Understanding the Balance of Power, Polarity & Collective Security in World Conflicts

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  • 0:01 Balance of Power
  • 2:17 Polarity and Lateralism
  • 5:01 Collective Security
  • 6:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine some of the theoretical concepts related to modern global conflict. Specifically, we will look at balance of power, types of polarity and lateralism, and collective security.

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.

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