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GEOPOLITICS AND THE PRIMACY OF FOREIGN POLICY: THE STRUGGLE FOR MASTERY IN EUROPE, 1715-1792

Europe in the Eighteenth-Century, 1713-1789 M.S. Anderson, Fourth Edition (United Kingdom, 2000)


















D. Ramsay, a British publicist, had no doubts that "the refinement of modern ages had stripped war of half its horrors" - D. Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (London, 1793), vol II, p.281 This view, expressed by others (such as James Boswell's friend Rose, who, in a conversation the two men had in Leyden, claimed that "wars were going out nowadays, from their mildness" - F.A. Pottle (ed.), Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764 (London, 1952), p.164), was widespread among their contemporaries, at least in Western Europe - a feeling that for several generations, warfare had becoming steadily milder and its influence on the ordinary man more limited There is much evidence to corroborate this view; throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, widespread looting and pillaging was commonplace, but after the end of the 1618-'48 War, this was largely brought under control - in the interests of discipline rather than humanity It became more normal for local authorities in an area occupied by a foreign army, agreed, often with the consent of their own ruler, to pay the occupying forces a fixed sum in return for a promise that it would not pillage Adam Smith argued in 1763 that 'war is so far from being a disadvantage in well-cultivated country, that many get rich by it…when the Netherlands is the seat of war, all the peasants grow rich, for they pay no rent when the enemy is in the country, and the provisions sell at a high rate' - Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms (London, 1896), p.273 The exception rather than the rule were the swift moving armies of Frederick in 1757 and Marlborough in 1704 Victories were seldom followed up with real energy, and commanders were not keen on fighting decisive battles "Europeans…took war for granted as a normal part of their lives", p.176 Anti-militarist ideas were only really important in the late eighteenth-century, and even then were confined to a small clique of individuals, including Turgot, Vergennes, and Pitt the Younger Gradual expansion in the size of armies; Prussia - 4.4% of the population under arms in 1760; Russian army had stood at 132,000 men in 1731, but by 1796, this had reached almost half a million As the destructiveness of warfare was declining, militarism was rising throughout the period From the beginning of the eighteenth-century, there was a marked increase in the extent to which rulers considered militarism their chief priority; a number of monarchs (Frederick William I of Prussia, Charles XII of Sweden, Paul of Russia and others) began to regard uniform as their normal dress Armies, becoming more efficient and highly-organised, created a temptation to use them as moulds in which civilian societies might be recast; thus a tendency developed to militarise society in general in the quest for greater political and economic efficiency - it was in the states of Eastern and Northern Europe where this was most prevalent It was generally held that the army should be raised as far as possible from the social groups of least economic value The Comte de Saint-Germain, French war minister, said that "it would undoubtedly be desirable if we could create an army of dependable and specially-selected men of the best type. But in order to make up an army we must not destroy the nation; it would be destruction to a nation if it were deprived of its best elements. As things are, the army must inevitably consist of the scum of the people and of all those for whom society has no use" Frederick II argued that "useful hard-working people should be guarded as the apple of one's eye, and in wartime recruits should be levied in one's own country only when the bitterest necessity compels" Towards the middle decades of the century, "Europe was clearly becoming a single State-system", as the "localised 'inferior balances' - between Sweden and Denmark in the Baltic, between France and the Habsburgs in Germany, and among the Italian states - in terms of which many writers and politicians had hitherto thought, were becoming merged in a general balance which covered the whole continent The Seven Years War is seen by Anderson as breaking up "completely and decisively the old system of balance" and commencing "a generation of diplomatic confusion" - with France and Austria allied, the pivot on which the old system turned had disappeared Defoe proclaimed that 'to be masters of the Marine Power is to be Masters of all the Power and all the Commerce in Europe' - Defoe, A Plan of the English Commerce (London, 1737), p.147 In the maritime and colonial struggle, France, usually supported by Spain, took on Britain in a titanic struggle More and more the balance of power came to be regarded not merely as a useful political device but as something with a moral value and justification of its own; arguments of this kind normally started from the assumption that the powers of Europe were still in a "state of nature" with respect to each other and that each of them was engaged, consciously or not, in a ceaseless struggle to increase its influence at the expense of its neighbours. "Each nation in its natural state", wrote a widely read commentator in the 1740s, "must be considered as the enemy of all others; or as disposed to be such" - L.M. Kahle, La Balance de l'Europe considérée comme la règle de la paix et de la guerre (Berlin-Gottingen, 1744), p.33, Cf. ibid., pp.53-55 "We cannot rely on virtue; it is weak and equivocal, or hidden and unknown…we must thus take as our starting point only the possible and even probable abuse of power" - J.P.F. Ancillon, Tableau des revolution du système politique de l'Europe (Berlin, 1803-1805), vol. I, Introduction, p.32


Eighteenth-century plans for universal peace were weakened by the fact that, in an age in which the relative strengths of the European States were rapidly changing, they shared the conservative bias, the desire to maintain the status quo, which seems inherent in any scheme of this kind Statesmen of the age, and public opinion, partly sheltered from the realities of war by the employment of mainly professional armies, were untouched by the enthusiasm for peace which usually prompted such schemes

'Diplomacy and the Great Powers' Andrew Thompson, in (ed.) Wilson, A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Europe










Significant realignment in Europe's borders during eighteenth-century; Poland-Lithuania occupied more land than France at the beginning, and by the end, Poland ceased to exist France, under Louis XIV at the onset, and Napoleon at its conclusion, posed the greatest threat to European stability Rivalry between major powers was a constant of international relations; Schroeder (1994) has suggested that it was the nature of the eighteenth-century international system that both provoked and sustained regular wars A key feature in the changes within the international system was a growing differentiation between those powers which could easily claim the epithet "great" and those which were strictly of secondary rank; recognition as a great power by other states was one way to achieve this could be achieved, but it was also important to sustain great power status through both finance and manpower International relations in sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries was dominated by conflicts of Europe's two largest dynasties in Europe - the Habsburgs and the Valois/Bourbons, rather than by a struggle between states Britain's financial ascendancy, the Bank of England, debt-finance backed by parliamentary guarantee and the growth of a national debt (Brewer, 1989) allowed Britain to extract resources more efficiently than previously, and its European ties through the monarchy - first William of Orange and then Hannover - meant that Britain, a bit-part player in the seventeenth-century, emerged as a major force in European international relations during the Nine Years War and the War of Spanish Succession. By 1715, with the death of Louis XIV, the old dualism of Habsburg-Bourbon rivalry had evolved into a three-way split Treaty of Utrecht gave rise to the concept of a 'balance of power' system in Europe, to prevent a universal monarchy - i.e. to prevent either France or Austria becoming dominant in Europe In any conflict, it was the task of the unaligned powers to side with the weaker, to preserve the delicate balance Monarchs and ministers were becoming more interested in measuring the size of their own resources (both demographic and financial) and weighing them up with those of other powers (Klueting, 1986). Statistical approach of the 'political algebra' employed by Wenzel Anton, prince of Kaunitz-Rietburg, who controlled Austrian foreign policy for much of the second half of the eighteenth-century He was not alone in applying scientific calculation to the practice of diplomacy - Thompson here argues that the balance of power was part of a broader rationalist turn in diplomatic thinking Britain certainly viewed herself as the balancing power; while Louis XIV lived, there was cause to support the Grand Alliance against him, to prevent French hegemony; on his death and the accession of the young Louis XV, Austria was viewed by George I and secretary of state, Townshend, as the greater problem, prompting alliance with France (1716) Historians may speak of an eighteenth-century "international system", but in reality such a single system did not emerge until the Napoleonic era; instead, there were three systems, which partially overlapped (Scott, 2005); in the north and east of Europe, a system centred on the Baltic (Russia, Sweden [and Prussia] with interests there); in the southeast, a system dominated by Austrian and Russian intentions on the Ottoman Empire*; finally a system for the rest of Europe; already some overlap in early 1700s (British use of the Baltic for naval stores, for instance) - the key to the integration of these systems was the emergence of Russia after the Great Northern War, and the general acceptance of Russia by the other powers as a significant player in the general system

*Austria made more extensive territorial gains in the early eighteenth-century, but Russian gains were extended after 1750 (Madariaga, 1981; Hochedlinger, 2003)






von Ranke delved into state papers and archives, which detailed foreign relations more than anything else He therefore placed considerable emphasis on the importance of foreign relations for the development of states in his own writings; Thompson argues that Ranke's work on the emergence of a great power system was part of a search for the origins of the nineteenth-century patterns in the eighteenth-century Ranke's argument centred on the state's perceived need to preserve territorial integrity and external security above all else; this essentially meant that the conduct of diplomacy could be bound by neither domestic pressures nor ideology After Ranke, others within the Borussian (or Prussian) school enlarged this account into a global system, known as the "Primat der Außenpolitik" - the primacy of foreign policy (Ranke, 1950; Simms, 2003) Older accounts of international relations therefore tended to adopt a highly strategic approach, assuming that the unchanging dictates of "reason of state" were sufficient to explain why a decision was taken However, more recent works have stressed the importance of considering the cultural situation within which political decisions were taken (Bély, 1998; Blanning, 2002, Duchhardt, 1997) Foreign policy and diplomacy remained the preserve of monarchs, and the conduct thereof was a useful means of displaying their power; traditional concerns, such as furthering dynastic power through marriage, remained a nonetheless important aspect of the foreign policy agendas of most European powers



Most states were in fact held together by a common ruler, rather than common language or culture Prussian Junkers achieved status through military service and the power of the Prussian ruler thereby enhanced; successive Prussian rulers had built on the Great Elector's agreement with the nobility (that the Junkers agreed to fund the army in exchange for the assurance that the elector would not interfere with the relations between them and their serfs) to create something of a service nobility throughout the seventeenth and early nineteenth-centuries (Clark, 2006) Austrian situation was different - price of Habsburg security against the Turk was a much higher degree of noble independence from central authority than was the case elsewhere in Europe Relationship between monarch and nobles of more general importance in terms of diplomacy; diplomats drawn from this strata of society; many aristocratic diplomats considered their posting a temporary apprenticeship prior to securing a more important and lucrative appointment at home


Sources of diplomatic tension: (i) furtherance of dynastic interests - disputes over succession (Spanish, Polish, Austrian, Bavarian chronologically); even when dynastic interests were not at the forefront of conflict, they could still lurk below; extended period of conflict between Britain and France arguably a war of British succession, between 1688 and 1713; Louis XIV was an ardent supporter of the Stuart cause and their claim to the British throne (ii) pursuit of gloire - legitimate aim of foreign policy, even if enlightenment ideas introduced more rationalist objectives; foreign policy failure could result in domestic unrest (as discovered by Louis XIV) (iii) most attempts at territorial expansion were presented as the legitimate defence of dynastic rights - Frederick II (the Great) was unusual in that he viewed such defences as being for form's sake



Religion, which had been a considerable source of conflict in sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Europe, was traditionally viewed by historians as being halted at the Peace of Westphalia, which they saw as marking the point at which religious and confessional issues ceased to be central to the foreign policies of European powers However, this did not mean that such concerns disappeared entirely from the foreign policy agenda Britain's alliance with the Protestant United Provinces was thought to be potentially longer-lasting than terms with Catholic continental powers, designed for more immediate benefits At the very least, defence of religious rights remained a useful tool to governments trying to "sell" a particular policy choice either to their own people, or to other powers

National sentiment much less pervasive as a source of international conflict before the very end of the eighteenthcentury; the ad hoc transfer of territories from one ruler to another - as was common practice in peace settlements - further hindered the growth of nationalist feeling; this was fundamentally altered in the 1790s, when the French revolutionary regimes mobilised the populace on the basis of loyalty not to the monarch, but to the nation

Resolving trade disputes increasingly important feature of diplomatic activity; mercantile lobby particularly extensive in both the United Provinces and Britain; considerable expansion of European interests into Asia, North America and the Caribbean; this struggle to secure new markets frequently provoked tensions, and these tensions fed back into Europe

Emergence of New "Great Powers"

Britain had emerged alongside France and Austria as a great power at the end of the War of Spanish Succession

By 1740, two aspiring powers were emerging, and by the end of the Seven Years War, both Prussia and Russia had fully emerged into the "great power" status; there was a growing distinction between "great powers" and the rest

Russia's rise was less surprising, while Prussia's was actually far from inevitable; its geographic location made it vulnerable, its soil was not particularly fertile and its industrial capacity in the early eighteenth-century was poor

Nonetheless, its power came from its highly-militarised nature; Frederick William I inherited an army of 40,000 in 1713, and by his death, this figure had risen to 80,000; he also left his successor, Frederick the Great, a considerable war chest of something like 8 million thaler; this enabled him to invade and annex Silesia following the death of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI (Clark, 2006; Showalter, 1996)

One definition of "great power status" was the ability to fight a sustained war without significant support from other powers; the increased number of great powers created more potential alliances; Britain was no longer faced with the choice between France and Austria, but also had to reconcile Russia and Prussia in alliances. The increase in options made it more difficult to maintain a stable system (Anderson, 1995; Scott, 2006)

Although Russia and Prussia had emerged in this way, both France and Britain still considered the other to be their major adversary; conflict between the two was no longer confined to Europe - North American colonial disputes were central to relations between the two; British colonists were concerned that French advances in the Ohio Valley and from Canada might eventually encircle the colonies; this was the cause of substantial skirmishing in the early stages of the Seven Years War; there was also considerable fighting in South East Asia during that conflict, and Britain, ultimately, emerged with significant colonial possessions seized from France in the West Indies and expelling them from Canada (Peters, 1998)

The second struggle was between Prussia and Austria in central Europe

Consequences of Seven Years War:






(i). Britain emerged as the victor in the struggle with France- Britain now enjoyed maritime and colonial pre-eminence, and both France and Spain suffered significant losses; however, the rise in national debt for Britain led to adoption of policies intended to have colonies contribute more to their defence - led to 'no taxation without representation'; partly from choice and partly necessity, Britain was very much more isolated from continental politics after 1763 (ii). France lost the most; financial and material costs of conflict huge; Louis XV also suffered a hemorrhage in the vital international currency of prestige (Blanning, 2002; Riley, 1980); France consequently faced something of a crisis - the only way of recovering lost prestige was to achieve a significant victory against another power (probably Britain), but the cost of such a conflict would be huge, and success far from assured Eastern powers operated in a sphere largely separate from Britain and France for thirty years after the Seven Years War; Austria failed to achieve most of its aims through the conflict; Silesia was still controlled by Prussia, and Prussia sat comfortably at the table of the great powers; Joseph II considered a strategy of trading the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria, which would consolidate Habsburg lands in central Europe Austrian diplomatic impotence was magnified by the potency of Prussia and Russia; Prussia had funded the conflict through a mixture of subsidies from other powers, domestic taxation and exhaustion of existing reserves; this had placed strain on the Prussian economy Russia emerged without significant foreign debts, but costs of war met by increased domestic taxation; the RussoPrussian treaty of 1764 provided the breathing space for domestic recovery in both participants' states, though it did have the additional effect of leaving Austria excluded and without allies Victims of this recovery were Ottomans and Poland; Frederick suggested the partition of Poland between Austria, Russia, and his own Prussian state; buffer-zone between Prussia and the Russian western-most territories substantially reduced; made Russo-Austrian reconciliation more likely Period between first partition of Poland and the final one in 1795 demonstrated Russian dominance of Eastern Europe, perhaps even the continent as a whole Sharp ideological divisions between the two camps in the French Revolutionary Wars; although territorial ambitions remained, they were overarched by a new struggle between those proclaiming the Rights of Man, and those advocating the continuation of the old order; until the 1790s, the nature of warfare was "limited"; the conflict with France was about something more - the reestablishment of the old order in France From a tactical point of view, the innovations usually attributed to the Revolutionary armies actually had earlier roots (Blanning, 1996); revolution brought more men to the battlefields of Europe, and created a sense of fighting for the nation; the struggles against Revolutionary France and then Napoleon brought the two systems (east and west) together; Traditional great powers, France and Austria, gradually eclipsed by Prussia, Britain and Russia throughout the century

The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze (ed.), F. Gilbert, (Oxford, 1975)









International relations had a "decisive influence…on the structure and constitution of each single state" Ranke "sensed that not only the existence of states but also their constitution is often shaped by foreign policy" "External conflicts between states form the shape of the state" - by 'shape', Hintze refers to the external configuration, the size of a state, its contiguity (the state of bordering or being in direct contact with something), and perhaps even its ethnic composition "Only when the state has received a firmly delineated shape can its political life and its pattern of government develop"
[Above from "Formation of States and Constitutional Development"]
"All state organisation was originally military organisation, organisation for war" Herbert Spencer distinguished two basic types of state and social organisation, which he called the military and industrial; the structure of the military type, with its strong coercive powers, centralising despotism and regulation by the state of economic and private life, "has as its regulative aim merely the maximum achievement of military might while the freedom and welfare of the individual must take second place In the industrial type, on the other hand, "these aims of individual freedom and welfare, if not cramped by severe pressure from outside, provide the structure of public intercourse and thus impress on the community the character of voluntariness, of decentralisation, and self-government, of individual latitude in all realms of life" Hintze suggests that these are "ideal types" and that "reality has witnessed almost everywhere mixtures of both elements"; the military type, he continues, has been particularly prominent in many states, and here he cites Russia and Prussia (and the German Empire) as examples following on from Egypt and Sparta "It is", says Hintze, "one-sided, exaggerated and therefore false to consider class conflict the only driving force in history…conflict between nations has been far more important, and throughout the ages, pressure from without has been a determining influence on internal structure…" "Maintenance of the army became the chief task of the state's financial administration…power politics, mercantilism (the economic doctrine that government control of foreign trade is of paramount importance for ensuring the military security of the country) and militarism are all related…" In Prussia, "the entire administrative organisation…was keyed to military aims and served them"

'Dialogue on Politics' (Politisches Gespräch) and 'The Great Powers' (Die Grossen Mächte) Von Ranke, in T. von Laude, ed., Leopold von Ranke, The Formative Years



"What army would not wholeheartedly wish for war…action, prestige, advancement - I don't blame them" Statesmen become reluctant to go to war when war is so costly, so total Chambray - "he finds that by inner necessity, military institutions correspond to the state of society, to the civil constitution" (Chambray, La Philosophie de la Guerre)

Prussia found military and civil institutions in accord; universal military service corresponds to individual liberty and the division of property, the institution of the Landwehr to municipal rights, the privileged one-year term of service of the educated classes to their social position in general - thus, "A country which has a militia like the Landwehr and institutions like the Städteordnung indeed possesses liberty

The conditions of society seem to infuse their predominating traits into each separate institution

A German education system works only in German lands, so infused is it with the needs, ideas and developments of the German Protestant Church, and so strongly permeated with its spirit - only a pale copy could be produced in France

States are individualities, analogous to one another, but basically independent of each other

Liberal and absolutists principles clashing during the French Revolutionary Wars

"The alliance of the great continental powers [in this case the alliance between Russia and Austria] was not stronger than their respective interests…there is no trend of opinion, however dominant, which can break the force of political interests…"

Citizens contribute to the state; taxes consume a large proportion of the nation's income, and "many invest their fortunes and their youth in preparation for state service…autonomous private life no longer exists. Our activities naturally belong primarily to our community" - the citizen's reward is the strength of the state

Nonetheless, "there are [places] where duties are unwillingly and reluctantly performed…in Italy, for instance"

"Nowadays every government must be benevolent. Its powers…are based on the general welfare of the people anyway"

"The meaning of monarchical institutions is to put the right man in the right place" (Above from 'Dialogue on Politics')









In the face of [Louis XIV's] France, Europe was indeed divided and impotent Louis once said of one of his foreign ministers: "I had to remove him. Everything which he undertook lacked the grandeur and strength which one must show when carrying out the commands of a King of France…" Louis, according to Ranke, did not "care for conquest and war [i.e. territorial gains, which were in themselves modest compared to that which Napoleon would offer] so much as for the glory which they cast upon him…he did not seek universal and imperishable fame…he wanted only the homage of his entourage" The state of Europe was, however, imperilled; Louis' supremacy "threatened to destroy the foundations of European order and development This was not the only danger; "under such decided domination by one nation, the others could hardly achieve an independent development, particularly not when this domination was supported by a pre-eminence in literature" (Italian literature had run its course, and English had not yet reached its zenith, while German literature "did not exist at that time" - "French literature…in strictly regulated yet charming form…was commencing to dominate Europe" "Paris was the capital of Europe" "The concept of the European balance of power was developed in order that the union of many other states might resist the pretensions of the 'exorbitant' court, as it was called…" After the Great Northern War, Russia essentially gained control over Poland, with the tsar, who had formerly taken orders from the Poles, giving them at will and with unlimited authority - thus French influence decreased more and more in relation to Poland - this precipitated the carving up of Poland by the Eastern Powers Sweden was weakened and reduced "Frederick II appeared upon the scene, and Prussia emerged as a power" Frederick was highly involved in strategic and tactical foreign policy; he knew that, although it might have been possible in 1741 to reduce Austria altogether, it was prudent not to rid France of her old opponent… "his aims was to be dependent upon neither France nor Austria…he wished to feel free and to assume an independent position, based upon his own strength, between the two powers. In this simple purpose lies the key to his diplomacy during the Silesian wars" "The prestige of Prussia deeply affected the Northern system" - Russian ministers believed their position in the north to be threatened by the emergence of Prussia on the European great-power stage

The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 P.W. Schroeder (Oxford, 1994)

Overall, the late eighteenth-century trend was toward escalation, not diminution, of conflict

According to Schroeder, the 1763 Peace settlement broke down because it failed to establish a stable balance of power

The terms destroyed any previously existing colonial and maritime balance against Britain; here there was British supremacy which, as the victors, the British were no doubt entitled to demand

Owing to this situation, it was natural that Britain's European enemies would seek to take advantage of the American rebellion to try to correct the imbalance, while Britain herself would struggle to find continental allies

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