Professor Paul looks to “soft balancing” for the future of international politics

A Q&A with Professor T.V. Paul in anticipation of his new book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era.

Professor T.V. Paul is a renowned scholar and teacher in the Department of Political Science and in his field of International Relations, where he has received many accolades. In addition to being a James McGill professor, Paul is a recipient of the Peace Scholar Award from the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1989, has served as the President of the International Studies Association, is a founding director of the McGill University - Université de Montreal Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, and was recently elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is every bit the writer that he is the professor, having authored and edited 18 books and 65 scholarly articles. With the recent release of his newest book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era, we sat down with Professor Paul to discuss what inspired this book, what readers can look forward to, and his thoughts on current international politics.

What were some of the factors that led you to teach, and specifically, in the field of politics?

My childhood education was in India. I had been interested in current affairs from an early age, reading newspapers and listening to BBC regularly. I was a young child when the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race was going on, so the most interesting topics of the day for me were the American bombings in Vietnam and the issue of arms control. After my undergraduate degree from Kerala University, I went to New Delhi where I worked as a journalist for a national agency, and then from there I went to UCLA, and did my Ph.D. in political science and international relations. My Ph.D. thesis, entitled Asymmetric Conflicts: War Initiation by Weaker Powers, was later published as my first book by Cambridge University Press, three years later, in 1991, I was hired at McGill. I developed a deep interest in international affairs and foreign policy, sustained through my international travels. My topics are usually on multi-countries and linked to international relations and international security.

What inspired you to get into scholarly writing?

The topics that interest me are the enduring questions of war and peace. War and peace have been the topics of historians, political scientists, philosophers, even psychologists for a long period of time, but there are many puzzles and paradoxes that are unanswered by scholarship, so that’s how I turned to understand them through scholarship and writing. Most of my books are based on possible paradoxes that haven’t been answered or explored properly. In my first book, Asymmetric Conflicts, I looked at cases of weaker states starting wars against stronger opponents. In the next one, Power Versus Prudence: Why Nations Forgo Nuclear Weapons, I looked at countries that had the technological capability yet chose not to develop nuclear weapons. Another one of my books, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons examined the reasons why nuclear arms have not been used since 1945 (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). I am also interested in the South Asia region, and specifically the rivalries between India and Pakistan, and China and India as rising powers. One of my books, The Warrior State, examines why Pakistan has not become a strong state despite focusing on military power and receiving enormous levels of support from great powers.

Congratulations on the new project. What inspired “Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empire to the Global Era?”

This book is a product of several years of work, mostly prompted by the fact that after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. emerged as the most powerful country, yet no other state actively balanced against its power or its threatening behaviour. That prompted a few scholars like me to explore if there are other things states are doing to counterbalance American power. That’s how we started expounding this idea of soft-balancing, by arguing that countries have been using institutions such as informal diplomatic coalitions and economic sanctions to restrain the power of this threatening or powerful state. In the case of the U.S., countries such as Russia, China, even France, and Germany, attempted to restrain the Bush Administration from launching the 2003 Iraq War. They used the UN forum - and their veto power in particular - to delegitimize the intervention in Iraq. The articles on this subject provoked considerable debate in the international relations field. Subsequently, I realized that this has been a practice going on since at least the early 19th century. After the Napoleonic wars, European states created an institutional framework called the Concert of Europe in 1815, to make sure nobody practiced aggressive warfare again. It lasted for three decades and then collapsed with the outbreak of the Crimean War, leading to a lot of other crises later on and culminating in World War I. The second key institutional soft balancing was the League of Nations after WWI attempting to restrain Italy and Japan from their aggressions against Ethiopia and China, respectively. The League tried to sanction those countries but did not succeed. In fact, the sanctions provoked them to become more aggressive. The Cold War era also witnessed limited amount of institutional balancing, or balancing light, by non-aligned developing countries.

Can you explain in more detail what “soft balancing” in politics means?

There are three kinds of balancing that I discuss in the book: hard balancing, limited hard balancing, and soft balancing. These are ideal types. Hard balancing is traditional balancing of power using military capabilities and formal military alliances like NATO. Limited hard balancing relies on informal alliances or strategic partnerships, where there is some military coordination. Soft balancing is not based on any of these military instruments, but instead on institutions, diplomatic coalitions and economic sanctions. During the Cold War, the U.S. - Soviet competition was mostly about hard balancing, but you also have an example of developing countries using institutions, such as the UN forum, to restrain these powers.

What do you think is unique about this book and what do you hope to accomplish with its message to readers?

I think one of the innovations of this book is that nobody has used the concept of soft balancing to explain the behaviour of the developing states. Soft balancing is not the most perfect or successful case, but there are some successes in the areas of decolonization, new international economic order, and nuclear arms control. In the Post-Cold War era, soft balancing became the most prominent approach. For example, the U.S. invaded Kosovo in 1999, and then Iraq in 2003, and in both cases, the invasions were not prevented. The U.S. did not stop the invasion as a result of soft balancing efforts by others, but there was less legitimacy given to U.S. actions, especially in Iraq. As a result, Barack Obama campaigned for restoring American reputation and legitimacy, earning the support of the American electorate. His administration pulled out of Iraq, and the soft balancing by other powers, including allies, can be credited partially to that decision.

We are used to the definition of ‘balancing’ meaning equilibrium in power, but here, I talk about balancing as not relying on military capability. Especially in the post-Cold War period, there has been an intensification of economic globalization. Major countries are interdependent or dependent on trade, so they don’t want to upset their relationship with the U.S. and China in particular. At the same time, they don’t want to accept all the U.S. or Chinese aggressive actions, be it in the Middle East or in the South China Sea region. With deepened globalization, International politics today has become highly complex. Strategies of states depend on the context, and there is no real straightforward answer to these complex issues. Countries could use hard balancing alliances, especially against their major enemies, but if threat levels are low, they don’t have much of an incentive to go for a big coalition buildup. So instead, they are looking for a secondary strategy that won’t upset their relationship with China or with the United States. So today, we are in a real flux. What we are noticing is that after the first 20-30 years of soft balancing, plus some effort at hard balancing, we are getting into more limited hard balancing, possibly as a prelude to intense hard balancing. For instance, Russia and China recently had a big military exercise on Russia’s eastern border with China and Mongolia, but they have not formed a military alliance yet, so they are in the arena of limited hard balancing. My conclusion is that countries have to look at all balancing options before they jump into any one of them.

What are some of your hopes and expectations for the upcoming event at McGill on September 27th? What can attendees expect?

This is one of the first book promotion events in a series of them at many major universities, and essentially it is to introduce the book to the local Montreal community-university students and faculty in particular - and attract a bit of attention to the ideas and arguments presented in it. Some of these events will bring social media or media attention. These days, there are too many books out there in every field, so if you want to get an important concept out, you need institutional launching, and so this is something co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the Canadian International Council. The speakers, including Antonia Maioni, Dean of Arts, will make brief comments on the book followed by my response, and then I will probably sign some copies. It’s kind of a social event but it has its value in terms of colleagues meeting and exchanging ideas, and also spreading the arguments beyond academia.

Any plans to author another book in the near future? If so, what are some issues you wish to tackle or explore?

I am continuing my work in international relations. I am putting together a new proposal on somewhat of a follow-up topic to this book on why countries give up peace policies or strategies, similar to what happened to Russia. Additionally, China proposed a peaceful rise strategy but there’s some deviation from that strategy today. Why do countries propose or accept these ideas of peace, then subsequently give it all up, or modify it in a big way? I also want to look at the responses from other countries that these proposals are aimed at. One of the biggest questions is whether the Western Countries have reciprocated or responded properly. My initial thinking is that, no, they did not properly give Russia its expected commitments made during the Gorbachev era. One of these was that NATO would not expand to Eastern Europe, yet they went ahead and did just that. I am not saying Putin’s Russia is not aggressive, but we need to look at the causes dispassionately. Looking at China, it’s again interesting how Beijing is using this opportunity to expand, although not over-aggressively yet, but they are in trajectory of expansion. I’m also going to refer back to other historical cases in which peace policies were followed for a period of time, but then countries started losing interest, or the opponents did not reciprocate, so that leads us into these cycles of competition and conflicts, and in some cases, major wars. So, the question is: what are the strategic and psychological reasons for this problem - international violence among great powers - that seems to recur periodically? In answering this, I hope to contribute to global ideas for policymakers and scholars, and through that, perhaps to peaceful change in the world.


Hear from Professor Paul himself on Thursday, September 27, at Paragraphe Bookstore, from 5-7 pm at the official book launch and reception. Details here.