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THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUILIBRIUM AND THE PRESENT
By Tor Hugo WISTRAND
Politics require principles. When it is a question on the one hand of acquiring a position, and on the other hand of defending it, the opposed interests seek bases upon which they can rest. The sovereignties feel the necessity of invoking the authority of a principle which seems to draw its force from considerations superior to those that can inspire the political pretensions of a particular state. An appeal is made to a common interest the supposed existence of which is taken for granted-namely, that of maintaining the peace and good relations among the states—and it is presented in a definite formula, the principle of equilibrium.
But this formula has no fixed significance in a juridical sense, its invocation being due to the fact that it claims to be the means of realizing that common interest and of expressing in a sense a natural law. In appealing to this principle, the state has ipso facto recognized that the ambitions of expansion can be justified only to the extent that they blend with a common interest, or at least are not opposed thereto. In order to utilize it, we must depart from the conception of the isolated state, abandon the national basis and place ourselves on the international plane.
The principle of equilibrium necessarily imposes upon the ambitious sovereignties à motive of fear and might consequently result in a certain respect for the other states. But it is precisely in this regard for the others that the foundation of international law lies. By constituting a motive of fear for the states whose ambitious designs are likely to disturb the peace, the principle of equilibrium could form a veritable sanction of international law. But, as in internal law, it does not suffice to make the rules govern, to stipulate penalties for the offenses, without maintaining public order by moral convictions of the individual; it is likewise necessary in the field of international law to emphasize considerations of a moral order. Keeping in mind this twofold aspect, we shall examine first the historical development of the principle of equilibrium and thereupon arrive at an analysis of its character.
* The present article reproduces in substance a paper read before the diplomatic section of the Ecole des Sciences Politiques of Paris. It was written at the suggestion of M. Dupuis, to whom the writer owes the most valuable suggestions.-AUTHOR. Translated from the French by Dr. Edwin H. Zeydel, of Washington, D. C.
The form in which the principle of equilibrium has played a part during long periods before 1914 was determined under the influence of those ideas which signalize the end of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance increased the authority of the sovereigns. The Roman ideas concerning their power helped to encourage them to act unscrupulously. The ancient conception of sovereignty justified the most sinister ambitions. The dissolution of the empire of Charlemagne had done away with the notion of political unity, offering the most favorable opportunity to the aspirations of the princes. The Reformation completely shattered the already greatly shaken spiritual unity; in conferring the religious authority upon the princes, it created a pretext for political enterprises. The disappearance of the power of the Pope was necessarily bound to signify an increase of the authority of the princes, who were freed from every regard of a religious order. The theories of the Renaissance with respect to sovereignty, on the one hand, and the absence of every moral principle, on the other, had to lead inevitably to a state of anarchy. It is natural that under such conditions the weakest sovereignties could not subsist without uniting, and that they had to seek to create in their united forces a motive of fear for anyone who wished to attack the integrity of one of them. These efforts were likewise necessary for the very life of the state, for in the absence of every obstacle which morality might offer, every sovereignty knows that the disappearance of its neighbor to the advantage of a stronger state will menace it. Thus during this period of anarchy the principle of equilibrium appeared to be the means most apt to safeguard the existence of the state, and the appeal made to it seemed to be due to an instinctive sentiment rather than to formulated reasons.
The immense empire of Charles V was bound necessarily to arouse fears in the other Powers. The struggle between the ruling house of France and that of Hapsburg is the most remarkable historical manifestation of this fact. In a certain sense, above these Powers there was a third Power en gaged in watching over the balance of power, namely, England. There remains no doubt that the diplomacy of Henry VIII was consciously in. spired by this principle. The interest of England was best realized in a balance of power between France and Austria. As a matter of fact, Eng. lish politics have never abandoned the thought of Henry VIII but have applied it in the foreign relations of England with the force of a tradition. In the struggle against the menacing power of Austria, Henry IV pursued the political designs of Francis I, and Richelieu supported them under changed conditions.
The Peace of Westphalia is decisive for the part which the principle of equilibrium has played in European politics. This has a twofold aspect. Since none of the adversaries could get the upper hand, the house of Austria, which had been a menace to the other Powers of Europe, did not represent an imminent danger for the future. Thus there was realized through the treaty a condition corresponding to the idea of equilibrium. But, moreover, it is clear that this condition could not subsist without the support of the same principle. In causing the absolute collapse of every conception of unity, the Peace of Westphalia created a Europe composed of independent sovereignties, and although their ambitions were not nurtured by Machiavellian theories, moral ideas were not capable of guiding them. It follows from this that the only guarantee against the abuse of force by a state whose political designs threatened others was to be found in a combination of Powers. In this sense the Peace of Westphalia furnished the basis of a policy inspired by the principle of equilibrium.
However, it soon appeared that the conception, as it was realized in the Peace of Westphalia, could not guarantee a pacific development. As yet equilibrium is only a formula without any moral basis. The brutal operations attendant upon the organization of the German sovereignties disclose its true character. The ambitions of Louis XIV brought about the formation of the coalitions aiming at the maintenance of the equilibrium which was threatened by him, but when subsequently the menace appeared in another quarter, namely in the prospect of the reëstablishment of the empire of Charles V, we witness England withdrawing from the coalition in the name of the same principle. In a word, it was due to the policy of England that neither Austria nor France could acquire a predominance which would have resulted from a union with Spain, and that the Treaty of Utrecht could thus reëstablish the equilibrium.
In this new state of affairs it was no longer a question of maintaining a balance between two continental Powers-Austria and France. It was necessary to take the claims of Russia into account, and the problem which the principle of equilibrium is called upon to solve is considerably complicated. None of the Powers was in a position of being able to dominate the others, but none was ready to abandon its ambitious designs. In order to satisfy these wishes and at the same time the desire for a balance of power between the Powers, the logical conclusion must be found in the partition of the weak states. It is thus from this point of view that the principle of equilibrium is interpreted in the partitions of Poland, an interpretation completed and perfected by the idea of a partition in consonance with the existing state of strength of the Powers. However, the idea of partition caused the maintenance of the equilibrium to be forgotten, so that Napoleon, taking advantage of the territorial cupidity of the coalitionists, could succeed in destroying it. It required the crushing of Prussia and Austria and the threat against Russia to make it clear that the European equilibrium was shaken. Thus the earlier conception of the principle was revived.
The discussions of the Congress of Vienna show in a very plain manner the complicated questions which the analysis of the principle raises. The allies sought to reëstablish the equilibrium but at the same time to reduce France to its former limits. But how were these two matters to be recon
ciled, granted that the material increase of the allied forces would have to allow France a relative increase? Thus the discussion introduces into the conception of equilibrium elements likely to complicate it. It was imperative to take into account the qualities of the state which do not necessarily correspond to powers of aggression. This thesis, upheld by France, was not admitted in its consequences. The principle continues to serve the egotistical ambitions of every state which makes its claims under this vague formula. Only France, being in a certain sense disinterested, tried to introduce the moral element. It is easy to understand the importance of this new conception, introduced by Talleyrand. If the principle of equilibrium could not guarantee peace, if it served in an odious manner to the detriment of the weak states, the reason was because the moral idea had not been introduced into it. In order to construct a just equilibrium, no purely arithmetical methods must be applied, as the principle is not a mechanism which can make an abstract question of the various qualities of each population and its moral force. These ideas, which brought considerable complication into the work of the Congress of Vienna, convinced M. de Metternich, at least with regard to the necessity of taking account of the nature of the populations in the territories in dispute. The expression of this conviction will be seen in the appointment of a statistical commission for estimating the territories from the point of view of their population.
Certainly it can not be denied that these efforts helped to render the Treaty of Vienna more durable. But the moral considerations invoked by Talleyrand could not readily penetrate the minds of the diplomats. The latter, occupied in the first place by material questions relating to the strength of their respective states, were not attached to the wishes of the populations. It became a new task for European politics to determine and regulate the influence which this element could have upon equilibrium. Thus it was with regard to the question of Greece and with regard to the problem of Belgium. In the former it appeared that the equilibrium could be adapted to the national claims and in the latter it could be reëstablished by virtue of the neutralization of the Belgian State.
The policy of Napoleon III was characterized by the same efforts, perhaps to the detriment of France. During the Crimean War the principle of equilibrium was invoked against Russian aggression. The balance was restored without conquest or partition and in harmony with certain national claims. In his Italian policy, Napoleon III attempted to carry out the French point of view of equilibrium against the Italian power, created with his aid by national forces. The reunion of Savoy and of the county of Nice with France shows the principles which directed his policy. Since their application against Prussia could not have so happy an issue, Napoleon sought to conceal the failure of his policy under a new form of equilibrium. “The Emperor does not believe that the greatness of a country depends upon the weakening of the peoples which surround it and he sees a true equilibrium only in the fulfilled wishes of the nations of Europe. However, it was evident that the balance was inclining to the side of Prussia, a fact which in 1870 presented itself in a manner threatening for France. The Hohenzollern candidature placed France in a position which her policy had constantly sought to avoid in the name of equilibrium. The principle invoked in the declaration of war furnishes the best example of the flexibility of the conception: Europe did not consider the equilibrium to be in danger.
After the defeat of 1870, France tried to reëstablish the balance of power by allying herself with Russia. It was made clear in 1914 that this combination could not suffice to insure peace. It required the entrance into the war of the Powers outside of Europe in order to create a balance against Germany. Thus the war has given to the principle a world aspect, the first stage of which was the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902. Without doubt, extra-European questions have for a long time had a great influence upon the problem of equilibrium in Europe. But they have simply been the elements of the problem. Now the question arises as to whether the principle will be able to satisfy the requirements of a world policy, in view of the necessity of taking into account the extra-European Powers as independent elements. These considerations blend with another point of view, namely, that it is necessary to seek a means which will secure the general peace in a more happy manner.
The tremendous complexity which the conception of equilibrium presents follows from its historical development. We must determine its character by studying the principal characteristics which have resulted from the examination made of it. Is the principle itself a rule of law? Has it any importance at all for international law?
We have shown how the principle of equilibrium has been invoked in very different situations. The constructions made in its name present an infinite variety. It has permitted conquests or partitions, depending upon the circumstances. At times it has shown itself favorable to national claims. It can not furnish identical solutions in identical cases. This lack of stability must deprive it of any pretensions that it may have of being a juridical rule.
However, from another point of view it possesses a certain importance. Its vague contents make negotiations possible. No one can refuse to avail himself of it as a basis, for over against the claims of his adversary in the name of equilibrium, he will always be able to set up a contrary opinion founded upon the same basis. And the one who will be forced to make a concession will be able to style his defeat as an action done in conformity with the same principle.
1 Livre jaune. Documents diplomatiques, 1867, VIII, p. 101.