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The balance of power theory in international relations suggests that national security is enhanced when military capability is distributed so that no one state is strong enough to dominate all others. If one state becomes much stronger than others, the theory predicts that it will take advantage of its strength and attack weaker neighbors, thereby providing an incentive for those threatened to unite in a defensive coalition.
Some realists maintain that this would be more stable as aggression would appear unattractive and would be averted if there was equilibrium of power between the rival coalitions. When confronted by a significant external threat, states that wish to form alliances may “balance” or “bandwagon”. Balancing is defined as allying with others against the prevailing threat, while states that have bandwagoned have aligned with the threat. States may also employ other alliance tactics, such as buck-passing and chain-ganging.
There is a longstanding debate among realists with regard to how the polarity of a system impacts on which tactic states use, however, it is generally agreed that bipolar systems as each great power has no choice but to directly confront the other. Along with debates between realists about the prevalence of balancing in alliance patterns, other schools of international relations, such as constructivists, are also critical of the balance of power theory, disputing core realist assumptions regarding the international system and the behavior of states.