Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 3 – From Universality to Equilibrium

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the third chapter of his book, called “From Universality to Equilibrium: Richelieu, William of Orange, and Pitt”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

The European balance-of-power system evolved in the seventeenth century, marking the end of the medieval goal of a universal world order, which combined the traditions of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. This concept envisioned a single ruler for both the secular and religious worlds. The Holy Roman Empire, encompassing feudal states in Germany and Northern Italy, had the potential to dominate Europe, but never achieved centralized control due to inadequate transportation and communication, and the separation of church and government authority. Unlike in other regions, Western European religious authorities had autonomy, leading to conflicts between popes and emperors. This tension facilitated the rise of constitutionalism and the separation of powers, fundamental to modern democracy.

European rulers exploited the rivalry between pope and emperor to increase their independence, resulting in a fragmented Europe with diverse political entities. While the Holy Roman Emperor maintained a vision of universal rule, his actual authority dwindled. Peripheral states like France, England, and Spain didn’t recognize the Empire’s authority, though they remained part of the Universal Church.

The Habsburg dynasty’s near-permanent claim to the imperial crown in the fifteenth century and its acquisition of the Spanish crown changed the political landscape. Emperor Charles V, in the sixteenth century, nearly established a Central European empire, threatening the balance of power in Europe. However, the Reformation weakened the Papacy, disrupting the emperor’s hegemonic aspirations. The emperor’s image shifted from a divine agent to a mere warlord allied with a declining pope. The Reformation allowed princes to challenge both religious and imperial authority, collapsing the idea of a unified empire.

The emerging European states adopted raison d’état and the balance of power principles. Raison d’état justified state actions for national interest, replacing universal moral values. The balance of power concept ensured that each state’s pursuit of self-interest contributed to overall stability and progress. France, fearing the resurgence of the Holy Roman Empire, pioneered this approach to prevent being dominated by it. Cardinal Richelieu, France’s First Minister, exploited the Reformation-induced rivalries, leading France to weaken the Empire and expand eastward.

Richelieu, a cardinal, prioritized French national interest over religious goals, countering the Habsburgs’ attempt to re-establish Catholic dominance. Despite being surrounded by Habsburg territories, Richelieu sided with Protestant princes to thwart the Counter-Reformation and prevent Habsburg dominance. His actions reflected the new rationale of national security interests and raison d’état.

The Habsburgs, committed to their principles, were ill-prepared for the political changes and Richelieu’s tactics. Their inability to adapt to new strategic realities allowed their adversaries, led by Richelieu, to outmaneuver them. Richelieu’s policies significantly influenced the development of the modern state system and established France as a prominent European power, setting the stage for a balance of power in Europe.

Emperor Ferdinand II, a devout ruler, strictly adhered to his religious convictions, viewing his role as executing God’s will. He saw the concept of raison d’état as blasphemous and remained unyielding in his religious and moral principles, refusing to engage in political maneuvering or alliances with Protestant or Muslim states. Ferdinand’s advisors echoed his beliefs, emphasizing the importance of divine guidance over political expediency. His steadfast commitment to religious values often led to decisions that prioritized faith over political benefit, such as his refusal to grant concessions to non-Catholics, even when such compromises could have benefited his empire.

In contrast, Cardinal Richelieu of France approached governance with a secular mindset, prioritizing the state’s immediate needs over religious or moral considerations. He famously separated his personal religious beliefs from his duties as a statesman, believing that the state’s survival depended on pragmatic, immediate actions rather than moral righteousness. Richelieu’s policies starkly differed from Ferdinand’s, especially evident in 1629, during the Thirty Years’ War. While Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitution, demanding the return of Church lands from Protestants, Richelieu granted religious freedom to French Protestants with the Grace of Alais. This strategic tolerance in domestic policy allowed France to avoid the internal turmoil afflicting Central Europe.

Richelieu exploited Ferdinand’s religious fervor for France’s benefit, supporting Protestant German princes against the Holy Roman Emperor. His unlikely role as a Catholic prelate subsidizing Protestant forces, including the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, marked a significant shift in European politics, comparable to the changes brought by the French Revolution. Richelieu’s foreign policy was defined by a lack of moral imperatives, focusing solely on France’s national interests, even if it meant allying with Protestant states or the Muslim Ottoman Empire. His goal was to weaken the Habsburgs and prevent any major power from threatening France, particularly along its German border.

The war, prolonged by Richelieu’s tactics of subsidy, bribery, and fomenting insurrections, dragged on for thirty years. France remained mostly out of direct conflict until 1635, when Richelieu decided to join the Protestant princes in battle. This decision was based purely on France’s growing power and the opportunity to strengthen its position against the Habsburgs.

Richelieu’s approach to politics, based on power dynamics and national interest, required constant adjustment and strategic insight. His belief in the calculability of power relations was rooted in the rationalist thought of his time, aligning him with figures like Descartes and Spinoza.

Richelieu’s doctrine of raison d’état faced criticism for its detachment from moral law. Critics, like the scholar Jansenius, argued that it neglected religious and moral duties in favor of secular state interests. However, Richelieu’s policies effectively prioritized national interests over universal moral values. Defenders of Richelieu argued that serving France’s interests, as a key Catholic power, was inherently moral and justified any means to protect the state.

Daniel de Priezac, a scholar close to Richelieu, formalized this defense, arguing that Richelieu’s actions, even if they appeared to favor heresy, were ultimately serving the Catholic Church by strengthening France. Priezac’s argument justified Richelieu’s methods as necessary for achieving a just end, encapsulating the principle that the ends justify the means. This rationale underscored Richelieu’s legacy as a pragmatic, rational statesman who fundamentally altered the approach to politics and international relations in his era.

Richelieu also faced criticism for his pragmatic use of religion in state affairs, much like the tactics described by Machiavelli. Critics like Mathieu de Morgues accused him of manipulating religion for political gain. However, Richelieu’s approach, focusing on the state’s interests rather than moral or religious considerations, proved effective. He left a lasting impact on France and Europe, transforming France into the dominant European power for centuries. Richelieu’s policy, based on the concept of raison d’état, shaped European diplomacy, emphasizing the power and rights of states over universal moral values. This shift significantly influenced the course of European history, including the delay of German unification and the shaping of national interests.

Richelieu’s influence extended beyond France. His actions prevented a unified Central Europe, thereby delaying German unification and contributing to Germany’s inward focus and lack of national political culture. This fragmentation led to Germany becoming a battleground for European wars and missing early opportunities in overseas colonization. When Germany finally unified, it lacked experience in managing national interests, contributing to major tragedies in the twentieth century.

The doctrine of raison d’état, while effective, posed questions about its limits and the potential for overextension. Richelieu’s policy lacked built-in constraints, leading to challenges in defining the state’s satisfaction and the necessary extent of wars for security. This approach contrasted with Wilsonian idealism, which risks neglecting state interests. Richelieu’s strategy led France to a powerful position, but it also set the stage for its overreach under Louis XIV, who alarmed Europe and faced resistance from a coalition of states.

The balance of power emerged as an incidental result of efforts to contain France’s dominance. This system, based on shifting alliances and power dynamics, wasn’t initially a conscious goal of international politics. Philosophers of the Enlightenment, like Voltaire and Montesquieu, viewed this balance as a harmonious outcome of competing interests, but the reality was more complex and conflict-ridden.

In Central Europe, the power vacuum created by the Thirty Years’ War invited territorial encroachments. The relative powers of European states were in constant flux, complicating the balance of power. Frederick the Great of Prussia exemplified this era’s approach to international relations, treating it as a strategic game without moral constraints, focusing solely on power and opportunity.

The balance of power was maintained through coalitions formed in response to threats of dominance, particularly from France. England played a crucial role in this system, actively participating to maintain the equilibrium and prevent the rise of a single dominant European power. This policy originated with King William III of England, who recognized the threat posed by Louis XIV’s France and forged alliances to counter it.

William’s approach was pragmatic, focusing on maintaining a balance between major powers like the Habsburgs and the Bourbons. This strategy was initially unpopular in Britain, much like isolationist sentiments in later America. However, British public opinion eventually recognized the necessity of participating in European power dynamics to ensure national security. This understanding of the balance of power as a foundational principle of British politics marked a significant shift in international relations, emphasizing the importance of active engagement to maintain stability and prevent domination by any single state.

The British strategy of maintaining the balance of power in Europe led to differing opinions on its execution, mirroring a similar debate in the United States after the two world wars. The Whigs favored a reactive approach, suggesting intervention only when the balance was directly threatened and disengaging once the threat was neutralized. Conversely, the Tories advocated for a proactive role, shaping and maintaining the balance of power through continuous engagement and alliances. This difference in strategy reflected each party’s perception of Britain’s vulnerability and the extent of its international responsibilities.

Tory leaders like Lord Carteret argued for a permanent British presence in European affairs, emphasizing the need to support the Habsburgs against French influence. This approach was based on the belief that a strong and unified Central Europe was essential for countering France’s dominance. The Tories viewed alliances not just as temporary measures but as tools for shaping long-term peace and stability. This contrasted with the Whig perspective, which saw alliances as short-term solutions.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both Britain and America struggled with the idea of a permanent international role versus a more isolationist stance. Influential leaders in both countries periodically advocated for sustained engagement in global affairs, but their efforts often failed due to public reluctance to commit to ongoing international responsibilities.

Great Britain’s role as the balancer in European politics evolved from a pragmatic response to threats against the balance of power, primarily posed by France, to a more deliberate strategy. This approach prevented France, and later Germany, from achieving European hegemony. By the early nineteenth century, Britain began to formalize its role in maintaining the balance of power, which involved resisting any power threatening European equilibrium.

The Napoleonic Wars brought a new dimension to the balance of power. France, under Napoleon, sought to dominate Europe not just for territorial gains but to spread revolutionary ideals. Napoleon’s near-success in establishing a French-led European commonwealth brought Britain and other powers together to counter this threat.

Russia, emerging as a significant power, presented a complex challenge. Russian expansion and the autocratic nature of its regime caused both hope and fear among other European powers. Tsar Alexander I, despite his temporary liberal leanings, remained an unpredictable player in European politics.

British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Tsar Alexander I discussed a European settlement to ensure peace after the Napoleonic Wars. Pitt’s response to Alexander’s proposal focused on establishing a balance of power, without committing to widespread political or social reforms across Europe. This approach laid the groundwork for a territorial settlement that would strengthen Central Europe, particularly against French aggression, and proposed the creation of larger German states to prevent future French interventions.

The post-Napoleonic era saw Europe attempt to design an international order based on the balance of power, recognizing that this balance could not be left to chance. The Congress of Vienna aimed to combine the balance of power with shared values, establishing a century of peace without major wars. This historic meeting underscored the importance of combining power with legitimacy to create a stable and lasting international order.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.






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