Types of Balancing Strategies in the Unipolar Order

Document Type : Research Paper


Associate Professor, Faculty of Law and Political Science, Yazd University, Yazd, Iran



After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the distribution of power in the international system changed from bipolar—based on the principle of power balance between two poles— to unipolar. Since then, one of the most important questions raised by the main international relations theorists, particularly realist theorists, is why in this type of order, there is no effective military balance against the sole pole of the system (i.e., the U.S.), according to the balance of power theory. In response to this question, optimists and pessimists have expressed different opinions regarding the occurrence of equilibrium in the unipolar system. This article presents a conceptual model with a different and expanded view of the concept of balance of power by considering the balancing to be a state behavior and not a mechanical process and the result of international politics. Based on this notion and on the conceptual model presented in this article, we conclude that in the unipolar system, we can witness the balancing behavior of secondary powers, middle powers, and even small states. Therefore, the main questions of this research are as follows: 1. Why do states turn to balancing strategies in the unipolar system? 2. What are the different types of these strategies? 3. How do states resort to balancing strategies in this type of international system? 4. When do they do so? A qualitative approach is used in this research, and the method of conceptual analysis of different viewpoints of the prominent international relations theorists is selected for qualitative data collection and hypothesis testing.
Based on the conceptual model and considering the types of "positive and negative balancing", we are trying to reach a broader understanding of the concept of balance, in the sense that we assume the states balancing behaviors towards a unipole include different behavioral actions which are not be limited to strictly military balance emphasized by realist and neorealist theorists. "Negative balancing" refers to the attempts to undermine the relative power of the rival (unipole); while "positive balancing" involves the efforts to increase a state's own power. Each of these two strategies includes military and nonmilitary aspects. For example, military and nonmilitary positive balancing includes two types of “internal and external balancing”. Negative and positive military balancing also have different strategies such as buck passing, proxy balance, creation of hybrid threats, obliging, use of intertwined diplomacy, and so forth. Furthermore, the question of what type of balancing strategies each state considers in facing unipole is influenced by various variables, which encompass the following: the level and intensity of the threat of the unipolar state, the objective or subjective nature of the unipolar threat, "balance effectiveness" and "balance cost", the degree of economic interdependence between the unipolar state and other powers, the path to power of unipole and the nature of aims of the revisionist states.
The findings are that balancing is a completely voluntary behavior based on completely different strategies ranging from "positive balancing" to "non-military negative balancing". The decision about which types of balancing strategy a government in any given point in time adopts in order to deal with the issue of unipolarity, is influenced by various factors that are discussed in this research. Moreover, it is indicated that there are balancing behaviors of the non-unipolar states in the unipolar international system, in addition to such behaviors of the unipole. In general, the primary strategy of the unipole in the unipolar system is to manage the internal balancing through efforts aimed at increasing its military power (positive military balancing) as well as its economic and technological power (positive nonmilitary balancing) to confront security threats and safeguard its superior position. Furthermore, its secondary strategy is to maintain the external balancing (i.e., positive military balancing and positive nonmilitary balancing) through the formation of alliances and coalitions with allies to deal with rising powers or lesser powers that are revisionist states.



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Volume 52, Issue 2 - Serial Number 2
August 2022
Pages 451-425
  • Receive Date: 27 April 2022
  • Revise Date: 21 August 2022
  • Accept Date: 12 September 2022
  • First Publish Date: 12 October 2022