IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Political Skeleton of International Relations

Martin Wight’s Power Politics is a neglected gem in international studies. Though Wight regarded the work, itself a revision and expansion of a slender pamphlet in 1946 of the same title, as his principal scholarly task, it was unfinished at the time of his death in 1972. His editors, Hedley Bull and Carstan Holbraad, published the manuscript in 1978. They underline the fact that some of the chapters existed only in draft form and had been written over a period of twenty years, but the volume reads remarkably well. Wight’s standards of publication were evidently a bit higher than the rest of us.
Wight’s aim, as the editors note, was to set out “those features of international politics that are fundamental and enduring. “ He descants, in twenty four chapters, on such phenomena as great powers, international revolutions, sea vs. land power, and war and intervention. Throughout an enormous volume of historical incident and example is laid before the reader, alongside arresting observations regarding the deeper patterns of international politics. The following is an extract from chapter two, “Dominant Powers,” wherein Wight sketches out “the political skeleton of international relations.” That history, he avers, is not distinguished by the growth of internationalism but by the successive attempts to achieve mastery of the state system. “Every dominant power aspires, by giving political unification to the whole of international society, to become a universal empire.”  The chapter was probably written in the early 1970s. It is very topical. (1503 words)

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The most conspicuous theme in international history is not the growth of internationalism. It is the series of efforts, by one power after another, to gain mastery of the states-system—efforts that have been defeated only by a coalition of the majority of other powers at the cost of an exhausting general war. ' Life ', as the President of the United Nations General Assembly [O. Aranha of Brazil] once said, ‘is a continuous sequence of dominations ‘.

There are hints of the theme before the end of the Middle Ages. France enjoyed a European hegemony after the collapse of the Empire, and made the papacy during its Avignonese Captivity (1305-77)  to some extent her political tool. England undertook a great war of aggrandizement in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), transforming a feudal dispute about Aquitaine into a struggle to unite the English and French crowns, first under Edward III and then more brilliantly and ephemerally under Henry V. But it was among the Italian powers that feudal relationships first disappeared and the efficient, self-sufficient, secular state was evolved, and the Italian powers invented the diplomatic system. The French invasion of Italy in 1494 is the conventional beginning of modern international history because it dramatically marks the point from which the European powers at large begin to adopt the habits of Italian power politics.

Spain, not France, is the earliest power to dominate the states-system as a whole. When the Habsburg King of Spain inherited the Austrian dominions and was elected Emperor as Charles V, he became the greatest power in Europe, and quickly supplanted the French in Italy. On his abdicating Spain was separated from Austria, but the two branches of the Habsburg family continued to work together as a dynastic axis, and occasioned two general wars. The first was fought by Philip II from 1572 to 1598 against a growing coalition of the Dutch (for whom it was their war of independence), the French and the English. The second raged from 1618 to 1659, beginning with the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which was an attempt by Austria to unify Central Europe in the name of the principles of the Counter-Reformation, and continuing in the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59.

In the seventeenth century there were two systems of international relations in Europe, partially independent of one another. In Western Europe the chief powers were Spain, France, Holland and England; in the north round the Baltic the chief powers were Sweden, Denmark, Poland and Russia; and the two systems overlapped in Germany, where Austria was predominant. Their wars were separate but interlocking, like the European and Pacific wars which together made up the Second World War. Sweden became the dominant power in northern Europe when Gustavus Adolphus launched her into the Thirty Years War, and she lost her ascendancy in the Great Northern War of 1700-21, when Charles XII fought against a coalition led by Russia and including at one time or another Poland, Saxony, Denmark and Prussia.

While Sweden was the dominant power in the Baltic, the predominance in Western Europe was passing from Spain to France, and French ascendancy in its turn caused two general wars. The first was the war of 1688-1713, in which Louis XIV was defeated by a coalition of Holland, England and Austria. The second was the war of 1792-1815, by which time Western and northern Europe had merged into a single system, and Revolutionary and Napoleonic France fought against Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia. Continental predominance passed to Germany with her defeat of France in 1870-71,  and in the twentieth century Germany in her turn has waged two general wars against coalitions of the majority of other powers. As a result of the second of these wars continental predominance passed to Russia.

This sequence provides the political skeleton of international relations. But to complete the picture we must notice that on the oceans there has been a different succession of dominant powers from that on the Continent. Spain alone has had the dominion both of the land and of the sea, and the vast responsibilities destroyed her. France inherited the continental ascendancy, but the maritime predominance fell to Holland. . . .Holland was supplanted in the maritime predominance by England. . . . Britain's history of predominance, like that of most other dominant powers, went through two cycles. The first ran from the defeat of Louis XIV to the American Revolution. It rose to its zenith in the Seven Years War (1756-63), when Canada and India were conquered, and Britain reached a greater height of relative power than she ever afterwards attained. But her naval and commercial supremacy evoked foreign enmity as well as colonial rebellion; and in the War of American Independence (1775-83) she had to fight a coalition of the United States, France, Spain and Holland, with Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia and Austria in a hostile Armed Neutrality to uphold the rights of neutral powers. Britain was isolated and defeated, and her first empire was shattered. She recovered her oceanic predominance in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. To English eyes this was a generous struggle to free Europe from the tyranny of Napoleon. From the detached standpoint of the American President it looked different. 'Two nations of overgrown power', wrote Jefferson in 1807, 'are endeavouring to establish, the one an universal dominion by sea, the other by land'; and it was against the former not the latter that the United States eventually joined the war. . . .
If we remember that a political definition describes a pattern to which every historical example only approximates, we might define a dominant power as a power that can measure strength against all its rivals combined. Pericles said that the strength of imperial Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War lay in her possessing naval forces more numerous and efficient than those of all the rest of Hellas. Thus Louis XIV took over from Philip II the proud device, Nec Pluribus Impar: a match for many. At the end of the seventeenth century, just before the War of the Spanish Succession broke out, [quoting Bolingbroke] ‘France had been constantly in arms, and her arms had been successful. She had sustained a war, without any confederates, against the principal powers of Europe confederated against her, and had finished it with advantage on every side' . . . . Perhaps the most perfect specimens of dominant power are Britain in the mid eighteenth century, who won her oceanic triumphs single-handed against the combined navies of France and Spain; and Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, which with no allies of importance overthrew three military coalitions within fifteen years, before the fourth brought her to her knees. But ‘however great France may be’, said Pitt in 1802, ‘we had a revenue equal to all Europe, . . . a navy superior to all Europe, and a commerce as great as that of all Europe, - and he added, laughingly, to make us quite gentlemen, a debt as large as that of all Europe.' . . .

But a dominant power must be described by purpose as well as by power. Each dominant power is engaged in straightforward aggrandizement, but it generally also appeals to some design of international unity and solidarity. Henry V dreamed, like most later medieval conquerors, of leading a reunited Christendom in a last crusade against the Turks. The House of Habsburg was itself a kind of international organization, a dynastic confederation of many states (Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, Naples, Milan, Bohemia, Hungary, Portugal), asserting the principles of international Catholicism. Gustavus Adolphus sought to make himself protector of all Protestant states. Napoleon carried the benefits of the French Revolution throughout Europe, and gave a new life to the ancient title of Emperor. So effective was the Pax Britannica in the nineteenth century that it was easy to mistake its fragile and temporary nature, and even to compare it with the Roman Empire, as if it denoted a monopoly of power. Of all the dominant powers, Louis XIV and Hitler had least to offer mankind, yet Louis was the exemplar of Catholic monarchism, and Hitler (beside whom the arrogance of Louis XIV shines as a kingly sense of duty) persuaded many people even outside Germany that his savage designs would lead, not only to a new order in Europe, but to a reconstitution of the world on biological principles. Every dominant power aspires, by giving political unification to the whole of international society, to become a universal empire.

The coalitions that overthrow the dominant powers, however, describe their struggle in terms of freedom and independence. Their policy is the balance of power; their classic appeals are `the liberties of Europe' and `the freedom of the seas'. They have usually sought to re-establish these liberties, at the end of a general war, by holding an international congress and drawing up a general peace treaty, which remains the legal basis of international politics until the next general war. . . .

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Martin Wight, Power Politics. Edited by Hedley Bull and Carsten Holbraad (Leicester University Press, 1978, pp. 30-37. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.


For a long time, it was extremely difficult to find a copy of Power Politics in the United States, but Continuum brought out a paperback in 2002, and there are cheap copies available at Amazon and Abebooks.  Wight’s sketch of the political skeleton of international relations is very Eurocentric, and as such subject to the reservations noted by Barry Buzan and Richard Little, but another of Wight’s principal works, Systems of States, shows a much broader compass and is an important forerunner to Buzan and Little’s own study of international systems in world history.