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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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1. The Eighteenth-Century Theory of International

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 paral-
lelograms 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
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 practi-
tioners of diplomacy, as well as the incidental com-
ments 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” (Gulick, p. 299). 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 rela-
tionship to their respective masses and to their dis-
tances 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 cor-
rected, the alliances changed, the states regrouped. In
a world in which governments could recognize their
real interests, or could envisage long-term results in-
stead 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

The object of the system was to prevent the emer-
gence of a power so predominant that it could miscon-
duct 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 abol-
ished 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

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 permis-
sible 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 pre-
ventive policy, though Grotius had disapproved of the

An objector might argue that it was better to allow
a hegemony to be established—better to have some-
thing like a Roman Empire which would secure peace
throughout the system. Before the end of the eight-
eenth 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 any-
thing 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 con-
geries of states because they insisted on having a distri-
bution 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

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 men-
ace. The system was capable of providing, therefore,
something like an actual diplomatic role for smaller

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 subor-
dinated to the issue of the distribution of power. This
was perhaps an abuse of the theory, since it was suffi-
cient 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.

The really important thing, as the Edinburgh Review
repeated in 1802, was that there should be unremitting
vigilance, for danger might arise from changes taking
place at the other end of the map. The point was made,
however, that the acquisition of territory by one power
did not mean that others must make a similar expansion
or that actual war would be necessary to restore the
balance. The more mature theory recognized that, at
the heart of the whole argument, was the idea of
restoring the equilibrium by readjustments in alliances.
It was realized that an internal development—a great
economic advance—might alter the power of a state
as much as the acquisition of territory, and this was
to be counterbalanced in the same way.

It came to be seen, therefore, that the whole system
assumed or acquired a high degree of flexibility, and
that traditional alliances, sentimental associations,
dynastic marriages, and established commercial chan-
nels might obstruct the response to changing situations,
and clog the whole machine. Above all, the apostles
of the balance of power feared anything like what
we should call “ideological” diplomacy and “ideologi-
cal” war. There was a further thing which they repeat-
edly said must never be allowed to happen again; and
that was the fanatical “wars of religion.”

As the century proceeded, the theorists tended more
and more to exalt equilibrium as such, and to make
it the highest objective of foreign policy, insisting that
the egotism of advancing states, or even the punish-
ment of a defeated aggressor, should not be carried
to the point at which the international system itself
was overthrown. And if it was sometimes said that the
balance of power, while assisting the cause of liberty,
tended to make conflicts more numerous (tended even
to make them general), the same teaching did imply
at least a doctrine of warfare for limited purposes, and
a preference for the kind of peace treaty that produced
only marginal cessions for the adjustment of the bal-
ance. An essential feature of the system was the real-
ization that the enemy of today may be required as
an ally tomorrow and that excessive concessions made
to a monarch who happens to be virtuous may benefit
his successor, who will make an evil use of them.
In any case, war for the actual destruction of a state
was anathema, for it meant the creation of a vacuum
which would serve the purpose of a potential aggressor
better than anything else.

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 un-
derstood 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.