David Hume’s Balancing Act: The Political Discourses and the Sinews of War

David Hume’s Balancing Act: The Political Discourses and the Sinews of War

By Danielle Charette, University of Chicago

Both champions and critics of “neorealism” in contemporary international relations misinterpret David Hume as an early spokesman for a universal and scientific balance-of-power theory. This article instead treats Hume’s “Of the Balance of Power,” alongside the other essays in his Political Discourses (1752), as conceptual resources for a historically inflected analysis of state balancing. Hume’s defense of the balance of power cannot be divorced from his critique of commercial warfare in “Of the Balance of Trade” and “Of the Jealousy of Trade.” To better appreciate Hume’s historical and economic approach to foreign policy, this article places Hume in conversation with Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Andrew Fletcher, and Montesquieu. International relations scholars suspicious of static paradigms should reconsider Hume’s genealogy of the balance of power, which differs from the standard liberal and neorealist accounts. Well before International Political Economy developed as a formal subdiscipline, Hume was conceptually treating economics and power politics in tandem.

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