Kenneth Waltz’s Concept of the Balance of Power

Kenneth Waltz begins his discussion of the balance of power by asking the question of whether or not it even exists. He asks whether or not it is an illusion or reality. He feels that it does exist and that it is strongly a part of states everyday reality. He feels this way, because he believes that a key factor to states, if not the most important factor is the one of survival. States are not guaranteed security, unless they provide it for themselves, according to Waltz. States will do whatever is necessary to protect themselves, including cooperation and forming coalitions, to guarantee this security.

Waltz uses an example of an ordinary card game to help examine his point. He says that in a card game, with two or more players, one who wants to win has to follow a strategy. Not just his own, but the strategies of the other players as well. To win this game, one may form a coalition with another, although that player could have been considered the “enemy” less than a few minuets ago. Waltz also points out that this collaboration between the two comes when another player is on the verge of winning. He also states that this cooperation, may not even happen, for various reasons. These reasons could be that the two dislike each other too much, or that they are not intelligent enough to realize that this cooperation needs to happen.

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Here Waltz is able to take a simple card game, and develop the basic reasons, why states cooperate, and this reason is because they want to balance the power of another state, that is on the verge of winning the “game”. The result of another state winning the “game” is that the other states involved are now at a loss. He also displays how a state can loose, by being blind to the need to cooperate. States may not balance the power of another, because of such things as states not getting along, or the fact that they are just too ignorant to realize that they need to cooperate so that they can both benefit. Waltz example of the card game helps to show that the balance of power does exists between states in the international system.

Waltz also gives an example using a pie. He says that in some games changes in strategy may be advantageous to both groups. Here he uses the pie to show that the problem is not just how to divided the pie, between players, but also how much to make so that everyone can revise maximum benefit. Two things he feels could happen. 1) All the players may cooperate to make the biggest pie, or 2) the players will be too concerned with the pie that already exists and how it will be divided, so they forget about maximizing the pie to increase the amount that everyone will get.

These two examples relate to international politics by the fact that the first example can be used to say that all states may band together with nature against them, according to Waltz. He uses the second example to show how two sides join together, and their gains become the other party’s loss. Waltz also says that there is another possibility. That the game will not be played at all, because no one likes pie.

Waltz says that states have many objects, but yet their main concern is survival. He also says that many states prefer to play a game in which all states work together to solve problems of maximization, while others prefer to play no game at all. Yet the freedom of states to decide what games to play hinders other states from making decisions, and the freedom that one state has, is limited by the actions of other states. This is why states balance power, according to Waltz; they would be silly not too. They would be silly not to, because it all comes back down to the question of the survival of the state, and what is done to preserve this survival.

Waltz also suggests that the balance of power exists because in the international system there is no government. This promotes the use of force from one state to another. The states use force because there is no one to stop them. In this case it is easy to use balancing acts, because it is key to the survivial of the state.

Waltz also says that in cards it is immoral to cheat, and that rules and morals are established through customs. These customs are enforced; by the fact that any player can quit when they see fit. This is not true however in the international system. If a state cheats, and goes beyond the boundaries set, then other states cannot just simply quit the “game”. They have to make the decision of either abiding by the code and risking their states survival, or breaking the code in order to preserve the state. This breaking of the code is done by balancing of power, because other states will join together to stop the breaker of the code from advancing in any gains.

Toward the end of his discussion Waltz gives an example of the Atlantic Security Pact, and how Tannenbaum claims this is only a temporary and defensive, and therefore is not a balance of power, but just a system of collective security for the moment, to divide ourselves from Russia. Yet Waltz points out that this was a balance of power because it was motivated out of the fear of the Soviet power. The balance of power exists because of the fact that states joined together in order to help deter the Soviet Union from war and aggression.


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Kenneth Waltz’s Concept of the Balance of Power. (2018, Aug 23). Retrieved from