European balance of power
In the 16th and 17th centuries, English foreign policy strove to prevent creation of a single Universal Monarchy in Europe, which many believed France or Spain might attempt to create. To maintain the balance of power, the English made alliances with other states—including Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and the Netherlands—to counter the perceived threat. These Grand Alliances reached their height in the wars against Louis XIV and Louis XV of France. They often involved the English (later the British) paying large subsidies to European allies to finance large armies.
In the 18th century, this led to the stately quadrille, with a number of major European powers—such as Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, and France—changing alliances multiple times to prevent the hegemony of one nation or alliance. A number of wars stemmed, at least in part, from the desire to maintain the balance of power, including the War of the Spanish Succession, War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years' War, the War of the Bavarian Succession and the Napoleonic Wars. Following Britain's success in the Seven Years' War, many of the other powers began to see London as a greater threat than France. Several states entered the American War of Independence in the hope of overturning Britain's growing strength by securing the independence of Thirteen of the colonies of British America.
During the 19th century, to achieve lasting peace, the Concert of Europe tried to maintain the balance of power. This policy was largely successful in averting a full-scale Europe-wide war for almost a century, until the First World War.1 Specifically, during the first half of the 19th century, Britain and France dominated Europe, but by the 1850s they had become deeply concerned by the growing power of Russia and Prussia. The Crimean War of 1854–55 and the Italian War of 1859 shattered the relations among the Great Powers in Europe; however, the creation and rise of the German Empire as a dominant nation restructured the European balance of power.2 For the next twenty years, Otto von Bismarck managed to maintain the balance of power, by proposing treaties and creating many complex alliances between the European nations.
After the resignation of Otto Von Bismarck in the 1890s, the foreign policy of the German Empire became expansionary and the newly created alliances were proven to be fragile, something that triggered the First World War in 1914. One of the objectives of the Treaty of Versailles, the main post-WWI treaty, was to abolish the dominance of the 'Balance of Power' concept and replace it with the (global) League of Nations.
This idea floundered as Europe split into three principal factions in the 1920s and 1930s: Liberal Democratic states led by Britain and France, Communist states led by the Soviet Union, and authoritarian nationalists led by Germany and Italy. The failure of the Democratic states to prevent the advance of Nazi Germany ultimately led to the Second World War, which led to a temporary alliance between Britain and the Soviets.
During the post-Second World War era the West split into two blocs, a balance of power emerged in between the Eastern Bloc: affiliated with the Soviet Union and the Socialist nations of Central and Eastern Europe; the Western Bloc: affiliated with the Western democracies, particularly France, the United States, and Britain, and Third World neutral countries, including Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia. The majority of the European democratic nations, together with Canada and the US, came together under the military alliance of NATO, which continues to this day and has expanded to other countries in Europe. The first NATO Secretary General, the British Lord Ismay, famously stated the organization's initial goal was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."3
In the present day the three most powerful members of the European Union (EU) — Britain, France, and Germany — are referred to as the EU three. Often in (internal) EU and NATO debates on strategy and general decision-making, two of the three are able to take a lead amongst the governments of those alliances. France and Germany (who are members of the Eurozone whilst the UK is not) are often regarded as the EU's economic leaders, such as with the on-going Euro crisis, whilst Britain and France (who have significantly more military capabilities and global presence than Germany) often lead in defence and foreign policy matters, such as the intervention in Libya in 2011. This, to an extent, represents a balancing of leadership power for the Western sphere of the continent. There continues however to be a wider, strategic balance of Western and (now) Russian power, albeit with the boundary between the two pushed further east since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with many former Socialist countries in central Europe having since joined the EU and NATO.
- Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. Penguin Books, 2007
- Simms, Brendan. Three Victories and a Defeat. Penguin Books, 2008.
- Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Simon & Schuster, 2006
- Strachan p.4-6
- Erich Eyck, Bismarck and the German Empire (1964) pp 58-68
- Reynolds 1994, p. 13.