dinsdag, maart 06, 2012

Nonsensical ideas on the 18th century Balance of Power

One of the concepts I have to struggle and cope with in my research, is the famous "Balance of Power"-principle. This -roughly stated- parts from the idea that in a state system with multiple sovereigns, there will always be a coalition against the most powerful player among them. Needless to say, this theory has been modelled after centuries of European history, where diverse power centres competed on the same continent without a decisive outcome. For the early modern period, we can easily see this phenomenon in anti-hegemonic coalitions against Catholic Spain (16th century; France-Ottoman Empire; France-German Protestants), against the Catholic Emperor (17th Century; German Protestants-Sweden-France) and against Catholic (gallican) France (Emperor-Britain-Holland-German Protestants).

As the nature of all these coalition varied according to contextual factors, it is hard to establish a definitive social science- or legal doctrine-proof typology. This frustration led to affirmations that a coherent "Balance of Power"-behaviour never existed in European history, nor outside of Europe (cf. Richard Little et. al., "Testing Balance-of-Power-Theory in World History", European Journal of International Relations, 2007; based on secondary sources), or to the idea that "Balance of Power" is not "law", since you can turn and twist it the way you like.

I think this is grossly overstated. Whoever starts his inquiry with the hope to find coherent, systematic or closed reasoning, can easily point to the shortcomings of historical actors with respect to the principles they brandish to cover their political strategy. If research would be that simple, nobody would bother funding it. If the hypothesis doesn't fit with the material, the work needs to be done over, and not abandoned. We need to analyse the past in its own terms, especially for the 18th century, where all (ill-defined an blurry) spheres of action (politics, law, philosophy, theology...) intermingle.

For instance, if we look at the 1713-1743 period ("Les Trente Heureuses"), we see that balance language appears as a catch-all category for all parties involved in European politics. Even when actual behaviour is not consistent with a pretence to uphold the equality amongst states and the fair division of power on the international level, it is presented in such a form to be agreable to the other sovereigns.

Whether we check Spanish, Austrian, French, British or Dutch diplomats, they all revert to the same mechanism: alterations to the peace settlements should only come about in minor proportions and in agreement between all players. Balancing is seen as legitimate. This can be brought about by offering mediation or arbitration services, or by calling for conferences where package deals can settle diverse bilateral problems.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that some authors present the balance as a specifically "British" or "Protestant" principle..

British ? Universal !
During the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713), which ended with the Peaces of Utrecht and Baden, the Balance was hotly debated. In previous research, I stated that Balance of Power (both territorial and commercial) language was the quintessential vector for French diplomats (Nicolas Mesnager/Colbert de Torcy), trying to bribe the Dutch Republic into a peace agreement in 1707. This can be traced back to 1668, when France partitioned the Spanish Monarchy with the Emperor.

Britain left the Grand Alliance against France in 1711. Due to the unexpected decease of Emperor Joseph I, his brother Charles would inherit both the Spanish and Austrian Habsburg lands. This altered the balance on the continent in favour of Habsburg to such an extent, that Britain could feel threatened. Consequently, the Tory government (winner of the 1710 elections due to the war-incuded land tax discontent) dropped the 'No Peace without Spain'-adagium, carried by the Whigs, and started talks with France.

One could see this as a perfect illustration of the maxim "Balance of Power is a British principle". However, this is not correct at all. "Balance of Power" had a far more general appeal. First of all, the principle emerged in Italian 15th and 16th century politics, on the continent, and not in Britain. Second, even France and Austria were already conscious of the necessity to partition the Spanish monarchy, back in 1668. Moreover, in the decision to go to war, and in the ceaseless attempts to gain peace during the winter breaks, France talked of nothing but Balance, of splitting the Spanish territories, or of opening its commerce to the allies.

Thus, the more nuanced story is more that of two Balance-discourses joining together, than of a British Balance-language triumphantly imposing itself in Europe.

Protestant ?
Another "idée reçue" is that Balance of Power served the interest of minor Protestant states against big Catholic monarchies (Spain, France, Emperor). Again, this is false. In itself, the Balance-discourse was a-religious. In the first sentence, the words "minor" and "big" are correct, "Protestant" and "Catholic" are irrelevant. B-o-P accompanied the "Westphalian order", where religion is banished as a legitimate reason to go to war between states. Religion was divisive discourse and contained nothing but absolute and antagonist arguments. It served on the internal level, for each national sovereign to impose himself to the detriment of competing discourses (cujus regio, ejus religio). Religion was a matter of sovereignty, a question of state power and its legitimacy, not of international moral principle. Impossible to settle for an international deal, based on religious discourse !

One can find a fine illustration of this in Jens Metzdorf's study on Francis Hare and the pamphlet wars in British public opinion during the War of the Spanish Succession. When the Tory-government decided to open talks with France in 1711, the Whig-opposition saw this as a betrayal of the allies and of years of British war effort. To continue the war, Hare needed an argument to convince public opinion. Besides the treason-argument and the glory of the Duke of Marlborough (soon to be sacked by the Queen), Hare brandished the fear of a return of the Catholic Stuart-monarchy.

In 1688, Britain's Catholic King James II had fled to France, where he was offered support by Louis XIV in his castle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In 1701, Louis had recognized James' son, "The Pretender", as the legitimate king of England, thereby bypassing decisions of Parliament to designate William of Orange and James' Protestant daughter Mary II Stuart as King and Queen. (One could argue that Louis made a legal distinction between recognising the Pretender as a monarch for ceremonial reasons only; Colbert de Torcy denied that France broke its 1697 engagements under the Treaty of Rijswijk, where it recognized William III as legitimate ruler of Britain). Britain entered the war in May 1702 because of Louis' decision, which infuriated public opinion.

There was thus a real apprehension of Louis XIV pushing a Catholic monarch on the British throne again. The reigning Queen, Anne (a daughter of James II as well), had failed to conceive and heir to the throne. In order to keep the throne with a Protestant Monarch, Parliament decided in the 1701 Act of Settlement to designate the Elector of Hannover in Germany as her successor. If the French coalition won the war, so ran the argument, this would all be lost.

Now, the essence of this problem does not lie in religion, but in the political regime. James II inspired fear, because religion was a matter of power. With the Catholic faith, James modelled his style of government after Louis', running against the British Parliamentary tradition. Let's not forget that Britain publicly executed his monarch in 1649, barely 40 years before the Glorious Revolution and a long time before the French Revolution...

The association to brandish before public opinion was not that of simple "popery", but of the combination of popery and "tyranny". James was not feared because he was Catholic, but because Catholicism implied French- or Spanish-styled absolutism. Louis had chased the remaining Protestants from France at the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, repealing Henri IV' Toleration Edict of Nantes (1598), ending the (ferocious) French Wars of Religion. To Louis XIV, homogenisation of his political power went hand in hand with that of religious power. Religion legitimated the monarchy (see Bossuet's writings on absolute monarchy) and tied the subjects together (Latin: re-ligare). There could be no dissidence on this terrain. Doesn't this remind us of the British monarchy, where religious dissenters left England to settle in the colonies ?

Which brings us to another point: James not only lent on Catholics, but on Protestant "dissenters" as well. When Henri VIII split of the English Church from the Roman Catholic church, he copied most of the liturgy or hierarchy and seized the ecclesiastical estates, as well as the power to appoint bishops. In other words: in Britain as well, religion served to support the central power in the country. To dissent with the monarch's religion, is to dissent with his legitimacy. Louis XIV acted in the same line of thought, as he repeatedly clashed with the pope. Louis' doctrine of Gallicanism was both intolerant within France (with the exception of the conquered city of Strasbourg) and independent from Rome on the external plan.  
Hare emphasised the same idea: in his 1711 Sermon after the fall of the French fortress Bouchain, he emphasized that Britain could not conclude a peace until it was in complete safety from France. Again: James = Catholic = Tyrant = Danger is a more appropriate path of reasoning than James = Catholic = Danger. Hare wanted to fight on, basing himself on Thomas Hobbes' ideas that contracts between states (who live in a permanent and irresolvable state of nature, cf. homo homini lupus) are precarious and depend of the power difference between contracting parties.
Alternative "legal languages", such as that of the by then outdated christian bellum iustum, were useless to convince public opinion. You could start a war with it, but not end it. The 1701 Grand Alliance wanted to procure Charles of Habsburg a aequa et rationi conveniens satisfactio, or: his fair share in the Spanish inheritance. Just as Britain and the States-General wanted to obtain their fair share in the Spanish trade, or a Barrier in Belgium against French aggression. Which in turn went back to the Balance, and not to the punishment for an infraction against international law. If Louis XIV would have rejected the testament apportioning the whole monarchy to his grandson Philip of Orléans, Leopold I of Austria would have seized all he could, resulting in an equally vexing situation. In reality, there was no international law for this kind of successions: parties had to settle for a treaty, bypassing internal norms (which, like religious arguments, would endlessly prolong the struggle).
"Sacra sua Caesarea Majestas, Sacra Regio majestas Magnae Britanniae & Domini Ordines Generales, cum nulla res ipsis magis cordi fit, quam pax & tranquillitas generalis totius Europae, judicaverunt ad eam stabiliendam nihil efficacius futurum, quam procurando Caesareae suae Majestati ratione praetentionis suae in Successionem Hispanicam satisfactionem aequam & rationi convenientem"
(art. II, Treaty of the Grand Alliance between Emperor Leopold I, King William III and the States-General, The Hague, 7 September 1701)

One could argue that Balance-of-Power-discourse replaced bellum iustum-theory, or inscribed itself in its reasoning (absence of balance = pretext to wage war, an idea retaken by Emer de Vattel in his 1758 Droit des gens). I think this is utter nonsense. Bellum iustum only makes sense in an integrated and hierarchical international system, since it refers to values that derive there legitimacy from a system above and not between states. At the time of the War of Spanish Succession, there was no such thing as a legitimate or illegitimate war. There was only war (une bonne guerre), or negotiation, with both alternatives leading to a peace treaty establishing a more lasting power distribution and thus forming the framework for future dispute resolution.

Conclusion: Balance of Power is:
- universal
- about national power, not about religion: religion is an instrument of national sovereignty and serves as a legitimacy for the powers in place; discussion or dissidence is allowed within the accepted boundaries of public discourse, e.g. High Church (Tory) vs. Low Church (Whig), e.g. Dévôts (Maintenon) v. libertins (Régence), but religion is so essential to society, that it cannot be seen outside of the public, monarchal context
- Balance of power serves as an idiom of consensus, to allow negotiations and treaties between internally consolidated powers, accepting that religious discourse falls outside the real of international politics, because its excludes consensus

Whig or Tory, doesn't really matter !
To continue our English story: one of the big paradoxes of the Trente Heureuses, is the internal political situation in Britain. Once George of Hannover is installed as George I, the Tories lose power and a Whig-government takes over. One would expect them to carry on the warmonger-politics of the War of the Spanish Succession. This would imply seeking the alliance of Vienna and The Hague, continuing the "Old System" against France.

However, none of this happened. After attempts to lure Habsburg into an alliance (which could have beneficial effects to George as Elector within the Empire and within the Northern War), Britain resolutely turns to... France ! Again, the answer is power, power and nothing but power. The 1716 Alliance of Hannover between George I and the French Regent Philip of Orléans aimed to consolidate both the British and the French Succession order imposed by the Treaty of Utrecht. The Spanish Bourbon-king Philip V should never take over France, nor should the Pretender take over Britain.

Now, why on earth did the Whigs from the pro-Marlborough Kit Cat Club continue to expand the Utrecht settlement, which they severely attacked on the internal plan ? Tory-leader Harley had been sentenced by the House of Commons and jailed in the Tower ! His colleague Bollingbroke had to flee to France to be in security ! Again, the divide between internal and external politics brings the answer. France guaranteeing the Protestant Succession implied for the Whigs the consolidation of the constitutional settlement of 1688. This all the more easy since George I, the new monarch, hardly spoke English nor knew the country. Politicians like James Stanhope or Robert Walpole had far more experience in office. The king meddled in Foreign Policy (a traditional Crown Privilege), instrumentalising British means for Hannoverian goals, but kept himself away from internal politics, where Walpole could have all the fun he wanted by manipulation elections, bribing members of parliament or abolishing taxes (no longer needed, because of the peace !).

When Bollingbroke came back to Britain, he started an active opposition press against the Whig-ministry, which could only be toppled in 1742, when Britain was pushed to join Austria in the War of the Austrian Succession against France and to revert to the "old" system.

If British foreign policy did not change between the Tory-ministry Harley/Bollingbroke (1710) and the Whig-cabinets Santhope/Walpole (exit 1742), why then needlessly extrapolate internal political debates during the War of the Spanish Succession, without taking into account the power-factor, or what the rest of Europe, and the main continental partner, France, did or already had done at that time ?

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