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3.6 Balance of Power in Europe from 1648-1815

#balanceofpower

#kinglouisxiv

#spanishsuccession

#declineofempires

⏱️  3 min read

written by

Catherine Brown

catherine brown

May 11, 2020


After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, a new competitive state system developed, heralding to new patterns of warfare and diplomacy. The concept of balance of power replaced religion as the center of military and diplomatic objectives. Balance of power asserted that nations could secure their own security by preventing any one state from gaining too much power.

Thus, nations had increased incentive to work together to prevent domination by any one nation and check the power of other nations. After the Thirty Years War, France emerged as the dominant European power under the rule of Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” In addition, the decline of the Holy Roman Empire–which was not holy, Roman, or much of an empire–as well as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, allowed other nations to expand. 

Wars of King Louis XIV

Louis XIV wanted to expand France’s borders, causing other nations to align to offset France’s power. France’s main rival was Spain, as Louis desired to take over Spanish Habsburg possessions. In the Dutch War, Louis invaded the Spanish Netherlands, but was forced to retreat by combined English and Swedish pressure, leading to the Dutch War (1672-1678), during which Spain ceded Flanders and Franche-Comte to France.

In response, William of Orange created the Grand Alliance (aka the League of Augsburg) with England, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire to check French expansion.  The Nine Years War that pitted the Grand Alliance against France resulted in a loss of the French territory Lorraine (although France kept the Alsace region) and the acceptance of William of Orange as the rightful King of England. 

The War of Spanish Succession was most damaging for Louis and France. Charles II of Spain died without an heir, meaning the Spanish throne would be passed to Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip. Other European nations feared this would allow Louis XIV to merge the Spanish and French thrones. The Grand Alliance went to war against France to prevent Philip from taking the throne.

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ended the war. Philip could become King of Spain (Philip V), but the Spanish and French thrones could never unite. Austria also gained control of the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) as well as Naples, Milan, and Sardinia and the Duke of Brandenburg became King of Prussia, which would emerge as a powerful German state. Finally, the war devastated the French economy, driving France into deep debt and turning public opinion against Louis XIV. 

Decline of Empires 

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the subsequent Peace of Augsburg left the Holy Roman Empire religiously divided between Protestantism and Catholicism. The Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia politically divided the empire into 300 states. The Holy Roman Emperor had no army, revenue or even central authority, and as a result, Habsburg ruled Austria and Hohenzollern ruled Prussia became the leading German states within the empire. 

Poland also experienced decline in the 18th century. The king was elected by the diet (legislature), made up of nobles who restricted monarchical power, and all political decisions required the unanimous support of all nobles, meaning little was ever accomplished. Poland soon became vulnerable to stronger nations, and throughout the 18th century, it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria. After the final partition in 1795, the state of Poland ceased to exist. 

The Ottoman Empire also experienced marked decline. After combined Austrian, German and Polish expelled the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Ottomans ended their westward expansion, sparking a gradual period of decline. The empire would remain intact until WWI, but it was increasingly regarded as the “sick man of Europe.” Internal pressures, despite attempts to modernize, weakened the empire throughout the 19th century. 

Technological Developments 

Advances in military technology created new forms of warfare, including greater reliance on infantry, firearms, mobile cannon, and more elaborate fortifications, causing a military revolution. These developments were financed by heavier taxation, requiring a larger bureaucracy, which furthered the rise of consolidated nation-states. New military techniques and institutions tipped the balance of power to states that were able to acquire sufficient resources to support a growing, modern military.

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