Balance of Power: History and Theory

Michael Sheehan

Language: English

Pages: 237

ISBN: 0415119316

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The balance of power is one of the most fundamental concepts behind international politics and provides a structure for explaining some of the essential principles behind international relations. Yet despite its widespread importance it remains an enigma and is surrounded by controversy. "The Balance of Power" traces the evolution of the theory from the eighteenth century to the present day. It incorporates classical anlysis and recent research to give a detailed account of the concept in practice and the operation of the international system while challenging traditional views of the balance of power. Its exploration of the way the balance of power operated in key historical periods shows how the generally accepted development of the concept is based on a misunderstanding of the historical reality.

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The eighteenth-century system had its limits, however. Unlike its nineteenth-century successor, it never developed into anything resembling a European concert of states. The conference which did take place at Cambrai in 1724 and which ran for four years in an attempt to resolve the differences between Austria and Spain, was unsuccessful. This was a major failing, for as contemporary commentators such as Bolingbroke pointed out, no balance of power could ever be permanent. It would always be subject to evolution brought about by dynastic failures or marriages, internal reforms, economic improvement or decay, none of which could justify a preemptive war.

However, the British practice of concluding a separate peace does fit the ‘minimal victory’ model. Although Britain did tend to make peace early, without achieving all her allies’ aims, she did so only when the threat to the balance of power seemed to have been averted. The preservation of the balance of power thereby satisfied the minimum aims of all the allies. Since in 1711 and 1748 Britain made peace when the threat had been eliminated, and indeed in 1711 partly because Austria herself was beginning to pose a threat to the balance, the British were pulling out of the war with the main war aim of the allies satisfied.

138 THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: 1815–1914 The arguments of the conservatives, reflected in debates about the balance of power after 1815, proceeded from the assumption that the eighteenth century had been characterised by an effective and consistent balance of power system, which had prevented hegemony, reduced the incidence of war and moderated the process of change. Ranke, however, argued that this was an idealistic and inaccurate characterisation, and asserted that the eighteenth century had in reality been characterised by disorder and war.

134 THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: 1815–1914 This outlook changed after the spectacular Prussian successes against Austria in 1866 and France in 1870. More than anything else, Prussia seemed to have owed her victories to good organisation. She had efficiently mobilised enormous numbers of trained reservists and equipped them with the latest weapons. The impact of Prussia’s example was such that the other great powers sought to model their armed forces and strategies upon the Prussian system in the hope of emulating Prussia’s success.

In this latter belief they were mistaken, but it is evidence nevertheless of the esteem in which the balance of power idea was held, that thinkers should seek to identify it in earlier eras. This is not to say that the concept held a concrete and unambiguous meaning for all its users or that the implications of the theory had been 106 THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY: 1700–1815 fully investigated and understood. In important areas the ambiguities of the concept were not properly explored or reconciled. An example of this is the question of the minor or local balances which were felt to be an important element in the overall balance.

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