Balance of Power
Okay, brace yourself! This lesson is highly theoretical. We will be digging into some pretty heavy stuff, most of which relates to foreign policy and international affairs. Let's get right to it!
The first thing we need to discuss is balance of power. Balance of power refers to the concept of power, or military might, being evenly distributed among a variety of states. In this way, no single state should be able to dominate the others. To understand this further, let's see what a balance of power is not.
Throughout the 1930s, as Nazi Germany became highly militarized, the balance of power was upset. Germany became so powerful that it was able to act in an aggressive manner toward other states. In the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II, countries like Great Britain, France, and others were basically afraid of Germany (for lack of a better word). Within the first two years of war, Germany had occupied almost all of Western Europe.
Remember, this is the opposite of a balance of power. Many foreign policy experts theorize that a proper balance of power helps ensure peace. For example, if one country realizes its opposition is basically equal, it is probably less likely to behave aggressively.
Remember, balance of power is not limited to merely one state against another. More often than not, it involves alliances. Two systems of equally powerful alliances are probably less likely to go to war, than, say, one system that is greatly superior to another system. Many experts attribute World War I to a breakdown in the European balance of power. Throughout much of the 19th century, European states experienced relative peace, but as Germany grew into a nation-state and became powerful, the balance of power was upset. Boom! War!
Polarity and Lateralism
Okay, let's talk about polarity. In regard to international affairs, polarity refers to the way power is distributed throughout an international system. There are three basic types of polarity: unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity.
Unipolarity means one state or system exercises sole power or has under its control the majority of economic, military, and cultural influence. A unipolar power would have no real competition and face no significant threats to its power. Some experts argue that after the Cold War, the United States exercised unipolarity as the dominant state in the world.
Bipolarity refers to power being shared (more or less) equally among two states. Many experts argue that the Cold War represented a bipolar system in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed for global dominance.
You guys are smart; I'm sure you can guess what multipolarity is. Multipolarity refers to power being distributed among multiple states or alliance systems. Throughout much of the 19th century, the empires of Europe existed in a multipolar environment. France, Russia, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, and many others shared power.
Next up: lateralism. What's that? It's actually very simple. Unilateralism refers to a state or power structure acting solely in its own interests in an independent fashion. If the United States went to war against another state with no alliances or coalitions in place, it would be acting unilaterally. Basically, it means independently.
Bilateralism has to do with two states acting in a mutually beneficial manner. For example, it might mean going to war together. Or, say two states had a bilateral agreement. Put simply, that agreement would be beneficial to them both. See, it's not rocket science.
Lastly, multilateralism refers to a number of states or power structures working together on a common issue or toward a common goal. If a whole bunch of countries went to war together, it would be a multilateral effort.
Let's talk about collective security. I've used this analogy in other lessons, so my apologies if I'm boring you. Say there is a bully at a school who goes around picking on younger, weaker kids. He's definitely more powerful than each individual kid he's bullying, right? Of course. But what if all the kids he's bullying got together and stood against him as a unified group and said to him: 'If you mess with one of us, you mess with us all, buddy!' That is the idea behind collective security. Collective security is an arrangement in which numerous states commit to defend any one member state with a collective response. The idea is strength in numbers.
In many respects, the United Nations can be thought of as a collective security arrangement, although in recent years, it has lost some of this element. During the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was a collective defense system operating under the principle of collective security. NATO was established to thwart communist aggression in Europe. Collective security systems played a major role in the outbreak of World War I, as the Triple Entente (composed of France, Britain, and Russia) clashed with the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) - except Italy ended up switching sides. But that is another lesson for another time. Just remember, collective security equals strength in numbers.
Let's review. Balance of power refers to the concept of power, or military might, being evenly distributed among a variety of states so that no single state is able to dominate the others. Unipolarity is when one state or power structure exercises sole power or has under its control, the majority of economic, military, and cultural influence. By contrast, multipolarity refers to power being distributed among a variety of states. Unilateralism refers to a state or power structure acting solely in its own interests in an independent fashion, whereas bilateralism has to do with two countries acting together in a mutually beneficial manner. Collective security is an arrangement in which numerous states commit to defend any one member state with a collective response. Remember, the idea here is strength in numbers.
After concluding the video, you should have the knowledge to:
- Understand the importance of balance of power and recognize what it is
- Define polarity in regards to international affairs and explain the three types
- Recall what lateralism means and describe the three types
- Summarize what collective security is and provide examples of groups dedicated to collective security