The phrase balance of power expresses parity or stability between competing forces. As a term in international law for a "just equilibrium" between the members of the family of nations it expresses the doctrine intended to prevent any one state from becoming sufficiently strong to enforce its will upon the rest.
The principle involved in this, as Hume pointed out in his Essay on the Balance of Power, is as old as history, and was perfectly familiar to the ancients both as political theorists and as practical statesmen. In its essence it is no more than a precept of commonsense born of experience and the instinct of self-preservation; for, as Polybius very clearly puts it (lib. i. cap. 83)
- Nor is such a principle to be despised, nor should so great a power be allowed to any one as to make it impossible for you afterwards to dispute with him on equal terms concerning your manifest rights.
This principle, once formulated, became an axiom of political science. Fénelon, in his Instructions, impressed the axiom on the young Louis, Duke of Burgundy; Frederick the Great in his Anti-Machiavel, proclaimed it to the world; Friedrich von Gentz re-stated it with admirable clearness in 1806 in his Fragments on the Balance of Power. It formed the basis of the coalitions against Louis XIV and Napoleon, and the occasion, or the excuse, for most of the wars which desolated Europe between the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1814).
During the greater part of the 19th century the series of national upheavals which remodelled the map of Europe obscured the balance of power; yet it underlay all the efforts of diplomacy to stay or to direct the elemental forces let loose by the French Revolution, and with the restoration of comparative calm it once more emerged as the motive for the various political alliances of which the ostensible object was the preservation of peace.
An equilibrium between the various powers which form the family of nations is, in fact, - as Professor L. Oppenheim (Internal. Law, i. 73) justly points out - essential to the very existence of any international law. In the absence of any central authority, the only sanction behind the code of rules established by custom or defined in treaties, known as "international law", is the capacity of the powers to hold each other in check. If this system fails, nothing prevents any state sufficiently powerful from ignoring the law and acting solely according to its convenience and its interests.
Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica