As a new synthesis, the following re-designed “Balancing Continuum” can be presented for the analyses on this website.
Hard balancing usually focuses on the overall balance of power and seeks to assemble a countervailing coalition that will be strong enough to keep the dominant power in check, no matter what policies it decides to pursue. The most robust reaction to unipolarity would be the formation of a countervailing equal coalition to contain the strongest state. This response is what classical balance of power theory would lead to expect and a number of scholars have predicted precisely this outcome over the past decade.
In Waltz’s classic formulation, states can balance either by internal effort or by cooperating with others. In either case, the aim is to strengthen one’s ability to defend one’s interests in the uncertain world of anarchy. Both internal and external balancing can be directed against very specific threats but it can also consist of more general treaties of mutual support regardless of the precise identity of the threat.
During the period of first twentyfive years of unipolarity (1990-2014), there have been no real attempts to organize a formal alliance whose explicit purpose is to contain the United States and even the most far-reaching informal efforts have been fairly modest. Hard balancing emerged strongly on the international scene since 2014 events and this empirical material will be examined closely later.
Targeted hard balancing (Issue-specific balancing)
This is “a new concept” in this respect. The essential content of this type of balancing is the following:
- usually characterized by “hard balancing”
- commonly used for a limited period of time and in certain or particular purposes as well as ad hoc-type
- utilization of proxy warriors or other proxies to carry out certain “camouflage” operations on behalf of a particular mandatory, in order to avoid e.g. direct confrontation of two great powers
- proxies can be other states, guerilla teams or other armed militias, even terrorist groups, private contractors etc.
- utilization of sanctions, trade wars and other similar punitive non-military tools, available to a sanctioning state
- “hybrid affection”, cyber warfare, digital tools etc.
The use of targeted balancing has been increasing extensively during the unipolarity era, especially in the last ten years.
In this context, the term asymmetric balancing can also be spoken about. It refers to the efforts of a nation state to balance and contain indirect threats posed by subnational actors (e.g. terrorist groups) that do not have the ability to challenge major states using conventional military capabilities. Asymmetric balancing also refers to efforts by subnational actors and their state sponsors to challenge and weaken established states using asymmetric means such as terrorism. (Paul, Wirt, Fortmann, 2004)
Instead of hard balancing, efforts to join forces to counter the unipole (the US) power or limit its influence have generally taken the form of soft balancing. These actions have been directed against specific US policies rather than against the overall distribution of power itself. Soft balancing accepts the current balance of power but seeks to obtain better outcomes within it, by assembling countervailing coalitions, ententes or limited security understandings designed to balance specific policies of a potentially threatening state (unipole) or arising power.
In the current unipolarity, soft balancing is the conscious coordination of diplomatic action in order to obtain outcomes contrary to US preferences, outcomes that could not be gained if the balancers did not give each other some degree of mutual support. Soft balancers combine their diplomatic assets in order to defend their interests. Soft balancing seeks to limit the ability of the unipole to impose its preferences on others. Soft balancing may be based also on a limited arms buildup, ad hoc cooperative exercises or collaboration in regional or international institutions (like the UN).
“Leash-slipping” – alignment intended to enhance autonomy
Under unipolarity, other states may also form an alliance not to balance or constrain the unipole but to reduce their dependence on the unipole by pooling their own capabilities. The objective is not to balance the unipole in the near term but to gain a certain autonomy and hedge against future uncertainties. Layne has termed this response “leash-slipping”, which he describes as “a form of insurance against a hegemon that might someday exercise its power in a predatory and menacing| fashion.” (Layne 2006)
This motivation for enhanced autonomy is not purely structural. As the EU case illustrates, the desire to gain greater autonomy is most likely to arise when a group of states has become too dependent on the unipole’s assets. Having allowed their military capabilities to atrophy during the Cold War (because protection of the US forces could be taken for granted and free riding was easy), the European states now find themselves in a position where they must develop autonomous military capabilities or eschew a major global role and remain dependent on US leadership.
States may opt for neutrality in the following cases:
(1) when they face multiple threats that appear to pose equal dangers,
(2) when they foresee no imminent threats at all, or
(3) when they are simply trying to remain aloof in the face of great power competition.
Apart from a few special cases (e.g. Switzerland), however, true neutrality is likely to be rarer in unipolarity than in other system structures, because the unipole is likely to force others to declare their positions openly.
Bandwagoning occurs when a state chooses to align with the strongest or most threatening state it faces, that is the unipole. It is essentially a form of appeasement: by bandwagoning, threatened states seek to convince the dominant power to leave them alone.
Bandwagoning behavior has been historically rare and has generally been confined to very weak and isolated states. The reason is simple: the decision to bandwagon requires the weaker side to put its fate in the hands of a more powerful state whom it suspects (usually with good reason) of harboring hostile intentions.
By bandwagoning with the main source of danger, a threatened state accepts greater vulnerability in the hope that the dominant power’s appetites are sated or diverted. It is widely accepted that bandwagoning will be more common in unipolarity, both because it is harder to balance against the unipole and because the unipole is in a better position to punish opponents and reward clients. Hansen’s (2009) concepts of flocking and free-riding belong to this category of bandwagoning.
Under unipolarity, an alternative motivation for close ties with the dominant power is the desire for protection, normally against some sort of regional threat. Thus, what might at first glance appear to be bandwagoning may actually be a specific form of balancing, where the threat to be countered is a neighboring power or some other local problems. Regional balancing may be a common motivation for alliances with the unipole but the willingness to ally with the unipole will depend heavily on its geographic proximity and its ability to provide the collective good of security at low cost and risk.