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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"Peace For Our Time"

"The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace."

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, September 1938

When English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived back in London from Munich on September 30, 1938, he held an agreement between him and Adolf Hitler over the question of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain reported that the agreement was just a prelude to a larger settlement that would maintain peace on the continent. He infamously declared that the agreement represented “peace for our time.” In doing so, he echoed the sentiments of another English prime minister nearly fifty years earlier. In 1878, Benjamin Disraeli returned from the Congress of Berlin and avowed that he “returned from Germany with peace for our time.”

The Congress of Berlin, convened by German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark, sought to divvy up the Balkans after the latest Russian-Ottoman conflict peacefully. The Congress brought together diplomats from the major European powers of Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungry, Russia, and host Germany. Russia wished to expand her sphere of influence as the proclaimed head of the Pan-Slavic movement. Austria-Hungry, long wanting to secure its southeastern frontier, also laid claim to large areas of the Balkans. Already opposing Russia’s expansionism into Central Asia, Great Britain feared a greatly enlarged Russian empire. Germany, which had little interest in the Balkans, trod the middle ground carefully and acted as a mediator. The Treaty of Berlin redrew the borders of the Balkans by giving bits and pieces to the Austrians, the Russians, and the defeated Ottomans. The settlement hailed by Disraeli had satisfied no one. Part of the solution was to make Serbia and Montenegro independent states but turn Bosnia and Herzegovina over to the Austrians. This led to anger in the region, and rising tensions would ultimately result in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting off World War I.

These were part of a centuries-long search by European states to construct some form of international order. Before the 17th century, conflicts on the continent resulted from religious or dynastic struggles. The Thirty Years War, beginning in 1618, grew into Europe’s first genuinely continental war and ultimately transcended its initial religious roots. From the devastation of the war emerged the concept of national identity and the beginning of nation-state building. The Thirty Years' War and the English Civil Wars gave birth to professional standing armies as a tool of the state. Governments became more centralized, and statesmen like Richelieu in France conducted foreign affairs based on realpolitik and what was best for the national interest. Even as Central Europe remained fractured, there was a vigorous drive for empire: British, Dutch, Russian, French, and Hapsburg.

Even so, at the beginning of the 18th century, the political order of Europe was still inextricably connected to dynastic states and the rules of dynastic inheritance. This was particularly true in the case of Spain. The Spanish monarchy held extensive territories in Italy, the Netherlands, Latin America, and Asia. When Charles II ascended to the throne as a sickly four-year-old in 1665, the question of succession became paramount among the European powers. The potential contenders for the throne of Spain included the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs, the French Bourbons under Louis XIV, and the lesser-known House of Wittelsbach from Bavaria. William III, both King of England and the leader of the Dutch Republic, had spent his political and military life defending the Dutch from Spanish and French attacks. Containment of France was paramount and formed the basis of William’s foreign policy. William III recognized that the holdings of the Spanish monarchy were too significant to fall into the hands of a single power. He negotiated an agreement in 1698 dividing the Spanish inheritance among the three contenders. The agreement was updated in 1700 when the Bavarian contender died. Through these agreements, William III was giving voice to the idea of a balance of power as a guiding principle in foreign policy and international relations.

But Charles II had other plans. Before his death in November 1700, he drew up a new testament. He declared that the Spanish empire had to remain undivided, and he named Philip of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV, as his heir. An additional clause stated that if Philip rejected the inheritance, the crown would go over to Archduke Charles, the second son of Austrian Emperor Leopold I. This stipulation forced Louis XIV to accept the final testament, and he supported Philip’s assumption of the Spanish crown. This action and others by the French led to a coalition of the British, the Dutch, and the Austrians against Louis XIV.

In 1702, the War of Spanish Succession erupted across the continent. The war is considered one of the first major global conflicts. The major theaters of operations spanned two hemispheres that included both land and naval battles. A decade of warfare, a series of French defeats, the Tories taking control of the British government, thereby distancing themselves from the Dutch, and the ascension of Archduke Charles to the Austrian imperial throne prompted Louis XIV to begin negotiating with the British. These negotiations led to a preliminary compromise underscoring the need to preserve the balance of power and the division of the Spanish monarchy. The British forced the Dutch to come to the table, and a universal peace conference was assembled in the Dutch city of Utrecht.

The peace that emerged from Utrecht was not from a single multilateral agreement. Like other peace conferences, the Treaties of Utrecht were a series of bilateral treaties separately negotiated between the major combatants. These were signed between April 1713 and September 1714. The result of the treaties was the division of the Spanish empire. Philip of Anjou, crowned Philip V, retained Spain and her vast colonial possessions. Spanish territory in Italy and Belgium passed to the Austrian Habsburgs. Philip V renounced any claims he had on the French throne. Conversely, no future French king could ascend to the Spanish throne, thereby preventing any union between the two nations.

The treaty between Spain and England provides a clear expression of the relationship between the balance of power and the security of Europe in the language of international diplomacy. The treaty recognized that the potential union of France and Spain “threatened the liberty and safety all Europe…and to settle and establish peace and tranquility of Christendom by equal balance of power (which is the best and most solid foundation of a mutual friendship, and of a concord which will be lasting on all sides.).” The treaties represented an explicit shift in how the European order was viewed. One that began with the Thirty Years' War. Based on dynastic legitimacy and canonical and imperial laws, the old order gave way to an order based on mutual treaty and agreement. The new order recognized that the great powers were responsible for maintaining the “security and tranquility of Europe.” This became the catchphrase of the 18th century, and for most of that time, France and Great Britain would shoulder that responsibility.

For the statesmen of the 18th century, the balance of power hinged upon the equilibrium of military strength. During this time, military strength had been divided evenly among two major alliances. The era of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon had shattered this notion. Napoleon had utilized a powerful army to enforce French hegemony on most of the continent. Defeating him had required a massive effort. The wars had disrupted borders and dismantled many political institutions throughout Europe, especially in the German territories. A lasting peace would be needed to set things right again on the continent. But to ensure such stability, the victorious powers knew they needed to solve two thorny problems: prevent another Napoleon and stop internecine conflicts. To this end, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia convened a peace conference in Vienna in 1814.

At first, the Congress of Vienna had to deal with several immediate issues concerning territorial boundaries, the rights of Jews, the slave trade, maritime rights, the restoration of royal dynasties, and the establishment of a German federation to replace the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire. But the Congress had a larger, more long-term goal in mind. That was to reconstruct the European international order. The new order would be based on mutual cooperation, and only one political bloc would exist. This “System of Peace” brought about a cycle of regular conferences from 1815 to 1822. Meanwhile, an alliance between Austria, Prussia, and Russia brought together the leaders of the major Christian faiths - Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. The alliance removed papal influence in European affairs and led to the secularizing of international politics. There grew out of the Congress of Vienna a paradigm shift from a “balance of power” to what historian Stella Ghervas refers to as a “balance of negotiation.” There would be a loose consensus, the so-called “Concert of Europe,” acknowledging the need to preserve the balance of power, territorial boundaries, and spheres of influence. It was a balance based on diplomacy and relationships rather than purely military strength.

Whereas the Congress of Vienna sought to establish peace among the European nations, the principles that arose from it also allowed the member nations to use it as justification for suppressing the social and political revolts of the 1830s and 1840s. Internal peace and security meant more widespread peace and security across the continent. Ultimately, the Congress system failed because the great powers were unable to address the issue of a weakening Ottoman Empire at the fringes of Europe. Russia longed to take advantage of this as part of its territorial expansion. This would lead to the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853. The war ended the Congress system and the Concert of Europe. But despite this, the spirit of the Congress of Vienna would form the basis of international relations until the First World War.

From the Treaty of Utrecht to NATO, the European nations and then the global community of the 20th and 21st centuries have sought to establish an international order based on mutual co-operation, diplomacy, and alliances that would ensure peace and security across the globe. History has shown how these attempts have been flawed and often have failed. As events transpire across the world, it remains to be seen if today’s alliances and blocs can maintain stability and lasting peace in the face of a multitude of threats.


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