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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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It was important that, by the end of the sixteenth
century, Machiavelli was coming to have his most
significant period of influence. He was no longer en-
tirely disreputable, for men like Justus Lipsius (who
was so influential amonst both Protestants and Catho-
lics) were separating the results of his dry, scientific,
and realistic approach from some of his political
maxims, which were still too crafty and cruel for ac-
ceptance in respectable circles. Henceforward, even
those who were far from being governed by wishful
thinking in the matter were ready to learn from
Machiavelli that the state is associated with force, and
that politics must be envisaged as power politics. The
very men who deplored the fact were now ready to
recognize a certain unanswerability which makes force
so formidable a matter. People who in the twentieth
century deprecated the notion of the balance of power
on the ground that it regarded international politics
as too much a game of power politics were really
addressing themselves to this point. At the same time
the wider recognition of the role of force meant the
provision of something that was vaguely measurable,
and it opened the way to the notion of Europe as a
diagram of forces—indeed to a type of thought some-
what more analogous to the scientific.

After 1600 the references to the balance of power
become more numerous, and at least the language is
less clouded by ambiguities. Francis Bacon, by 1612,
describes Henry VIII, Charles V, and Francis I as
having been nervously in equilibrium; like Guicciar-
dini, he notes the need for unremitting vigilance and
talks of princes “keeping due sentinel.” For much of
the seventeenth century, however, it is the dissemi-
nation rather than the actual development of the idea
that strikes the eye. The age is chiefly important for
the emergence of both the political conditions and the
type of thinking that were to lead to a more sophis-
ticated view of the matter; also for the production of
single ideas that were to be involved in the final syn-

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 pro-
duced 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 Machi-
avelli himself had not pursued it very far. An impres-
sive example of this in the second quarter of the cen
tury 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 neces-
sity 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 ulti-
mate 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 diplo-
macy 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 ne-
gotiate 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 sugges-
tion that the topic has awakened 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 altera-
tion.” 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 cur-
rency 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 con-
flicts 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 consid-
eration 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 diplo-
matic despatches, state papers, treaties of alliance, and
treaties of peace.

But the very notion of balance had suffered a great
transmutation by this time, achieving a pattern of
which Guicciardini and Bacon themselves can have had
perhaps only a glimpse. In writings of considerable
importance in the seventeenth century, the main con-
flict between France and the Habsburgs had still been
the main theme, and what was envisaged was, even
at that stage in the story, something analogous to a
pair of scales. Still, as in the sixteenth century, it was
said by some writers that the British represented the
“tongue” of the balance, and by others that this was
the role of the Dutch.

The reign of Louis XIV added a new chapter to the
history of man's modern experience; and, if the appro-
priate 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 ap-
peared as the continental bogy. The truth was not
recognized as early as it might have been, and histori-
ans 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 dis-
sidents 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 in-
sisted 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 gov-
erning 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 pre-
tence 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.