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"Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?"—Sir Humphrey, Yes Minister
A concept in international relations, but one with a lot of relevance in fiction.
To give a hypothetical example, you have five countries:
- A- a superpower
- B- another superpower, hostile to A
- C- a medium power allied with A
- D- Another medium power allied with B
- E- A medium-strength neutral country
A+C equals more or less B+D, so any war between them would be highly bloody. Neither side has an incentive to start one.
However, if E were to take one side or the other, that trio would have a decisive advantage.
These arrangements tend not to last. Someone starts figuring the equation incorrectly and starts something.
- The One Piece 'verse has a Balance of Power crucial to the overall plot of the story. Types A and B consist of Marine Headquarters versus the Four Emperors (The World Government's military and the four most powerful pirate crews in the world, respectively). In the middle are the Seven Warlords of the Sea, who (on paper at least) are a Type-C, aiding the World Government against the Emperors. However, almost all of them are carrying out their own agendas on the side and some of them have casual and even friendly contact with Emperors and up-and-coming pirates, making them more of an Type-E in practice. Threats to this balance include single-minded pirates like Monkey D. Luffy and the deliberate actions of Dragon the Revolutionary.
- Late in the story, Naruto has revealed that the Tailed Beasts, the Bijuu, and their hosts, the Jinchuuriki acted as a balance among the various nations. Konaha and Suna, each having only one bijuu, allied with one another after the last war to deter Kumo and Iwa which both hosted two; Kiri's natural defenses and two bijuu allow it freedom in operation but it lacks the unity needed to take advantage of that. Taki's single bijuu and lesser standing make it an ideal buffer between Kumo and Konoha. Most of the lesser villages align with other villages, have treaties via their daimyo lords, or are located in places where attacks will spark retribution from neighbors. The existence of a free Bijuu would spur other villages to attempt to claim it and gain an advantage, thus necessitating its capture.
- Despite the long time it took to be introduced, this balance was eventually revealed to be crucial to Naruto's backstory. Because maintaining it was one of the biggest reasons that the Fourth Hokage sealed the Nine Tailed Fox inside of him.
- The Vatican Treaty in Rebuild of Evangelion dictates that no single country can have more than three active Evas at any given time.
- In Aeon Natum Engel, the defences of Esoteric Order of Dagon-controlled Iceland are partly based on this principle; neither the New Earth Government nor the Migou can attack without weakening their position against the other, thus stopping them from taking the territory. Of course, the assumption that the NEG is after the Dagonite-controlled territory turns out to be painfully flawed.
- In Aeon Entelechy Evangelion the NEG and the Migou had a status quo for six years since the Fall of China, with no major morale-breaking loses for the NEG since then. Then Mot shows up and destabilizes the Eastern Front.
- Some of the intrigue in The Godfather comes from the families negotiating about this.
- In The Third World War, the war starts because the USSR is worried about losing D (the Warsaw Pact) and is won by the West partly because of the role of two Es, namely Ireland and Sweden.
- Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia of Nineteen Eighty-Four; at any point, two are allied with each other, but the alliance always crumbles before the third is defeated because one of the two grows too powerful, and the alliances are reshuffled.
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy starts out this way. As the Galactic Empire starts to decline, the planet of Terminus is surrounded by the 'Four Kingdoms', who are looking to expand their own influence. They've also reverted to primitive forms of technology though, so when Salvor Hardin, the Mayor of Terminus, lets slip to one of the Four Kingdoms' ambassadors that Terminus still has nuclear power, it looks like Terminus is going to get invaded for its technology. Hardin, the Magnificent Bastard that he is, also let slip Terminus has nuclear power to the other three Kingdoms. None of the four kingdoms are willing to invade Terminus now, under threat of joint retaliation from the other three kingdoms.
- Diplomacy is practically a research project into this trope.
- Mass Effect has Treaty of Farixen, which determines how many dreadnoughts each citadel species may have. Humans, who are limited to 1 per 5 turian, decide to build carriers instead.
- It has been argued that much of England's foreign policy from the 1500s until the 20th century was keeping a balance between France and Spain (and later Germany), to ensure that neither got big enough to take on England itself. This was explicitly spelled out as foreign office policy in Yes Minister, in both past and present. It was claimed the only reason Britain went into the EU was to ensure they could keep the other major powers acting without them.
- This isn't argued, it's accepted that this was England's policy for centuries. In essence, if anyone dominates the continent, they become a threat to England, so the soundest foreign policy is to make sure no one nation becomes overly strong. It's why England was against France in the time of Napoleon and with France in the run-up to and during World War I. The major concern was Belgium and the Netherlands, which would have been excellent staging areas for an invasion of England. This is one of the reasons that when Britain entered World War One, it did so explicitly to defend Belgian neutrality.
- Some newly found soviet conversation logs from around 1990 proof that Margaret Thatcher was actively opposing the reunification of Germany even when the whole east of Europe was already revolting against the Soviets. Only to keep the Balance of Power intact.
- Confirmed by the diaries of her junior minister Alan Clarke, who was disappointed that she didn't back the reunification he realized was inevitable.
- Even at that time she was quite obviously not in favour of the reunification, so probably no one is surprised about the discovery.
- Pre-World War One Europe was much like this, except that there were three to six top-tier powers (Britain, Germany, and France at minimum, then Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy), with alliances shifting more frequently than you can shake a stick at. On top of that, there were the smaller powers, such as the neutral Low Countries, and the newly-minted and aggressively nationalistic countries of the Balkans (Serbia, Greece, and Romania topping the list in bellgerency and grandiose designs).
- The Cold War was very much about this, although the Superior Firepower and Mnogo Nukes meant that outright war was relatively unlikely. Instead, the US and USSR decided to fight by proxy. There is some variation as both the United States and Soviet Union were so powerful that even if one of them lost a useful ally like China the balance never shifted firmly in favor of the other side.
- The Peloponnesian War represents how the equation can go awry. It was very bad to be an E. Both A & B (Sparta and Athens) decided that the situation was a lot more stable if there weren't any Es around, and generally went about destroying them. Also, it was the Cs & Ds (like Corinth) who started and restarted the war between A & B, figuring that the worse off the superpowers were, the better off the medium powers were.
- Ancient Mayan city-states decllined in a similar way, as well as literal Poisoning The Well
- Ancient Rhodes, a noted Merchant City in the Hellenistic era survived by it's expertise in maintaining the balance between the Successor States, and ensuring that it's small but extremely skilled navy was capable of tilting the balance back whenever one warlord became more powerful then the Rhodians liked.
- Renaissance Venice did this as well between Spain and the Ottomans.
- Wolfers was a political scientist who wrote about how a balance of power is impossible to achieve because, even if it is attained (or roughly attained), it's never in A or B's interest to maintain a situation where they are as powerful as their foe, which means that they fight client wars in spheres of influence and get into arms races.