Traditionally those states that were held capable of shared responsibility for the management of the international order by virtue of their military and economic influence.
Congress of Vienna (1814–15)
The European conference of Great Power foreign ministers and heads of state that settled the peace after the Napoleonic Wars.
Europeans lived in relative peace in the nineteenth century, although the recent upheavals that had wracked the continent loomed large. After the revolution of 1789, France had exploded with a seemingly unbounded potential for ideological war and after 1804 Napoleon had harnessed this power to destroy the independence and security of the Great Powers and to make France the master of all continental Europe. Undisputedly Napoleon possessed a genius for war, but eventually he overreached himself both militarily and politically, and Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia prevailed on the battlefield. The Congress of Vienna of 1814–15 founded a lasting peace based on Great Power management of international politics and moderation in the pursuit of self-interest. This management was not perfect, for national antagonism and egotism did not evaporate and war remained an instrument of policy. The general peace was broken by the Crimean War of 1853–56, and then by the three Great Power wars of Italian and German unification between 1859 and 1871. Yet these Great Power conflicts were limited in scope and fought for limited objectives, and once these objectives were achieved, order was restored. After the ‘long’ peace of 1815–53 came that of 1871–1914.
As a consequence, by the end of the century, Europe dominated the globe. Of course other factors played an essential part: Europe possessed the population size, the machine power and a massive organizational and technological edge over its rivals. But stability at home permitted the impulses of the so-called ‘new imperialism’ to translate steam engines, machine guns and administration into supremacy abroad. In the 1880s and 1890s these impulses ushered in not only the ‘scramble for Africa’, but also competition to extend empire in Persia (Iran), South-East Asia and the Pacific. Europe’s commercial, intellectual and cultural influence also spread. Under this corrosive pressure, the last great non-European empires, Qing China and Ottoman Turkey, crumbled, while Europeans contemplated partition. Afghanistan and Siam (Thailand) remained in part independent because they served as useful buffers between the Russian and British and the British and French imperial spheres of influence. Japan escaped European domination through modernization: after 1868 Japan was transformed into a quasi-European power – through the adoption of modern Western financial, military and industrial methods. Even so, the European Great Powers called the shots. When Japan defeated China in 1894–95, the Europeans intervened to rein the Japanese in and to take for themselves some of the spoils at China’s expense.
A war that uses all resources at a state’s disposal including the complete mobilization of both the economy and society.
The policy or doctrine of isolating one’s country by avoiding foreign entanglements and responsibilities. Popular in the United States during the inter-war years.
Unfortunately, the legacy of one century proved to be short lived in the next. If 1815–53 and 1871–1914 are the conspicuous features of the nineteenth century, then the two world wars and the Cold War blot the twentieth. Europe lost its capacity to contain inter-state violence just when the process of modernization handed Europeans an unprecedented capacity to wage total war. The killing machine of 1914–18 was the result. Between the wars the European system lurched forward slowly, as political isolationism and revolution preoccupied America and Russia. The coming of Hitler’s war finally extinguished the European system, and with it European world primacy. The Soviet Union and the United States emerged as superpowers. Their ideological, strategic and economic rivalry began in Central Europe but quickly spread beyond, drawing in revolutionary China and the newly independent states of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The German question disturbed the peace intermittently, but only as one front in a global Cold War. Until 1989 Germany, like the European continent as a whole, remained split between the two hostile coalitions. Europe enjoyed another ‘long peace’, but not on its own terms. Only after the USSR collapsed did Europeans begin to reshape the political landscape without the boundaries drawn by the world wars.
To understand why the European era of international politics came to an end requires an answer to why the nineteenth-century states system broke down in the first decade and a half of the twentieth. Before addressing this question, however, it will be helpful to set out some of the terms and concepts essential to an understanding of the history of Great Power relations.
Only five European states undisputedly held Great Power status when the twentieth century opened – Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. The statesmen of 1815 would have recognized this arrangement, although Germany (then Prussia) had greatly expanded its power and that of Austria (Austria-Hungary after 1867) had shrunk just as swiftly. At the crudest level, the term ‘Great Power’ applied to those states with the greatest capacity for war. Here, in the calculations of diplomats and strategists, the hard currency of power counted: size of population, territory, finance and industrial output.
Total populations of the Great Powers, 1890–1913 (millions)
On this scale the five did not measure up equally, and clear-cut comparisons are problematic. Russia had by far the largest population, but Britain, France and Germany had large, literate urban populations and this pool of educated workers and soldiers helped to offset numbers in the era of machine production and complex weapons. Still, mass conscript armies recruited on the basis of universal military service required numbers: by 1900, Russia called up 335,000 men annually, Germany 280,000, France 250,000, Austria-Hungary 103,000 and Italy 100,000. Because of the low birth rate in France, its military planners looked on with unease at the growth of Germany’s population. Austria-Hungary suffered another problem – its birth rate was fastest in the backward regions of the empire. France and Britain could call upon their empires for reserves, but the wisdom of the day assumed rapid mobilization and decisive opening battles, in which there would be no time to train colonial levies. Britain, at any rate, with its far-flung maritime empire, did not adopt conscription but instead concentrated on its fleet. Although unable to match the British, all the Great Powers assembled modern battle fleets in the years before 1914, partly in response to real threats, but also as symbols of their place in the first rank of states. Great Power armies required a large manpower pool and high birth rates; battleships, modern field weapons and railways required heavy industry. Britain and France produced coal and steel in quantities appropriate to their Great Power status, even if Germany began to dwarf them both, as well as Russia, by 1914. Austria-Hungary, Berlin’s chief ally, exceeded only Italy in its industrial output. Following unification in 1861, Italy regarded itself as a contender for Great Power status, but while moving steadily towards demographic equality with a declining France, it nonetheless lacked the necessary levels of literacy, secure coal supplies, railways and productive capacity to bear this title with confidence.
The ability to generate revenue in order to purchase armaments, train soldiers and build railways was another important power indicator. Once again, clear-cut comparisons are problematic. A look at defence spending in the decade before 1914 indicates that all five Great Powers had the financial strength to enter into an arms race. Germany and Russia, in terms of absolute outlay, outpaced the rest, with Britain and France holding their own. Austria-Hungary stayed ahead of Italy, but could not keep up with the big players. Britain spent far more than any other Great Power on warships, while on land Russia, Germany and France (‘a poor third’) not surprisingly dominated. Other important differences existed. Britain, France and Germany, the states with the highest per capita income, spent much more of their national wealth on defence than Russia (though it was in absolute terms still a giant) and Italy, which could not bear a similar burden. Although France did not spend as much as Germany, the financial assistance it extended to St Petersburg proved significant in speeding up Russia’s economic and military development after 1905. Indeed, paradoxically enough, despite the impressive steel output and undisputed wealth in the years before 1914, the German government had reached the limits of what its fiscal and political structure could raise for defence.
However, formal recognition of Great Power status resulted not just from statistical reckoning but also from inclusion in the inner circle of diplomacy, especially the drafting of the general peace treaties and territorial adjustments. Normally the rights of Great Powers could not be neglected in international affairs, while smaller states were routinely ignored and subject to Great Power management. Like the rules of any club, diplomatic etiquette reflected the ‘pecking order’. The heads of state and foreign ministers of the Great Powers met at congresses (the last in Berlin in 1878), not conferences; generally only they
Defence expenditure of the European Great Powers, 1900–13
Note: The high levels of defence expenditure in 1900–02 for Britain reflect the costs of the Boer war, while the high levels in 1904–05 for Russia reflect those of the Russo-Japanese War.
exchanged ambassadors (diplomatic officials of the highest rank), not ministers. Nonetheless, diplomatic practice also accommodated the fuzziness of these distinctions. One might be invited into the Great Power club even without the hard credentials of membership. Italy was a ‘courtesy’ Great Power. The Powers treated Italy like a Great Power in an effort to entice Rome into one alliance or another. Similarly, after 1892, the Great Powers upgraded their representatives in Washington to ambassadors. In 1895, Britain deferred to the Monroe Doctrine over the Venezuelan border dispute. By 1900 the United States also had a formidable industrial economy. Yet, though treated as a ‘courtesy’ Great Power – the Americans participated in the conference on equatorial Africa in 1884–85 – even Italy carried more political weight where it counted most, that is, in Europe.
The doctrine declared by President James Monroe in 1823 in which he announced that the United States would not tolerate intervention by the European Powers in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
Notwithstanding the importance of armed strength, military success alone was not enough to allow a state to join the top rank. In 1898 the United States forced the Spanish out of Cuba and the Philippines. Spain, however, with little industrial and financial muscle, pulled no weight in Europe. At best, the victory only confirmed the United States as a regional power in the Western Hemisphere. Even so, in 1902–03, when Britain, Germany and Italy sent warships to force Venezuela to make good on debt payments, the Americans discovered that they lacked the military, economic or diplomatic means to forestall European gunboat diplomacy. In Italy’s case its humiliating defeat in Africa at the hands of Abyssinian (Ethiopian) tribesmen at Adowa in 1896 confirmed its reputation as ‘the least of the Great Powers’, and the conquest of Libya in 1911 from the Ottomans did little to overturn this impression. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05 illustrates another case. The war originated from a clash of rival ambitions to dominate Manchuria and Korea. Japan struck first, with a surprise attack on the Russians at Port Arthur, followed up by a series of rapid victories over the inefficient Russian armies along the Yalu River and in Manchuria. In May 1905, with superior gunnery, the Japanese navy annihilated the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima. Europe saw the Japanese triumph and the resulting revolution in Russia as degrading Russian power and causing an elevation of Japan’s standing. Yet St Petersburg was down but not out. Given Russia’s reputation as a first-rate power, everyone understood that with time it would recover its strength.
The inexact relationship between military potential and international status can in part be explained by the elusive nature of power. Statesmen form perceptions of the relative strength of other states based on multiple sources of information, everything from newspapers and personal experiences to secret intelligence. This information is compiled and filtered through complex bureaucracies which are no less subject to human error and bias. Statesmen may strive to form concrete judgements about the realities of international power, but these judgements are frequently inconclusive or wrong. For example, apart from Japan’s ally, Britain, European governments generally underestimated Japanese power before the 1904–05 war. What changed afterwards was not the reality of Japanese power (military efficiency, population and armaments) but European perceptions of it. Even if the problem of perception could be overcome, power would remain a slippery concept. It is not reducible to ‘military capacity’, measured by plotting industrial output, manpower and finance. All forms of power must be weighed in relation to potential challenges. It must operate within a geographical, political, intellectual and even cultural context, and must be projected over time and space.
Take, for instance, the security situation of Austria-Hungary, a multinational state encompassing Germans, Magyars, Romanians, Italians, Slovaks, Croatians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovenes, Ruthenians and Poles, all united under the Habsburg monarchy. It had survived the Napoleonic Wars as a Great Power and thereafter acted as a key enforcer of the European order. It also united much of Central and South-Eastern Europe under one dynasty, thus providing a useful check to Russian ambitions in the region. Indeed, the empire’s survival can be partly explained by the fact that the other Great Powers had recognized that its collapse would spark a crisis fatal to European stability and peace. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the rise of nationalism and national self-determination – exemplified by German and Italian unification – placed strains on the empire’s precarious political and economic ties. In an effort to solve the problem, the Ausgleich (compromise) of 1867 reconstituted the empire into two autonomous states under Emperor Franz Josef – in Austria, Germans would dominate the subject nationalities, while in Hungary Magyars would do the same. The Ausgleich appeased the Hungarians, but also made it difficult to co-ordinate security policy because each half of the empire had its own government, parliament and budget. Not only were resources scarce, but, as was the case with Germany’s fiscal problems, translating resources into armed strength proved difficult. The size and quality of the army suffered – in 1866 it was one of the largest armies, by 1914 it was one of the smallest – while challenges to security and internal cohesion multiplied. The decline of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, the rise of Balkan nationalism – including Serbia’s drive to unite the southern Slavs – and the breakdown of relations with Serbia’s Slavic patron, Russia, over what should replace the Ottoman order in the Balkans, all generated an unfavourable balance between capabilities and vulnera...