Virtue unrestrained: Herbert Butterfield and the problem of American power

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In the late 1950s, the British historian Sir Herbert Butterfield observed that we should not welcome the prospect of even a virtuous hegemon but should seek, rather, a balance of power. He did so because his understanding of history suggested that aspirant hegemons succeed principally in precipitating costly wars against them, while his sense of Christian ethics suggested that even a successful virtuous hegemon would become self-righteous and, by imposing its values on others, would curtail the scope of human freedom. I argue that current United States (U.S.) policy and the world's response to it to date confirm Butterfield's position, but that this presents a new set of practical and moral questions centered on the problem of advocating a balance against a country that one regards as broadly virtuous, and certainly more virtuous than many of the other powers in the world, but that no longer wants to pursue its interests through the post-Cold War concert of putative great powers. The best answer to these problems, I conclude, lies not in a crude balance, but the re-institutionalization of the idea of the balance of power. This requires advocating restraint and self-restraint, the first practical manifestation of which being that the U.S. should not attack either of the surviving members of the "Axis of Evil."

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)300-315
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Studies Perspectives
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2004


  • Hegemony
  • Herbert Butterfield
  • U.S. foreign policy


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