THE BALANCE OF POWER

Origins

The balance of power has been a concern of British diplomacy since the Tudors. Historians have generally dated the concept back to the wars between the Italian city states of the fifteenth century, tracing its first use to Guicciardini’s 1561 History of Italy; but being ‘founded on human nature’, it is not implausible to see the Greek alliance against ancient Troy as its earliest manifestation. The long period of Franco-Spanish rivalry from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century encouraged the development of the idea of a self-righting balance of power, as power ebbed and flowed first one way and then the other. But the concept of the balance of power as part of the immutable law of nature received a jolt in the Age of Enlightenment. If the scientific revolution questioned the whole notion of a static and stable ‘nature’, then the late eighteenth century partition of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia, questioned the whole notion of the ‘balance’ as a stabilising force. If the three ‘Northern Courts’ could destroy Poland in the name of the ‘balance of power’, then the old idea that the interests of individual states and of the states system as a whole were always reconcilable, was plainly wrong. Napoleon's decade of conquest at the start of the nineteenth century confirmed this view, as he came close to making Continental Europe a French colonial empire.[1]

Imperial Struggles

Columbus' landing in America was merely the first of a Spanish rush to establish an empire in the new World. However, that empire began to fail a century later, in part for lack of a navy and effective defences. The Dutch, French, and English happily supplanted the Spanish as the European power-brokers. The Spanish developed wealth in both the Americas and the Philippines and quickly learned to develop trade for Europe and to extend their trading pattern to encorporate West African slaves. The Dutch profited hugely by their creation of capital markets in Amsterdam, lending money to traders, slavers, and shippers to enable the creation of the Dutch East Indies (in Indonesia) and the Caribbean. The French developed their trade in America, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. The Elizabethan English started well in America, but James I did not want to offend Spain and restrained attacks in the Spanish Caribbean. Realisation of Britain's vulnerability came with Louis XIV's threats to dominate Europe and to complete his empire by adding Britian. The Stewarts and parliament finally woke to the need for a strong navy and continental allies to divert French attention. This strategy of balancing allies, to ensure that none became too powerful, became known as the Balance of Power: it had more ancient roots.

The War of the Spanish Succession began in 1700 with Carlos II Habsburg's dying gift of his Spanish dominions to Philippe, Duc de Bourbon, who became Felipe V, Rey de España. The significance was that the new king of Spain's grandfather was Louis XIV of France. French troops were quickly deployed into the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium. Louis was master of Europe from Gibralter to the Rhine, with considerable claims in the New World. To cope with this threat to her economy, the British navy was quickly given world-wide responsibilities. Considerable naval skills were required to blockade the French, protect English merchant convoys against Mediterranean privateers, bottle up the French fleet at Brest, prevent Spanish silver fleets from French capture, and conduct major operations in Canada and the Caribbean. The need for a British Mediterranean base led to the capture of Gibraltar in 1704. England became Great Britain in 1707, protected by its new navy spread into several oceans.

At the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna, post-Napoleonic peace was established by European statesmen who included Britain's Lord Castelreagh. Castelreagh used the opportunity to embed the principles of a European 'Blance of Power', and a high level of morality. Because Britain was physically separated from its Continental neighbours, the English became the perennial 'swing' ally, initially aligning against Spain and then against France and then the Netherlands. (At the time the Dutch had a powerful fleet and an army experienced in fighting to expel the Spanish from the Netherlands and re-gain their independence.) But the real contest began in the 1690s between France and England (by then Britain) with Louis XIV's plan to conquer Europe. Louis built both an army and a navy, but he couldn't afford them since the English navy was then choking the French economy in an embargo. That led France to large debts and finally a French revolution.

The statesmen who defeated Napoleon knew that in order to really win the war against him they needed to create and maintain a balance of power. This balance of power was created at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. The Austrian Chancellor, Prince Metternich, and the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, collaborated and tried to create a balance of power which would both confine France, and prevent Tsar Alexander I of Russia from exercising too much influence in the future affairs of Europe.

Because they were self-consciously creating a balance of power rather than punishing France, the settlement made at Vienna endured for longer than anyone could have supposed. France was surrounded with buffer States, but otherwise treated leniently. Article VI of the 1815 Treaty of Paris provided for periodic meetings of the Great European Powers to discuss problems of mutual interest. The first of these latter meetings was in 1818 and it was decided to readmit France into the Concert of Europe. Despite differences of interpretation between Britain and the Northern Courts, the balance of power was adjusted with some success without war until 1854. Even the Crimean War was justified by Palmerston in the name of the balance of power. Russia, it was felt, had become too strong and needed to be put under some restraint.

Peacemaking

The Greek City States of Athens, Sparta and Corinth contrived to ensure that none was too powerful to override the others, by assisting each other against aggression The Greeks did this because they knew that they might be next.  This basic international model of equality and the limited framework of area and numbers served Europe well for centuries.  The modern version may have started in the Italian Renaissance state system in the 1400s and then adapted considerably after that.[2]  However, European statesmen found the Balance of Power concept helpful as I have noted above and since I have referred to the concept, the following may be of value.

The satirist Gulick cites the following as an explanation.

Catechist:

Hold my pretty Child - one Word more. - You have been ask'd concerning the Ballance of Power. - Tell me what it is?

Europa:

It is such an equal Distribution of Power among the Princes of Europe, as makes it impracticable for the one to disturb the Repose of the other.

Catechist

Pray who was it that formed that excellent Plan?

Europa

The immortal King William, the Dutch, and other wise Men.

Catechist

Tell me wherein consists the Safety of Europe?

Europa

In this same Ballance of Power.

Catechist

What is it that generally causes War in her Bowels?

Europa

It is occasion'd by the Ballance of Power being destroy'd.

Catechist

And how may that Ballance be destroy'd?

Europa

That Ballance may be destroy'd by Force or Fraud; by the Pusillanimity of some, and the Corruption of all.

Catechist

When any Potentate hath arriv'd to an exorbitant Share of Power, ought not the Rest to league together in order to reduce him to his due Proportion of it?

Europa

Yes, certainly.  Otherwise there is but one Potentate, and the others are only a kind of Vassals to him.

- Europe's Catechism (London, 1741), pp. 11-12.

ENDNOTES

1             Balance of power, By Professor John Charmley, new perspective Vol. 6, No. 1, http://www.history-ontheweb.co.uk/concepts/balanceofpower61.htm.

2             Edward Vose Gulick, Europe's Classical Balance of Power, p. 13.

home · introduction · genealogy · background · maps · bibliography · search · contact