Keeping the World Off Balance: Self Restraint and U.S. Foreign Policy

48 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2000

See all articles by Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: October 2000


The United States now enjoys a position of preponderance unseen since the Roman Empire. Not surprisingly, the past decade has produced a lively debate on U.S. grand strategy, with different authors offering sharply contrasting advice on how the United States should respond to its position as the sole remaining superpower.

This paper considers one element of this debate: will U.S. preponderance trigger a defensive backlash by other states? Part I examines why states tend to balance against other states, and argues that structural balance of power theory cannot explain why efforts to balance U.S. power have been remarkably weak since the end of the Cold War. Part II considers alternative explanations for the absence of any serious attempt to balance U.S. power, and argues that a combination of balance-of-threat theory and the theory of collective goods offers the best explanation for the dearth of balancing behavior. Part III lays out a set of prescriptions based on these theoretical insights, emphasizing in particular the need for a policy of self-restraint. The conclusion offers several caveats to these recommendations and identifies issues that merit further investigation.

Suggested Citation

Walt, Stephen M., Keeping the World Off Balance: Self Restraint and U.S. Foreign Policy (October 2000). Available at SSRN: or

Stephen M. Walt (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States