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Amit Kumar asked: Has the trend towards multipolarity brought the balance of power theory back into relevance after remaining irrelevant during the bipolar and unipolar world?

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  • Ashok Kumar Behuria replies: This question wrongly assumes that the balance of power theory was “irrelevant” during the unipolar and bipolar world. It is axiomatic to say that no theory is absolutely irrelevant at any given point of time. All theories try to explain particular facets of reality from a particular angle and draw their conclusions from it. The global reality is so complex that it is impossible to have one overarching theory explaining all facets of it. One has to use different theories to understand and explain different elements of the global reality. However, it is undeniable that political realism informs the behaviour of states in an anarchical setting, and the implied disorderliness in such a setting is often moderated by efforts to establish global norms that seek to rein in state responses to contingent situations and make such responses predictable.

    Such 'realism' is natural, though not absolute. The quest of all states for maximisation of their power and the desire to enhance the prospects of their survival at all costs define the contours of the “anarchy”, the world system is embedded in. All theories tend to build on these foundations, even if non-realist liberal, neo-liberal, constructivist and critical theories point to complex social, economic and geo-political processes at work at all times, which constrain the state behaviour and introduce an element of predictable uncertainty, in contra-distinction to the realists whose postulations carry a sense of certitude about them.

    As regards the concept of ‘balance of power’, it is one of the most well-known strategies employed by states to counter potential enemies with unequal/superior strength from a realist perspective. It is not as much to strike an absolute balance as to have a relative advantage vis-a-vis an adversary. The alliance system of the yesteryears was predicated on such calculations. The sprouting of partnerships (whether strategic or not) in the multipolar world of today is also a consequence of such precipitate thinking. It is a natural outcome of the states’ instinctive desire for ensuring their survival in the face of either perceived or real threats in an anarchical world, even if ‘anarchy’ is what the states were to make of it.

    Therefore, whether the world is categorised as unipolar or multipolar or bipolar, the balance of power strategy/theory will continue to have its resonance and relevance for states at all times, even if the nature and scope of efforts of the states to balance out their adversaries will vary depending on the nature of global geo-economics and geopolitics, the changing concept of power and the state of interdependence that states work out among themselves.   

    Posted on September 07, 2020

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.