Security Studies Program Seminar

Balancing at Sea: Do States Ally Against the Leading Global Power?

Jack S. Levy
Board of Governors' Professor of Political Science
Rutgers University

February 24, 2010

I. The Argument:

II. Overview of Levy’s talk:

III. Balance of Power Theory

IV. Underspecification of BOP theory

V. Counter-hegemonic Balancing Coalitions  in History Formed Against:
Classic cases: Hapsburg  (early 16th cent),  Spain (Philip II,  late 16th cen) Spain and Austria (early 17th ), France (Louis XIV, late 17th cent), France (Napoleon, late 18/early 19th, Germany (Wilhelm II, early 20th), Germany (Hitler, mid 20th cent).

VI. Little mentioning of balancing coalitions against global dominance of:

VII.  Land Powers and Sea Powers:
Levy argues that land powers and sea powers differ in terms of: goals, strategies, threats they pose and the responses they elicit from other great powers.

VIII. Counter-hegemonic balancing, Europe 1495-2000

However, Levy notes that there ought to be caution in generalizing, as this is a most likely case.

IX.  Summary of Hypotheses on power dynamics in global maritime system

  1. Great powers generally do not balance against the most powerful sea power in the system, even if it is significantly increasing in strength
  2. The stronger the leading sea power’s relative capability position, the less likely it is that other great powers will balance against it.
  3. The stronger the leading sea power’s relative capability position, the less likely that large coalitions will form against it.
  4. The stronger the leading sea power’s relative capability position, the more likely it is that one more great powers will ally with it.
  5. Alliances with leading sea power tend to be broader than are alliances against the leading sea power.

X. Research Design

XI.  Overview of Balancing at Sea:
There was no balancing against Portugal (8 decades as leading sea power); there was 1 coalition against Spain (over 2 decades as leading sea power); there was  1 coalition against Netherlands (over 5 decades); there were many coalitions against France and many coalitions against Britain (2 centuries, in 3 general wars); 1 coalition against the U.S. (9 decades)

First Table (copied from slide)

Is there an alliance against the leading sea power:

Alliance vs. lead state <50% share naval power 50% share or higher  
No alliance 325 131 456
Alliance 76 12 88
  401 143  

About 88/456 balancing against leading power in system (regardless of its relative strength).
Note:  Only 8% balancing against dominant sea power, whereas in Europe it was 55%
Chi sq = 8.67

XI. Size of Coalitions against the Leading sea Power

XII. Summary of findings:

XIII.  Explanations for Absence of Balancing Against the U.S.  

-Notes that balancing against continental hegemons occurs based on who they are, but balancing against global hegemons is based on what they do. 

XIV.  Balance of Power Theory and Balance of Threat Theory:


A few questions and answers:

Q: Why do you keep referring to navies as global powers?          

A: Levy points out that they are looking at the global system.  The research is  making a comparison between global maritime system and the European continental system. 
Levy also adds  that they will do more statistical analysis to control for proximity, rivalry and a number of other variables.  And the research is also going to include case studies, but they have not yet decided on the cases.  A few particular ones of  interest include: Spain in last 2 decades of 16th century, France in last 2 decades of 17th cent, when one state was both the leading land power and the leading sea power.

Q:  Question on one of the assumptions: The talk assumes absence of balancing against UK and the US, but this could be a result of the absence of literature that focuses on these themes.  If you turn to 19th century UK, the French seem to be engaging in a lot of what they might term balancing w/us and others.  To what extent is the absence of balancing behavior something we ought to look at more closely? Also, some say today new proliferators like NK and Iran are actually balancing.  What do you think about that?

A: Levy notes that they have defined balancing narrowly in a way that it is defined in the literature.  He also points out that the research looks at external balancing rather than internal balancing – so, that is a limitation.  He notes that the bias strengthens their findings for the European system but concedes that it weakens their findings for the global system because the bias works in the direction of supporting our hypotheses.  He agrees that it would be useful to look into the point raised by the questioner and to also determine whether or not the states writing or talking about balancing or trying to balance are doing so based for the purpose of strategic rhetoric or actual perceptions.

Q:  A few questions 1) you hear arguments about how DPT is overloaded with dyads in post-WW2  period?  I wonder how your study might be overloaded by Great Britain.  

A: that is interesting and that would be fairly easy to decompose.  The results for Europe and global system are so stark – I’d be surprised if those would go away.

Q: The questioner also points out that it would be helpful in cross-tab to have joint land/sea powers included.

Q: Question relating to the capital intensity of naval fleets and difficulties of command and control at sea – is there an inherent bias biasing sea power? what happens when technological and organizational developments undermine the causal mechanisms you spell out for sea power (for example,  increase jointness).  Questioner notes that  Japan would be good case to look at because mil power is so dependent on sea power.  Questioner also points out that nuclear weapons may also change calculations and causal assumptions.

A: Levy notes that after 1945, there is a little bit less confidence in all of this because of nuclear weapons, etc…However, he notes that in measuring sea power, they do include subs w/ballistic missiles and number of warheads on the submarines.  Naval battles can be more decisive than land battles because if you lose it takes more time and resources to regenerate at sea than on land.

Q: Question about what is driving this whole argument.  Do states not balance against sea powers because they actually ARE less threatening (due to less threatening goals, etc) or because other states perceive them to be less threatening or because of the argument about naval powers providing public goods? There are lots of potential explanations for the argument presented. 

Q: Relatedly,  another questioner asks, what does speech evidence tell us about this?  Why are countries bandwagoning against the sea power?  Couldn’t sea powers be using economic standing to bribe other states to ally with them or not balance against them?

A: Levy agrees that we need to look more at speech evidence-  press, leaders’ statements, etc.  He also says that we could use that to track whether the dominant maritime states are in fact perceived as less threatening than a comparable land power.  He also says the bribery point is interesting because maritime states may be better able to bribe via their  resources.

Q: Questions on the DV and IV – since you define IV  based on number of ships, it could be that DV (balancing) determines your number of ships.  When they decide to balance, they build up number of ships and that reduces the percentage that the greater power has?  Why not have a more composite measure of seapower (including fleet, seaman, etc)

A: Levy says this is an interesting point to further look into and says that they don’t just count ships.  We count the number of first line ships – ships that could engage in battle with another leading navy and that they don’t look at ship-building capacity. 


Rapporteur: Tara Maller

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2010