The balance of power and the power struggles of the polis

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The balance of power is fundamental to the discipline of international relations, but its accuracy in explaining the historical record has been disputed. For international relations, balance of power theory represents a distinct approach which details the behaviour of states to counter hegemonic threats within an anarchic system. This article reimagines the balance of power tradition by highlighting its early modern foundations. Through providing a historical contextualization of the balance of power, this article shows how republican thinkers sought to balance against concentrations of power in order to safeguard political liberty. Early modern republics grappled with the challenge of maintaining a division of power within the polis in a co-constitutive relationship with the international. A republican polis could not secure liberty if under external domination or if the polis itself expanded to imperial proportions. Imperial expansion and the martial politics this entailed have traditionally been understood as incompatible to the safeguarding of political liberty. Recognizing this republican influence can uncover the co-constitutive connections between the internal power dynamics of the polis and the international sphere.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)429-447
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of International Political Theory
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


  • Balance of power
  • early modern history
  • international theory
  • republicanism


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