The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder | Go to book overview

13
The Congress Era, 1815-1823

THE axiom 'Whatever ceases to grow starts to rot' has often been used in power politics, where it does not really fit. It does not correspond to the facts; durable success in power politics, as Napoleon's career illustrates, depends less on expanding one's power than on knowing where and how to stop and consolidate it. The maxim also suggests a mistaken notion of what power is and how it works. Except in the crudest sense, state power in international politics is not a thing, a definable and measurable entity, which at any particular time must be either growing, declining, or levelling off. It is not even a combination of factors (military capability, industrial capacity, wealth, territory, population, etc.) which add up to such a measurable entity. A state's power in international politics involves above all a relationship between its international needs and goals, its capacity to meet them, and the costs of doing so. The sources of that power or capacity, moreover, lie in a complex network of interwoven factors (domestic-political, foreign-political, economic, social, even cultural and psychological) subject to constant change in different ways at different rates. This makes it virtually certain that any state's power will be simultaneously growing and decaying in different ways at the same time, and probable that any particular action or policy will have that ambiguous result. Again, Napoleon's career or almost any era in history offers examples.1

But the maxim quoted above, misleading on power politics, applies well to the kind of politics instituted at Vienna, operating mainly not by the exercise of power but through consensus underpinned by law. Whenever such a system ceases to grow-- ceases, that is, to include new rights, deal with new claims, bring in new actors, build new consensus, and adapt to new conditions and problems--it begins to decay. This was the test the Vienna system faced after 1815. The story of how it met the test is

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1
For an illustration, see International History Review, 12/ 4 ( Nov. 1991), an issue discussing Britain's alleged decline in power in the late nineteenth c. and first half of the twentieth and arguing that it has at least been greatly exaggerated. The essays seem to me really to prove a simultaneous decline and growth in different aspects of British power, from the same causes. Something similar applies to the debate over the rise or decline of American power in the late 20th c.

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