This is here to discuss the influence of the balance of power on the European Concert system. It's a detailed historical analysis of the shifting balance and is designed to provide the reader with a more intricate discussion of the reality of the idea of a balance of power.

The Discussion
“Only part of the seamless web of interacting and conflicting interests that make up the substance of diplomacy and cannot be understood outside that context”

Is how one historian (Michael Sheehan) has described the Concert system. This is a key point in understanding the Concert of powers. They existed within the realm of diplomacy and were not its only aspect. This means “the balance of power” did not only influence the Concert of European powers as such, rather it constantly affected the foreign policies of the states of Europe. Therefore a wider assessment of the nature of the importance of the balance of power is needed to understand its influence on the Concert of European powers. In fact perhaps a better way of approaching the basis of the question would be to widen it to how far the balance of power influenced the relations of the powers of Europe until the Crimean War.

To assess the importance of the balance of power one needs first to ascertain what is meant by the concept. It is a term that has had various reinterpretations. But it was undoubtedly important in the realm of international politics within this period. A key idea embedded in the concept is the distribution of power between states so that no single state or alliance has overwhelming or a preponderant amount of power(Michael Sheehan). This situation can be seen to be very significant in post Napoleonic Europe. The dominance of France from the 1790s to the early 1810s emphasised the need to attempt to construct a system which would prevent such a destructive force emerging. However the idea of a balance of power can also be a pseudonym for the distribution of power at a given moment such as 1815 with the Vienna settlement. In fact it can be seen as both. Yet one must consider the static and fluid elements to the idea. Is the balance of power fundamentally static or does it facilitate gradual shifts international politics without widespread upheaval. I would argue that in the period 1815-54 the latter was the case. The Crimean War marked the culmination of the process (increasing willingness of states to fight in their interests and of others not to intervene) that ended that phenomenon and established a changed situation where significant wars became common. Examples can be found: 1859 Piedmont against Austria, 1866 Prussia against Austria, and 1870 Prussia against France. Although another Great War such as that of Revolutionary/Napoleonic Europe did not occur, the importance of a Restoration balance of power had been superseded by the predominance of national interests in a changing Europe. One must appreciate the importance of nationalism in this phenomenon. This does not mean a balance of powers did not exist at all. Rather it indicates a more violent means of it shifting and a lack of the congress/concert system acting more as an effective check on serious war. But one also needs to bear in mind that war did occur between 1815 and 1856. The concert system and negotiation between states during this period can be seen to have tended to facilitate an emphasis on the wider implication of a particular action. They did not however prevent national interests from being a dominant force.

The Vienna Settlement of 1815 was first of all intended to prevent France from ever regaining primacy in Europe. This involved a ring of strengthened states surrounding it, for example a Prussia in control of the Rhineland. Yet before the settlement the allies of the 4th Alliance against France had repeatedly stated the importance they placed on a balance of power. The preamble to the Treaty of Charmont speaks of a “just balance between powers”. This is an important point to note: the sense of common morality and justice between the powers. It was this which established the viability of a balance of power. Yet opposed to this idea of a common sense of justice is the reality of the self-interest of states. In 1815 five key powers emerged: France, Russia, Great Britain, Austria and Prussia. Each of these states had their own agenda throughout this period. These agendas were affected by the reality of the success of specific aims. So although ostensibly a balance of power was the key aim in reality within continental Europe there were certain ongoing power struggles. These were at various stages Austria versus Russia over Italy, Austria versus France over Italy, Austria versus individual Italian states over Italy, Russia versus the Ottoman Empire. At various moments certain political crises occurred which precipitated the inflammation of these conflicts. They could also provide an opportunity for a new found influence. These states were affected by territorial and ideological decisions. They were also influenced by their socio-economic and political problems at home, for example France with the 1830 Revolution. In 1829 Polignac proposed the splitting of the Ottoman Empire and a reordering of Europe. Although this extreme policy was rejected it indicates the willingness of states to follow a radical policy when domestic politics are going badly. The Revolution also naturally produced a different foreign policy. This shows the potential influence a particular government can have on the balance of power and the willingness for it to shift. All these factors make Restoration Europe international politics difficult to assess.

First one needs to understand the origins of the Concert of Powers idea. The Quadruple Alliance and the Holy Alliance were the two key official power groupings during the early stages of this period. The Quadruple Alliance was formed with conflicting ideas on its purpose. The Tsar sought to undermine it with his Holy Alliance, France was initially excluded and Austria under Metternich saw it as a means of sustaining its power and combating French and Russian expansionism. Prussia was interested in expanding its influence within the German states (but was relatively quiet) whilst Great Britain with Castlereagh saw the purpose of the Alliance as being the means for the “liberation of a great proportion of the Continent of Europe from the military domination of France”.

The way the Concert system developed was linked to the politics of the age. Alexander I after supporting Austrian influence in Italy to ensure its support for Russian expansion in Poland shifted his policy on Italy. Russian agents began contacting the sects and encouraging them. It needs to be understood that they were not inciting Revolution but aiding the setting up of anti-Austrian forces. A keynote of this period is the fear of Revolution encouraging conservative unity. Alexander I was interested in undermining the Austro-British entente which moved at Vienna to restrict Russian demands. Austria had made several mistakes in Italy which encouraged Piedmontese support for Russian diplomatic moves to secure an alliance . Alexander I was trying to undermine the Balance of Power established at Vienna by trying as Metternich put it “to sap the foundations of Austria. Metternich responded and specifically sought to convey to the Tsar the danger of his actions in Italy for the Restoration order of Europe. Thus the Tsar failed to reply to the 1818 Memoire of the Piedmontese which had proposed a scheme for the reordering of all existing thrones and frontiers. By 1820 virtually all subversive Russian action in Italy had ceased. The Tsar had been convinced of the prevailing importance for Russia of the maintenance of conservative order. The fear of liberalism and destabilising forces were compelling. It meant the Tsar was more willing to accept the balance of power as established by the 1815 settlement. Looking at the Concert which this links into is very revealing.

The 1818 Concert (or Congress) at Aix-La-Chapelle (in the Prussian Rhineland) was deeply significant. It saw the French led by Richelieu attempt to establish a Franco-Russian entente to undermine the Quadruple Alliance and recast the Balance of Power in Europe. One must take into account an Anglo-Austrian understanding which played a vital role in keeping Russia’s ambitions in check whilst ensuring France was not a threat. The French felt the terms of the Vienna Settlement were harsh and wanted some form of change or more importantly potential for it. At this Congress the Tsar attempted to dilute the Quadruple Alliance and use his Holy Alliance to control European affairs and guarantee thrones, territories and political systems. The Tsar wanted to rearrange Europe with Russia as the dominant force. Castlereagh was unwilling to agree and saw the Quadruple Alliance as the key to stability in Europe. He wanted to adopt Article 6 of the Constitution of the Quadruple Alliance as the basis for future Concerts. This provided the clause that when problems arose sovereigns or ministers could call a meeting of powers:

“For the purpose of consulting upon their common interests, and for consideration of the measures which at each of these periods shall be considered the most salutary for the repose and prosperity of nations and for the maintenance of the Peace of Europe.”

Metternich, though attracted by the Tsar’s idea which would potentially help the Habsburg Empire if he had a great enough influence over the Tsar, adopted Castlereagh’s position. This Anglo-Austrian Alliance thus helped maintain the 1815 Vienna Settlement. The French were dismayed and Richelieu lost his position as a result. The Tsar was becoming increasing concerned about the conservative order of things and was willing to compromise. One can see that 1818 was a crucial year which saw the balance of power as established in 1815 maintained. There was an Anglo-Austrian Alliance to hinder Russian and French attempts to shift the balance of power in Europe. Yet this indicates the underlying importance of national interests within European affairs. There was a lack of agreement on what was an acceptable balance of power. As further problems developed this issue kept coming to the foreground.

The early 1820s marked a significant shift in European politics. It was precipitated by Revolutions in smaller/less powerful states. At this time there was disagreement between Britain and Austria on how to deal with Revolutions. So although they had a strong alliance with the friendship of Metternich and Castlereagh the fundamentally different outlooks of their respective governments was naturally problematic. The first problem arose with the 1820 Revolution in Spain (Began on January 1st and by March the King was forced to restore the 1812 Constitution and abolish the Inquisition) which forced King Ferdinand VII to restore the radical liberal constitution of 1812. There was no immediate Concert of Powers. Rather Britain and Austria advocated taking no action. Britain followed a careful non-interventionist foreign policy where possible. Castlereagh stated:

“We shall be found in our place when actual danger menaces the system of Europe; but this country cannot and will not act upon abstract and speculative Principles of Precaution” (Stated in a Confidential State Paper on 5th May 1820)
Metternich on the other hand did believe in pre-empting problems with his spy network in the Italian states. Yet both countries in this case were willing to allow the conservative Restoration Monarchy of Spain to be transformed. Britain was not interested in intervention unless it involved a radical shift in the balance of power in Europe which might affect it. Austria did fear liberalism and a potential destabilising of its Italian provinces. But more importantly it sought to keep French power at a minimum. France with its Bourbon ties with Spain had a major interest and was most committed to intervention. Austria did not wish to allow that precedent. Russia with the Tsar was now increasingly becoming a conservative force and was more than willing to try and undermine the Anglo-Austro alliance and bolster France at Austria’s expense. This complex web was in place without a concert. Indeed the fact a concert didn’t meet indicates its complimentary nature. They were the places where these divisions met face to face and were argued. The key to them was how the conflicting interests of these nations interacted.

Early in 1820 one can see division between powers over the correct response to the changing of a states internal political system. There was a lack of agreement and the change was accepted but unwilling by France and Russia. Then a vital set of events unfolded. There was Revolution in 1820 in the Two Sicilies and in 1821 in Piedmont and Greece. These challenges to the Restoration order had serious consequences. The Neapolitan Revolution in 1820-1 saw a constitution granted and widespread support from peasants, provincial land-owning middle-classes and craftsmen amongst many others. It like the Spanish Revolution was a liberal reaction against a restrictive conservative regime. There would be reforms such as the introduction of a limited franchise elections. In a sense this revolution was explicitly against the Vienna Congress order of things. There were revolts in Sicily (this was different to the Naples revolt and was more limited in its support base) and Piedmont. Piedmont also saw a constitution declared. The reaction to these rebellions was wholly different. Austria now saw the whole Restoration order as being under threat as new forces which had been unleashed by the French Revolution were undermining the Vienna Settlement for Italy. Britain agreed with Metternich’s analysis. Castlereagh saw it as being an Austrian affair and not a Quadruple Alliance one. One can see here the British desire to maintain peace in Europe and combat destabilising forces. But there was an underlying distrust in Great Britain of becoming entangled in Continental Affairs. Further more there was a feeling that British National interests were not being threatened meaning intervention was not necessary. However France and Russia did not agree. One can see the importance of conservative order coming to the fore at key moments such as this and influencing the nature of reaction and the balance of power.

The French secured the Tsar’s backing for a Congress before any action was taken and in this manner Metternich was coerced to participate. Importantly Britain and France only sent observers to this Congress. This meant it was effectively a forum that made possible Austro-Russian reconciliation. Metternich manipulated the Troppau and Laibach Conferences brilliantly. He had not wanted the Concerts to dominate the policy of Austria towards internal and external change to countries. He feared that in individual cases a powerful state like Russia would dominate the policy of Austria. The Troppau Doctrine was established by the Congress of that name. It stated that Allied Governments would:

“Refuse recognition of changes brought about by illegal methods (taking measures to rectify these changes) first by friendly representations, then by measures of coercion, if the employment of such coercion is indispensable.”
This was a general doctrine that could be applied with the resolution of the Quadruple Alliance. Metternich took advantage of this policy cleverly. Firstly he had accepted it against his known-wishes. Great Britain refused to agree to the doctrine as it was believed it granted far too much power to the Alliance. Metternich made his concession clear. But then once he accepted Capodistria’s proposal stating that the Naples affair was an Alliance question he began undermining the idea of a Constitution for Naples. Metternich was shifting his foreign policy. He had always been committed to containing Russian power as had Castlereagh. But now there was a growing gap with Great Britain. Metternich was now trying to use Tsar Alexander to aid him in his conservative cause in Europe. By emphasising the danger of liberalism to order he sought to gain an important ally and defend the Habsburg Empire’s interests. Once more one can see the balance of power meaning the maintenance of a political climate that is beneficial to one’s nation. In Austria’s case this meant containing national forces and liberalism which were potentially destabilising for its multi-ethnic Empire. The revolts in Italy were put down by Austrian military force (Battle of Rieti on 7th March 1821 saw General Pepe of Naples defeated by the Austrians. By 23rd of March the Revolution had collapsed without any more serious resistance. Turin was occupied by the Austrians by the 10th April 1821 ending the Piedmontese Revolt). This was the external military interference with internal politics to ensure the maintenance of an order beneficial to certain powerful states.

Now we can see the beginning of an Austro-Russian axis. But as yet Britain had not stopped being a vociferous Austrian backer. It did after all support Austrian military action in Italy. France on the other hand although hostile to Austria was obviously willing to agree with the principle of intervention with the Spanish question still open. More problems arose with the 1821 Greek Rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. The Russians sought intervention but did not wish to participate in a Congress on the issue. This made Metternich’s attempt to secure a Congress of the members of the Quadruple Alliance in Hanover a failure. Metternich and Castlereagh both perceived possible war to be potentially destabilising for the established balance of power. This meant they sought together to convince the Tsar of the logic of their policy. Metternich emphasised conservative solidarity and the unity of their alliance whilst Castlereagh emphasised the practical dangers of a Russo-Turkish war. The French under Villele felt war could undermine conservatism in Europe. Ultimately decisions were put off until the 1822 Verona Congress. One can see a combination of maintaining the established order, a desire to alter that order and the reaction to a specific dilemma all interacted prior to this Congress. These were the underlying conflicts throughout this period within and outside of the congresses. The idea of maintaining a balance of power did not supersede these. The results of these factors interacting established the manner in which balance of power developed.

The Vienna/Verona Conference saw a Russo-French alliance which undermined Metternich, who, by advocated the maintenance of a conservative order by force in Italy was effectively forced Austria to allow French involvement in Spain. France invaded with Russian backing without Austrian approval. Chateaubriand stated that:

“Our France’s true policy is the Russian policy, by which we counterbalance two declared enemies, Austria and England”.
Prussia, Britain and Austria all objected to the action but were unable to hold France and Russia in check. Canning the new foreign minister declared post 1823 it was “every nation for itself”. Although this reflects a shift in balance of power in that the 1815 settlement order was being undermined it misrepresents the reality of 1815-23 which saw nations continue to act as usually in a relatively self-interested fashion.

1824 saw a Congress on Alexander I’s 3 main proposals on the Greek situation. But it was not the Congresses which decided the results of this situation. Rather it was Canning ultimately backing the new Tsar Nicholas I who significantly faced an attempted coup. Nicholas was not particularly interested in uniting the Orthodox peoples. He sought to act against the 1815 settlement in favour of Russian power. The 1825 Treaty of London saw a Triple Alliance established between Russia, Britain and France against Turkey. By 1829 Turkey had been defeated (1827 Naval Battle of Navarino saw Turko-Egyptian fleet defeated by the triple alliance. 1829 saw the fall of Adrianople.) and the Peace of Adrianople was signed. It saw the creation of an independent Greek monarchy. This marked the disintegration of the Quadruple Alliance. Russia had basically enforced its will irrespective of its being supported by all members of the alliance. In a sense this is the culmination of the shifting axis within the alliance. There was a Russo-Austrian-Prussian conservative axis after the early 1820s but it was susceptible to change in specific circumstances. One sees the maintenance of the Vienna Settlement as not being primary rather one sees the shifting nature of the balance of power due to the interaction of national interests.

The Belgium question of 1830-3 was an internal revolution of international proportions. The United Netherlands had been seen to be an essential part of the defensive ring of states around France. The Revolt in Belgium disintegrated that state and created two. King William I’s policies had been significant in causing the rift within the state as was its somewhat dubious religious and linguistic integrity. He asked for international help. But France had just suffered a revolution and had its armies tied up in Algeria and Greece. Metternich although fearful of the potential consequences of a successful revolution felt William I’s cause was already lost. Prussia stayed neutral. The Tsar was the only belligerent figure but he required international backing to act in Belgium. Thus the response of the great powers was moderate and restrained. There was a London Conference and 24 Articles were drawn up. Basically there was successful French intervention by 1833 with British support. Prussia, Austria and Russia only really desired a settlement and even if it slightly favoured France and allowed French military intervention they were not too concerned. What this represents is the fragmentation of power by this stage and an increasing interest in events which directly affects ones politics and the shifting balance of power. The Belgian question saw Restoration Europe act very conservatively in a liberal way! Independence was allowed without serious international division. The balance of power can be seen to have continued being less prominently important. The question of Belgium was settled with national interests or lack thereof in mind.

One can begin to see the difficulty and complexity in the changing international relations in Europe from 1799 to 1856. 1848 saw the conservative alliance alive and well when Russia intervened in Austria to help suppress the 1848 revolution there. Yet the Crimean war saw a further shift in the balance of power. It saw Russia’s expansionary policy at the expense of the Ottoman Empire be opposed by Britain, France, Sweden, Piedmont and ultimately even Austria with their Triple Alliance. This meant the defeat of Russia and its reputation established by 1812-15 as a potentially dominant power undermined. It also ended the Russo-Austrian alliance and transformed Russia into a revisionist power with the perceived harsh Treaty of Paris in 1856 (for example Moldova was ceded). Yet although at first sight this isolation of Russia and combination of powers against it might be seen as surprising, taking into consideration what we have already discussed it appears more understandable.


The 1815 Vienna Settlement saw the balance of power of the time confirmed. It facilitated British economic freedom around the world and established a physically restricted France. Britain which was primarily an economic power saw its national product rise fourteenfold over the 19th Century whilst real wages rose by 15-20% between 1815 and 1850 . It military power was slight compared to this. It was naturally disinclined to intervene on the continent. The settlement was in Britain’s interests. It was also in Austria’s interests as it was a conservative settlement. Metternich who led Austria until 1848 had seen legitimacy as the key to maintaining the Restoration Order. This idea of legitimacy was linked to government and source of its power. For Metternich the idea of tradition and natural power was vitally important. This question kept appearing throughout the period. What was the source of legitimacy: the people, history or God? This factor influenced the internal politics of countries. It can be linked to the rise of liberalism and an increasingly wealthy middle-class. The issue of how states should adapt to this and the industrial phenomenon was a deeply significant diversionary force for states which helped facilitate a time which saw far less war than the preceding 25 years. But it also meant Austria was unwilling to allow any of the Italian states to have a constitution until after 1848 with Piedmont. Yet the 1815 settlement restricted Russian Expansionary urges and limited French influence. Furthermore it artificially bolstered Austrian power. The period from 1815 to 1856 sees these key themes come to the foreground. The Balance of Power when considering all this appears rouse. It was important in the minds of contemporaries. But as a concept it is vague. A balance does not prevent conflict within that setting. For a balance in a meaningful sense means one power not dominating and power being distributed between several states. Yet rarely can it be static. The concerts themselves show the shifting alliances and the dominance of different groups as does the way individual problems are dealt with. Further one must appreciate that the concerts cannot be investigated alone. In fact they only have meaning when taken in a wider context. Thus when looking at the significance of the balance of power in the relations of the great powers until the end of the Crimean War one must emphasis its lack of possessing a dominant force. For even when it is argued that a certain action must be taken, for example, Austria with Russia over Italy in the late 1810s it is made not to ensure a balance of power but the a particular country’s national interest. These interests when taken as a whole throughout Europe can establish a balance but that was not their intention and this balance was never static.

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