Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era

At the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the world’s most powerful state, and then used that power to initiate wars against smaller countries in the Middle East and South Asia. According to balance-of-power theory—the bedrock of realism in international relations—other states should have joined together militarily to counterbalance the U.S.’s rising power. Yet they did not. Nor have they united to oppose Chinese aggression in the South China Sea or Russian offensives along its Western border.

This does not mean balance-of-power politics is dead, argues renowned international relations scholar T.V. Paul, but that it has taken a different form. Rather than employ familiar strategies such as active military alliances and arms buildups, leading powers have engaged in “soft balancing,” which seeks to restrain threatening powers through the use of international institutions, informal alignments, and economic sanctions. Paul places the evolution of balancing behavior in historical perspective from the post-Napoleonic era to today’s globalized world.


“Both critics and proponents of the role of the balance of power in international politics treat it as depending on military instruments. The signal accomplishment of T. V. Paul’s book is to show that there is a much larger set of tools that states can employ to restrain troublemakers.” – Robert Jervis, Columbia University, author of How Statesmen Think

“In this sophisticated and sweeping historical survey, T.V. Paul shows how modern states have pursued various types of balancing behavior—short of war—to constrain potential hegemonic powers. Restraining Great Powers is a tour de force that should be carefully read and reflected on by scholars and practitioners alike.” – David Shambaugh, George Washington University

Set of reviews in Roundtable, June 24, 2019, Published in H-Diplo ISSF

“The book is well written, cogently argued, and quite accessible to even non-experts.” Steve Chan, University of Colorado, Boulder
“While some scholars will challenge Paul’s innovative elaborations of soft balancing in the past two hundred years of world politics, the real value of Paul’s work lies not only in his elegant theoretical articulations and convincing case studies; it also reflects a new wave of the soft balancing debate that will inspire in the field.” Kai He, Griffith University
“One of the important contributions of the book is its demonstration of the use of soft balancing in very different historical eras, not just the current unipolar one. Paul highlights the use of soft balancing even in periods when the climate was highly unfavorable for its success, showing that institutional means of restraining expansionist or aggressive great powers are not limited to the post-Cold War era.” Deborah Welch Larson, University of California, Los Angeles
“Building on his influential and widely-cited 2005 article on “soft balancing,” Paul broadens and refines the concept, responds to common criticisms, develops the concept of ‘limited hard balancing,’ and demonstrates how strategies of soft balancing and other forms of restraint have become increasingly common over time.” Jack S. Levy, Rutgers University
“This book is one of the most important contributions to the balance of power theory in recent years. It is a convincing attempt to craft a legitimate space for soft balancing (as well as limited hard balancing) to exist alongside other balancing strategies, such as hard balancing, to explain how states address threatening powers.” Bhubhindar Singh, Nanyang Technological University
“Paul’s Restraining Great Powers both advances a full-fledged theory of soft balancing and finds empirical support for the pursuit of soft-balancing strategies by great powers and other states over the past two centuries.” Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, Tufts University


University of Oregon PS Speaker Series: Professor T.V. Paul
At the University of Oregon, Professor Paul holds an informal discussion with students on the topic of restraining great powers.
Canada and the World, Ep. 18: Great power politics
For an interesting podcast discussion on changing great power relations, listen to my conversation with Professors Patricia Goff and David Welch at Balsillie School of International Affairs.
CIPS presents: A Conversation with Professor T.V. Paul
I conduct an interview with Professor Peter Jones from the University of Ottawa, discussing my latest book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era.
Professor Paul looks to “soft balancing” for the future of international politics
An  Q&A with McGill’s Arts Student ambassador Amy Hauer, in anticipation of my new book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era.

Book Promotional Videos/Podcasts

Griffith University March 2, 2020
UC Berkeley: Restraining Great Powers February 12, 2019
Podcast, King’s College, London January 16, 2019
Podcast, London School of Economics: Restraining Great Powers  January 16, 2019
Carnegie Book Discussion on Restraining Great Powers October 18, 2018.
Montreal Launch of Restraining Great Powers, September 27, 2018.
CIPS Welcomes Professor T.V. Paul

Book Promotion Articles

China-US Rivalry: Sleepwalking into War?Madras  Courier, October 29, 2018.
If confidence building measures and the adoption of an arms control regime in the South China Sea, China and the US risk stumbling into a catastrophic war.
Future of International Institutions and Soft BalancingYale University Press Blog, October 18, 2018.
Institutions have long been used as a means for soft balancing, including by the US. However, the US and its allies cannot ignore the norms of the rules based international order, for to do so risks undermining the shared norms soft balancing depends on.
The Power of Non-AlignmentThe Hindu, October 11, 2018.
Finding themselves caught between the giants of the United States and China, small states of the Asia-Pacific are not destined to become pawns in the midst of great power competition; instead they can resurrect the ‘Bandung spirit’ and adopt a policy of non’alignment through the use of soft-balancing.
Soft Balancing vs. Hard Clashes: The Risks of War Over the South China SeaGlobal Asia, September 21, 2018.
To minimize the risk of conflict in the South China Sea, all parties should consider measures to alleviate the dangers that arise from time pressures.
How India Will React to the Rise of China: the Soft-Balancing Strategy ReconsideredWar on the Rocks, September 17, 2018.

To restrain China India is likely to form both a soft-balancing coalition and limited hard balancing coalition, but the formation of a traditional hard-balancing coalition with the United States is very unlikely.

Member states of ASEAN have been pursuing a strategy based largely on soft balancing and diplomatic engagement toward China for over three decades.
India’s Strategic Roadmap The National Interest, August 9, 2018.
Today or tomorrow, China will likely turn against India. New Delhi must be ready for when the time comes.
How “soft balancing” can restrain Trump’s America Policy Opinions Politiques, August 9, 2018.
To restrain Donald Trump’s actions, “soft balancing,” countering through international institutions, diplomacy and economic sanctions, holds promise.


“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, 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.” –Canadian International Council
Page 99 blog reports on my new book