Main Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era
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Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era

At the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the world’s most powerful state, and then used that power to initiate wars against smaller countries in the Middle East and South Asia. According to balance‑of‑power theory—the bedrock of realism in international relations—other states should have joined together militarily to counterbalance the U.S.’s rising power. Yet they did not. Nor have they united to oppose Chinese aggression in the South China Sea or Russian offensives along its Western border.

This does not mean balance‑of‑power politics is dead, argues renowned international relations scholar T.V. Paul, but that it has taken a different form. Rather than employ familiar strategies such as active military alliances and arms buildups, leading powers have engaged in “soft balancing,” which seeks to restrain threatening powers through the use of international institutions, informal alignments, and economic sanctions. Paul places the evolution of balancing behavior in historical perspective from the post-Napoleonic era to today’s globalized world.
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Great Powers

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Soft Balancing from
Empires to the Global Era


Published with assistance from the foundation established
in memory of Amasa Stone Mather of the Class of 1907,
Yale College.
Copyright © 2018 by T.V. Paul.
All rights reserved.
This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part,
including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying
permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law
and except by reviewers for the public press), without written
permission from the publishers.
Yale University Press books may be purchased in quantity for
educational, business, or promotional use. For information,
please e-mail (U.S. office) or (U.K. office).
Set in Minion type by IDS Infotech Ltd.
Printed in the United States of America.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2018934742
ISBN 978-0-300-22848-9 (hardcover : alk. paper)
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British
This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992
(Permanence of Paper).
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


Preface vii
Acknowledgments xiii
one Balance of Power Today, 1
t wo Restraint by Other Means, 20
t h re e Soft Balancing from Concert to the Cold War, 46
four Balancing during the Cold War, 74
five The Post–Cold War Era: Restraining the United States, 97
si x Rising China and Soft Balancing, 119
seven Balancing Resurgent Russia, 146
eig ht The Future of Balance of Power, 164
Notes 193
Index 227

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alance of power is one of the most enduring themes in international politics. Its antecedents go back to antiquity, to the
classical era of warring Greek city-states, and it has been considered the bedrock of great-power stability since the seventeenth century. Yet it is also arguably the most contested concept and
strategy in world politics. The pivotal question of whether it promotes
peace or war has yet to be fully answer; ed.
In this book, I argue that balance of power is not an immutable
strategy, as some scholars and policy makers believe, but a concept
shaped by the international politics of the day. Countries have used different techniques in different epochs to balance and restrain powerful or
threatening states. It is often assumed that during much of the European
imperial age, great powers balanced one another with formal alliances
and arms buildups. But they also used international institutions and
economic sanctions as means of soft balancing to restrain the power
and threatening behavior of other states. The Concert System among
European powers in the nineteenth century is a prominent example.
Soft balancing continued into the twentieth century. The League
of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, became arenas of
great-power contestation and balancing. During the Cold War, lesser
powers under the rubric of the Non-Aligned Movement also engaged in




a weak form of soft balancing against superpower dominance. Economic sanctions, often with the approval of an international institution,
were used as a soft-balancing instrument to restrain or punish a threatening power. With the end of the Cold War, the traditional instruments
of balancing, such as arms buildups and formal alliances, became less
salient. For about two decades—approximately from 1991 until 2010—
the United States as the preponderant power faced a surprising absence
of balancing efforts against it. The U.S. outshone others not only in its
aggregate power but also in using that power to initiate wars against
secondary states in restive regions such as the Middle East. Similarly,
China became the world’s second most powerful economy with rapidly
growing military might and began a program of territorial expansion in
the Pacific, especially in the South China Sea. But it has faced only limited balancing by the affected states. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has received
limited hard-balancing responses, especially from the U.S. and its NATO
allies, to its aggressive actions toward Ukraine and Baltic states.
All of these cases remain anomalies for balance-of-power theory.
Why is this so? Is it because traditional instruments of power have become less effective than they used to be? My contention in this book is
that states have increasingly relied on international institutions, limited
ententes, and economic instruments to balance power and restrain
threatening behavior. Military capabilities remain important, but they
are not the only feasible instruments of balancing in the contemporary
world. The availability of less threatening instruments allows states to
resort to nonmilitary means more often than before because these instruments change the cost-benefit calculations about balancing.
This trend toward using less coercive instruments of balancing can
continue only if globalization advances and states become more interconnected through economic links and improving technologies. A massive failure of globalization to bring sustained growth and prosperity, or
the resurgence of expansionist or nativist nationalism in key countries,
could alter this pattern and make military power once again the balancing instrument of choice. Globalization has brought greater prosperity to
almost all nations, making zero-sum competition for resources
less bitter than in previous eras, when European great powers fought
massive wars in an effort to add to their material wealth and power. If



globalization and resulting economic interdependence fail to foster sustained cooperation, competitive international politics could reemerge
with a vengeance. The inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president
in 2017 and the possibility of other right-wing leaders coming to power
in Europe have brought a return of hard balancing as a topic of discussion. However, restraining the forces seeking the comeback of geopolitical competition and isolation may require greater use of soft balancing.
After the Cold War, the twin forces of globalization and global
norms against aggressive territorial expansion restrained but did not prevent the U.S. from intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan. To some extent,
these same forces simultaneously encouraged rising powers such as China and Russia to mellow their behavior. Since 2009 or so, however, China
has actively expanded into contested waters such as the South China Sea
and, increasingly, the Indian Ocean, and in most cases the responses of
affected states have been less assertive than expected. India, a third rising
power, is globalizing in every key dimension, especially economically,
and is being quickly integrated into the global order. It has formed limited strategic ententes with the U.S., Japan, and some Southeast Asian
countries such as Vietnam.
We should not assume that the United States or rising powers will
never use military power or asymmetric strategies to achieve their goals.
Since 2010, Russia and China have both employed military means to assert dominance in their immediate neighborhoods. The affected states
have responded with limited hard balancing in addition to soft-balancing efforts. A massive economic decline or the imposition of protectionist trade barriers in key countries could reignite the competition for
resources and wealth.
Prudent statecraft grows ever more important in preventing the
world from sliding into intense rivalries and potential military conflicts.
Balance-of-power strategies relying on traditional military means alone
cannot guarantee long-term peace and stability in an interconnected
world. A hybrid approach that includes both hard and soft balancing,
relying on adequate defensive military capabilities to provide a deterrent, is necessary to preserve peace in the coming decades. The success
of these approaches will depend heavily on how great powers, both
established and rising, view the legitimacy of the international order



and of our era’s dominant institutions. If these institutions remain robust, with strong normative bases, peaceful power transitions can take
place. Established powers can accommodate rising powers without violence through a mixture of soft- and limited hard-balancing techniques
along with deep economic and diplomatic engagement.
This book was inspired by the attention soft-balancing literature
has received in scholarly debates on state behavior during the first decade of the twenty-first century. An original proponent of the softbalancing approach, I was also impressed by the comments of its critics.
As I began to read historical records, it became clear that the strategy of
soft balancing among great powers is nothing new, meaning that the
United States in the post–Cold War era was not the sole case of a softbalancing target. The records show that soft balancing became prevalent
in the early nineteenth century when international institutions began to
develop. Now, it seems, it is being used increasingly by China and Russia
as well as by others affected by those countries’ aggressive policies. None
of this implies that soft balancing always works. But then, hard balancing has not always worked either. The historical record tells us that both
hard and soft balancing sometimes failed to restrain aggressors and may
even have encouraged them to become more belligerent. Yet countries
employ both methods in the face of a threatening state because they are
better than doing nothing.
The book explores the use of soft balancing by great powers and
their allies in the contemporary world starting with nineteenth-century
Europe. My goal is to bring out key episodes from the rich diplomatic
history of the past two hundred years and explore whether great powers
pursued soft balancing even in times when hard balancing remained the
most dominant approach. If so, under what conditions has soft balancing been employed? What lessons do these cases hold for diplomacy and
the peaceful conduct of great-power politics in a more globalized and
interdependent world? Under what conditions can we expect intense
traditional hard balancing to reemerge?
In answering these questions, this book concludes that in the
complex international system of the twenty-first-century world, when
economic globalization and resultant interdependence have increased
among rising and established powers, soft balancing remains a key



strategic approach to restrain the threatening behaviors of both categories of states. This does not mean soft balancing always succeeds or will
inevitably lead to peace, but it is a better strategy under many circumstances than relying purely on costly arms buildups, alignments,
and escalation to wars. Even if the targets ignore these “balancing lite”
strategies, affected states may not have much else to rely on and they
may have to use soft balancing as a hedge while awaiting opportune
moments to apply different strategies, including hard balancing.

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he research for this book has been greatly facilitated by several
research assistants and graduate students working with me over
the past six years: Fritz Lionel Adimi, Jean-François Bélanger,
Noor Bhandal, Matthew Castle, Alice Chessé, Colin Chia,
Yilang Feng, Erik Underwood, and Han Zhen. Bélanger, Castle, and Underwood provided able editorial service and valuable suggestions for
improvements to the text. Funding came through research grants from
the Social Sciences and Humanities Council Canada (SSHRC), Fonds de
recherche du Québec—Société et culture (FRQSC), and the James McGill
chair. I have conducted field research in several countries, including Australia, Austria, China, India, Japan, Russia, and Singapore. Seminar presentations at various institutions in these countries and in the U.S. helped
to sharpen the arguments. These include: the University of Adelaide;
the Aoyoma Gakuin University, Tokyo; University of Arizona, Tucson;
Australian National University, Canberra; Beijing Foreign Affairs University; Bilkent University, Ankara; Brunei Diplomatic Academy; Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences, China Institute of International Studies,
Beijing; Diplomatic Academy, Vienna; FLASCO Ecuador; Fudan University, Shanghai; Griffith University, Brisbane; Higher School of Economics,
Moscow; Institut Barcelona d’estudis internacionals (IBEI); Japan
Foundation, Tokyo; Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Jinan



ack n ow l e d g m e n ts

University, Guangzhou; Kerala International Center; Kerala University,
Trivandrum; Koç University, Istanbul; Kyoto University; Mahatma Gandhi
University, Kottayam; Universiti Malaysia, Sabah; Malaysian Ministry of
Foreign Affairs; Murdoch University, Perth; Nagoya University; Nanjing
University; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; National University of Malaysia; Naval War College, Goa; University of New South
Wales, Sydney; Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi; University
of Chicago; Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto; University of Salzburg;
Sasakawa Foundation/International House of Japan; Shanghai Institute
of International Studies; Society for Policy Studies/India International
Center, New Delhi; State University, St. Petersburg; Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou; Sydney University; Tongi University, Shanghai; Tsinghua
University, Beijing; UN University, Tokyo; University of Western Australia, Perth; and Yokohama University.
A book workshop organized by McGill’s Center for International
Peace and Security Studies (CIPSS) in November 2015 provided critical
analysis from my colleagues and graduate students. Comments by
Megan Bradley, Mark Brawley, John A. Hall, Michael Lipson, Vincent
Pouliot, Norrin Ripsman, and Anatassio Tasso were very useful. I thank
John Ciorciari, Kai He, Steven Lobell, Mahesh Shankar, and Jeffrey Taliaferro for offering excellent suggestions on various chapters of the manuscript. A workshop at the University of Chicago yielded many critical
comments by Alexandra Chinchilla, Charles Lipson, and others. At the
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, where I spent
time as a distinguished visiting scholar in 2014 and 2016, I benefited from
seminars and a book workshop organized by Rajesh Basrur, Barry
Desker, Anit Mukherjee, Evan Resnick, and Pascal Venesson. In Japan,
Kenki Adachi, Kumiko Haba, and Hiro Katsumata enabled my interaction with Japanese scholars. Others who offered valuable comments are
Husaini Alauddin, Richard Harknett, Markus Kornprobst, Vendulka
Kubalkova, Cheng-Chwee Kuik, Lawrence Prabhakar, Rajesh Rajagoplan, K. M. Seethi, David Shambaugh, Raju Thadikkaran, Anders Wivel,
and Lai YewMeng. I was also helped in one way or another by Amitav
Acharya, Navnita Behera, C. Uday Bhaskar, Nick Bisely, Roberto
Dominguez, Rajat Ganguly, Ian Hall, Andrej Krickovich, Antonia Maioni, Hudson Meadwell, CMA Nayar, Venu Rajamony, Maria Rublee,

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T. P. Sreenivasan, Ashok Swain, and Joseph Liow Chin Yong. The keynote
addresses I gave at regional meetings as president of the International
Studies Association (2016–17), especially the Mexican International
Studies Association convention in Huatulco in October 2017, also
sparked many useful conversations on the arguments presented here.
Sections of chapter 2 are drawn from my article “Soft Balancing in the
Age of U.S. Primacy,” International Security 30, no. 1 (Summer 2005);
46–71 (with permission from MIT Press).
I am grateful to Yale University Press for showing interest in this
book and to my editors, William Frucht and Robin DuBlanc, who did
much to improve the text. Don Fehr at Trident Media Group worked
sincerely on my behalf for this to materialize. I am also much appreciative of my family: my wife Rachel, my daughters Kavya and Leah, my
son-in-law Daniel, and my brothers Varkey and Mathew for their constant support.

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Balance of Power Today


or more than three centuries, balance of power has been the
primary instrument of stability among great powers. Yet since
1991 the world has witnessed a great imbalance in power. After
the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the unquestioned hegemon and has not been directly challenged by a major
balancing coalition. China has risen to global power status within just
three decades, approaching the U.S. in gross national wealth and engaging in threatening behavior toward some of its neighbors. Yet Beijing also
has not been the subject of serious balancing activity during these decades.
Only since 2010 have the U.S. and affected regional powers resorted to
limited military balancing toward China.
The dominant theories of international relations cannot explain this
lack of intense balancing behavior against contemporary great powers.
The anomaly is especially pronounced for realists, many of whom seem to
give balancing almost the force of law. Hard balancing—involving formal
military alliances and matching military buildups—appears to have been
sidelined by most states as a foreign-policy tool, at least for now. At most,
contemporary balancing has largely consisted of limited arms buildups
and informal alignments. Until 2016, despite its provocative behavior
against Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries, even Vladimir Putin’s
Russia had attracted only limited hard balancing. What accounts for this
lack of intense balancing?


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Will this state of affairs continue? The Trump administration’s
maverick foreign-policy positions have raised questions about many of
the assumptions underlying international relations theories. In the system now emerging, will we see more reliance on arms buildups and formal alliances as states revise their perceptions about who their friends
and enemies are?
This book argues that in the first two decades of the post–Cold War
era, countries engaged more often in soft balancing, relying on informal
alignments, international institutions, and economic sanctions to restrain
threatening powers. The capabilities of established and rising powers appeared to be perceived by other states as giving less cause for concern than
in the past because they could no longer easily be used to conquer territory. Hard balancing did not disappear, but in many circumstances, it
became a less attractive option.
This progression from hard to soft balancing needs an explanation. I propose that from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, when
European great powers dominated the international system, the continental states had cause to worry about one another’s increasing power
capabilities, since such power was being actively used for conquest. Balancing was an essential strategy by which a state avoided conquest and
retained its sovereign independence. An exception was the Concert era
(1815–53), when the European great powers relied on an institutional
mechanism to prevent one another’s aggressive behavior. Hard balancing reemerged during the late nineteenth century, when almost all
European powers viewed territorial conquest and mercantilist policies
as necessary for their economic prosperity and security. Economic interdependence among some of the great powers could not prevent
them from sliding into competitive outbidding and hard balancing, and
ultimately into two major wars. In the interwar period, the victors of
World War I attempted soft balancing through the League of Nations,
but they generated resentment and nationalism in Germany, Italy, and
Hard balancing reached its apogee in the Cold War, with the two
superpower-led blocs competing with each other through formal alliances and arms buildups augmented by nuclear weapons. The post–
Cold War era, however, brought deepened globalization and a perception

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that outright military conquest has few payoffs. Economic interdependence, generated through globalization, has required states to adopt less
threatening economic strategies, since economic prosperity demands
access to the markets, technology, and the goodwill of others, especially
the dominant economic powers. Active military balancing against these
states might lead them to shut off market access, with significant security and welfare implications for the balancing state. More important,
for reasons I will discuss, powerful states are unlikely to conquer others
directly. Excessive efforts at balancing can lead to economic decline and
loss of power. For the same reasons that second-ranking states are hesitant to balance against major powers, countries are also reluctant to
form alliances with a threatening power. The alternative, therefore, has
been to focus on soft balancing or limited hard balancing as and when
threats emerge. Such behavior is sometimes born more out of “making
virtue of necessity” than by choice alone. The case studies in this book
suggest that other options may not be seen as viable when the target
state is too powerful or the balancing state is too reliant on the other’s
markets and protection.
Today, increases in the power capabilities of states do not automatically entail threats to other states’ sovereignty or territory, the twin
fears that led to intense hard balancing in the past. While increasing
economic interdependence has been the most important reason for this
transformation, other normative and material changes have also made
hard-balancing behavior more costly. These changes include a territorial integrity norm that forbids altering national boundaries by force;
increased sovereignty and nationalistic aspirations; the asymmetric capabilities of weaker states; the availability of weapons that allow deterrence and defense rather than offense; and the absence of a territorially
expansionist ideology among the contemporary great powers. It is possible that a reversal of these factors could bring a return of intense hard
balancing. President Trump’s statements, if followed through, could
generate conditions favorable for hard balancing, especially by China.
My point here is that balancing is a human-created activity and the instruments states choose determine their outcomes more often than
structural theories suggest.


ba l ance of p ower to day

The Need for Balancing
In the twentieth century, wars were the number one cause of death after
natural causes such as diseases and old age. Great powers participated
either directly or indirectly in most of these wars. Since the European
great-power system emerged around AD 1600, there have been nine major wars in which almost all great powers of the time participated.1
World War I reportedly resulted in some 37 million casualties, and World
War II caused 72 million.2 Thus the two wars together generated 109
million casualties. During the Cold War era, the proxy wars fought by
the two superpowers also killed millions: according to one estimate, U.S.
interventions caused 20 to 30 million deaths in the developing world.3
The post–Cold War conflict in Iraq has generated over a quarter of a
million casualties so far.4 Great-power interventions and proxy wars
have other consequences for regional order and peace. The ongoing
conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, for instance, result to a great
extent from failed great-power interventions that produced extraordinarily violent consequences for those three countries. Largely because of
these failures, groups with extreme religious ideologies such as ISIS, the
Taliban, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram have taken control of
many poorly governed spaces in the most violent fashion imaginable.
In the past, great powers regularly fought major wars, but with the
exception of the Korean War, there have been none since 1945. But the
great powers have been more prone to engaging in intense rivalries and
generating instability by starting proxy wars in volatile regions. Surprisingly, however, our understanding of how these wars are generated and
how they might be restrained is rather limited. The international community takes it for granted that great powers have an inherent responsibility and capacity to maintain order, even though they are the main
causes of the violence. Advanced countries invest a great deal in medical
research programs to cure and prevent diseases. But there is no analogous effort to prevent wars that can kill millions of people. And, to reiterate, great-power politics and reckless policies account for many of
these wars in the first place.
Great powers have managed to legitimize their aggressive behavior
through propaganda and sheer dominance accrued over half a millen-

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nium of European-, Russian- and American-led world systems. It is astonishing that even in the most democratic nations, decisions for war
among great powers are made by small groups of powerful individuals.
These elites’ decisions have not often been met with widespread social
opposition except when casualties began to mount. The U.S. wars in
Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s and in Iraq beginning in 2003 testify
to the illogical—and highly politicized—nature of war decisions in democratic great powers. The Soviet Union, which of course was not a democracy, invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and also found itself trapped in a
disastrous, unwinnable war. Even worse were the choices made by leaders of great powers in 1914, which historian Barbara Tuchman called an
example of “the march of folly.”5 Many leaders in great-power states
showed terrible judgment, but they had the power to command their
citizens to make the supreme sacrifice on behalf of the nation-state.6 As
Jack Snyder powerfully argues, great powers have often engaged in counterproductive aggressive policies that generated insecurity for themselves
and other states. Snyder attributes these self-inflicted disasters to the logrolling coalitions that form among domestic interest groups and bureaucratic elites that “justify their self-serving policies in terms of broader
public interests in national survival.”7 The social contract that binds the
citizen to the state has worked to the advantage of decision-making elites.
Although many economic and technological factors contribute to the
rise and decline of great powers, the elite-crafted grand strategy of the
state has always been a major cause for aggression and warfare.8
Great powers can also be the makers and reformers of international and regional orders, of course.9 The question is whether they accomplish these goals through peaceful means, such as the creation of
institutions and norms. Great powers have certainly shaped or built international and regional orders through economic openness, market access, and protection of smaller actors. They have often helped to create
international law and legal norms, even though they sometimes violate
the same laws and norms. They try to obtain regional peace and order
while creating conditions for regional rivalries to persist. They have
attempted to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons but have looked the
other way when a few smaller allies acquired them. This is one of the
paradoxes of great-power behavior.


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The rise of China and the resurgence of Russia in the second decade of the twenty-first century have generated many worries about
these two powers’ growing material capabilities and behavioral patterns.
Will China’s rise be followed by intense wars like those fought between
European great powers during the past five centuries, or can the key contenders be restrained through military and nonmilitary instruments?
Will the declining powers peacefully accommodate the rising powers?10
These general questions could be rephrased in more specific terms:
will Russia attempt to reconquer its former empire, including Ukraine
and the Baltic states? Will China’s foray into the American-dominated
Indian and Pacific Oceans—now considered global commons—
generate military responses? Will the U.S. retreat or face its challengers
In international relations scholarship, power-transition and powercycle theories generally predict that as leading states approach parity,
they will most likely go to war.11 But many now believe that great-power
wars are obsolete.12 Some think that international norms, reinforced by
economic interdependence, are strong enough to prevent great-power
wars. To others, the mutual assured destruction (MAD) generated by
nuclear weapons makes it impossible for one great power to wage war
against another. But this restraint is limited to big wars. Great powers can
still fight smaller wars, especially in peripheral regions, and these smaller
conflicts could escalate into larger ones. As we advance toward the third
decade of the twenty-first century, deterrence may be weakening in greatpower relationships, especially in the territories adjacent to China and
Intensified globalization and increased economic interdependence
since the 1990s should give us some hope for sustained peace among
great and aspiring powers. Rising powers such as China and India have
both benefited from greater international trade and investment. Historically, great powers fought over territory, ideology, wealth, status, and
prestige. While many observers see the post–Cold War period as characterized by a lack of military balancing, I argue that this is because states
have been using different tools—soft balancing—to accomplish the same
objective of restraining threatening powers. I further argue that after two
decades of soft balancing, great powers today have also increasingly en-

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gaged in limited hard balancing, relying on asymmetrical arms buildups
and quasi-balancing coalitions. Whether intense balance-of-power competition returns or states continue to use soft balancing or mixed strategies will depend on the threat environment, the dominance of offensive
over defensive and deterrent weapons, the presence or absence of intense
nationalist and expansionist ideologies, the existence or absence of norms
against territorial expansion, and whether territorial expansion once
again becomes necessary for maintaining or acquiring great-power status. More important, perhaps, is how much value great powers accord to
the norms and principles of international institutions and the legitimacy
of nonmilitary mechanisms for maintaining their power positions.

What Is Balance of Power?
For the past four centuries, balance of power has been the bedrock of
international politics and of realist international relations theory. The
traditional instruments for restraining great powers are the acquisition
of military capabilities (internal balancing) and the building of formal
military alliances (external balancing) to prevent a great power from
threatening other powers. Other realist approaches to peace include deterrence and containment of a rival or threatening power to prevent
aggression. Deterrence is achieved through the threat of retaliation or
denial of victory, while containment is intended to limit a threatening
state’s power by isolating it. The security policies of major powers have
relied more heavily on balance of power than on deterrence or containment.
Observers trace balance of power’s antecedents to antiquity.
Before it had a name or theoretical explication, balancing was employed
by the Greek, Chinese, and Indian civilizations as well as by various empires and kingdoms.13 The Greeks practiced it in forming a league against
Athens before the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). The Delian League
of Greek city-states formed in 478 BC to fight Persians was another example of a balancing coalition. Balance of power in the Roman era was
scant: as Raymond Aron writes, “Rome was able to conquer her adversaries one after another, for they were unable to conclude in time the
alliances which would have saved them.”14


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References to balance of power appear in the diplomatic history of
Christendom against the Ottoman Turks. The medieval writers Dubois
(1306), Marsilus of Padua (1326), and the king of Bohemia (1458) all proposed to go beyond “a single preponderant papal power against the
Turks,” instead forming “a confederation, or something similar, of several powers united by alliances.”15 The Italian city-states practiced balance of power during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries along with
their fine arts of diplomacy. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) gave birth
to the modern nation-state and the beginnings of the contemporary
international order by developing the principle of sovereignty, by which
states had the independent right to existence within an agreed-upon
international order characterized by rules that limited the use of power.16 The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713–14, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), mentioned balance of power explicitly, noting
that it would “secure and stabilize the peace and tranquility of the Christian world by a just equilibrium of power (which is the best and most
solid basis of mutual friendship and durable harmony).”17 In many respects, the Treaty of Utrecht “was the diplomatic watershed between the
mediation for a mythical unity by divine law and preponderance of
power, and the mediation of estranged states by international law and
balance of power.”18
The concept of balance of power was also underscored in correspondence between the French and British monarchs. In a letter of patent sent to Queen Anne of England along with the Utrecht treaty, King
Louis XIV stated that Spain’s renunciation of rights over the French
throne was driven by a hope of “obtaining a general Peace and securing
the Tranquility of Europe by a Ballance of Power.”19 According to the
French monarch, the Spanish crown had acknowledged “the Maxim of
securing forever the universal Good and Quiet of Europe, by an equal
Weight of Power, so that many being united in one, the Ballance of
the Equality desired, might not turn to the Advantage of one, and the
Danger and Hazard of the rest.”20
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the first to appreciate what had
changed. Previously, he wrote shortly after Utrecht, balance of power in
Europe had been “more the work of nature than of art. It maintains
itself without effort, in such a manner that if it sinks on one side, it re-

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establishes itself very soon on the other.”21 This perspective had led European observers to conclude that “the greatness of one Prince is . . . the
ruin or the diminution of the greatness of his neighbor.”22 Now
balancing became “art”: something to be deliberately created and maintained by great powers.
The trajectory of balance of power has changed with the contours
of European politics. From the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia to the 1792
French Revolution, the concept of a balance of power found expression
in monarchs’ foreign policies, but the stakes for competition among
them were relatively limited as the monarchs did not envision conquest
on a Napoleonic scale.23 Following the Napoleonic Wars, conceptions
about alliances, and thus the application of balance of power, came to
reflect conservative states’ fear of resurgent French imperialism and the
onset of revolutions. Later, the Concert of Europe and the League of
Nations strengthened the notion of the nation-state. The League of
Nations gave currency to the idea of national self-determination, which
would be embraced all over the world following the world wars.24 As the
dynastic era—based on close links between individual monarchs—gave
way to the nationalist phase, the “policies of a collectivity such as the
nation” came to the fore.25
Balance-of-power politics underwent three critical phases in the
nineteenth century, beginning with the Concert System created by
the Congress of Vienna in 1815. During the first phase, pursuant to the
Concert rules, territorial changes could be made only with the consent
of great powers. This phase also generates questions about strict definitions of balance of power that rely on techniques such as alliances and
arms buildups. In 1870, the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck began the second phase by attempting a different balance-of-power strategy relying on crafty alliance relationships. Bismarck had maintained
a close alliance with Russia but kept open the possibility of a conflict
between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. When Russia expressed unhappiness over his acting as an honest broker, Bismarck
formed a secret alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879. For the next decade, this treaty would lead both Russia and Italy to seek a closer alliance
with Germany, preventing both a Franco-Russian alliance and the
emergence of hard balancing.26 A third phase followed in the 1890s, after


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Bismarck’s dismissal from office. Germany abandoned its alliance with
Russia, forcing St. Petersburg to ally with France. German policies would
further alienate Britain, which would join the Franco-Russian alliance,
leaving Germany in a tight alliance with Austria-Hungary. Thus a bipolar alliance system emerged. What was missing was the flexibility and
intra-alliance interactions that Bismarck had cultivated.27 Of these three
phases, Gordon Craig and Alexander George note in their book Force
and Statecraft, “In terms of effectiveness, the first came closest to fulfilling the purposes for which it was formed. The second embodied all the
ingenuity of its creator but was too complicated to have much inherent
stability; and the third was little more than an exercise in desperation.”28
Germany’s rise as a continental and maritime power toward the end of
the nineteenth century had the most transformative effect on the politics of Europe. Balance-of-power alliances among European powers
drew the fault lines that led to the First World War: the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France in 1904, the Anglo-Russian agreement
establishing the Triple Entente among France, Russia, and the United
Kingdom in 1907, and the Triple Alliance among Germany, AustriaHungary, and Italy, in existence since 1882 but now invigorated.
From 1919 until the end of World War II, when nationalism became global, Europe was the focal point of intense balance-of-power
politics.29 The critical point was the failure to prevent a second cataclysmic war, as revisionist Germany, Japan, and Italy, despite their aggregate
material weaknesses, attempted to break the balance of power in their
favor. They succeeded at first, and it took the intervention of the United
States and a determined Soviet Union under Stalin to eventually reverse
the revisionist states’ victories. With the onset of the Cold War in 1949,
balance of power took on global and regional dimensions. At the global
level, the heyday of balance of power was during the Cold War era, when
nuclear deterrence and containment became the dominant strategies of
the two superpowers. The nuclear revolution added a new dimension to
balance of power as the unprecedented buildup of destructive weapons
helped maintain the system’s stability.30 The superpowers kept building
new weapon systems in an arms race that was very much devoted to
maintaining the balance of power. Deterrence was obviously the objective, but balancing was required for deterrence, and the two concepts

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became intimately linked. For the Soviets, survival depended on catching up with the United States, first by acquiring a robust nuclear force
and then by building a second-strike capability involving ICBMs and
hydrogen bombs. Thus, an unending race to acquire balancing capabilities was a key characteristic of the Cold War.31 The newly emerging states
in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) engaged in soft balancing
against both superpowers, although with limited impact.
The end of the Cold War in 1989–91 heralded a period of dramatic
change in world affairs generally as well as in balance-of-power politics.
The twin features of the post–Cold War era have been the rise of American power and the intensity of economic globalization. Both these features have helped to shape and refine balance-of-power approaches. In
a near-unipolar world, restraining the most powerful states needed subtler instruments than arms buildups and formal alliances. Since 2010,
however, balance-of-power politics has once again entered a transition,
with a mixture of hard and soft instruments emerging as crucial for
restraining the aggressive behavior and increasing capabilities of rising
and resurgent powers. Russia and China have also used asymmetric
strategies, including cyber warfare, to achieve their balance-of-power
objectives. Nevertheless, a full-fledged balance-of-power competition
comparable to previous eras has yet to emerge.
Balance of power, then, has not remained static, but the realist
treatment of it has not changed much. According to realists, states maintain security and stability at the international level largely through military balancing. Great powers invariably engage in balancing against
other great powers, because if they didn’t, one such power could gain
the ability to dominate the others and thereby jeopardize their security.
From this perspective, the key strategy for achieving great powers’ security goals has hardly changed.32 Realist scholars such as Kenneth Waltz
and John Mearsheimer have described the persistence of balance of
power as perhaps the most important recurring phenomenon in world
As understood by realists, balance of power has at least two key dimensions that should be distinguished from one another: balance as an
outcome and balancing as a strategy. Balance-of-power diplomacy and
balance-of-power politics are strategies aimed at achieving outcomes


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based on an equilibrium of power. Both the strategy and the outcome
rest on the following premises. First, the international system is anarchic,
with no central governing authority to protect individual states. Second,
a state’s paramount goal is to survive as an independent entity, since
without survival it cannot pursue any other goal. Third, no state can truly know another state’s intentions—and even if it thinks it knows those
intentions today, they could change at any time. Fourth, these three inescapable facts mean that power competition is a perpetual condition of
international politics. To ensure their survival, states must have sufficient
power to at least deter others whose intentions they cannot know. Differential growth rates and technological innovations endow states with
ever-changing military and economic advantages. States seek to increase
their capabilities in order to widen their interests and thereby seek more
power as a way to protect their increasing assets and thus their survival
itself. Fifth, when a powerful state attempts to become dominant, affected states will form defensive coalitions and/or acquire appropriate military wherewithal through internal or external sources so as to oppose the
power of the rising or hegemonic state. If the rising power is not restrained, it will inevitably engage in aggressive behavior and cost others
their independence and sovereign existence.34 When confronted with the
prospect of domination or elimination by a hegemonic power, weaker
actors band together to form balancing coalitions.35 As former British
prime minister Viscount Palmerston said: “Balance of Power means only
this—that a number of weaker states may unite to prevent a stronger one
from acquiring a power which should be dangerous to them, and which
should overthrow their independence, their liberty and their freedom of
action. It is the doctrine of self-preservation.”36 Under a balance-of-power system, no state is allowed to obtain preponderant status over others;
equal distribution of power is necessary for an equilibrium that preserves
peace. With proper balancing, this equilibrium will restrain a rising power or a hegemonic state from challenging the status quo, as it is unlikely
to win a war or succeed in its coercive policy. This traditional balancing,
whose key mechanisms are formal alliances and matching or superior
weapons systems, can be termed hard balancing.
In general, two conditions must be present for states to actively
pursue traditional hard balancing. First, they must perceive the exis-

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tence of a rising or hegemonic power that, if not opposed, will threaten
their sovereign existence and territorial integrity; and second, they must
find allies with which to match the power of the rising or hegemonic
state if they cannot accomplish this by their own internal efforts. A great
power with rapidly growing power capabilities could eventually make
other great powers relatively weak, jeopardizing both their physical existence and their status as independent centers of power. For international stability, according to the proponents of balance-of-power theory,
the rise of a hegemonic power has therefore to be prevented through
coalition building, arms buildup, or preventive war.
The fundamental reasons a state pursues balance-of-power politics are to maintain its survival and sovereign independence as well as to
preserve the state system and ensure that no single state predominates.37
For a great power, the strategy may also serve other goals, such as maintaining the independence of other great powers or smaller allies, but
these are always secondary. As Jack Levy puts it, “Maintaining the independence of one’s own state is an irreducible national value, whereas
maintaining the independence of other great powers is a means to that
end, not an end in itself.”38 Even during the heyday of balance of power,
great powers were occasionally willing to sacrifice the independence of
smaller states (like Poland) to advance their own interests. The ultimate
aim of balance of power for a great power remains protecting its own
and its closest allies’ sovereignty and physical security. When strategically vital smaller powers are occupied by a threatening great power,
other great powers can perceive that the threatening power’s eventual
goal is domination over all states. This is why the European great powers
feared expansionist France (under Napoleon) and Germany (under
Wilhelm II and Hitler) so much that they formed defensive coalitions.
Scholars disagree about whether balance of power is deliberately
managed as a conscious strategy, or whether it happens automatically
through a law of political behavior.39 Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of
the pioneers who believed that balance of war was “more the work of
nature than of art.”40 On the other side are scholars such as Nicholas
Spykman, who contended that “a political equilibrium is neither a gift of
the gods nor an inherently stable condition. It results from the active
intervention of man, from the operation of political forces. States cannot


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afford to wait passively for the happy time when a miraculously achieved
balance of power will bring peace and security.”41 Spykman pointed out
that the balance of power has a subjective dimension: countries tend to
prefer a military balance in their favor over an equilibrium of power.
Moreover, the test of relative strength is war, whose outbreak means that
the balance of power has failed.42 In the years before 1848, three monarchical continental powers of Europe—Prussia, Russia, and Austria—
thought a preponderance of power on their side was needed to prevent
France from reemerging as a threat. During the 1880s and 1890s, many
continental statesmen viewed the preponderant power of a German empire as necessary for peace. They thought the British affinity for balance
of power was designed to uphold its naval dominance.43
Scholars also debate whether balancing occurs against a rising
power or a threatening power, which assumes that not all rising powers
are threatening.44 Why were a rising United States in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries and a rising China in the twenty-first century not adequately balanced militarily? Is it possible the other great
powers did not view the rising power as sufficiently threatening? Moreover, not all balancing is rational: leaders could shift their policies and
begin a rapid arms buildup if they perceive that the balance of power is
shifting against them, even though it may not be.45 And some scholars
argue that it seems to occur more readily against continental powers
such as Germany and Russia than against maritime powers like Britain
and the U.S., which tend to favor offshore balancing of their continental
Between the two techniques (internal and external) of hard balancing, the more prominent is the latter: the alignment of like-minded
countries to oppose a powerful state.47 States, including great powers,
flock together to form coalitions to achieve defensive as well as deterrent
strength so as to dissuade the hegemonic power from becoming too
strong or threatening. If they do not form such coalitions to check the
rise of a hegemon, they may eventually lose their sovereign existence.
Weaker states also band together to prevent bullying by stronger powers.
From the structural realist perspective, since self-preservation is the primary objective of states, balancing recurs in international politics as an
automatic, natural law-like phenomenon.48

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The Recent Lack of Intense Hard Balancing
Despite realist claims that balancing is almost a natural law-like phenomenon, there have been times when states were reluctant to play the
game. One such era was the period between 1991 and approximately
2010, the aftermath of the Cold War. For at least two decades, despite the
massively increasing power capabilities and warlike behavior of the
United States, no credible balancing coalition emerged against it. U.S.
power capabilities rapidly improved relative to other great powers, giving it the wherewithal to become overwhelmingly dominant. According
to traditional balance-of-power theory, the American power position
should have been balanced by other states out of fear that their security
and status would be curtailed if the U.S. power were not contained
before it became overwhelmingly superior.49 But no such balancing
The solution to this mystery may lie in the changes that have taken
place in world politics since World War II, and more importantly since
1991. These created the necessary and facilitating conditions for soft balancing as a dominant security strategy. The intensified globalization that
emerged after the Cold War brought the economies of all rising and established powers to an unprecedented level of interconnectedness. In
terms of trade and investment, these economies are linked, and developing an autarkic economy has become very difficult for any rising power.
One school of thought, belonging to the economic interdependence theory, tells us that such deeply interconnected economies would be reluctant to escalate rivalries to the military level by pursuing intense
hard-balancing strategies. Granted, this is a contested argument, since
there was conflict among interdependent economies in the early nineteenth century. Great Britain fiercely defended the gold standard because
it facilitated free trade, which favored Britain because it was able to import raw materials and profitably export manufactured goods.50 Although some scholars, such as Dani Rodrik, have argued that the global
economy was also highly integrated before World War I, others—such
as Michael Bordo, Barry Eichengreen, and Douglas Irwin—have pointed
out that trade in the pre-1914 world was largely between imperial centers
and their colonies, and that trade between empires was relatively slight.


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Today’s integration is “deeper” and “broader” than a century ago.51 More
important, as Stephen Brooks argues, the biggest difference today to the
pre–World War I era is that multinational corporations (MNCs) manufacture goods across the world. The unprecedented geographical dispersion of complex supply chains makes interdependence much deeper
while making conquest a much less viable means of economic advancement.52 For instance, the 2017 World Investment Report stated that there
were approximately 100,000 multinational enterprises, which also
owned some 860,000 foreign affiliates, including many state-owned enterprises.53 Globalization of production and international subcontracting make contemporary interdependence much thicker than in previous
eras.54 The fact that all rising powers benefit from deepened globalization
is a positive feature of the current system.
As early as the 1970s, Richard Rosecrance and Arthur Stein wrote
that although foreign investment as a percentage of national income had
decreased since 1913, the type of investment gave MNCs a larger stake in
the foreign sector. Foreign investment was no longer simple credit but
partial ownership and transfer of technology. These make it difficult for
the country receiving the investment to threaten closure. And even as the
costs of breaking off trade and investment relationships have increased,
governments have become more responsive to foreign investment than
they were in the nineteenth century. Moreover, “under the gold standard
of 1880–1913, short-term capital movements were neither as extensive nor
as disruptive” as they have become in recent times.55 These factors have
only increased in magnitude since the end of the Cold War. Scholars now
argue that the level of interdependence makes intense military balancing
very costly in economic terms. Steve Chan, for instance, contends that
“balancing policies would entail forfeiting possible gains that could accrue from cooperation, gains that states are wary of foregoing in the
absence of demonstrable hostility from a stronger neighbor.”56
Economic interdependence alone may not be sufficient to produce
the rise of soft balancing. Other factors have been just as crucial. The
technological innovations of warfare are yet another development
that restrains direct conquest. Nuclear weapons come to mind first, of
course, but a whole array of weaponry today supports defense and deterrence as opposed to offense, leading to a more secure international

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environment.57 Leaders’ perceptions of the balance between defensive
and offensive capabilities are an important aspect of this, and so psychological factors also play a role—the “cult of the offensive” (in which
all major European powers believed in the value of offensive military
doctrines that extolled striking first) shares some blame for the start of
World War I.58 Such technological factors are important in constraining
rising powers, since expansion is more difficult when offensive capabilities are at a disadvantage. Of course, asymmetric strategies can also be
used offensively, as evident in Russia’s and China’s use of cyber weaponry today. Moreover, there is no guarantee that future revolutions in
military affairs will not produce new weapons that might favor offensive
over defensive strategies.
A further critical condition is the widespread availability of international institutions that allow great powers and other states to engage
and constrain one another as an alternative to hard balancing. Institutions furnish a field for soft balancing and engagement, and their proliferation at the global and regional levels provides many arenas for a rising
power to assert itself and acquire status. China, for instance, is a member
of key multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World
Trade Organization as well as financial institutions such as the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund, where it is increasingly demanding and being granted a greater voice. The rising powers themselves have been creating new institutions such as the BRICS Development
Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Bank and have also had some success
in modifying institutional structures like the G-20.
The third factor explaining the absence of intense hard balancing is
the norms of territorial integrity that grew out of the Cold War era and
were strengthened by decolonization.59 These offer a level of assurance
against blatant territorial expansion. It remains to be seen whether they
will extend their disapproval in the next few decades to indirect control
of foreign states, or will continue to prohibit only direct acquisition of
territories. China may not be following the norms fully when it challenges the territorial orders in the South and East China Seas and along
its border with India. Its pursuit of land acquisition and control of oil
and natural gas fields in Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America may
also generate problems if norms of territorial integrity are understood to


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prevent indirect control of other states’ territories. Russia’s support for
separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and its reannexation of Crimea
in March 2014 also pose significant challenges to the territorial integrity
norm—as did U.S. interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Still, there is
little chance the outside world will recognize Chinese and Russian territorial claims even if there is no direct military response. The territorial
integrity norm, despite some key violations, has been functional for
much of the post–Cold War era.
Finally, the absence of expansionist ideologies such as Fascism, Nazism, and Marxism-Leninism offers some comfort that rising powers
may not succumb, as their earlier counterparts did, to the temptation to
become highly revisionist.60 Expansionist ideologies generate uncertainty
for nonadherents and neighboring states, both of which may become targets of predation. Germany and Japan succumbed to Fascism in the 1930s
even though they had recently been quasi-democracies. Militaristic elites
found the international climate so intolerable that they took control of
their states and began occupying other countries and territories, and
their populations appear to have supported this idea. The established
powers’ attitudes did not help. For instance, the racist immigration policies of the United States might have aggravated the Japanese public’s hostility toward it. The established powers’ grand strategies held little room
for the peaceful accommodation of the revisionist powers.
These variables, taken together, are crucial for understanding the
modern turn toward soft balancing and limited hard-balancing strategies, especially among great powers. Three decades before World War I,
economic interdependence was high, but the other conditions were absent. Weapons technologies such as the Maxim machine gun favored offense over defense, great powers embraced an expansionist ideology in
the form of imperialism, and norms of territorial integrity and international institutions were both absent. The threat environment is heavily
determined by the combination or predominance of these key elements
of international order.
The absence of intense bipolar or multipolar rivalry also encourages soft balancing. When rivalry is intense, states tend to resort to hard
balancing. They may occasionally augment these efforts with soft balancing and paint their opponents’ military or security strategies as illegiti-

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mate, but intense bipolar or multipolar systems are not conducive to soft
balancing. A near unipolar system such as existed in the post–Cold War
era offers favorable conditions for soft balancing to be applied more regularly, especially when the hegemonic power is perceived, as the United
States was at least briefly, as benign and legitimate. This perception was
rattled by the policies of the Bush and Trump administrations and to
some extent by Obama-era interventions and drone attacks as well.
In most parts of the world, America’s actions as a unipolar power
reassured small and large countries alike that their sovereign existence
and territorial integrity were reasonably secure. A counterfactual exercise
might be useful here. If these conditions had been present during the early
part of the twentieth century, could Europe have avoided the intense balance-of-power competition that led to the First World War? Although
economic interdependence was high among some key states, other factors
were not favorable. Today, countries seem less prone to hard balancing
against power and are more often using nontraditional instruments.61 Traditional balancing has given way to complex patterns and strategies among
great powers and others. I argue that in this transition era, states are increasingly resorting to soft balancing along with diplomatic engagement,
supplemented with limited hard balancing. These instruments reflect an
overarching hedging strategy in a period of uncertainty. In this new era,
balancing is a complex art that can no longer be seen as an automatic consequence of the distribution of material power in the international system.
Instead it a manual outcome, a policy consciously implemented by leaders.
This does not mean that soft balancing has no relevance in eras
when hard balancing dominates. Great powers in such times can use
soft balancing as a secondary instrument. It can be employed even in
periods of intense rivalry in order to delegitimize an opponent’s aggressive moves or as a first step toward tougher hard-balancing strategies.
The two are often used in conjunction.


Restraint by Other Means


raditional balance-of-power politics does not fully capture
great-power behavior in our era. Since the end of the Cold War,
second-tier states have balanced the threatening behavior of
the United States, and to some extent that of China, with limited, tacit, or indirect balancing strategies, largely through coalition building and diplomatic bargaining within international institutions. They have
not formed formal bilateral and multilateral military alliances but have
resorted largely to soft-balancing strategies. I define soft balancing as restraining the power or aggressive policies of a state through international
institutions, concerted diplomacy via limited, informal ententes, and economic sanctions in order to make its aggressive actions less legitimate in the
eyes of the world and hence its strategic goals more difficult to obtain.1
I should clarify the differences between soft and hard balancing.
Hard-balancing alliances are formal arrangements, often with combined
command structures, operational plans, bureaucratic frameworks, and
military forces permanently stationed and ready to fight. NATO and the
Warsaw Pact are prominent examples.2 As Henry Kissinger describes it,
an alliance “creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined
contingencies. It brings about a strategic obligation fulfillable in an
agreed manner. It arises out of a consciousness of shared interests, and
the more parallel those interests are, the more cohesive the alliance will


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be.”3 Another scholar defines an alliance as a “formal agreement that
pledges states to cooperate in using their military resources against a specific state or states and usually obligates one or more of the signatories to
use force, or to consider (unilaterally or in consultation with allies) the
use of force, in specified circumstances.”4 By their nature, formal alliances obligate members to commit to using force to defend their partners
or to advance their offensive goals. This reciprocity makes formal alliances different from other forms of security cooperation.
Soft-balancing coalitions tend to lack these elements. Second-tier
states pursuing soft-balancing strategies often develop limited diplomatic coalitions, or ententes, to balance a powerful, rising, or threatening
state. An entente is an informal or friendly understanding between two
or more states on security matters without a formal commitment to
military action.5 These coalitions do not have official structures, permanent institutions, or coordinated military planning beyond a minimal
level.6 Consultation can be intense during crises, but otherwise it may
remain limited and episodic.
International institutions offer themselves as venues where contestation for legitimacy, a key tool of soft balancing, takes place. Hard balancing presupposes intense rivalry or expected rivalry—sometimes of a
zero-sum nature—among the balancing states, whereas soft-balancing
coalitions tend to be ad hoc. The intentions of the parties engaged in
soft balancing are also important: the purpose of their tacit strategies
should be directly related to reducing the effects of the target state’s
threatening behavior. Soft-balancing strategies are usually directed
against specific threats, whereas hard balancing can be developed against
both specific threats or the fact of power alone, on the assumption that
a powerful state will eventually threaten the security of the weaker side.7
An in-between category is limited hard balancing, which relies on
limited arms buildup and semiformal alliances such as strategic partnerships. In the past few years, some of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, such as Vietnam and India, have formed
limited hard-balancing coalitions with the U.S. in response to threatening behavior from China. These arrangements allow joint efforts and
sharing of resources but not offensive warfare or operational coordination. They include the agreements Washington makes with many


rest r aint by other means

countries, with no formal alliance, to allow the use of base facilities for
the U.S. Navy. India’s limited hard balancing involves such a coordination
with Washington as well as targeted spending meant to offset China’s
military capabilities, without any intention of putting India’s military on
an equal footing with China’s. In recent years, China and Russia have also
formed a limited hard-balancing coalition in which both states have engaged in limited arms buildup aimed at balancing U.S. power, again
without the intent of reaching parity soon. The strategic goal of these efforts is to make a potential attack costly and frustrate efforts at coercion.
Table 1 shows the different types of balancing behavior. Hard balancing generally occurs among rivals or potential rivals. Rivals compete
in multiple areas, including territory, ideology, and spheres of influence,

Table 1 Types of balancing





Formal alliances
Matching arms


Triple Alliance vs.
Triple Entente
Allied vs. Axis Powers
NATO vs. Warsaw Pact


Coordinated military Restrain power/
activity, short of
formal alliances
arms buildups

China vs. U.S.
India and U.S. vs.
China (2010–)



Concert of Europe
Russia and China vs.
U.S. (1996–)

Restrain power/

India and Japan vs.
China (2014–)

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and they may have a history of militarized conflicts.8 The security dilemma among rivals is a large problem.
Limited hard balancing also assumes limited or partial rivalry. It
may occur during a pre-rivalry phase when states expect a rivalry to
emerge in the near term, as a form of hedging against anticipated threats.
Semiformal alignments and arms buildups not matching the strength of
the powerful actor are characteristic of this form of balancing. Unlike
hard balancing, soft balancing can occur among allies and adversaries
alike. Soft-balancing strategies are limited, institution-based, noncooperative attempts to make the powerful threatening state relent in its
behavior and return to normal friendly attitudes and postures.
I should clarify that both soft balancing and hard balancing are
coercive strategies intended to alter the target state’s cost-benefit calculations. Whereas hard balancing seeks to aggregate material capabilities in
an effort to diminish, deter, or if necessary defeat a powerful or aggressive opponent, soft balancing seeks to accomplish one or more of the
• To impede the target’s ability to profit from bad behavior (for example, through the imposition of economic
• To increase the marginal cost to the target state of carrying
out its plans (for example, access denial via institutional
• To delegitimate the target’s behavior in the eyes of third
• To signal that continued noncompliance by the target may
trigger hard balancing.
In adopting these approaches, states make a number of cost-benefit calculations. First, the target state is more likely to alter its policies in
a benign manner in response to this approach, whereas it could react
with heavy reprisal if the states attempted military balancing. Second,
the powerful actor is prone to reform its policies if they make its leaders
suffer a loss of legitimacy. In some instances, the targeted state may be a
key contributor of public goods, including an export market that it is


rest r aint by other means

likely to continue to provide. The states in a soft-balancing coalition are
calculating that the costs of their actions are tolerable and can be shared
among the participants if the target engages in punitive actions.9 The
aim of a soft-balancing strategy is to deny legitimacy to actions that
challenge the international or regional order. The expectation is that the
target will return to cooperation and that the parties can reach an equitable bargain.10 Through soft balancing, states are also attempting to influence domestic opinion within the target state, perhaps anticipating
that powerful coalitions within that state will seek to stop behavior that
is adversely affecting its reputation and legitimacy.
Why would a great power use soft balancing as opposed to limited
hard balancing or full-fledged hard balancing? The key determinant is
the threat level posed by the target state. If a rising state is revolutionary
and has proclaimed its intention to fundamentally alter international or
regional order, especially territorial order, that could trigger hard balancing. But if the balancing state perceives that the threatening state has only
limited aims and can be persuaded to alter its policies through institutional or limited coercive mechanisms, soft balancing or limited hard
balancing may be the most cost-effective option. The strategy may be to
give the target an opportunity to alter its policies. A revisionist state that
fundamentally challenges the sovereignty of several states requires largescale hard balancing. Sometimes the status quo states do not grasp the
revisionist states’ goals at an early enough stage to prevent war, as happened with the intentions of Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1930s.

International Institutions and Balancing
International institutions have been a key component in restraining
great powers since the nineteenth century and have been particularly
important in the post–Cold War era. Yet the role of institutions in discouraging great powers from pursuing aggressive policies has received
relatively little attention from scholars. The dominant realist discourse
downplays the importance of international institutions, while liberal
and constructivist scholars often pay little attention to the power dynamics inherent in international institutions. The literature on international institutions generally concentrates on their role in international

rest r aint by other means


cooperation, especially economic cooperation. Liberal institutionalist
theorists have demonstrated how institutions facilitate transactions and
cooperation between states, help overcome coordination dilemmas, and
act as vehicles of transnational participation and as catalysts for coalitions among states.11 But these functionalist discussions seldom explore
how great and non-great powers use institutions to reduce the aggressive behavior of others while avoiding the necessity of military balancing. Soft balancing is an effort to limit the utility of military strength.
States resort to it when they face constraints in balancing a power by
military means, for instance, if they are smaller states vulnerable to
military counteractions by a powerful target.
Liberal scholars such as John Ikenberry have explored the use of
institutions by the U.S. after victory in major wars to bind secondary
states.12 The converse, however—how secondary states use institutions
to bind the U.S. or other great powers—has yet to draw much scholarly
attention. Moreover, it remains a weakness of liberal theories of institutions that we do not know when and how institutions promote changes
in policies, and when they instead generate intense nationalism and
confrontational responses in the targeted power.
This oversight is somewhat surprising given that the use of international institutions as a component of soft balancing, which today
is a prominent feature of international politics, is not an especially
recent one. Great powers have been using institutions to curtail each
other’s aggressive behavior for a long time. In some historical eras,
such as the first decade of the Concert of Europe or the two decades
since the end of the Cold War, soft balancing was an important complement to the hard-balancing instruments of arms buildups and formal
The Congress of Vienna, which inaugurated the Concert of Europe, largely depended on an institutional mechanism to restrain great
powers, and institutional means have been a key part of the European
powers’ overall balancing strategy ever since. In the aftermath of World
War I, the Allied powers attempted to blunt the aggressive behavior of
Germany and Italy as well as Japan through the League of Nations. They
were simultaneously building their military capabilities, although
initially at a slower pace. During the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR used


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the UN system—especially their veto power in the Security Council—
to restrain one another, although hard-balancing approaches dominated the Cold War era. Today, the U.S., its European allies, and smaller
states in Asia use institutions and sanctions to constrain the aggressive
behavior of Russia and China while also employing hard balancing and
limited hard-balancing strategies. For instance, the main vehicle of hard
balancing by the West against Russia—NATO and its military buildup—is supplemented by economic sanctions against Russian banks and
individuals involved in activities of which the West does not approve.

Limited Alignments and Informal Ententes
A second technique of soft balancing is the use of informal alliances
or ententes, sometimes called “strategic partnerships.” Through these
mechanisms, countries engage in periodic meetings, joint exercises, and
other limited activities without entering a formal military alliance. They
need not make a mutual pledge to come to each other’s rescue or participate in one another’s conflicts. Often these partial alignments are
signaling devices and means of reassurance. The U.S., for instance, has
many states as strategic partners, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam,
Malaysia, and New Zealand. These are not strictly military alliances
and entail a lesser commitment than that enjoyed by a NATO ally or
a “Major Non-NATO Ally,” a formal classification the U.S. gives to
countries like Israel. These looser alliances are meant to coordinate diplomatic positions on security issues and allow a certain amount of cooperation, especially in weapon and technology transfers.13 The level of
commitment varies. India has agreements with many countries that are
little more than rhetorical statements.14 I include strategic partnership
as a soft-balancing tool only if it has a security component and
is explicitly aimed at balancing the power or threatening behavior of
another state but is below the level of a formal alliance. Limited joint
military exercises can be a soft-balancing signaling device, but if the
relationship develops into anything more significant, such as allowing
the use of base facilities, then such an alignment counts as limited hard

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Economic Sanctions
A third key mechanism of soft balancing has been economic sanctions
on target states. Such an action is an alternative to doing nothing, and it
registers displeasure through economic punishment—and, should the
behavior be modified, through rewards. Historically, sanctions have
been used for containment and coercion of weaker states. Woodrow
Wilson called them the “economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy”; he
considered them a substitute for war in dealing with any state that broke
its promises to the League of Nations.15
Sanctions can be unilateral, multilateral, or sector specific. Multilateral sanctions imposed through international and regional institutions appear to have more legitimacy and higher chances of success than
unilateral sanctions, unless the target is fully dependent on the sanctioning state for the sanctioned products or services. Over the years, the
major powers have found sanctions increasingly attractive as the costs
of military intervention—in money, lives, and public opinion—have
risen.16 One important objective of economic sanctions has been to signal to national and international audiences one’s displeasure at the target state’s behavior or policy choices. But they require international
support if they are to work.17
Whether sanctions are more likely to be used, or are more effective,
in an era of globalization is a contentious question. Some argue that
globalization has increased interdependence, and sanctions could end
up hurting both the states imposing them and the target state. But military conflict would be worse. Short of war, antagonistic alliances formed
through hard balancing could also hurt interdependent economies. Although sanctions have limitations, they may be more effective if they
follow international institutional or treaty guidelines such as those of the
World Trade Organization. Their impact can quickly fade away if the
target finds alternate sources for the goods being denied.18 This is why
the backing of international institutions and near unanimity among
great powers have been critical for sanctions to work. The recent sanctions against Iran, for instance, were effective because the U.S., Europe,
Russia, and China all joined in opposing Tehran’s nuclear weapons


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As part of a soft-balancing strategy, sanctions can be a way to send
a strong signal to a threatening state without engaging in violence or a
costly arms buildup. Economic sanctions and denial were very much
part of the U.S. and Western containment efforts during the Cold War
era. Containment is often a strategy of the powerful against a threatening state or coalition, sometimes alongside an overall hard-balancing
strategy. Economic sanctions under soft balancing may be episodic and
issue specific, and weaker actors can also attempt to apply them against
stronger targets.
It should be noted that some of these same instruments can be used
for other strategic objectives. Sanctions are good ways to signal disapproval in response to behavior that is not necessarily threatening but is
still seen as unacceptable. More important, they can be used to weaken
the target’s military power or its leadership’s legitimacy, both of which
reduce its hard-balancing capabilities. American economic containment
during the Cold War era, for example, relied on a strategic embargo to
weaken the Soviet Bloc’s ability to build weapons, and thus to reduce the
national strength that Moscow could have used against the West.19

Legitimacy Denial
A common thread runs through all of these soft-balancing mechanisms:
the denial of legitimacy to the threatening power. Great powers have
used institutions to legitimate their policies or to delegitimize those of
their opponents for two centuries. As a key tool of soft balancing, economic sanctions have often performed the same functions. Legitimacy
rises for the sanctioning state if sanctions are multilateral and have the
authority of an international institution such as the United Nations. Denying the aggressor international legitimacy, the thinking goes, makes
aggressive behavior costlier. In the past, even when great powers did not
succeed in curtailing an aggressor’s behavior militarily, they periodically
used economic sanctions to constrain threatening behavior. They believed legitimacy could be an instrument of persuasion. Implicit in
this is the acknowledgment that a state’s durability as a great power is
based on the authority and respect it is accorded within the international system, in particular by its great-power peers. Weaker states, if

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they are united, can also use institutions to diminish the legitimacy of
great powers.
According to Robert Jackman, legitimacy is a foundational idea for
power relations in the political realm “because it reflects the degree to which
those who seek to rule (i.e. to exercise power) are accepted by the ruled.”20
Martha Finnemore defines legitimacy as the “tacit acceptance of social
structure in which power is exercised.”21 It is conferred by others, even
though one can debate its source. According to some scholars, legitimacy in
modern times has been determined largely by a great power’s actions, especially the degree to which they are consistent with international legal norms.
To Ian Hurd, legitimacy is “the normative belief by an actor that a rule or
institution ought to be obeyed.”22 It implies “lawfulness by virtue of being
authorized or in accordance with law.”23 Legitimate power involves not just
the “capacity but also a right to act, with both capacity and right being seen
to rest on the consent of those over whom the power is exercised.”24 There
are relational, ideational, and intersubjective elements to legitimate power:
actors gain it only “within relationships,” it is “constituted in social institutions,” and it exists within the “shared communicative realm between individual actors.”25 For English School scholars, legitimacy is a foundational
idea in international relations. Adam Watson defines it as “the acceptance of
authority, the right of a rule or a ruler to be obeyed, as distinguished from
the power to coerce.” Martin Wight puts it more broadly: legitimacy is “the
collective judgment of international society about the rightful membership
of the family of nations; how sovereignty may be transferred; and how state
succession is to be regulated, when large states break up into smaller, or
several states combine into one.”26 For both large and small states, legitimacy lowers the cost of exerting power, and states make considerable efforts
to obtain, maintain, and prolong their power position through legitimacy.
International institutions as well as legal instruments such as treaties are
key arenas where legitimacy is achieved and maintained. The quest for legitimacy has both rational and emotive aspects: it is a fact of international
politics that people wish, often fervently, for their nations to have the world’s
respect. This gives leverage to institutions that can confer legitimacy.
Hegemonic powers especially need legitimacy to acquire and
maintain supremacy. The goal of soft balancing for second-ranking
powers is to deprive the powerful actor of the legitimacy it needs to


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maintain its authority, especially in the institutions it uses to justify coercive military actions.27 A great power whose legitimacy is challenged
can engage in a counter-legitimacy push or else change the rules of the
legitimacy game. Christian Reus-Smit argues that in 2003, when the UN
Security Council would not approve the Bush administration’s offensive
on Iraq, Washington attempted to argue that compliance with its position was a test of the UN’s legitimacy, not of the American decision to
wage war. But this self-legitimation effort failed.28
Classical balance of power has been partly based on this legitimacy
principle, as alliances themselves cannot be sustained if the leading
power lacks authority. But the neorealist conception of balancing, as attributed to Kenneth Waltz, does not include legitimacy as a key aspect of
balancing. The theory relies solely on material capabilities, operating in
a somewhat mechanistic fashion. Maintaining and sustaining one’s alliance leadership and obtaining new allies require legitimacy, and while
crude military power is useful, coalitions based only on that do not necessarily last. The assumption of neorealists is that legitimacy itself is
determined by material power. But second-ranking states always try to
create normative boundaries for great-power behavior, and transgressing these boundaries can be costly.
Much international relations scholarship of the realist variety assumes that great powers are largely restrained through military power
and alliances. Nonmilitary instruments for balancing power are seen as
ineffective or epiphenomenal to power, and efforts to use them are even
taken as signs of weakness.29 An exception is Christopher Layne, who
found soft balancing using diplomatic methods a valuable “component
of counterbalancing strategies,” arguing also that it lays the groundwork
for hard balancing in the future.30 The realist position arises from a selective reading of history. In the modern world, great powers have resorted as often to softer diplomatic instruments as to military ones to
restrain their opponents. Great powers use these instruments particularly in response to the aggressive behavior of rising powers when it
threatens their interests. Moreover, while nonmilitary instruments are
sometimes dismissed as ineffective, military instruments have also
failed, and the resulting breakdowns in the balance of power have led to
disastrous wars.

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Facilitating Conditions
Scholars who ask whether soft balancing works—whether it actually
modifies any state’s behavior—are implicitly comparing it to hard balancing through military instruments. The assumption is that military
balancing works more effectively. But this should not be assumed away;
it requires careful analysis. The debate over soft balancing resembles the
one over economic sanctions, to which some scholars and practitioners
assign little value as a tool of statecraft. But as Jonathan Kirshner reminds us, military force has often failed to produce positive results, and
all techniques of statecraft must be weighed in terms of their political
costs and benefits. No strategy offers a guarantee of success. All one can
do is to develop an optimal policy that takes costs and benefits into account.31 This being said, I can suggest some general insights about the
ideal conditions for favorable soft-balancing outcomes. These conditions have normative, material, and technological dimensions.
A number of facilitating conditions should exist for soft balancing
to succeed or even to be seriously attempted. First is the threat environment: it should not be existential or even severe, and rivalry among the
target and balancing states should be limited. The rise of a powerful actor with the perceived intent and capabilities to alter states’ independent
existence could encourage them to resort to hard balancing, even though
they could gain more legitimacy for their efforts by combining it with
soft balancing.
Second, the success of soft balancing depends on how much importance the great powers assign to international legitimacy as a basis of
their power. The more important it is that their power be seen as legitimate, the higher the chances that soft-balancing efforts will be effective.
The legitimacy of the international order is also important, as power
and legitimacy are certainly related. States, especially powerful states,
use institutions to reinforce what they perceive as legitimate behavior.
This affects the success of soft balancing because if targeted great powers
perceive the international order as illegitimate, they may disregard the
norms inherent in its institutions. If institutions are seen as illegitimate,
their use as part of soft balancing may even trigger nationalism and aggressive behavior by the targeted power. When great powers are driven


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by ultra-nationalism or perceived grievance against dominant powers,
soft balancing is unlikely to work.
Third, the immediate aftermath of a major conflict is more conducive to soft balancing than two or more decades later. Great powers conspicuously turn to institutions following a large war or a major conflict
like the Cold War. We saw short-lived “golden periods” of institutions
immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, after World War I and World
War II, and again at the end of the Cold War. The creation of institutions
in immediate postwar settlement periods may be the result of war fatigue among the great powers. It seems, however, that war fatigue has a
limited life span, and postwar institutions become weaker or extinct as
the institutions prove increasingly unable to address major issues. The
importance accorded to institutions by major powers after a conflict
temporarily facilitates soft balancing.
Fourth, broad participation by all key states in institutions is a factor in the success of soft balancing. After a war, the winning and losing
sides should both have a significant role to play in international affairs.
The success of the Concert System is attributable in part to its continued
incorporation of victors and defeated powers. The same has been true
of the post–World War II multilateral system. The post–World War I
institutional system was less representative and less permanent. John
Ikenberry has argued that the U.S. designed and developed institutions
in the post–World War II era to constrain the behavior of its allies.32 Yet
not only the U.S. but all great powers have on occasion used the post–
World War II multilateral institutions to further their strategic goals and
to constrain their opponents. Only when great powers were excluded
from the dominant institutions have they failed to play a role. Broad
participation in international institutions especially facilitates soft balancing if it enables states to benefit from economic integration and
growth. The immediate post–Cold War era, when economic globalization encouraged leading powers to support welfare-enhancing institutions, was one such opportunity.
Fifth, soft balancing works better when defensive and deterrent
systems dominate the day’s military weapons. Offensive weaponry can
be correlated with offensive doctrines, aggressive warfare, and a rising
power’s desire to use force to alter the status quo. Soft balancing has also

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failed when technology and ideology led states to see an advantage in
conquest. When aggressive states could (or thought they could) achieve
their goals easily through offensive military means, institutions were
often perceived as perpetuating an unjust order.
Sixth, the success of soft-balancing techniques could depend on
the target state’s relative dependence on limited sources for its economic well-being and the absence of alternate trading partners or sources
of national income. This is one reason economic globalization and
high levels of interdependence favor soft balancing, but this variable
alone may not be sufficient to prevent hard-balancing coalitions from
emerging. The effectiveness of soft balancing may also depend on the
degree of international support for the sanction regimes. If other sources are available, the target state could ignore the sanctions and continue
its aggressive behavior.
Finally, the success of a soft-balancing strategy will depend on how
much domestic support the state resorting to it has to sustain the strategy, and how much its actions can influence domestic political opinion
in the target state. A state may attempt soft balancing if dominant coalitions within the ruling structure demand and support it. While this may
explain one side of the story, the target state’s public opinion matters
too if the strategy is to succeed. If soft balancing by other states makes
the target’s public more nationalistic, then the strategy could backfire, as
happened with Italy and Japan prior to World War II. The target state
must contain powerful factions that can push it to modify its behavior
toward a nonthreatening posture.
These conditions are ideals, and not all of them need to be present
for soft balancing to succeed.

Critics of Soft Balancing
During the past decade, the soft-balancing literature has drawn much
criticism, chiefly from realist scholars. The main criticisms can be summarized as follows. First, these scholars contend that there is little empirical support for the phenomenon of soft balancing, and that the
limited number of cases makes it difficult to produce a valid theory.
Second, soft balancing is more like simple “diplomatic friction” than a


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concerted policy, and therefore it lacks coherence. Third, it is best understood as a rhetorical device rather than an active policy instrument.
Fourth, as a policy instrument, its value is questionable because success
is not guaranteed. Finally, soft balancing is relevant only under conditions of unipolarity and hence has limited value for situations where
power is not concentrated in one state.33 I will take up these criticisms in
First, soft balancing makes many appearances in the historical record, going back well beyond the post–Cold War era. States have relied
on it as a complement to hard balancing since at least the Concert of
Europe. A number of scholars have noticed its regional operation in
places ranging from Africa to Latin America to Central Asia.34 Others
have examined its validity in different historical eras and international
systems.35 Second, soft balancing is more than diplomatic friction. It implies active use of institutions, limited coalitions, and coordinated actions for an extended period, all employing specific strategies aimed at
restraining a threatening power and changing its behavior. States that
engage in soft balancing are intentionally targeting a powerful actor.
The definition of soft balancing I use focuses on three key strategies. Not
every diplomatic activity meant to frustrate a great power’s threatening
behavior qualifies as soft balancing. The actions need to be consistent
and applied systematically for a period of time. As the case studies in
subsequent chapters demonstrate, great powers have used institutions
on a coordinated and consistent basis to restrain the power and aggressive policies of targeted states. Non-great-power states have also consistently used these mechanisms as conscious policy instruments.
Third, soft balancing is a rational and calculated response to
threatening behavior, employed when other options, such as alliances
and arms buildups, are not easily available. It is not a mere rhetorical
device but a consistent strategic approach relying on mechanisms such
as institutions and economic sanctions. It differs from routine diplomacy and may be more a matter of necessity than choice. The case studies suggest that other options may not be seen as viable when the target
state is too powerful or the balancing state is too reliant on the other’s
markets and protection. This seems particularly important when small
and medium powers opt for soft-balancing strategies. They can be at-

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tractive because hard balancing, almost by definition, is directed at adversaries, while soft balancing can also be directed at friends when a
specific policy is found to be objectionable. Moreover, hard balancing is
more rigid and thus more difficult to embed in a hedging strategy,
whereas soft balancing fits easily within a hedging strategy and permits
flexibility in state policies.
Fourth, there is no dispute that soft balancing does not always
work, just as there is no guarantee that hard balancing can create permanent or even temporary peace. A balance in material power is seldom
permanent but always subject to changes in technology and in economic fortunes. Revisionist powers feel a strong temptation to break the
military balance and may use asymmetric strategies to gain an advantage over militarily superior opponents. Often defeating such a determined adversary requires overwhelming preponderance in capabilities,
not just equilibrium.
Finally, soft balancing is not irrelevant outside a unipolar era. As I
show in the next chapter, it was practiced by European great powers
during multipolar eras as well. Soft balancing appears to be a viable
strategy under all systems in world politics, be they multipolar, bipolar,
or unipolar. It may be used along with hard balancing, although its application may be limited, and could well become a key approach in the
emerging international order, given the constraints on hard balancing
imposed by intensified globalization and nuclear deterrence.
The discipline of international relations can learn much about softer
approaches from other disciplines. For instance, soft law is a well-established, powerful branch of international law that supplements hard laws—
those that create precise obligations and have proper authority to interpret
and implement them. Soft laws have weaker arrangements, obligations,
and implementation as well as more fluid interpretations. Many countries
prefer soft laws because they are less threatening to sovereignty and because soft law is more flexible and adaptable to compromise among different actors.36 Soft balancing has some of the same advantages. It can also
avoid the entrapment problem inherent in hard-balancing alliances: that
allies are obliged by treaty obligations to fight unwanted wars.
Similarly, soft power has in recent years been recognized as an
important component of national power. As defined by its leading theorist,


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Joseph Nye, soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a
country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”37 Scholars of international
relations now accept the existence of soft law and soft power—although
they are uncertain how to measure their effects. Nothing should prevent
us, therefore, from recognizing and theorizing softer approaches to balancing power. The instruments of soft balancing can be observed and measured through careful empirical work. These three approaches—soft law,
soft power, and soft balancing—are united by their focus on loose conceptual definitions and an absence of hard instruments or mechanisms.
Skeptics of institutional means to restraining power often argue
that institutions do not bring lasting peace. John Mearsheimer contends
that their impact on world politics is minimal. They simply reflect the
preferences of powerful actors, and their creation and maintenance depend on those actors’ influence. Cooperation is difficult, as states have a
powerful incentive to take advantage of each other and to cheat if an
opportunity arises. War prevention comes largely through hard balancing, not through institutions.38
This criticism of institutions reflects an apolitical understanding of
their value. If they are worthless enterprises, why do great powers participate in so many of them and sometimes allow themselves to adhere to
institutional norms? Why would great powers agree to be bound by them?
These critical perspectives also ignore the classical realist attention to diplomacy, international law, and the legitimacy of power. As Robert Keohane points out, classical realists such as E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau,
as well as some contemporary realists like Joseph Grieco, recognized the
importance of international institutions in the context of power-based
bargaining between states.39 Morgenthau, in his later writings, even saw
supranational institutions as a means of controlling nuclear weapons. He
felt that broad membership in institutions and concession by all members
of some amount of national sovereignty were very much in every nation’s
interest.40 Great powers often have had little choice but to use institutions
when war and military balancing were not readily available options.
The objection that institutional balancing is fleeting might also be applied to balancing through weaponry and alliances. These can also be fleeting, if they work at all. The cost of arms races is often justified by the

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argument that if a state does not balance, it will face even higher costs in the
future. But these costs can sometimes be reduced through soft balancing.
For instance, if the U.S. gets into a severe balance of power competition with
China, it will generate a costly arms race. China’s participation in international institutions and the globalized world economy offers an opportunity
to restrain it while facilitating a peaceful and legitimate rise to power.
Though the dynamics of military competition remains implicit, interdependent economies can use institutions to restrain each other. Against China, this form of restraint may be more effective than a military strategy
alone, as China is likely to respond militarily, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of costly arms buildups and potential crises. This does not mean that
limited hard balancing is not a feasible means to restrain a rising power—
but it may often work better alongside soft-balancing techniques.
Similarly, China could use its membership in international
institutions—or create new ones, as it has been attempting to do—to attain its goals as a rising power while maintaining its legitimacy. Its practice
of escalating territorial disputes will simply alienate neighboring states that
could otherwise give C