XV.—The Balance of Power

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download



    and intapretation of early precedents which ha,d already led to SO much dispute.

    Therefore in effect lihe Petition of Right, hybrid and novelty though it might be in many respects, was exactly wha.t its name implied: the recognition of a claim that every subject of the Crown had been wronged in certa.in specific matters, and that, in future, in those matters, the laws would be observed.

    E. R. ADAIR.


    There is no phrase more familiar in histories dealing with modern foreign policy than the Balanae of Power, and there is none which illustrates more forcibly the truth in the cynical remark that phrases are used to cover the absence of thought. Someone invents a telling and epigrammatic expression and it obtains a vogue among people who seldom trouble to ask what they mean by it or whether the meaning they attach to it has any relation t o the meaning it bore in the mind of the inventor. It is not known who invented the phrase, the balance of power. Andrew Yarranton, the engineer and agriculturist, in his Englands Improvement by Sea and Land t o outdo the Dutch without Fighting, published in 1677, speaks of the balance of Europe ; but apparently it was William 111.~ struggle against the supremacy of Louis XIV. that gave popularity to the idea and to the phrase, and in 1701 the London Gazette spoke of the glorious design of reestablishing a just balance of power in Europe. In 1507 Canning referred to that established line of policy known as the balance of power,a and in 1815 Castlereagh in his despatches defined it as a just repartition of force amongst the States of Europe.s This is practically the definition given a little more elaborately in the N e w English Dictionary, such an adjustment of power among sovereign States that no single State is in a position to interfere with the independence of the rest.

    It was clearly the power of France, first under Louis XIV. end then under Napoleon, which created the phrase and determined its meaning; and the method by which effect was to be given to it in practical politics was the establishment and maintenance of a reasonable proportion of power among the half-dozen leading States in Europe, so that no one of them should attain preponderance. The ides was that if any State threatened to do so, the rest would com- bine and crush it; there was to be no balance between the single overmighty State and the rest, but an overwhelming preponderance of their collective power. Power was, so to speak, t o be rationed, and the greedy individualist to be repressed by the community. It was really the germ of the idea of 8 League of Nations for the preser- vation of security.

    Unfortunately the history of the nineteenth century destroyed the situation contemplated by Castlereagh and his predecessors without destroying the vogue of the phrase they used, which came to be applied to an entirely different condition of affairs. Instead of remaining five or six independent units, guaranteeing peace by a multiple equilibrium, the Great Powers coalesced into two great

    1 No. 3788, p. 7; MunsysN.E.D. S.V. B a l ~ c e 13c. 8 Pollard, The League of Nations : An H~etoricol Argument, 1918, p. 19.

    Spcarhea, v. 6.

  • 104 HISTORY [JULY, 1920

    alliances, which acted practically as units in foreign affairs; and the Balance of Power came t o be regarded as an equipoise between two equal weights. There was much t o be said for Catlereagh's plan for keeping the peace; there was nothing to be said for the new balance. For there is nothing so unstable as an equal balance between t u o opposing forces: the more perfect i t is, the slighter the disturbance that is required to upset it. A ten per cent. increase of power in one among six European States would not seriously have disturbed the equanimity of Europe : a similar increase of power in one of two Alliances over the other was en appalling prospect. Hence the race for armaments leading to aggressive war on the part of the competitor most alarmed by the inevitable approach of poli- tical or economic bankruptcy. Yet the phrase, originally used to describe a reasonable plan for keeping the peace, continued to be emploxed to advocate a system which could only lead t o war.

    There is another criticism fatal to the use in the twentieth century of a phrase applicable to the eighteenth. The continent of Europe done was in the minds of those who invented i t . nut Europc ceased to be the world in the eighteenth century; and tt Lalance of power in Europe ceased to be a panacea when world- power became the crux of international politics. In Great Britain we harped on the necessity of a balance of power in Europe while seeking to upset, or to prevent, its establishment anywhere else; and the staunchest advocates of a balance of power in Europe were the fiercest opponents of a balance of power on the sea, in Africa, in Asia, or in Americs. Other countries inferred and said that we only desired a balance of power in Europe because the more their hands were tied on the continent, the freer would ours be for naval and colonial expansion. Historical phrases are all very well, but endless confusion of thought accrues from their application-whether the phrase be " liberty," " free trade," " military service," " impress- ment," '' gild," '' parliament," or the " balance of power "-to conditions totally different from those which the phrase originally expressed.

    A. F. POLLhRD.