The Balance of Power. A System of Peace in European International Politics

Case Example: Congress of Vienna 1814/1815

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7




1. Introduction

2. Evolution and Theory of the Balance of Power

3. Case Example: Congress of Vienna

4. Conclusion



The Balance of Power: a Model of Peace in European International Politics

Case Examples: Congress of Vienna 1814/1815

1. Introduction:

I assume that every peace settlement presents either a new regulation of international system or a kind of a fundamental change of international understanding of legitimacy and legality. The “system concept” implies that there must be some interconnectedness between the component parts (such as states, communities etc.). An entity, which is totally disconnected, cannot be a part of a system. Moreover, the concept of system implies some degree of regularity in relationships. According to Luard, “where the behaviour is entirely unpredictable, arbitrary and wayward, no system of relations can be said to exist”. (Luard 1992: 11) Luard’s assumption is “in a system, behaviour must be sufficiently consistent and regular that, over the long term, a recognisable pattern results” (Luard 1992: 12) that it appears systematic.

If a system existed, it must be demonstrated by deeds as well as words. Therefore, the preoccupation of this paper is defining the theory and than combining the theory with a historical example. The common objectives of this paper are, in the first part, to formulate the idea of “Balance of Power” which is explicitly alluded to in historical peace treaties. And to discuss “Balance of Power” as an institution1 of international relations2 and diplomacy, and to formulate different models of “Balance of Power”3, so that they may be subjected to appropriate combination with historical example.

In the second part, you will find the mentioned “appropriate combination” of balance of power idea in case of one historical peace treaty: Congress of Vienna. The general historical conditions, parties and the international system or new regulations after these peace settlements will be formulated. In general, the following questions are tried to be answered:

- What is Balance of Power? How does the Balance of Power contribute to international order?
- What is the relevance of the Balance of Power to the maintenance of international order in sixteenth, seventieth and in the beginning of ninetieth century?
- How did the Balance of Power concept emerge as a legal international relations system?
- The Actors, The Era and Structure of Vienna System: How it worked and why it broke down?

2. Evolution and Theory of the Balance of Power:

According to historians and political scientist, balance of power politics figured prominently in the wars of the sixteenth century, initially with Maximilian I.(von Habsburg)’s dynastic alliances against the French and Ottoman treats, then with Francis I.( von France)’s collaboration with the Lutheran Princes and Ottoman Sultan (Croxton, Tischer 2002: 214) against the Catholic Habsburg. According to Ingrau, at that time, “a proper balance per se could not be achieved in the absence of a truly multipolar state system capable of achieving an equilibrium that could sustain the mixing and matching various combinations of states4 ”. (Ingrao 2002: 78) states. Unlike absolute measures, the cooperation derived by states on relative bases, would depend strictly upon their rank in the hierarchy of the value possessed. (3) It would be relate the amount of cooperation and conflict derived to the change in the amount of power and status. It might be true that the amounts of power or status possesses by actor would be strictly irrelevant to the amount of cooperation they receive, while the change in power or status would be more directly related to cooperation gained. According to some historical hypotheses, German power may not have been preeminent during the Bismarckian system but the change in the German position was so dramatic that Berlin gained the greatest share of European cooperation. (4) It links disparity between power and status and the amount of cooperation received or given. (5) It is also possible that there is no relationship between power and status, change in power status, status diplomacy and cooperation”. (Rosecrance, Alexandroff, Healy, Stein 1975: 8-9)

Between 1618 Prague Agreement and 1659 Peace of Pyrenees, Europe did not move to fifteen- century Italian paradigm of a multilateral balance of power, but the purely transitional evolution to a bi-polar balance between Spain (Habsburg without Austria) and France (Bourbon).

Allegedly, Westphalia Treaty laid down the basic principles of the modern law of nations, such as equality, religious neutrality, sovereignty and balance of power. (Lesaffer 2004: 9, Gross 1948: 31-33) If we specifically look at the Westphalia-Era5, easy to find out the mentioned transition of two main factors, which limited the generation of power balancing policies in the early seventieth century: (1) the religious sentiment (Goosens 2001: 162) and (2) dominance of Spain. On the one hand, Catholic states felt obligated to support Catholic partners, was not matter if they strong or weak, while Protestant states were on one side with their Protestant allies, whatever the demands of balance. Thirty years war was a good example to recognise this construction (Habsburg and Spain against England, Sweden and Denmark). Religious values did not encourage any type of balance policy6. On the other hand, from 1559, Spain dominated the whole Europe as a single power. There were different reasons to work or fight against Spain at that time: “France, from ancient dynastic rivalry, England, Venice and Netherlands to maintain or secure their independence, Sweden and the German Protestant rulers, to defend their religion”. (Luard 1992: 7) It is obvious that after Peace of Westphalia both these factors were to change. The religious barriers became abstract for a new international system and allies. In addition, Spain became only one strong power among the other states.

Luard underlines five important conceptions about balance of power system, which occurred after Peace of Westphalia (Luard 1992: 25-29): (1) “the idea that a balance had to be maintained made flexibility in foreign policies, above all in alliance policy, essential”. It means that if the balance was to be adjusted to prevent the domination any power, policies needed to be always adaptable. (2) “Alliance could take no ideology7 ”. (3) “A system based on the balance of power required states to settle for less than total victory”. (4) “the changeability of alliances, and the unpredictability that resulted, meant that there was a constant need for watchfulness: the sensibility that each state should show to any violation of rights and the perpetual attention to foreign affairs”. (5) “The concern for balance also affected the type of peace settlement reached at the end of each conflict”.

We know that after Westphalia Peace, balance of power has emerged as a central and complex concept of international relations. Before starting to discuss historical examples and periods intensively, I suggest that to mention two balance of power models8 in International Relations field. I believe that it is than easy to search connections of between theoretical background and historical practices. I choose, therefore, two known model-definitions of balance of power: Hans J. Morgenthau’s “Politics among Nations”, Hedley Bull’s “The Anarchical Society”9.

2.1. Hans J. Morgenthau’s “Politics among Nations”

Despite the critics for being ahistorical10 and ambitious, Morgenthau assumed that his balance of power concept is a “necessary outgrowth of power politics”. (Morgenthau 1961: 167, Little 2007: 91) General assumption of Morgenthau’s work is that the common aim of balance of power is to protect independence and existence of all states. Moreover, he argues that survival of international law depends on the existence of a balance of power, because hegemonic powers in international system always tend to ignore international law. In his text, international politics is described with a structural mechanic (structural dynamics associated with international anarchic system11 ), which is defined by Little as a “proto-constructivist”. (Little 2007: 125)

According to Little, Morgenthau’s balance of power theory conflates two different dynamic processes, however, there is actually no obvious distinction between these two dynamics in Morgenthau’s work: (1) one associates the balance of power with the unintended outcome of great powers engaged in a mechanistic drive for hegemony. (2) While the other dynamic is “associated with, a complex set of social, ideational and material factors that ameliorate the effects of the first dynamic and assists the great powers in maintaining an equilibrium that promotes their collective security and common interests”. (Little 2007: 91)


1 In this paper, “balance of power” term will be used in relation with the commonly understood meaning of balancing (balance politics), which is viewed as a state strategy or foreign policy behaviour as conditions of power equilibrium between key actors (states). According to Paul, there are tree different kinds of “balancing” politics: (1) Hard Balancing: it is a strategy often exhibited by states engaged in intense interstate rivalry. “States thus adopt strategies to build up and update their military capabilities, as well as create and maintain formal alliances and counter alliances, to match the capabilities of their key opponents. (Paul 2004: 3) It is an example for traditional realist or neorealist theories of balancing. (2) Soft Balancing: it involves tacit balancing short of formal alliances. It occurs when states generally develop ententes or limited security understandings with one another to balance a potentially threatening state or a rising power. (Paul 2004: 3) Regional international organisations could be a appropriate example for this balancing type. (3) Asymmetric Balancing: It refers to efforts by nation-states to balance and contain indirect threats posed by sub-national actors such as terrorist groups that do not have the ability to challenge key states using conventional military capabilities or strategies. (Paul 2004: 3)

2 In this paper, I use capital letters to identify International Relations as an academic discipline and small letters to identify international relations as the subject matter of this discipline.

3 This model could be found in different competing International Relations clusters such as “(1) there are series of propositions or assertions, which link conflict and cooperation, peace and war in the system to the absolute amount of some crucial quantity: “power”, “status” or other. States with the high stocks of this quantity could then be expected either to enjoy high levels of cooperation, or to be the objects of great rivalry or conflict. (2) Second cluster would relate cooperation and conflict to relative amounts of the crucial quantity (power, status or other) possessed by

4 Sonnino assumes that the sixteenth century was extremely inhospitable to balance of power relations: (1) because of the French monarchy, with its adventures in Italy, played right into the hand of the house of Austria, which was, moreover, the beneficiary of so many legitimate successions; (2) because the 16. Century produced the roots of reformation and counter-reformation, international conspiracies which overpowered the petty vendettas of individual dynasties; (3) demographic and economic changes which were themselves a source of instability. (Sonnino 2002: 70)

5 At that point, I would also mention the discussions about the reality and plausibility of “Westphalian System”. Andreas Osiander’s article, which called “Sovereignty, International Relations and the Westphalian Myth”, (Osiander 2001: 252) would be a good example. In this debate, Westphalian System and know International Relations assumptions are judged. Because it is mostly related with sovereignty questions, I don not formulate “Westphalian Myth” debate in this paper. This paper accepts that balance of power concept more related with hegemony concept than sovereignty.

6 For a concrete example (see Marsh 1998: 17-26)

7 Sonnino assumes by ideology “a set of social principles, which we do not always follow, but make us feel guilty when we do not”. (Sonnino 2002: 65)


9 I do not formulate the other two famous balance of power models (Kenneth N. Waltz’s “Theory of Great Powers” and John J. Mearsheimer’s “The Tragedy of Great Powers Politics”) in this paper. Because the first one is quite similar with Morgenthau’s work, in case of the definitions about power balancing in sixteenth century and the second one is mainly focuses on modern times instead of historical.

10 Buzan and Little define “ahistoricism” as followed: “Ahistoricism does not imply that the past is of no concern to social scientist, but rather that they should be searching for general laws that apply to the past as well as the present”. (Buzan, Little 2000: 19)

11 As Little underlines, “Morgenthau accepts that there is a structural mechanic, power political and mechanic dynamic in any anarchical system and because of the problems of measuring power under anarchic conditions, there is a tendency for the structure of the system to push the great powers in a hegemonic direction”. (Little 2007: 125)

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The Balance of Power. A System of Peace in European International Politics
Case Example: Congress of Vienna 1814/1815
University of Tubingen
Hauptseminar: Peace Settlements and Institutions
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balance, power, system, peace, european, international, politics, case, example, congress, vienna
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Anonymous, 2008, The Balance of Power. A System of Peace in European International Politics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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