IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Against Universal Monarchy

The “balance of power” is a concept with an honored place in international history, perhaps because it lacks any determinate meaning. In different hands, it may signify an egotistical system of clashing and hostile states, or the attempt to rise above that condition. It has sometimes seemed a synonym for realpolitik and an amoral statecraft, but in other guises it appears as the indispensable underpinning of whatever morality and justice is possible in international life. It can mean preponderance—or the challenge to such a status. Given these disparate meanings, the temptation may be to denounce it, as Richard Cobden did, as an “undescribed, indescribable, incomprehensible nothing,” not even rising to the status of a fallacy or an imposture. Such a conclusion, however, would be a mistake. Better to say that if did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.

For François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon (1651-1715), whom we extract below, the balance of power was a necessary underpinning of international order and justice. Fénelon was a French Roman Catholic prelate who, after having been named Archbishop of Cambrai in 1695, lost the confidence of Louix XIV due to religious opinions that seemed scandalous to the king. Exiled to his archdiocese, Fénelon  continued to write various works directed to the Duke of Burgandy, a possible successor to Louis XIV, whom he began to tutor when the duke was seven years old. The most renowned of these was The Adventures of Telemachus, composed in 1693-94, a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on absolute monarchy. He gave advice to the duke on the responsibilities of kingship and warned, unavailingly, of the ambitions that might bring France low. In Fénelon’s hands, the balance of power meant watchful prevention of any situation by which one power could overawe the rest, for such a prince, barring a miracle, would inevitably abuse his power. Respect for the balance of power made Europe into “a kind of society and general republic,” formed to force moderation on those tempted by superior power. (1283 words)

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Neighbouring states are not only obliged to observe towards each other the rules of justice and public faith; but they are under a necessity, for the security of each, and the common interest of all, to maintain together a kind of society and general republic; for the most powerful will certainly at length prevail and overthrow the rest, unless they unite together to make a counterweight.

It is not to be expected, among men, that a superior power will contain itself within the bounds of an exact moderation, and that it will not employ its force to obtain for itself what advantages it can, by oppressing the weaker. Or if this power should happen to be for some time harmless in the hands of an excellent prince, who could bear such prosperity so well, the wonder, 'tis likely, would cease with his reign: For the natural ambition of princes, the flatteries of their courtiers, and the prejudices of nations themselves will not suffer us to believe that a people who had it in their power to subdue their neighbours, would abstain from it for any considerable time. A reign conspicuous for such extraordinary justice, would be the ornament of history, and a prodigy not to be looked for again.

We are then to expect, what in reality we see frequently happen, that every nation will seek to prevail over its neighbours; and therefore every nation is obliged, for its proper security, to watch against, and by all means restrain the excessive increase of greatness in any of its neighbours. Nor is this injustice; 'tis to preserve itself and its neighbours from servitude; 'tis to contend for the liberty, tranquillity, and happiness of all in general: For the over-increase of power in any one influences the general system of all the surrounding nations. Thus the successive changes which have happened in the house of Burgundy, and which afterwards raised that of Austria, have altered the face of affairs throughout Europe. All Europe had reason to dread an universal monarchy under Charles V, especially after he had defeated and taken Francis I at Pavia. 'Tis certain that a nation, having no pretence directly to meddle with the affairs of Spain, had at that time a very good right to oppose that formidable power which appeared ready to swallow up all.

Private men indeed have no right to oppose the increase of their neighbour's wealth, because they cannot pretend it may prove prejudicial or destructive to them. There are laws and magistrates to suppress injustice and violence among families unequal in power.

But the case of states is different, the overgrowth of one of these may prove the ruin and enslavement of all its neighbours. Here are neither laws nor judges established for a barrier against the invasions of the strongest; they have, therefore, reason to suppose that the strongest will invade their liberties as soon as there is no force sufficient to oppose them. Each of them may and ought to prevent that increase of power which would endanger the liberty of his own people, and that of all his neighbours. For example, Philip II of Spain, after he had conquered Portugal, would have made himself master of England. 'Tis true, he had no right that was well founded; but supposing his right to have been incontestable, it was the interest of all Europe to oppose his establishment in England ; because so powerful a kingdom, added to his other dominions of Spain, Italy, Flanders, and the Indies, would have enabled him to subject by his maritime force all the other powers of Christendom. Then summum jus, summa injuria [“More law, more injustice.”] Any particular right of succession or donation, should have given way to the natural law that provides for the security of so many nations. Whatever destroys the balance and tends to set up an universal monarchy, can be no other than unjust; however it may be founded on the written laws of a particular country, which can never prevail over the sovereign and universal law of nature for the common security and liberty, engraven in the hearts of all the nations of the world.

When a power is grown to such a pitch that all its neighbours are hardly a match for it, they have an undoubted right to unite for the restraining of that increase, which, were it suffered to proceed, would become too great to be opposed in its attempts on the common liberty. But that such confederacies for restraining the growing power of a state may be lawful, the danger from it must be real and pressing; the league defensive, or no further offensive than a just and necessary defence requires; and such bounds must be set to it as it may not entirely destroy that power which it was formed only to limit and moderate.

This care to maintain a kind of equality and balance among neighbouring nations, is that which secures the common repose; and in this respect such nations, being joined together by commerce, compose, as it were one great body and a kind of community. Christendom, for example, makes a sort of general republic which has its interests, its dangers, and its policy. All the members of this great body owe to one another for the common good, and to themselves for their particular security, that they oppose the progress of any one member, which may destroy the balance, and tend to the inevitable ruin of the other members. Whatever alters the general system of Europe is dangerous, and draws after it many fatal consequences.

All neighbouring nations are so connected together by their mutual interests, that the least progress of any one is sufficient to alter the general balance, which makes the security of the whole; as when one stone is taken out of an arch, the whole falls to the ground, because all the stones sustain each other in pushing against each other. 'Tis a duty then for neighbouring nations to concur for the common safety against one who grows too powerful, as it is for fellow-citizens to unite against an invader of the liberty of their country. If there is a duty owing by every citizen to his particular society or country, every nation, by the same reason, is obliged to consult the welfare and repose of that universal republic of which it is a member and in which are enclosed all the countries composed of private men. . . .

The state of the Romans and of Charlemagne is by no means a desirable condition. First, because to arrive at it, you must commit all manner of injustice and violence; seize what is not your own, and that by the most bloody and continued wars. Then the design is very dangerous: States have often perished by these ambitious follies. And lastly, vast empires, which have been formed by means of so many mischiefs, are generally the occasion of others yet more dreadful by their fall. The first minority, or weak reign, dissolves the overgrown body, and separates the people, yet unaccustomed to the yoke of subjection, or to mutual union. Then what divisions, what confusions, what anarchies, without remedy! To be sensible of this, we need only reflect on the mischiefs brought on the west, by the sudden downfall of the empire of Charlemagne; and on the east, by the subversion of that of Alexander, whose captains made greater havoc in sharing the spoils of his victory, than he had done in the conquest of Asia. This then is of all the cases the most dazzling and fallacious, and the most fatal in its consequences to those who arrive at it.

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From “Two Essays on the Balance of Power . . . Printed in the Year 1720,” in A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracks (Lord Somers Tracts), xiii. 2nd edition, 1815, pp 766-70, excerpted in the excellent compendium of Moorhead Wright, ed., Theory and Practice of the Balance of Power, 1486-1914 (London: Dent, 1975).


Image of Fénelon courtesy of Wikipedia