European balance of power

The European balance of power referred to European international relations before the First World War, which evolved into the present states of Europe. The Nineteenth Century political concept emerged at the Peace of Paris in 1815. It is often known by the term European State System. Its basic tenet is that no single European power should be allowed to achieve hegemony over a substantial part of the continent and that this is best curtailed by having a small number of ever-changing alliances contend for power, it also meant that none should be able to achieve absolute power.


16th to 18th centuries

In the 16th and 17th centuries, English foreign policy strove to prevent a 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) and Dutch 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 Francechanging 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 Great Britain 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 the Thirteen colonies of British America.

19th century

During the 19th century, to achieve lasting peace, the Concert of Europe tried to maintain the balance of power. The territorial boundaries laid down at the Congress of Vienna were maintained, and even more important there was an acceptance of the theme of balance with no major aggression.[1] Otherwise the Congress system says historian Roy Bridge, "failed" by 1823.[2] In 1818 the British decided not to become involved in continental issues that did not directly affect them. They rejected the plan of Tsar Alexander I to suppress future revolutions. The Concert system fell apart as the common goals of the Great Powers were replaced by growing political and economic rivalries.[3] Artz says the Congress of Verona in 1822 "marked the end."[4] There was no Congress called to restore the old system during the great revolutionary upheavals of 1848 with their demands for revision of the Congress of Vienna's frontiers along national lines.[5]

Before 1850 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.[6]

After 1870 the creation and rise of the German Empire as a dominant nation restructured the European balance of power. 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 such as the Triple Alliance.[7][8]

World Wars

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-World War I 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 the UK 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 the UK and the Soviets. The UK did not condemn the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, but declared war on Germany. Later they sided with the Soviet Union against Germany after the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union.

Post-World War II: Cold War period

During the post-Second World War era the Allies 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 the United Kingdom, and neutral or non-aligned countries, including the Republic of 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."[9]

Post-Cold War era

From the late 20th century, the four most powerful members of the European Union — the UK, France, Italy and Germany — are referred to as the EU big four. They are major European powers and the only EU countries individually represented as full members of the G7, the G8 and the G20. The NATO Quint is made up by the United States and the Big Four.

The term G4 is especially (although not only) used to describe meeting of the four nations at the leaders' level. In addition, the term EU three (or G-3) is used to describe the grouping of foreign ministers from France, the UK and Germany during the Iran nuclear talks. On the other hand, the grouping of interior ministers that includes Spain and Poland is known as the G6. Germany (which has the largest economy in Europe) is often regarded as the EU's economic leader, such as with the ongoing European sovereign debt crisis, whilst France and the United Kingdom (both permanent members of the UNSC) 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. How this balance will change after the Brexit vote in 2016 is still an open matter.

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 Communist countries in central Europe having since joined the EU and NATO.

See also


  • Albrecht-Carrié, René. A Diplomatic History of Europe Since the Congress of Vienna (1958), 736pp; basic survey
  • Bartlett, C. J. Peace, War and the European Powers, 1814-1914 (1996) brief overview 216pp
  • Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. Penguin Books, 2007
  • Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500-2000 (1987), stress on economic and military factors
  • Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy (1995), 940pp; not a memoir but an interpretive history of international diplomacy since the late 18th century
  • Langer, William. An Encyclopedia of World History (5th ed. 1973); highly detailed outline of events
  • Simms, Brendan. Three Victories and a Defeat. Penguin Books, 2008.
  • Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Simon & Schuster, 2006


  1. Gordon Craig, "The System of Alliances and the Balance of Power." in J.P.T. Bury, ed., The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 10: The Zenith of European Power, 1830-70 (1960) p 266.
  2. Roy Bridge, "Allied Diplomacy in Peacetime: The Failure of the Congress 'System,' 1815–23" in Alan Sked, ed., Europe's Balance of Power, 1815–1848 (1979), pp 34–53
  3. C.W. Crawley, "International Relations, 1815-1830" in C.W. Crawley, ed., The New Cambridge Modern History: Volume 9, War and Peace in an Age of Upheaval, 1793-1830. Vol. 9 (1965) pp 669-71, 676-77, 683-86.
  4. Frederick B. Artz, Reaction & Revolution: 1814–1832 (1934) p 170.
  5. Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics: 1763–1848 (1996) p 800.
  6. René Albrecht-Carrié, A diplomatic history of Europe since the Congress of Vienna (1958) pp 65-68, 84-106.
  7. Erich Eyck, Bismarck and the German Empire (1964) pp 58-68
  8. René Albrecht-Carrié, A diplomatic history of Europe since the Congress of Vienna (1958) pp 163-206.
  9. Reynolds 1994, p. 13.
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