exposed America's vulnerability to a new destabilizing force: global terrorism. The Bush administration, while not disavowing its unilateralist inclinations, appeared to recognize the desirability of a "global coalition" to meet a newly recognized challenge that largely ignored the traditional international power structure. There were differences of opinion inside and outside the administration on how best to wage the struggle against terrorism, but on one thing all could agree: the United States could not do it alone.
The history of modern international relations, and of the American part in them, then, suggests a certain pattern. Americans, though often professing a distrust of European-style balance of power politics, have nevertheless sought precisely such a balance of power, or equilibrium, in world affairs. That preference survived the important shift from a world of very slow social change to a world of awesomely fast social change. It survived the end of the Cold War. It had not prevented wars nor served effectively to restrain any state that sought advantage from an active policy; it meant only that at the eleventh hour, coalitions formed to oppose serious attempts at world dominion. In this process the United States played an appropriate part, allowance being made for the great security provided until the mid-twentieth century by its geographical position.
The practical preference for an international balance does not always give rise to anything that can be called a theory of the balance of power, nor even to the use of the term in political discussion. At times when the balance is a "simple" balance—as during the Cold War or the years immediately preceding World War I—there is little discussion of a concept to which appeal cannot usefully be made, and what discussion there is, is apt to be critical. Equally, a period of great international complexity and uncertainty does not seem to be one that a theory of the balance of power can helpfully elucidate. Somewhere between these extremes the greater flexibility provided by a "complex" balance allows the idea of a balance, as something desirable and as a positive interest of the contending parties themselves, to be advanced. Because the balance is at its most stable when people need not consider its maintenance or even its existence, the discussion of balance is at best an indicator of strain in international affairs; but it may indicate the least amount of strain that mankind is likely to achieve.