Collective Security Leads to Peace, while Balance of Power Leads to War.

Introduction of Concepts

            Balance of power (B.O.P) politics is the international relations(IR) perspective held by realists, which states that peace is maintained when rivaling states try to balance power among themselves, weaker states would create alliances to face the growing power of a dominant state to makes sure that they cannot unilaterally act to damage the security of weaker states. There are many versions of “balance of power” theory, for convenience’s sake the version we will critique here posits that, “because units in anarchic systems have an interest in maximizing their long-term odds on survival (security), they will check dangerous concentrations of power (hegemony) by building up their own capabilities (internal balancing), aggregating their capabilities with those of other units in alliances (external balancing), and/or adopting the successful power-generating practices of the prospective hegemon (emulation)”.[1]

The power that realists mainly focus on is military power and material resources. Realists usually believe that those with more power will use that power to force the weak to obey their will; this is the perspective they bring to understand human history and global governance. Balance of power politics is the paradigm that every human civilization operated under for most of human history, which makes collective security a novel idea in the context of global and regional governance among humans. The version of collective security we will be examining here is outlined primarily in the founding principles of The League of Nations that U.S President Woodrow Wilson endeavored to create in the early 1900s. Collectivists believes that peace can be achieved by states coming together to respect each other’s sovereignty and promising to protect each other from the military aggression of hostile states. They also believe that conflicts between states should be resolved by bringing disputes to international organizations who rely on fair negations, instead of utilizing hostile military threats or espionage.

This analysis will demonstrate that balance power politics, always, without exception, leads to military buildup and all-out war, instead of “balance” or peace between the states involved. Examples from all over the globe, from multiple time periods of human history will be utilized to show what a tremendous failure this realist perspective on IR has been. It will also show that the liberal collective security paradigm has been the most successful IR paradigm to bring about and maintain peace among states that adopt this liberal paradigm. We will also address some of the flaws of collective security that its opponents rightly point out.

The many failures of the Balance of Power Paradigm

We start our journey 3,000 years ago, in the rivaling states of the Near East, mainly in Iraq and Assyria, during the period from 900-600 BCE.[2] The region was made up of several large powerful states and many smaller less powerful ones. According to Wohlforth et al, “While there is a great deal we do not know about this system, we do know that its members engaged in diplomacy and war; that they ultimately came to recognize a hegemonic threat emanating from Assyria, which promoted a militaristic ideology asserting its universal authority; and that institutional innovations played a decisive role in enabling Assyria’s eventual hegemony”.2 Due to the rise of Assyria, the region went from being a multipolar system to a unipolar one with Assyrian domination. King Shalmaneser the III is credited for this rapid rise of Assyrian regional domination. In response to this threat from Assyria, a coalition of 12 Levantine states rose to challenge them, their opposition centered in Damascus. This is what realists call chain ganging, when smaller states feel that they are not secure against a rising regional hegemon so they join in a coalition of states to have more power to confront the hegemon.

Inevitably, this Damascus-Coalition launched a war against Assyria, with some early success, as in the Battle of Qarqar (853BCE), but ultimately they were defeated by the Assyrians after many bloody battles. Assyrians rose to complete domination of the region in 841 BCE; they controlled all the states directly or via vassals. But, their vassals eventually rebelled and another round of wars began, including civil wars within Assyria, which, by 820 BCE, reduced Assyria to shambles.1

Moving forward, we arrive at our next example in Greece during the time of the first Persian expansion into Europe around 499 BCE. The Persian Empire had become the largest geopolitical force in history at that time, spanning across 3 continents from Africa, through the Near East, to Southeast Asia. The Greeks and the Persians were operating under a paradigm of balance of power, in fact, within Greece itself, there was warring among the largest city states, which were Athens and Sparta. When the threat of Persian invasion became a reality, in true balance of power fashion, some Greeks wanted to bandwagon (surrender to Persia and become part of the Persian Empire), while others wanted to mount a military campaign against them, and others still wanted to do nothing. These are referred to as “balancing strategies” by realists. These are the remedies that were available to the Greeks in the face of the Persian threat, become slaves to Persia or wage war against them.

After two invasions by the Persians, the Athenians built up their navy, an example of military buildup that is common in the B.O.P paradigm, to better wage naval warfare against the Persians. Ultimately, 40 smaller Greek city-states banded together with Athens to form what is called the Hellenic League, but it was led by the Spartans.[3] But, some other city states like Argos decided to “free-ride” along the Hellenic League, meaning that they did not offer any material support to the Greek campaigns against the Persians, but they stood to reap the benefits of a Greek victory just as much as the city-states that were sending their soldiers to die and expending their resources for a potential victory. Free riding is an expected outcome of the B.O.P paradigm. Other city-states like Thebes opted to bandwagon with Persia and stand against their fellow Greeks.

Ultimately, Persia failed to take over mainland Greece; the Hellenic League was successful in repelling the Persian advance. However, it is argued by some that, “The factor most responsible for preserving Greek independence was not balancing but the logistical difficulty of getting supplies across the Bosporus, accentuated by revolts that were occurring in other parts of the Persian Empire (Balcer, 1995: 297).[4] Following their victories the Greeks formed the Delian League, led by the Athenians and they grew their land and naval power, eventually driving out the Persians completely from their lands. The Delian League started out as a voluntary alliance, but eventually transformed into an empire ruled by Athens, and this process led to revolts by Corinth, Thebes, and Spartan which led to the Peloponnesian Wars.

Moving forward in time and place, we arrive in China in the period between 656-221 BCE, during the rise of the Chinese multi-state system, marking the end of the Zhou Dynasty. Due to internal conflicts and multiple warring states the Zhou Dynasty collapsed, and afterward many other city-states such as the Chu, Qi, Jin, Wu, and Wei vied for domination. None of them were able to take control of the entire empire. But, out of nowhere a small defensive state know as Qin started to build up their military in 356 BCE, introducing mandatory military conscription and development of an elite fighting force of professional soldiers. This was in response to aggression from their neighbors the Wei. Qin was located in a militarily disadvantageous part of China near the west bank of the Yellow River. After many military, economic, and social reforms, the Qin defeated their oppressive neighbors, the Wei, and proceeded to take over half of the states that made up China. After many brutal wars, they became a unipolar hegemon in the region by 221 BCE.[5]

As expected, the smaller states who felt threatened by the Qin banded together to try and balance their power but it was too late. The Qin had crossed the unipolar threshold and it was no longer feasible to defeat them. Despite bloody uprisings, the Qin Dynasty stayed an unrivaled military power until 206 BCE, when it’s military overstretching lead to internal turmoil and its eventual collapse and the rise of the Han Dynasty.5

As we can see by all of these examples from around the world, balance power theory never brings lasting peace, because there is no genuine respect for sovereignty between the states involved. All of them are simply waiting for an opportunity to see a weakness in their neighbors to attack them and take over. It breeds an atmosphere of constant suspicion and mistrust. More crucially, it leads to a perpetual arms race. Everyone is trying to perfect their fighting force slightly more than their rivals to have a military advantage. This type of mindset leads to a constant aggressive posture that never results in peace. This can also be seen in the lead up to WWI in Western Europe and during the Cold War between the U.S and The Soviet Union. B.O.P politics is the reason that most of human history is so bloody and filled with misery for the average human living in these situations, because there is a constant cycle of violence among competing city-states with no end in sight.

The Success of Collective Security in establishing and maintaining Peace.

            A general definition of collectively security can be stated as the following, “The case for collective security rests on the claim that regulated, institutionalized balancing predicated on the notion of all against one provides more stability than unregulated, self-help balancing predicated on the notion of each for his own. Under collective security, states agree to abide by certain norms and rules to maintain stability and, when necessary, band together to stop aggression. Stability, the absence of major war is the product of cooperation”.[6] In the real world, the security is provided through international organizations, like the United Nations, NATO, or the European Union. These organizations facilitate the process of conflict resolution, when conflicts arise, so as to prevent states from taking violent unilateral actions. We will now examine the most successful case study of collective security; The European Union. Collective security is not simply a foreign policy paradigm, it has certain social and economic theories associated with it as well, stemming from liberal democratic thought; these aspects will be expanded upon later.

The European Union

The European Union had its beginning in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) which was formed as a response to WW1 and WW2. After seeing the destruction and loss of life that WWI & II brought with it, European leaders were eager to embark on a path to peace so that such wars would not occur again. Taking a leading role in this effort was French foreign minister Robert Schuman. He proposed the creation of the ECSC in an effort to, “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”. What he meant by this was that this treaty would create a common market for coal and steel production that would make these natural resources accessible to all the members of the treaty, and would prevent conflicts over these vital natural resources.

The ECSC was joined by six original countries: Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Luxembourg; the countries that suffered the most amount of destruction from WW2, save for Britain, who joined later on. Over time the ECSC evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. Then, it evolved into the European Communities (EC), with every evolution increasing its membership. Then in 1985, the Schengen Agreement was signed, which was essentially the elimination of strict border control in the Europeans Communities. The reasoning for the Schengen Agreement was further social unification and increasing the feeling of neighborliness among allies. The creation of city states led to the rise of nationalism, because humans have a natural tendency to divide ourselves into groups and eventually think up reasons to kill one another; it is best to eliminate artificial divisions as much as possible, and that’s what borders are, artificial lines on a map that resemble nothing about who we really are. Making people feel more connected with one another helps us empathize with our neighboring countries and eliminates the feeling of otherness that eventually fuels the flames of war, as we saw happen in World War II.

The Schengen Agreement is another example of collective security at work. It is a fundamental tenant of Liberal thought that countries who have mutually beneficial trade agreements will be significantly less likely to go to war with one another.[7] Trading came naturally to these states after establishing national ties and eliminating border restrictions. Trade is another huge aspect of collective security, because State A is less likely to attack State B, if State A has some vested long term economic interests in State B. This was the kind of reasoning used in much of human history when rivaling families married their children off to their rivals to bring about peace between two houses. The general principle being that if you have some vested interest in keeping the peace, starting wars becomes a counterproductive and foolish endeavor.

Finally, the European Union was officially created in 1992 with the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht. After the establishment of the European Union in the 1992, many laws have been passed further connecting Western and Eastern European countries. According to Kristin Archick of the Congressional Research Service, “EU members share a customs union; a single market in which goods, services, people, and capital move freely (known as the “four freedoms”); a common trade policy; a common agricultural policy; and a common currency (the euro), which is used by 19 member states (collectively referred to as the “eurozone”)”.[8] The European Union as it exists today is a prime example of neoliberal collective security at work. Peace is maintained among states through a combination of mutually respected sovereignty, economic ties, social ties, and regional organizations. And the success of this system is that there hasn’t been a single war between liberal democratic countries that is part of the EU since 1946. That is over 70 years of lasting peace.

The United Nations and NATO

            The UN and NATO are also examples of international organizations that operate under the collective security paradigm. Like the European Union, the United Nations acts as a mediator in international and intranational conflicts all over the world. Unlike the EU, the UN has a much larger membership, 193 sovereign nations, which is most of the countries in the world. The UN is made up of many different moving parts but the most consequential body to collective security  is the US Security Council, as our text book explains, “the UN Security Council is the core of the global security system and is the primary legitimizer of actions dealing with threats to peace and security” (p.109).[9] The charter of the UN was inspired by the ideals that U.S President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations was based on, which were a direct repudiation of balance of power and the prisoner’s dilemma paradigms that the entire world was operating on at that time, paradigms which lead to all the colonial wars of Europe, European imperialism, and WWI&WW2. As part of his 14 point plan for peace, Wilson believed in “Open covenants and transparency among nations, Freedom of the Seas, Free and Equal Access to Trade, and Self-Determination and the End to Imperial Age”.[10] These principles were improved upon in the crafting of the UN Charter to produce a truly revolutionary document to maintain peace in the world.

The fundamental principle of the UN Charter was the recognition of the sovereign equality of all member states, not based on wealth or territory, but based on a respect for states and their citizens, which is why each state has one vote in the UN General Assembly. Aside from respect for sovereign nations, the UN maintains peace by asking their members to follow two guidelines: “(1) Refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence if any state, or in any manner inconsistent with UN purposes, (2) Settle their international disputes by peaceful means” (p.110).[11] These are the foundation on which the post WW2 world was built; the UN has done an excellent job in reducing international violence but there are instances where situations get out of hand and states refuse to abide by international law. When this happens, other regional collective security organizations like NATO step into fix situation using multinational military enforcement. NATO is a US/European military alliance that acts to prevent aggression by states against weaker states or groups of people. They mainly focus on Europe. NATO famously intervened in the conflicts that arose during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia & Herzegovina. They also intervened at the behest of the Clinton Administration in the Kosovo massacre of Albanians by the Serbian military. NATO’s interventions shows collective security at work. When states forgo peaceful negotiations and resort to violence, a coalition of states send aid to the oppressed, to stop the violent aggressor. Not all interventions have worked as efficiently as we’d expect, but they have prevented many war-borne deaths of civilians.

Flaws of the Collective Security Paradigm

One of the biggest flaws of the collective security paradigm is its tendency to make war against countries that have not agreed to this paradigm (via treaties). The biggest perpetrator of this crime is the U.S. America has continuously intervened in the affairs of the Middle East since the 1950s. Even after WW2 and the establishment of the UN and other international collective security organizations, America keeps disrespecting the sovereignty of Middle Eastern and North African countries and keeps trying to impose their political system upon these countries, who have a wildly different cultures and political lives than those found in Europe and America. And, as the critics of nation building have argued, America has failed to make a single Middle Eastern country into a democracy that supports the American style of capitalism and western values. However, it must be noted that the collective security paradigm is not entirely to blame, U.S intervention happens over and over for a multitude of factors such as; the finical benefit of military corporations from wars, a genuine belief (by a small minority in power) that democratizations will bring about peace, for domestic political maneuvering, and to obtain natural resources for oil companies.

Finally, the larger criticism leveled by structural realists like Mearshimer against collective security is as follows, “In Mearsheimer’s worldview, all great powers are created equal. When they see the opportunity to do so, great powers will take advantage of one another, fearful of being exploited later if they do not. World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were nothing more and nothing less than great powers acting as they must, given the exigencies of an anarchic, self-help world. From within this worldview, collective security, and international institutions more generally, matter at the margins, if at all. Sooner or later, balance-of-power considerations will override the rules and norms of institutional structures. Collective security organizations may be not only irrelevant, but also dangerous. States that place illusory faith in collective security will find themselves worse off than had they acted as if in a self-help, anarchic setting”.[12] Looking at the actions of the U.S in the last 70 years, Mearshimer’s argument is not completely wrong, although his dismissal of international organizations as merely theater for superpowers is preposterous and manifestly false.

It is true that great powers do as they wish to oppress those with less power or to gain an edge over their rival great powers, for instance, why is it that only 5 countries have veto power in the UN, because these powers are the greatest economic and military powers on earth and they basically held their membership in the UN hostage to get veto power to balance out the actions of the other superpowers (e.g. U.S vs. USSR, U.S vs. China). The USSR refused to join the UN unless they can veto the actions of US. And we saw a game of veto during the cold war where almost nothing got done by the UN because America blocked any significant action that would benefit the Soviets and vice versa. So, it is clear to see that collective security has some problems controlling the actions of super powers, because the saying that “power corrupts” is true. As we have seen with the American invasion of Iraq after 9/11, even though the UN Security Council did not pass a resolution to allow for such an invasion, America did it anyway, because America is militarily stronger than all the other members of the UN combined. This demonstrates the realist premise that the world is anarchic and those with power take what they want to benefit themselves.

With all this being said, the biggest failure of the realists is their failure to see the many instances of good that international organizations have achieved. And, collectivists never claimed that the world would be a paradise under collective security, we merely argue that it would be a much safer place than one found under the balance of power realist paradigm, as Kupchan at al. explains, “In our worldview, all great powers are not created equal. Although the behavior of major states is heavily influenced by balance-of-power considerations, domestic politics, beliefs, and norms matter too, and not just at the margins. World War I, World War II, and the Cold War came about not from the warp and woof of international competition, but as a result of the emergence of aggressor states, states that for reasons of ideology and domestic politics became predatory and sought power, not security. Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, and interwar Japan were malign great powers infected with virulent domestic pathologies, not garden-variety great powers dealing with legitimate security concerns. Each commenced an ambitious military buildup and embarked down the path of aggression during peaceful periods in which they faced no imminent security threats. Domestic politics and nationalism, not just the rivalry of a self-help world, were at play”.[13] Not everything is about great powers acting to secure themselves, as realist argue, there are other domestic and ideological factors that lead to conflict that their framework fails to recognize.


As this analysis has clearly outlined, balance of power realism is a recipe for war, not peace, due to their focus on power and security to the exclusion of other relevant factors. The historical cases provided here are but an infinitesimal sampling of all the examples from human history of balance of power paradigm leading to war and misery for all involved following such a paradigm. While collective security has its flaws, with super powers like the U.S violating international laws due to their enormous power imbalance, it has been able to maintain relative peace for almost a century.

The greatest successes of the collective security model is that democratic nations involved in collective security organizations like the UN, and NATO have not gotten into a single war with each other since 1946, to the chagrin of many realist, the Albanians whose lives were saved by NATO forces in Kosovo would certainly argue that collective security is the reason they yet live. These are real human beings being saved due to the actions of international organizations. Not to mention the economic improvements made by these organizations in Eastern and Southern Europe to provide better lives for people in those countries, so that conflicts don’t arise in the first place. This is another failure of the realists, they see the world through statistics instead of real human beings. They are too caught up in the theoretical frameworks of power and domination that they fail to see how these wars affect people; this is exemplified by their claim that international organization rarely make a difference. Unlike realists, institutionalists don’t simply see the world through conflicts, but we also think about how to prevent conflicts in the first place, and the best way to do that is to provide economic security and social stability for people so conflicts don’t arise in the first place. All the evidence makes it clear that collective security is much more superior IR paradigm to bring about and maintain peace than balance of power.


[1] Wohlforth, William C. “Testing Balance-of-Power Theory in World History.” Http://, European Journal of International Relations, 2007. Vol. 13(2): p.157.

[2] Wohlforth, William C. “Testing Balance-of-Power Theory in World History.” Http://, European Journal of International Relations, 2007. Vol. 13(2): p.162-163.

[3] Wohlforth, William C. “Testing Balance-of-Power Theory in World History.” Http://, European Journal of International Relations, 2007. Vol. 13(2): p.163.

[4] Wohlforth, William C. “Testing Balance-of-Power Theory in World History.” Http://, European Journal of International Relations, 2007. Vol. 13(2): p.164.

[5] Wohlforth, William C. “Testing Balance-of-Power Theory in World History.” Http://, European Journal of International Relations, 2007. Vol. 13(2): p.169-170.

[6] Kupchan, Charles A., and Clifford A. Kupchan. “The Promise of Collective Security.” International Security, vol. 20, no. 1, 1995, pp. 52-53.

[7] Snyder, Jack (2009, October 26). “One World, Rival Theories.” Foreign Policy. Retrieved from:

[8] Archick, K. (2017, February 17). “The European Union: Current Challenges and Future Prospects”. Retrieved from:

[9] Karns, M. P., Mingst, K. A., & Stiles, K. W. (2015). International organizations: the politics and processes of global governance. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.


[11] Karns, M. P., Mingst, K. A., & Stiles, K. W. (2015). International organizations: the politics and processes of global governance. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

[12] Kupchan, Charles A., and Clifford A. Kupchan. “The Promise of Collective Security.” International Security, vol. 20, no. 1, 1995, pp.60

[13] Kupchan, Charles A., and Clifford A. Kupchan. “The Promise of Collective Security.” International Security, vol. 20, no. 1, 1995, pp.60


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