The International Balance in Review | The Old Regimes

The peace settlements of Hubertusburg and Paris ended the greatest international crisis that was to occur between the death of Louis XIV and the outbreak of the French Revolution.

New crises were to arise, but they did not fundamentally alter the international balance; they accentuated the shifts that had long been underway. And although American independence cost Britain thirteen of its colonies, the maritime and imperial supremacy it had gained in 1763 was not otherwise seriously affected.

Thus the international balance established in 1763 remained largely unchanged until 1789. In the incessant struggle for power during the eighteenth century, the victorious states were Britain, Prussia, and Russia. France, Spain, Austria, Turkey survived, though they suffered serious losses. As a Spanish diplomat observed early in the century, the weakest units, Poland and Italy, were being “pared and sliced up like so many Dutch cheeses.”

The world struggle between Britain and the Bourbon empire did much to justify the mercantilist view that conceived of international relations in terms of incessant competition and strife. According to the mercantilist doctrine of the fixed amount of trade, a state could enlarge its share of the existing supply only if it reduced the shares held by rival states, either through war or through smuggling and retaliatory legislation. All this was borne out by British success (and French failure) in maintaining overseas trade during the Seven Years’ War.

Economics did not wholly explain the changes in the international balance during the century. For example, increasingly efficient utilization of Prussian resources played its part in the victories of Frederick the Great. But his success depended still more on his own leadership and the discipline of the society that he headed.

Britain seemingly offers evidence for the supreme power of commerce, as Pitt turned the country’s formidable financial and commercial assets to practical advantage. Yet Pitt himself cannot be explained solely in economic terms, for his accession as prime minister was made possible by a political system, social concepts, and a pragmatic approach to leadership that enabled the right man to come forward at the right time.

The eighteenth century, despite its wars, was an interlude of comparative calm between the period of religious strife that had preceded it and the storms of liberalism and nationalism that would be loosed by the French Revolution. The Seven Years’ War, for example, did not begin to equal in destructive force the Thirty Years’ War, in more ways than just the relative shortness of the war:

Few of the combatants had the feeling of fighting for a great cause, like Catholicism or Protestantism or national independence; the fighting itself was conducted in a more orderly fashion than it had been a hundred years before; soldiers were better disciplined and armies were better supplied; troops lived off the land less often and no longer constituted such a menace to the lives and property of civilians. Even warfare reflected the order and reason characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.

And yet below the reality of this relative sense of order—of reason and compromise, of enlightened despots and rational, even cynical, diplomacy—the great mass of the population continued to live with debt, disease, deprivation, and destitution. The competitive state system, increasingly efficient at the top, seemed increasingly makeshift at the bottom.

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