Butterfield chided Hume for investing isolated expressions of balancing ideas in antiquity with the character of a fully developed system, and noted that of Renaissance writers only Guicciardini developed a conception of a balancing system: the author of the History of Italy, Machiavelli's contemporary and friend,“vividly described how the very jealousies between the states made the peace more stable, each power keeping an unremitting watch on the rest, so that none was able to steal a march on any of the others.” Guicciardini, however, was not recommending “a formula of general policy” but wrote as "a historian diagnosing a situation that seemed unique.” Machiavelli, says Butterfield, is a disappointment for diplomats, with little conception of the general balance: “He repeatedly deals with the question whether a state should remain neutral when its neighbors are at war, and he is aware that the result of the war itself may be the aggrandizement of one of the belligerents. If he presses the policy of intervention, however, this is not out of consideration for the balance, but because in his view the neutral loses the respect of both sides—he treats the problem as a question of prestige.”
From various scattered sources, however, was beginning to emerge something like a doctrine. By the beginning of the seventeenth century “references to the balance of power become more numerous, and it was in the course of that century that the ideal of the balance finally comes into place”: (3095 words)
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The long conflict between France and the Habsburg dynasty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made it more possible for men to envisage a great part of Europe in a single survey. The impression of omnipresence given by the Habsburgs, who were in Austria and Spain, in Italy and Hungary, in the Netherlands and Germany, was calculated to induce people to take something more like an overall view. It also provided the French with the basis of their claim that this dynasty was seeking “universal dominion,” while they themselves were fighting to save the smaller states of Europe as well as their own country. The idea of a balance of power may have been implicit in such a situation though it is surprising to see how rarely it receives explicit formulation in the sixteenth century. And if England or Savoy sought to reap benefit from the conflicts between their greater neighbors, we may be too ready to read modern ideas of the balance of power into their attempts to snatch some advantage out of other people's quarrels. What was important was the fact that most of Europe was coming to appear more like a states-system, and many states conducted their foreign policy with reference to the main conflict between France and the Habsburgs. Also the world learned to fear the threat of “universal dominion.” . . .
Quite early in the century the peculiar anxiety about the problem of menacing war led to some thinking that paid attention to Europe as a whole. In a different realm, but with similar preoccupations, Grotius produced a significant advance in modern international law. Apart from this, one can see that diplomacy itself was becoming an object of serious reflection among some of the people who were practicing it. This meant, not the adoption of the teaching of Machiavelli but the application of the method in a field where Machiavelli himself had not pursued it very far. An impressive example of this in the second quarter of the century is Cardinal Richelieu, who recognized his debt to the Italian writer.
Richelieu shared the main preoccupation of the theorists of the balance of power when he put to his monarch the alternative of a reforming policy at home or an active policy abroad, while insisting that the adoption of the former would mean the sacrifice for an indefinite period of any chance of checking the hegemony of Spain. By the conscious confrontation with the problem which the conflict with Spain then presented to a genuine Catholic, he set out the terms for what we today would call a “non-ideological” foreign policy—a policy that was indispensable to a mature theory of the balance of power. Grasping the crucial distinction, he regarded it as a desperate necessity to check the menace of Habsburg dominion, but also he resolved (and tried to keep to his resolution) that his Church should suffer as little as possible from this. He adopted a parallel attitude to the Huguenots inside France, whom he determined to destroy insofar as they were an armed “state within the State,” though he would tolerate their religion and hoped that this example of charity would be conductive to their ultimate voluntary conversion. The later theorists of the balance of power realized the importance to their system of the processes which helped to bring Europe out of the fanaticism of the wars of religion; and there is something in the diplomatic ideas of Richelieu which extracts matters of faith from the objectives of diplomacy and war, and even hints at the idea of war for limited purposes only. He preached, furthermore, that negotiation should never cease, that states should negotiate even when there was no issue between them and simply for the cultivation of good relations. It is surprising that at least the theorists of the balance of power should not have followed him in his further injunction: that diplomacy should not be abandoned even in time of war.
Only after about the middle of the century, however, do the references to the balance of power itself begin to come in something like a flood, bringing the suggestion that the topic has wakened general interest. The prelude to this is found, in the 1640's, in the despatches of Richelieu's successor, Mazarin—despatches which show that the practicing diplomats are now having to pay attention to the matter. The idea is associated with Venice, and this means that it is treated as having special implications. Mazarin regards Venice as making a fetish of the balance of power because she has an interest in seeing that the status quo shall be preserved. Mazarin himself is willing to adopt the policy where it has the same implications; and in a treaty of alliance which he concluded with Denmark in 1645, there is a clause which says that since the interest of commerce require the maintenance of the status quo in the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Baltic, the two powers will “work to secure that this ancient and salutary equilibrium shall be maintained without any alteration.” The balance of power is interpreted as the policy of those who want to keep territorial arrangements as they now stand.
After all that has been said, it still remains true that it was the decades of Louis XIV's personal rule (i.e., the period after 1660) which were the most important for the idea of the balance of power, producing the remarkable developments and the extraordinary currency of the idea. And now, at last, it seems that the maintenance of the equilibrium comes to be regarded as the supreme object of international politics. The significance of the idea was greatly heightened by the fact that, in this period, governments paid considerable attention to propaganda in time of war, and the conflicts associated with Louis XIV's reign provoked in various countries many pamphlets and topical treatises. Both in its origin (which one can trace back through Partition Treaties) and in its course, the War of the Spanish Succession reveals the degree to which the policy of states was now being determined by consideration for the balance. The European settlement at Utrecht involved a redistribution of territory in which that consideration was paramount; and if the idea of balance had put England at first on the side of the Habsburg candidate, the same idea helps to explain how Britain could accept a Bourbon candidate when a change in the situation of the Habsburg made him, in turn, a possible threat to the equilibrium. By this time the doctrine was repeatedly appearing in diplomatic despatches, state papers, treaties of alliance, and treaties of peace. . . .
The reign of Louis XIV added a new chapter to the history of man's modern experience; and, if the appropriate conclusions were soon drawn from it, we might say that whenever they have been forgotten since that date, the world has been the loser. It became clear that, after fighting for so long against the threat of“universal dominion” from the Habsburgs—fighting often on behalf of smaller states as well as on her own behalf—France herself had emerged as the aggressor and the dominating power, and Louis XIV now appeared as the continental bogy. The truth was not recognized as early as it might have been, and historians have sometimes noted that certain governments persisted too long in the view that Spain was still the general enemy. In time, however, even long-standing alliances came to require readjustment; and, towards the end of the seventeenth century the principle of the balance of power was being used as a weapon against France. Official circles in that country tended therefore to disapprove of the idea.
But, in a famous case, it becomes evident that the true consequences were drawn from reflection on the fact that Spain had been the menace in one age while France was the aggressor in another. Fénelon (François de Salignac de la Mothe), a representative of the dissidents in this latter country, did not rest content with the answer that the Spaniards had been wicked at one time, the French at another time. He produced the thesis which was the most essential of all for the mature doctrine of the balance of power in the eighteenth century. He insisted that it was the disposition of forces which made Spain the menace in the sixteenth century and France the aggressor at a later date. If a state were allowed to rise to a position of predominance, one would no longer be able to rely on its good behavior, no matter how moderate it had hitherto been in its policy. It might have struggled for the balance of power and defended the interests of small states—it might even have combated the whole idea of “universal dominion”—but once it found that it could do what it liked with impunity, it would throw overboard the old inhibitions, and no longer confine its purposes within accustomed channels. Indeed the very process of resisting the predominant power of today would be likely to generate the new aggressor, who, demanding more and more securities against the enemy, might slide imperceptibly into lust for “universal dominion.”
As a consequence of all this, Fénelon not only insisted on the importance of the balance of power but held that its claims were of an overriding nature, the equivalent of an overruling law. Even the laws which prevailed in the interior of a country—the rules governing the succession to the throne, for example— should give way, he said, to “the right that so many nations had to security.” Also, a nation which had no quarrel on its own account with a predominating power had the right to take precautionary measures against it for the sake of European liberty in general, though care must be taken to limit one's objective, and never seek the destruction of a power under the pretence of curbing it.
Supposing the objection were made that a state might find itself lifted to a predominant position at a moment when it was being directed by a virtuous ruler, Fénelon had his answer ready. Such a state might conduct a moderate policy for a single reign, he said, but its merit could hardly endure longer than that. Important factors in the situation itself would produce the wrong policy or bring the wrong kind of ruler to the top.
The general treaties of Westphalia (1648) and Utrecht (1713) had made it more easy, and more a matter of habit, to see a considerable part of Europe as an integrated system. These were days when the parallel ideas of a balance of trade and the equipoise of the English constitution had already been gaining currency. The world had become familiar with parallelograms of forces, and in various human studies, as well as in different branches of science (zoology, for example), the mind seemed to be taking a mechanistic turn. Henry Brougham pointed out in the Edinburgh Review in 1802-03 that the theory of the balance of power had been unknown to the ancient Greeks and had arisen from the progress of science and the peculiar circumstances of modern Europe. The development of a Baconian kind of reflection amongst even the practitioners of diplomacy, as well as the incidental comments of international lawyers like Grotius, had brought out more sophisticated ideas, some of which came together in the work of Fénelon. And the ideas of Fénelon helped to give a moral basis to the resulting combination; for if the virtue of governments depended somewhat on the distribution of power, it followed that in a well-balanced Europe the ambitions of all rulers would be moderate, for all would grow accustomed to feeling that only marginal aggressions were feasible.
In the last struggles with Louis XIV the balance of power became a system fully conscious of itself and “quite as comprehensively and carefully worked out as the mercantilism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” [quoting E.V. Gulick]. It now graduated as a general theory of international politics. On this mature theory, Europe was seen as almost a parallel to the system of Newtonian astronomy. The various states—whether great or small—exerted a pull or a pressure on one another, and this bore some relationship to their respective masses and to their distances from one another. If the mass of any one of them was substantially altered, this would be likely to destroy the equipoise unless the distances were corrected, the alliances changed, the states regrouped. In a world in which governments could recognize their real interests, or could envisage long-term results instead of being governed by momentary desires and prejudices, the readjustments would be rapid and might be regarded as automatic. But since states could be shortsighted, the idea of the balance of power might not always be a theory of what actually happens. It might become a policy that governments were urged to pursue; and so it might be turned into a matter of precept.
The object of the system was to prevent the emergence of a power so predominant that it could misconduct itself with impunity and march to something like “universal dominion.” It was assumed that all states had the latent desire for aggression, even the small ones indulging in conquest if local circumstances provided the opportunity. So long as they were powerless, the tendency to this would be merely latent, and, where there was an equilibrium, it would become second nature to keep one's ambitions at a moderate level. It was not held that under the system of the balance of power the tendency to aggression would be abolished altogether, however. On the contrary it was assumed that once a state found that the way was open for such a thing, it would move forward to “universal dominion.” The great requirement was that the others should see the danger, and adjust their alliances in time, so that vigilance and farsightedness were necessary. It might be too late if one awoke only when the aggressor had already made a great advance—too late if one even waited for him to show his hand. It had already been a matter of controversy as to whether it was permissible to attack a state merely because it was a potential menace—i.e., before it had committed any actual offence. Some writers were in favor of even this preventive policy, though Grotius had disapproved of the idea.
An objector might argue that it was better to allow a hegemony to be established—better to have something like a Roman Empire which would secure peace throughout the system. Before the end of the eighteenth century the writers on the balance of power were addressing themselves to this argument. They claimed that here were the only two alternatives—either a states-system which made the map of Europe look like a patchwork quilt, or a “universal dominion” that embraced the whole continent. They were well aware that when a supremacy of power has been conceded, the beneficiary can do anything that he likes with it—the chance of controlling him, or making him keep any promise that he has made, is lost. But they were prepared to confront the problem at a higher level still. Against the idea of a universal empire, which would end by producing a widespread uniformity, they pressed the case for a European civilization enriched by the variety of its national manifestations. If initially they needed a congeries of states because they insisted on having a distribution of power, they proceeded to advance further still, and argue that small states had in fact an intrinsic value. The system was claimed to be the only one which (in a world that was somewhat at the mercy of force) could secure the actual existence of small states.
The balance in fact secured not only their existence but also their autonomy, their power of independent action. Any defect in the balance would tend at least to deprive them of a genuine foreign policy, reducing them to the position of satellites. Richelieu had once complained that, in his own day, small states were able to have greater freedom of action than the larger ones, and we in the latter half of the twentieth century can see how this might be the case. In a certain sense the system of balance itself might depend on the small states, who could shift their allegiance if a power which had been their friend was turning into a general menace. The system was capable of providing, therefore, something like an actual diplomatic role for smaller states.
Indeed, before the end of the century, it had come to be realized that the system of the balance of power was directed to the maintenance of liberty rather than to the prevention of wars. It assumed (or enjoined) the adoption of the view that the ultimate object of a state was its survival or its independence; and sometimes this was taken to imply that survival was the constant motive, that all conflicts should be treated as a question of survival—in other words, all policy should be subordinated to the issue of the distribution of power. This was perhaps an abuse of the theory, since it was sufficient to say that the question of survival, the question of the distribution of power, should never be allowed to fall out of sight. The effect of the abuse was to turn policy sometimes into an arid kind of raison d'état. . . .
Above all, the apostles of the balance of power feared anything like what we should call “ideological” diplomacy and “ideological” war. There was a further thing which they repeatedly said must never be allowed to happen again; and that was the fanatical “wars of religion.” . . . The “war of religion” (or the “ideological” war) was recognized to be the extreme antithesis to the system. It ignored the balance of power, and it rendered a policy of compromise too difficult. It came to be understood that the system of states depended in fact on an underlying unity of culture, a common sense of values and a preexisting community of tradition and custom. The international order itself, and the balance within it, depended on the assumption that all the participants were like members of the same club. A theory that was far from denying the egotism of states, called at times therefore for loyalty to the club itself and asked that egotism should stop short of any threat to the international order.
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These extracts form about two-fifths of Butterfield’s essay. The full essay is available online, along with the remainder of the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, at the University of Virginia. Back in the day, you could get a copy of the five volume Dictionary with a subscription to the History Book Club, for $1, and yes, that salespitch of something for practically nothing brought me in. These five volumes are a wonderful education in the liberal arts, and well worth prolonged study. A most valuable online resource.