Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Literature Review: Balance of Power and Power Transition Theories of Alliances, Morgenthau, Organski, Kugler, and Bueno de Mesquita

  • Morgenthau, Hans J. 1973. Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 5th ed. New York: Knopf.
  • Organski, A. F. K. 1968. World Politics. 2d ed. New York: Knopf
  • Organski, A. F. K., and Jacek Kugler. 1980. The War Ledger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce. 1988. "The Contribution of Expected Utility Theory to the Study of International Conflict." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18: 629- 52.
  • Singer, J. David, Stuart Bremer, and John Stuckey. 1972. "Capability Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War, 1820- 1965." In Peace, War, and Numbers, ed. Bruce M. Russett. Beverly Hills: Sage.
The balance of power and power transition theories of alliances argue for different conceptions of the fundamental role of alliances than the capabilities aggregation model and the security-autonomy trade-off model of alliances. In the balance of power theory (Morgenthau 1973), nations form alliances to offset growing powers and restore the balance. Alliances in a balance of power system should be nonideological and last as long as the immediate threat. This view is the capability aggregation model. Prospective allies are just capabilities that can be added through alliance, and once the threat to the balance has been countered, the alliance is unnecessary and should be broken.

The power transition theory (Organski 1968; Organski and Kugler 1980) postulates an international system dominated by one nation. This dominant state forms a large alliance from the lesser powers that share its ideology. Nations not in this satisfied coalition may form alliances dedicated to the overthrow of the existing international system. Alliances in a power transition system should be ideological and long-lasting.

From the perspective of the argument of this paper, the theories are both correct and incorrect because, as Bueno de Mesquita (1988, 641-42) points out, they make different assumptions about the distribution of capabilities in the system. Balance of power theory assumes an international system composed of a number of major powers with relatively equal capabilities. The role of minor powers is ignored because they do not possess sufficient capabilities to shift the balance of power. In the international system postulated by balance of power theory, only symmetric alliances can be formed because all possible allies have equal capabilities. Alliances are formed only to gain security (i.e., nonideological) and do not persist because they are symmetric. Power transition theory, however, assumes a system with one dominants tate holding a preponderance of power. Any alliance that the dominant state forms is asymmetric. (Symmetric alliances are those in which both allies receive security or autonomy benefits. Asymmetric alliances are those in which one ally gains security and the other autonomy.) Alliances in a power transition system are formed to advance the autonomy interests of the dominant state or challenger (i.e., ideological) and persist because they are asymmetric.

Both theories are right in the sense that given their assumptions about the international system and their focus on relations among equals or between the dominant state and all others, their conclusions about alliances follow. However, widening our analysis of alliances shows that those conclusions are not general. The argument presented in Morrow (1991) also explains why both theories should be able to find supporting evidence in the historical record. Scholars generally see the nineteenth century as a balance of power period, while the power transition model fits the twentieth century better (e.g., Singer, Bremer, and Stuckey's 1972 results on the effects of systemic concentration of capabilities on war). The alliances examined in Morrow (1991) reflect this observation; symmetric alliances are formed more frequently in the nineteenth century (26 symmetric alliances versus 16 asymmetric alliances) than in the twentieth century (62 to 60). But in both centuries, asymmetric alliances last longer on the average than symmetric alliances.

From: Morrow, James D. 1991. "Alliances and Asymmetry: An Alternative to the Capability Aggregation Model of Alliances." American Journal of Political Science 35(4): 904-933.

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