The New Balance of Power

This is a guest post from Jonathan Padway, an American currently serving in the Peace Corps in Rwanda. It was my pleasure to contribute my thoughts to the piece as well.

In the 19th century,the pattern of diplomacy was dictated by a balance of power between states: Europe to be geographically precise. The major players understood that if they allowed one state to become too large in power and influence, that state would dominate the globe. Various medium powers, throughout the 19th century, shifted their power to the weaker side to balance the power spectrum within Europe to ensure that no one state would dominate the rest.

The rise of the German empire in the 19th century, resulting from the late-blooming of an industrial revolution, enrolled Germany as a major player in the balance of power. Otto von Bismarck used Germany’s position to maintain a balance within the system through treaties and alliances within Europe.  World War I was the eventual result of these diplomatic tactics: Germany became too large for the others to contain and a new dynamic was the result.  

Woodrow Wilson, in his 14 Points, outlined the evolution of diplomacy and relations between states. He proclaimed that America’s duty was to promote democracy, intervene where injustice was rampant, and enforce the tenants of the constitution as rules for global citizens. Before the Great War, America’s diplomatic tactics of isolation allowed the country to avoid Europe’s quarrels and stood as a beacon of light for democracy. Wilson’s proclamation however ended that era of “isolation” (discounting the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt’s Corollary, and the Manifest Destiny: anything related to America’s sphere of influence). The 20th century was dominated by American will and influence. The balance of power system established by the, at the time, dominant European powers had been replaced by the American vision of democracy, good governance, and free will.

Post-World War II Europe placed America at the forefront of diplomacy. The United States used this opportunity of flexibility to impose a world of diplomacy that mirrored American wishes. The formation of organizations such as the UN, NATO, Bretton-Woods, and an influential role in economic policy, such as through the Marshall Plan, embedded the American style into global relations between states. International organizations formed under the auspices of the American government, with their style and influence embedded in their bureaucracy. The Cold War pitted American-styled democracy against Soviet-styled dictatorship. Even so, the pattern of influence and imposition of “a world safe for democracy” by United States diplomats ruled the day.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the technology revolution of the 1990s spawned a challenge for this style of intervention diplomacy. No longer was American meddling in foreign affairs perceived to be promoting democracy, but as an intrusion into the affairs of sovereign states (The Afghanistan and Iraq wars and drone attacks stand examples). Not that this wasn’t the case before the 1990s, but there was no longer a “Red Menace” to combat. The technology revolution allowed for mass information to be shared among the world’s population, creating a major base of educated persons. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States had no force to focus their diplomatic efforts against. The dynamic of global diplomacy had changed overnight and the American sights had no target to set upon.


The New Balance of Power that emerged from the technology revolution of the 1990s and dissolution of the Soviet Union, coupled with the coming of the EU, does not allow for a unipolar world of diplomacy. The rise of competitive sovereigns to the United States calls for a new outlook on American diplomacy. A new variation of balance of power politics. World leaders must now not only take into account the superpowers and economically dominant states but they must also cooperate with emerging supranational institutions and what I call the “global citizen.” The balance, as newly defined, exists as such: global superpowers, economic hegemons, supranational institutions (conglomerations of states), and the global citizen. All of the voices inherent in each of the above players represent concerns from legitimate sources with power behind every voice.

The 19th century’s balance of power relied on measuring the relative powers of Europe against each other and checking them to ensure that no one power would emerge dominant. The 21st century’s balance of power must also incorporate this, but on a global scale. The relevant players may be the United States, China, India, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to name a few. This list is not by any means exhaustive. If we are to have a solvent diplomatic balance, the players must account for everyone’s wishes and make certain that no one power exceeds the rest. It is imperative that it be a system of cooperation and diplomacy rather than the force and realism of the 19th century. This is not to say that the United States should weaken their voice and military might but, in a world where a delicate balance exists, we must recognize that a bull in a china shop is not the solution to the game of diplomacy. The new players (supranational institutions and the global citizen) present the field with such delicate dynamics as mentioned. The will and voices of these many outweigh the strength of any amount of firepower. We must see each other as a global community rather than a fragmented society of aggressors.

Emerging supranational institutions will inevitably play a role in the new balance of power. The European Union, the African Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and MERCOSUR (South America’s trade bloc) represent examples of these emerging bastions of power. They vary vastly not only in purpose but also in structure. This does not diminish their potential effect on diplomacy’s evolution in the 21st century. These must also be taken into account by diplomats when discussing, forming, and implementing policy. The growth of these supranational institutions is leading on a path of collective governance, responsibility, and power. The European Union stands out as a striking example of the growing importance of these institutions. As a united front, the states of Europe have increasingly more legitimacy in global affairs due to their combined voice.

The rising “global citizen.” This term is defined by the world populace. It is based on the premise that a global conscience exists, voiced through the internet. We have seen the existence of this body whenever civil unrest is prevalent in a country. The internet ignites in support for the suffering victims of a country’s ill-management. This has been witnessed innumerable times: the Arab Spring, Venezuela, and Ukraine as recent examples. Concerned global citizens voice their unease and disapproval over the forum of the internet which sets off a media frenzy, placing the issue front and center to diplomats and policy-makers. This body did not just emerge overnight, but it was lent a hand with the spawn of the internet and the tech revolution of the ‘90s. The internet is a tool beyond anything the world’s history has ever seen. Not only can vast stores of information be accessed from almost anywhere on the globe, but the ability to communicate to almost any population is now available to the general public. Through this medium, a common voice has arisen among people. An appreciation for general rights has been recognized and that common voice rallies against suppression of those rights. With the internet as a tool, the ability to rally support and pressure bodies of governance through online petitions and awareness is becoming more commonplace. The global citizenry speaks in force to change the tide of politics, society, and the like, to what is in their favor.

In accordance with the 19th century balance of power, the intentions of many players must be taken into account in order to create a functioning diplomatic system in the world for this new century. However, as a departure from that period of history, the players are no longer only states confined to Europe, and realism is contrary to the functioning of the New Balance of Power. This system for the 21st century must rely on cooperation and bargaining. The playing field is no longer reserved only for states, it has been opened to emerging powers, up-and-coming supranational institutions, and the rising “global citizen.”




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