Soldiers, Statecraft, and History: Coercive Diplomacy and International Order

By James A. Nathan | Go to book overview
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Chapter 3

The Heyday of the Balance of Power: Frederick the Great and the Decline of the Old Regime

INTRODUCTION

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the balance of power was almost universally acclaimed as an indispensable condition of European statecraft. Yet both the moderation and consensus that accompanied the eighteenth-century international community were short-lived. Vying with the development of policies and institutions aimed at an overall European equilibrium were potent forces of disorder. Specifically, the national assertions of Prussia led to fissures of a system that relied, on the one hand, on moderation and consensus and, on the other, on opportunism and violence.

Because the balance of power failed to operate effectively, it gave way to its nemesis: unscrupulous statesmanship. Hence it can be argued—contrary to conclusions of most who refer to the eighteenth-century balance of power—that the origins of the breakdown of European order are not to be found merely in the cataclysm of the French Revolution, but instead can be traced to three additional factors: (1) an absence of central authority or even a semblance of a public monopoly of superior force in the post-Utrecht (1714) international system, (2) the incapacity of universal European values to limit the appetite of some of the more established states, and (3) the rise of ambitious parvenu states, especially Prussia and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

In our time those who almost longingly recall the old state system have seemed unmindful of the very modest success of even its best years. 1 Indeed, to many, in retrospect, the eighteenth century seemed a “golden age” 2 in the history of the nation-state system. But the period of a functioning bal-

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