David Hume’s “Of the Balance of Power”
This exercise requires you to read the essay “Of the Balance of Power” by David Hume, a Scottish philosopher writing in the 1700s, and use its arguments to examine American unipolarity after the Cold War. “Of the Balance of Power” is Essay VII, Book II, on this website.
1. How does Hume define the balance of power in paragraph 4? What means did ancient Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta (also called the Lacedemonians) use to maintain the balance of power?
2. How does the experience of Rome compare to that of the Greek city-states? As Rome grew in power, what did smaller states do? Is the experience of Rome or of the Greek city-states a better parallel for the experience of the United States after the Cold War, and why?
3. In paragraph 12, Hume writes that the balance of power “had, at least, an influence on all the wiser and more experienced princes and politicians.” What level of analysis is he using to explain why a state chooses a balancing strategy? How does this explain the pursuit of strategies other than balancing, such as bandwagoning or appeasement?
4. In paragraph 13, Hume discusses the experience of the Habsburg Empire (centered on Austria) under Charles V. Why did the Habsburg Empire fail to establish a universal monarchy in Europe? After the Habsburg Empire’s decline, what state threatened to establish a universal monarchy?
5. In paragraphs 14 through 17, Hume discusses the balance of power between Great Britain and France. What faults does he find in Great Britain’s balancing strategy? Do you think the United States’ strategy is similar to Great Britain’s, and does it suffer from the same faults?
6. In paragraph 19, Hume discusses the decline of “enormous monarchies.” After reading this paragraph, do you think he’s writing from the perspective of a power transition realist or a power balancing realist, and why? What do you think he would say about the possibility of the United States remaining the world’s only superpower?