Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bolingbroke: On the Balance of Power

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, was an English essayist and opposition leader in the era of Robert Walpole. He entered Parliament at the age of 22 and became Secretary of State under a Tory administration, negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Bolingbroke's writings contain perceptive passages on the general character of international relations, as also on the foreign policy of England. John Adams recalled that he had read Bolingbroke all the way through five or six times in his life, and indeed Adams's ideas of American foreign policy are strongly Bolingbrokean in tenor.

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Great Britain is an island; and, whilst nations on the continent are at immense charge in maintaining their barriers, and perpetually on their guard, and frequently embroiled to extend or strengthen them, Great Britain may, if her governors please, accumulate wealth in maintaining hers, make herself secure from invasions, and be ready to invade others when her own immediate interest, or the general interest of Europe, requires it. Of all which Queen Elizabeth's reign is a memorable example and undeniable proof. I said the general interest of Europe; because it seems to me that this alone, should call our councils off from an almost entire application to their domestic and proper business. Other nations must watch over every motion of their neighbours; penetrate, if they can, every design; foresee every minute event and take part by some engagement or other in almost every conjuncture that arises. But as we cannot be easily nor suddenly attacked, and as we ought not to aim at any acquisition of territory on the continent, it may be our interest to watch the secret workings of the several councils abroad; to advise and warn, to abet and oppose; but it never can be our true interest easily and officiously to enter into action, much less into engagements that imply action and expense. Other nations, like the Velites or light-armed troops, stand foremost in the field, and skirmish perpetually. When a great war begins, we ought to look on the powers of the continent to whom we incline, like the two first lines, the Principes and Hastati, of a Roman army: and on ourselves, like the Triarii, that are not to charge with these legions on every occasion, but to be ready for the conflict whenever the fortune of the day, be it sooner or later, calls us to it, and the sum of things, or the general interest, makes it necessary.

This is that post of advantage and honour, which our singular situation among the powers of Europe determines us, or should determine us, to take, in all disputes that happen on the continent. If we neglect it, and dissipate our strength on occasions that touch us remotely or indirectly, we are governed by men who do not know the true interest of this island, or who have some other interest more at heart. If we adhere to it, so at least as to deviate little and seldom from it, as we shall do whenever we are wisely and honestly governed, then will this nation make her proper figure; and a great one it will be. By a continual attention to improve her natural, that is her maritime, strength, by collecting all her forces within herself, and reserving them to be laid out on great occasions, such as regard her immediate interests and her honour, or such as are truly important to the general system of power in Europe; she may be the arbitrator of differences, the guardian of liberty, and the preserver of that balance, which has been so much talked of, and is so little understood.  Idea of a Patriot King, Works, IV: 310-312

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Between all extremes there is a certain middle point, which men of genius perceive, and to which men of honour adhere in private and in public life.

Thus avarice and prodigality are at an immense distance; but there is a space marked out by virtue between them, where frugality and generosity reside together. Thus again, to abandon those, whom it is our interest to support, is an excess of folly; and to support the interests of other people, to the ruin of our own, is an excess of folly likewise. But there are lines described by prudence, between these two excesses, within which our common interests meet, and may proceed together.

It would be an invidious as well as tedious task, to go through all the instances, which might be produced ; wherein we have, under pretence of preserving a balance of power in Europe, gratified the passions of particular men, and served the turns of private interest, till we have rendered that principle, in a reasonable pursuit of which our safety and our glory consist, the occasion of real danger to the interest, and of reproach to the wisdom of our nation. A few of these instances will suffice to deduce the progress of our mistaken policy, to evince the truth of what has been advanced in general, and to fix the application of the whole to the present conjuncture; wherein I apprehend, that we are about to pay the price not only of late errours, but a long series of errours. . . .

Whenever this balance is in real danger by the exorbitant growth of one power, or by the union of more, other princes and states will be alarmed of course. All of them ought, and most of them will take measures for their common security. But the wise councils among them will, upon every such occasion, proportion their measures, and the engagements they enter into, not according to the nature of the danger considered generally, but according to the immediate or remote relation, which it has to each of them; and according to the strength, situation, or any other circumstance, which may be peculiar to each of them.

To do otherwise, would be to lose sight of our own particular interest in the pursuit of a common interest. It would be nothing better than setting up for the Don Quixotes of the world, and engage to fight the battles of all mankind. The state, which keeps its own particular interest constantly in view, has an invariable rule to go by; and this rule will direct and limit all its proceedings in foreign affairs; so that such a state will frequently take no share, and frequently a small share in the disputes of its neighbours, and will never exert its whole strength, but when its whole is at stake. But a state, who neglects to do this, has no rule at all to go by, and must fight to negotiate, and negotiate to fight again, as long as it is a state ; because, as long as it is a state, there will be disputes among its neighbours, and some of these will prevail at one time, and some at another, in the perpetual flux and reflux of human affairs. Occasional Writer Number II, Works (1809), I, 210, 213-14

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Here let me only say, that the glory of taking towns and winning battles is to be measured by the utility that results from those victories. Victories, that bring honour to the arms, may bring shame to the councils, of a nation. To win a battle, to take a town, is the glory of a general, and of an army. Of this glory we had a very large share in the course of the war. But the glory of a nation is to proportion the end she proposes to her interest and her strength: the means she employs, to the end she proposes, and the vigour she exerts, to both. Of this glory, I apprehend, we have had very little to boast at any time, and particularly in the great conjuncture of which I am speaking. Defense of the Treaty of Utrecht, Letters on the Study and Use of History, Works, IV, 88. (1809 ed.)