Friday, July 08, 2005

Balance of Power 101

This is Political Science 101, so skip it if you've taken the course.

In an attempt to understand the intricacies of President Roh's foreign policy (and to prepare for teaching my modern history course this fall), I've been reading Joseph S. Nye's classic textbook, Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History (Fourth Edition, 2003).

In my history courses, I often refer to the "balance of power'' in my attempts to explain to my students why nations do something . . . or nothing.

It's right up there with "national interest" as an all-purpose tool of political analysis.

But I sometimes feel like I'm applying a Phillips screwdriver to a slotted screw. Now, I know why.

As Nye points out (pp. 58-67, esp. 61-66), the expression "balance of power" can have at least three meanings:

1. Distribution of Power: any existing distributon of power among states, no matter how unbalanced.

2. Policy of Balancing: the actions of a state intended to prevent some other state from obtaining a preponderance of power.

3. Multipolar System: a roughly equivalent distribution of power among states.

Obviously, these are related.

To oversimplify: A multipolar system is a special case of distributions of power, and a policy of balancing is a strategy for keeping a system multipolar.

In a sense, though this will be misleading, the limiting case of a multipolar system is a bipolar one -- as was characteristic of the Cold War, where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were engaged in parallel policies of balancing (which presupposed that each considered the other to be engaged in a policy of 'imbalancing').

Using these tools, we can now identify President Roh's thinking. Although he may wish for a multipolar system, he assumes a bipolar one with the U.S. and China as opposing poles, and Korea's foreign policy is to act as balancer, shifting toward one pole or the other to keep the system balanced.

Yeah, I know, everybody knew that already. Well, I never said that this post was going to be profound.


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