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Balance of Threat Theory: Assumptions & Example

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Why do countries make certain foreign policy decisions? In this lesson, we are going to check out one popular answer to that question and see how it holds up in real-world scenarios.

Balancing Threats

When we look throughout world history, we notice that even countries that don't always get along can quickly create strong alliances. For example, France and Britain spent centuries fighting, but in World War II became instant and inseparable allies. Why?

This has been an important question in foreign policy for many years. One answer that has become popular is the balance of threat theory. Developed by Harvard professor Stephen Walt in his 1987 book ''The Origins of Alliances'', the theory outlines the reasons that nations form alliances against a perceived threat. It's an intriguing idea to help explain the behavior of states throughout the world.

Balance of Power v. Balance of Threat

Walt's balance of threat theory emerged in the 1980s. At the time, the dominant model to explain states' behaviors was known as the balance of power theory. The basic idea was that states defined their goals by the power of others. In essence, countries try to build their power to match the power of the strongest state, regardless of whether or not that state is acting aggressively. By maintaining this balance of power in which no single country is drastically more powerful than all the others, everyone assures mutual security.

That's the balance of power theory. It was accepted for a long time until Stephen Walt began arguing that history didn't really support it. Instead, Walt saw countries accepting the rise of non-aggressive powers while working to balance much less powerful, but more aggressive threats. As a result, he argued that states' ideas of security were defined by perceived threat, not a need to maintain a balance of power, and the balance of threat theory was born.

Elements of Threat

According to Stephan Walt, states associate their own security with perceived threats and seek to balance this through international relations. The question we now have to ask is: what defines a threat?

According to Walt, there are four elements that define perceived threat. The four elements of threat are aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive capabilities, and offensive intentions. Basically, how powerful is it, how close is it, how much military might is it capable of, and is it acting aggressively? Those are the four criteria that states use to evaluate the threat posed by other states.

If each of these states has roughly the same nuclear power, then why is Canada not seen as the greatest threat to the USA? It may be closer, but is it as aggressive as other nations?
Distance

Assumptions

Before we look at any examples, we do need to remember that the balance of threat theory does rely on a few basic assumptions. The most important of these is the definition of security. When Walt proposed this theory back in the 1980s, the world was focused on potential global warfare between nuclear superpowers. The relationship between these nations and the threat of nuclear war defined countries' ideas about security.

That's not the world we live in today. Terrorism and other forms of non-state based violence are playing a larger role in national and foreign policies than ever before. Our modern ideas of security are different because the threats are different. This changes the nature of the balance of threat theory. Many scholars believe that the theory works best when applied to state-to-state relationships and state-supported aggression or violence.

Example

Stephen Walt published his theory during the Cold War, and perhaps this is the best conflict to see it in action. The question at the time was who would align with the USSR, and who would align with the USA, and why? By the 1980s, the United States was arguably the more powerful country, but it was able to secure a large coalition of support against the USSR. Walt claimed that his theory explained this.

The balance of threat theory was first applied to alliances of the Cold War
Cold War Map

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