On the week of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, the Canadian International Council Montreal branch hosted McGill political science professor T.V. Paul, whose new book, “Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era”, has just been released. What ensued was a great discussion focused on the global balance of power, which he described as having been “the bedrock of international politics and realist theory” for the past four centuries.
In his book, Professor Paul analyzes power-balance theories by applying them to the real world. This is one of the best features of the book in that it builds bridges between theory and policy. Professor Paul’s interest stems from the realization that few countries attempted to offset U.S. hegemony after the Cold War – at least not through military build-ups or other forms of aggressive behaviour. Scholars recognized instead, that “soft balancing” was taking place. At the heart of Paul’s book is an analysis of these ideas.
Power-balancing has often been used to restrain threatening behaviours or policies in the past and Paul provides empirical evidence to prove this point. Most interesting is his analysis of the shift from hard-balancing during the Cold War to soft balancing in the post-Cold War era. He looks at the conditions under which these take place, thereby explaining the lack of aggressive balancing behaviour that we saw in the post-Cold War era. Instead, other states used soft balancing to counterbalance U.S. power to some extent. Soft balancing is based on enhancing economic globalization and interdependence, promoting international and regional institutions such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and maintaining international norms of territorial integrity. Instead of relying on military alliances and build-up, soft balancing relies on diplomacy, international institutions and sanctions to restrain power. This doesn’t mean that soft balancing always works. For example, the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 but many states, such as Canada, did not support what was seen as an illegitimate action.
Today, however, China has become a major economic power, Russia has been trying to regain power and BRIC countries want to have a say on the international stage. And, both Russia and China have challenged territorial integrity in their respective regions. Meanwhile, President Trump is criticizing international institutions, preferring nation-to-nation alliances. The day before the book was launched, Trump heavily criticized the International Criminal Court in his United Nations General Assembly speech and riled against “the ideology of globalism.” Indeed, President Trump has had an affinity for employing military and economic power since coming into office. Globally, while there are more international institutions than ever, they are weakening and challenged by member states who questioning their legitimacy and call for reforms. Indeed, Paul noted, globalization is under challenge and nationalism is on the rise. But, he also added that we have not seen a full return to hard balancing after 20-30 years of soft balancing. Instead, what we are seeing is a shift to something else. States, such as Russia and China in particular, he said, are using limited balancing, relying on informal alliances and some military coordination to achieve their ends.
Professor Paul, it was clear, is not naïve about the current fragile state of affairs and simply asked us to wait and see because we seem to be in a flux. As he writes, “the functioning of balance of power is dependent on the international politics of the day,” and “important for the future is how much value great powers accord to the norms and principles of international institutions and the legitimacy of non-military mechanisms.” What does this mean about the future? At the book launch, Paul revealed that Donald Trump was elected after he had finished writing his book and that he quickly added a few sections to convey his predictions for the future. He was hopeful, at the time, that Trump would be “just a blip” in US history, as he said at the book launch. Two years after the President’s election, however, nobody in the audience was really optimistic about the state of the situation and the future of soft-balancing.
T.V. Paul made sure to bring some of his colleagues to the event to get their point of view about his book. They included Jennifer Welsh (Canada 150 Chair, McGill University), Antonia Maioni (McGill University), Juliet Johnson (McGill University), John A. Hall, (James McGill Professor of Sociology, McGill University), and Philip Oxhorn (McGill University). All of them provide excellent critiques that had one point in common: the book manages to bridge the theory and the policy world. Jennifer Welsh certainly knows what she is talking about considering her time as the UN Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect. Institutions can be frustratingly slow, she said, but they are forums of diplomacy and restraint. All invitees encouraged other academics not to pigeonhole themselves and instead to contribute to public policy. In the end, the audience left perhaps a little less pessimistic about the state of international affairs. Many of them were certainly ready to grab a copy of the book!