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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The idea of balance of power initially envisaged the
relations between two states (and, by extension, two
groups) as comparable to a pair of scales, with the
possibility of intervention by a third party either to
restore the equilibrium or to tip the balance in favor
of one of the two. Later, the notion was extended, first
to three states, then to an entire congeries of states,
poised against one another, any substantial change in
the mass of one of the units requiring a regrouping
amongst the rest if the equilibrium was to be main-
tained. All this has developed into a wider theory of
international politics which makes the preservation of
the equilibrium an object (even sometimes the over-
ruling object) of policy for the purpose of preventing
the indefinite expansion of a predominant member of
the system; and which, by its regard for the diagram
of forces, tends to base foreign policy on considerations
relating to power.


Classical antiquity carried political thought to a
considerable depth while it discussed the problem of
the state as though only one example existed in the
world; but its intellectual achievement is disappointing
in the field of interstate relations. The notion that a
government should ally itself with the power that it
fears the less against the power that it fears the more,
and the idea that a state, when confronted by an ag-
gressor who is superior in strength, should seek an ally,
hardly rise above the level of banality. Neither the view
that small states should combine against a threatening
giant, nor the habit of shifting alliances as circum-
stances change, can be regarded as more than the raw
material of human experience, familiar long before the
rise of Athens. It is only too easy for us to read into
such elementary phenomena a complicated notion of
equilibrium which has become second nature to mod-
ern man.


Thucydides, though he does not envisage an actual
balance, may be said to adumbrate a number of maxims
which would have been recognized in the eighteenth
century as part of the complex of ideas which the
theory embraced, e.g.:

You, Spartans, are the only people in Hellas who... instead
of crushing an enemy in its infancy, wait until it has doubled
its strength


Athens is capable of standing up against the whole of
our coalition and is superior to any one of us individually;
so unless we go unanimously to war with her, both as a
body and as individual states and peoples, she will find us
divided and will overcome us, one by one


The only assured basis for an alliance is for each party
to be equally afraid of the other; for the one who wants
to attack is deterred when the odds are not on his side.
... [Athens] was able to lead the stronger states against
the smaller, leaving the former to be dealt with last of all,
after they had lost its allies and had become more easy to
deal with


Some writers have asserted that Polybius gave
“classic” expression to the principle of the balance of
power. But we must take him at his word. He wrote
that “it is never right to help a power to acquire a
predominance that will be irresistible” (Book I, Ch.
83, 4). Though David Hume tried to argue that the
idea of the balance goes back to the ancient Greeks,
he discovered situations which provide analogies for
a modern student, rather than the concept itself, pres-
ent in men's minds as a fertilizing thing. Observing
how the Hellenistic governments failed to prevent the
rise of Rome, he had to admit his disappointment at
the fact that no ancient writer reproached them for
their neglect of the balance of power.

The Indian writer, Kautilya, who seems to have lived
three or four centuries before the beginning of the
Christian era, has sometimes been thought to have had
an idea of the balance of power. But one Indian com-
mentator has rightly called attention to the “scholastic
elaboration” of some of his teaching and has mentioned
other intricacies in his diplomacy which “had appar-
ently much interest to kings and politicians in ancient
India, though to us they appear dreary and obscure.”
Another Indian commentator and translator tells us
that “the text is hard and capable of several inter-
pretative twists.” The Arths'āstra, which must be of
the greatest interest when related to its proper intel-
lectual context, offers dangerous temptations to the
twentieth-century student who seeks to achieve rapid
results and reads the present into the past. Some of
its concrete maxims seem absurdly trite, while some
seem to reveal a mind comparable to that of Machi-
avelli; but some seem not even consistent with the idea
of the balance of power. Kautilya could say: “When
a weak king is attacked by a powerful enemy, the
former should seek the protection of one who is supe-
rior to the enemy.... In the absence of a superior
king, he should combine with a number of his equals
who are equal in power to his enemy.” But even a
passage like this makes one unsure about his apprecia-
tion of the notion of balance.


When the idea of the balance of power actually
emerged it did not even come as something deduced
by the modern scholar from ancient history. Few po-
litical concepts have been so definitely the fruits of
modern man's experience—so definitely the result of
reflection on things as they happened and on vicissi-
tudes actually suffered. We cannot trace the genealogy
of it through a succession of books, as though it were
a theory simply passed like a torch from one author
to another, but receiving fresh fuel at each change.
It grows rather with the development of diplomatic
practice, with increasing reflection on things that hap-
pen in the world, with the emergence of other concepts
in associated fields, and with the achievement of more
systematized views on international affairs.

In the fifteenth century it would appear that Italy
provided almost ideal conditions for the formulation
of the concept. Here, at the Renaissance, a number
of closely interacting states formed a miniature system,
within which alliances often changed, and governments
seemed carefully to calculate the weights and counter-
weights. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the
Florentines are reported as having become convinced
that Venice, while working to prolong their conflict
with Milan, in the hope of weakening both the com-
batants, was anxious to prevent either party from se-
curing such aggrandizement at the expense of the other
as would make it a threat to Venice itself. Vespasiano
da Bisticci describes Cosimo de' Medici as being afraid
of the aggrandizement of Venice, but as having
achieved peace after the mid-century through the
skillful policy of “bringing the Italian powers to an
equality of strength” (Renaissance..., p. 232). In
1498 Bernardo Rucellai specifically speaks of Italy's
being “balanced” and attributes this to Lorenzo de'
Medici, though Alessandro de' Pazzi in a Discourse of
1522 imputes the success of this “balancing” to good
fortune, i.e., the states in Italy were so nearly equal
in actual power and the states outside Italy were unable
at that time to invade the peninsula (Albertini, pp.

Machiavelli is disappointing in the field of diplo-
macy, though he was able to learn so much from the
ancients about military matters and the conduct of war.
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. He
sees that a state in this intermediate position may be
able to tip the scales in favor of one of the belligerents
rather than the other. But where he has the opportunity
of suggesting which of the two sides to opt for, he does
this without regard for the general balance, though he
is affected by the fact that one state (for internal rea-
sons) may be more aggressive in spirit than the other.

At a later date, 1537, Francesco Guicciardini sur-
prises us with a passage in the early pages of his History
of Italy
which might well stand as one of the “classical”
formulations of the balance of power. He describes how
the chief rulers of Italy—those of Florence, Naples,
and Milan—felt that they had more to lose than to
gain from any disturbance of the status quo, so they
formed an alliance which checked aggression in spite
of the fact that the partners were far from sincere with
one another. It was a curious kind of balance that
resulted, since Guicciardini tells us that most of the
minor principalities of Italy joined the alliance too.
But in other respects the passage was wonderfully
predictive, for it vividly described how the very
jealousies between the states made the peace more
stable, each power keeping an unremitting watch on
the movements of the rest, so that none was able to
steal a march on any of the others. This nervous tension
became a marked characteristic of the later balance
of power system; but Guicciardini, envisaging the con-
stricted area of the Italian peninsula, would be far
ahead of his time if he were held to be recommending
in this passage a formula of general policy. It is more
likely that he was merely the historian diagnosing
actuely a situation that seemed unique.

If we envisage not merely Italy but Western Europe
as a whole, it is clear that, until this date, men were
fumbling their way to a notion of balance—exposing
their deficiencies by the random nature of their experi-
ments. It was not yet possible to envisage a European
system, with its internal interactions. Philippe de
Commynes could picture France as the rival of
England, England as set off against the Scots, Spain
as confronting Portugal, Bavaria as opposed to
Austria—each of these states watching its opposite
number—while still being unable to transcend these
partial and local observations and combine them in
an overall system. Nor would the situation of the Con-
tinent, or the international politics of the time, have
authorized such a synthetic view. Even when he is
speaking of Italy, he sees states in couples, and regards
God as having imposed upon each of them a “contrary”
to keep it humble—the Venetians set against the
Florentines, for example, while both Naples and Milan
are tormented by the problem of rival dynasties. In
these circumstances it is little wonder that the emer-
gent notion of balance is an incipient one, based merely
on the analogy with a pair of scales.

It must not be assumed that, even so, the mainte-
nance of the equilibrium was necessarily regarded as
the object of policy. A monarch who claimed to hold
the balance might merely be advertising the fact that
he was worth purchasing, because he could tip the scale
in favor of whichever party he joined. Also, men seem
easily to recognize and resent a state's “predominance”
without realizing that this should entail a positive
notion of “equipoise.” If a certain amount of diplo-
matic reflection took place during the period of the
Renaissance, and if the first firm result of this was to
lead to a notion of the balance of power, ideas on this
subject as yet rose little above the level of banality,
save in the case of Guicciardini. And, still, as through-
out the previous centuries in both the Christian and
the Islamic worlds, the books that were written for
the guidance of princes, though they could contain
considerable sections on the conduct of war, and even
deal with the rise and fall of states, would show little
concern for diplomacy and the conduct of foreign

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 omni-
presence 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 dy-
nasty 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.”



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.


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.

2. The Operation of the Balance.

In the first half
of the eighteenth century the Continent was not yet
integrated and it was customary to say that there were
two systems—a more southern or “European” one, and
another which was described as “Northern.” In 1709
there was a momentary fear that they might come
together—the War of the Spanish Succession combin-


ing with the Great Northern War in a struggle that
would be really general. England had separate Secre-
taries of State for the North and the South, and when
A. H. L. Heeren produced his Handbuch on the
European states-system in 1809, he devoted a long
narrative to “the balance of the South,” and a separate
one to “the balance of the North.” After this the two
came to be combined, for, after 1763, Russia had be-
come more definitely a part of the European system,
though France was still disposed to regard not only
Russia but also Britain as an outsider. It was held,
however, that, within the general equilibrium of
Europe, there were also local or regional balances—
one in the north, one in the south, and perhaps a
separate one for Germany. Also, there were some peo-
ple who thought that overseas colonies might affect
the calculation of the balance.

Down to 1789 people were able to pride themselves
that neither in the main part of the Continent nor in
the Baltic was there a power capable of making a bid
for “universal dominion.” This might be attributed to
the fact that power itself was fairly evenly distributed;
but both F. von Gentz and Talleyrand (Charles Mauriel
de Talleyrand-Périgord) insisted that the balance of
power did not require nations to be roughly equal in
size—in their view the equilibrium might be more
difficult to achieve if one had a world of exactly equal
states. Frederick the Great and Edmund Burke noted
that the effect of the system was to make wars general,
and they, along with Edward Gibbon, held that it made
a plan of large-scale conquest no longer feasible. In
the Seven Years' War, the enemies of Frederick the
Great planned the destruction of Prussia as a power,
but the representatives of Louis XV's “secret” diplo-
matic system—the ablest school of diplomats that the
century produced—made this an additional reproach
against the alliance with Austria in 1756. They com-
plained that such a war objective was a breach of the
code and that a victory in the war would have been
worse than the defeat that was actually suffered. The
destruction of Prussia, they said, would have restored
the Habsburgs to their former predominance.

The career of Napoleon produced, amongst his ene-
mies, a further insistence on the theory of balance, and
in 1809 Heeren suggested that, in the long run, the
system might become a global affair. The peace treaties
with France at the end of the wars were an excellent
demonstration of the effects of the theory. And, in the
crucial cases, the Congress of Vienna showed that it
was more attached to the balance of power than either
to dynastic rights or to nationalism.

It has often been asserted that the balance of power
was responsible for the partition of Poland; but it has
been said equally often that it was responsible for the
preservation of the Ottoman Empire. This raises the
issue of the local versus the continental balance; and
there has, never been a more intensive application of
the balance than between Russia, Prussia, and Austria
in eastern Europe after 1763. Perhaps it has always
been true that where these bitterly rival powers could
come to an agreement about anything, there existed
no counterpoise in Europe that could hold them in
check in their own region. At any rate, France and
England could not have stopped the partition of
Poland, and this might be imputed to the lack of a
wider “general balance” at that moment. France and
England were able to defend the Ottoman Empire
against Russia because—partly through their maritime
opportunities—they were in a position to make the
general balance effective.

V. SINCE 1815

The theory of the balance of power reached its
climax during the conflict with Napoleon, whose ene-
mies may have lacked the required flexibility; all the
same, to meet the threat from France, they gave
Prussia an important position in the Rhineland. Some
of the theory had passed into the teaching about the
states-system at the University of Göttingen, and lay
behind Ranke's famous essay on “Die grossen Mächte”;
and there remained at least the conviction that one
could not risk allowing any country to acquire a pre-
dominance, and one must never quite ignore the ques-
tion of the distribution of power. In this sense the old
rules—which were directed to the preservation of the
states-system—served to set limits to policy, showing
the point beyond which governments ought not to go
in promoting either their interests or their ideals. Soon
there came to be less talk of a states-system, however;
for, from 1815, a group of five or six Great Powers
acquired the leadership in Europe and the balance was
regarded as existing between them. These indeed may
have been carrying the eighteenth-century ideas a stage
further when, as members of the same club, they tried
to turn the balance into a harmony and establish what
was called the Concert of Europe. The maxims associ-
ated with the states-system were probably contravened
less in the nineteenth century than in the eighteenth,
and if Bismarck was an exception when he took
Alsace-Lorraine from France in 1871 such an exception
confirms the rule, for Germany soon had reason to
regret it. But the maxims and rules seem to have been
carried into the subconscious realm, for the tradition
of formulating them—the literature of the states-
system—seems to have come fairly soon to an end. One
might say that all the rules were broken in the course


of the First World War and though it could be argued
that this was unavoidable, its consequences have con-
firmed the old predictions.

Even in the eighteenth century, the theory had had
to accommodate itself to existing ideas of “legitimacy,”
i.e., the normal recognition of dynastic rights and the
principle of hereditary succession. It had circumvented
the difficulties by resorting to those “Partition Treaties”
which were so common for a period of about a century
and were feasible in the days when, for the majority
of people, the local landlord or noble mattered so much
more than the question of who might be king. Diplo-
macy found it less easy to adjust itself to a new kind
of “legitimacy” which came to prevail and which
conceded much more to the idea of the self-determina-
tion of peoples. But it was not impossible to adjust
the balance of power even to this; and if Britain, after
the Napoleonic wars, insisted on the union of Holland
and Belgium to strengthen the barrier against France,
she gave way on this point in the 1830's.

The partiality which the Congress of Vienna (1815)
had had for the balance of power helped to make
liberal opinion in Europe hostile to the principle as
well as to the work of the Congress. Felix Gilbert has
shown that in a nontechnical way the philosophes of
the eighteenth century had attacked the current ideas,
calling for a new “diplomacy” that in a certain sense
anticipated Woodrow Wilson. The French Revolution
introduced something like the “ideological” element
in diplomacy, though the younger Pitt conceived his
war with France as directed purely against the inter-
national offenses of that country, while Fox, in oppos-
ing the war, had brought out the same principles of
the balance of power—he thought that Pitt, like Burke,
was making the conflict “ideological.”

After 1815, first England and then France broke with
the policy of Metternich, which regarded revolution
as an international menace, to be countered by inter-
national action. At the end of 1826, George Canning
announced that he had “called the New World into
existence to redress the balance of the Old.” French
revolutionaries in 1830 and 1848 called for a foreign
policy that would promote the cause of liberalism,
particularly against reactionary Russia. The foreign
policy of the Second French Empire and of contem-
porary England showed a certain degree of sympathy
with the nationalist aspirations of the Italians. The idea
of the balance of power lost its presidential position,
as public opinion made itself felt in international
affairs; but it remained (where perhaps it ought to
remain) in the background of the minds of statesmen.
At least, the balance was not overturned, and the
liberal Frenchman of the first half of the century would
have been shocked to see how, for its sake, the young
Third Republic made alliance with Tsarist Russia. The
greatest embarrassment for the principle of the balance
of power occurred after 1900 when Germany came
to be seen as so immediate a danger that men forgot
Russia—a danger calculated to be still more formidable
but as yet more remote—the predicament presenting
the kind of problem which it is the function of diplo-
macy to solve.

After 1919 the reaction against what was called the
“old diplomacy” led to a widespread condemnation
of the idea of the balance of power. To that idea—
rather than to the cupidities which it was intended to
keep in check—were imputed the aggressive policies
which had led to war. The view was understandable
in that the theory fixed attention on the diagram of
forces and was sometimes understood to mean the
subordination of everything to the question of the
distribution of power. Also there existed after 1919 a
kind of “messianism”—the belief that a new world had
been born, and a new diplomacy was needed.

The situation after the Second World War left room
for no such illusions; and the significance of the
European balance was never more patent than at the
moment when the balance was destroyed—destroyed
apparently in just that irretrievable manner which the
eighteenth-century theorists had most feared. The lan-
guage of the balance of power became current again
even when the equilibrium had to be envisaged on a
global scale and as a system comprising, for a time,
only two giant members. It is only in recent years,
however, that, amongst the students of international
politics, the question of the balance of power has been
again the subject of that semi-scientific treatment
which was so characteristic of the eighteenth century.
But it is interesting to see that the modern thought
in this field does not make a development from the
point which the eighteenth century had reached, for
the work of that century had been long forgotten. It
is difficult not to believe that in certain modern writers
some of the formulations would have been different
if the pre-1815 theories had been known.

It is sometimes suggested that the nuclear weapon
has made the notion of balance out-of-date, since, when
two powers are both in a position to destroy one an-
other, the superiority of either of them becomes an
irrelevancy. But the competition for support in the
Third World—and the part which the uncommitted
states have been able to play in diplomacy—would
suggest that nuclear calculations are not supreme, and
that, in one contingency and another (in diplomacy
if not in actual war) the consideration of the balance
of power may still be a factor in the case. Since the


system prided itself on its assurance of an independent
foreign policy to smaller states (and indeed depended
on this) it had to allow for these latter choosing neu-
trality, and it relied on their being converted to an
alliance when they realized the necessity for taking


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[See also Machiavellism; Nationalism; Nature; Peace, In-
ternational; State;
War and Militarism.]