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Force, Order, and Diplomacy In the Age of Louis XIV

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993

The great chronicler of the diplomatic method, Harold Nicolson, once wrote that the origins of modern diplomacy can be traced to the “determinant” influence of Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu’s achievement was the development of a coterie of trained “creatures” dedicated to promoting state interests through “ceaseless negotiation.” By the time Richelieu died, in 1642, France had fostered a new class of diplomatists, and thus, somewhat inadvertently, had helped to pave the way for the great settlement of the Thirty Years War signed at Westphalia in 1648.

Richelieu’s last devoted servant, Mazarin, died in 1661, leaving a stepson, the 23-year-old Louis XIV, and a group of experienced advisors to direct a vast and far-flung foreign policy apparatus. After 24 hours of seclusion and weeping for the passing of his guardian, Louis commenced his 63 years of personal rule—the longest in European history—with, in his words, a “request and order” that you not “sign anything, not even a passport. . .without my command. . . .” Within days, each French ambassador had received a letter which began, “I have decided to reply myself to all letters which I order my ambassadors to write me. . . .”

Louis’ single-minded search for advantage was so raw, unencumbered, and bellicose that even in the ethos of the times it was unique. From the onset of his reign, Louis XIV was intent on ensuring that French diplomatic hegemony ceased serving any abstract international order which may have emerged, in part, as a result of Richelieu’s ministry.

Instead, with a great system of well-provisioned clerks, residents, heralds, ambassadors, and spies, French statecraft was to become Louis’ own instrument: a great narcissistic engine—fueled and sated only by war. Backed by a colossal army (some 450, 000 troops at its height), and a treasury never too depleted to find huge sums to subsidize and suborn, Louis’ agents worked tirelessly for his advance.

Like nearly all his contemporaries, Louis had held that the “craft of kingship” consisted in attending to the “true maxims” of states. But Louis did not study the interests of others to harmonize French purposes with those of his neighbors (the dictionary definition of diplomacy). Instead, Louis considered the “science of interests” a kind of late 17th-century jujitsu, the object of which was to secure a pivot by which his neighbors’ undoing could be leveraged.

A real constraint to arbitrary and unanticipated state action had been Richelieu’s emphasis on a modicum of good faith—or in the language of the day, the sanctity of the “pledged word” of a sovereign. To Louis XIV, however, diplomacy was a species of rarefied dust, mined only to be used in the eyes of his enemies. The king’s envoys were, as he put it, “good for keeping [potential adversaries] occupied while I made my preparations. . .so that. . .when they heard the truth in those vague rumors. . .they took them as an artifice. . . .” [E]veryone,” Louis advised his son, “arranges treaties according to his present interests. . .” Treaties, said Louis, were more like compliments; on the one hand, “absolutely necessary. . .” for social existence; on the other, “of little significance beyond their sound.” In his early negotiations with the Dutch, the king wrote his ambassador that “there are hardly any [words] in the world so clear, in any dispute whatsoever, that do not have some exceptions and contrary reasons. . . .”

Louis’ disregard for his own undertakings turned out, in the short run, to yield the intended surprise. The success of the tactic bespoke the heed accorded by others in the second half of the 17th century to a sovereign’s “pledged word,” even when there was abundant evidence of dubious intent. For worn and sour William of Orange, then king of England, who had already spent some 30 years combating Louis’ ever keen avidity, there was unfeigned astonishment at Louis’ ability to bend and break his undertakings. As William III wrote his Dutch confederates on the eve of a war over the Spanish succession, “I never relied much on engagements with France; but I must confess, I did not think they would have broken, on this occasion, in the face of the whole world, a solemn treaty before it was well accomplished.”


Louis’ demands and incessant wars seemed to demonstrate the truth that power creates its own interests, limited in turn only by the power. Louis’ own morality was grounded, as he tutored his son, on “reason of state,” a judgment inspired and given, he wrote, only to kings “over whom God alone is judge.” But the ever plastic ground of “reason of state” rarely supported the interests of his countrymen. To those who implored some favor or another, his customarily withering comment was, “We do know them.” His disinterest applied to courtiers and commoners alike. In 1709, after seven years of war and the “little Ice Age” had ravaged Europe, food disappeared, and whole families froze in doorways. Louis turned to his brother and said “. . .what if four or five thousand of those scoundrels die. . .would France be any less France?”

Though he probably never said, “L’etat c’est moi,” clearly Louis felt that the state was his patrimony (“L’etat a moi.”) Late in his life, Louis may have recognized the distinction between the state and himself. On his death bed, he had breathed: “I depart, but the state remains.” Yet for most of his life, the identity between France and Louis’ own person was nearly complete. “A king works for himself, when he has the state in mind,” he wrote his son, and “the welfare of the one enhances the glory of the other: when the state is prosperous, exalted, and powerful, he who is the cause of it is rendered glorious by it and no consideration should prevent him from doing so, not even for the sake of doing a kindness.”

“So that in the first place, I put a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of Powere after Powere that ceaseath only in Death.” (Thomas Hobbes, 1661)

Thomas Hobbes lived in the “recovery of hope” that his writing would “fall into the hands of a sovereign.” As a little-read Oxford curmudgeon, Hobbes would have found great satisfaction if he had known how well his words were echoed in Louis and his advisors’ musings on the “metier du roi” (the job of being king).

“[G]lory,” Hobbes insisted, “is like honor, if all men have it, none hath it, for they consist in comparison and precellence.” Gloire, Louis wrote, is “my aspiration in all things. . . the principal object of my actions. . . .” A king, Louis wrote, “need never be ashamed of seeking fame, for it is a good that must be ceaselessly and avidly desired, and which alone is better able to secure success of our aims than any other thing.” Similarly, Hobbes held that “Riches, Knowledge, and Honour are but several forms of powere” and that when men share an “appetite to the same thing. . .[and] neither [can] enjoy it in common, nor. . .divide it; it follows that the strongest must have it, and who is strongest must be decided by the sword.” Louis and his mercantilist advisors, especially Colbert, his minister of commerce, were certain that glory, gold, security, or power, were finite commodities. If one party shared similar stature or wealth, then the wherewithal of others would be diminished. If one party had it all, then others would have none. Therefore, as Colbert wrote to Louis, “commerce” was merely “perpetual. . .war. . .of intelligence and industry. . . .”

Louis had always been a war-lover. As a child, he set up toy fortifications in his garden. Before adolescence, the king had learned to drill, master the manual of arms, and practice long hours with pike, musket, lance, and saber from horseback. At the age of 13, Louis had already seen battles close-up enough to have tasted the tart of gunpowder. When he came of age, Louis lamented the “unfortunate” peace he had inherited from Richelieu and Mazarin. Finding a “peace more profound than anyone had seen in centuries,” he told his son, was distressing. “[A]t my age,” he confessed, the thought of “the pleasure of my being at the head of my armies,” provoked in him the “desire for a little more action abroad. . . .”

Ultimately, Louis only measured himself with the iron gauge of war. An almost audible shadow of buoyancy and relief appears in his Memoirs when the king revisits “the prospect of. . .two wars [providing] as a vast field that could create opportunities for me to distinguish myself.” War on land in Europe was Louis XIVs real self-validation. Colbert had spent huge sums on a competent Navy, overseas exploration, and the development of an autonomous marine branch of arms. But the king’s priorities were reflected in his activity. He visited no ship or shipyard until 1681 and that appears as an effort to mollify his aging minister. Colbert’s attention to cartography, hydrography, and marines were generally dismissed as an infatuation. As Louis advised his son, the “caprice of the sea. . .” never gives real greatness. “Warfare on land is a more advantageous business than naval war, in which the most valiant almost never have occasion to distinguish themselves from the weakest.” Other kinds of competition counted to Louis, but not as much as that which could be tested by armed infantry.

War was the primary means, Louis felt, to define his greatness. To Louis, a state without a competence at arms lacked gloire, and was incomplete and contemptible. Louis thought “of war ten times more than he thinks of finances,” Colbert complained. Reform of the antiquated and ultimately ruinous tax system languished. The problem was that, as Colbert observed, the king considered “finances only when extreme need obliges him to do so. . . .” In the end, even though revenues decreased radically, it was still easier to sell tax privileges and tax immunities than change the whole complicated and corrupt tax collection process. The war against the Grand Coalition would be determined, Louis lamented, by he who held the last gold coin, after the coin of all others had been depleted. But for most of Louis’ life, wealth, reputation, glory, and status were but the residuum of military success. For Louis, like Frederick the Great a century later, real power only could come from big battalions and big guns.

For Louis, especially in his early years, the only legitimate object of peace could be the gift of time in which France would prepare for war. The king yearned for what he was sure would be a lopsided romp through the Dutch countryside. Holland had affronted Louis’ glory. It was too rich, too Protestant, and too independent. Shielded from France by the Spanish Netherlands, and the Rhine, the Dutch “herring merchants,” observed Louis, desired “only to maintain their commerce. . . .” The contentious amalgam of merchant factions that constituted the Dutch government was, to Louis, a pitiable, a “shattered and divided thing. . . .” With no real army, the Dutch Republic’s foreign policy, Louis recalled, had to be based on mere “utility,” a base grounds that could not support the kind of glory that Louis sedulously pursued.

Louis’ meticulously prepared war with Holland began in 1672. When things appeared to go well at first for the French, Colbert asked his king, with no irony intended, “what was to be done with Holland?” when final victory was delivered. The question must have puzzled Louis. Kings made war; that was what they did; and that was how Louis planned to “fulfill the great expectations” that he had “for some time inspired in the public.” The Dutch Republic was an ideological and commercial irritant. Holland, moreover, rivaled Louis’ vision of domestic political and religious order. If Holland were humbled, it might no longer deny its more numerous Catholics the right to worship; it might loosen its monopoly on the Baltic trade, as well as nearly all of Western Europe’s interstate waterways save the Danube. If France took the Belgium border lands, and reopened Rotterdam, Amsterdam’s trade would whither. A broken Holland would hardly find its institutions or “freedoms” admired by many. If Louis had his way, the Dutch Republic, brought low and poor, would not ever even be in a position to abet another anti-French coalition.

Holland had supported Spain, indirectly, after 1635, and had signed a separate peace at Westphalia with Spain in 1648, and then again made a separate arrangement with England in 1668. But the Dutch Republic presented much more of an affront to Louis than a threat. Holland’s allies were easily detached. And as Colbert’s tariffs began to bite after 1670, it became clear that Louis could have the ruin of Holland without firing a shot. But the winning argument for war was that though Holland appeared commercially strong, it was vulnerable, and hence the perfect target of opportunity. As Louis wrote, “[e]ven a little war, would endanger one or the other of their interests,” and reaffirm French preeminence in the coin that counted, prowess at arms. He would lead the troops himself.

In the end, the Dutch opened the dikes and flooded the countryside. French forces were obliged to retreat. By the end of the war, Louis’ gains were extracted not from Holland, but from the first “sick man” of Europe, Spain. Franche-Comte, now Eastern France, some positions in the Spanish Netherlands, and the lasting animus of William of Orange were Louis’s prizes. William brooked no particular affection for Spain; but as Stadholder of Holland and then king of England, William was determined to tame Louis’ hauteur. By the second decade of the next century, it was William who proved more resourceful. Though Louis’ glamour and style pervaded European courts, the tax efficiency and prosperity of the Dutch and the English helped William establish European leadership. Though the threat of French hegemony was to remain for 200 years, European politics, in adopting William’s remedies of coalition building and coalition management, came to rest on the pinion of the balance of power as the first principle of European statecraft and public law.


*It is easy to read Louis’ tireless self-promotion as only a massive exercise in appeasing an abundant vanity. But Versailles—and its goingson—did did have functional purposes. At the most obvious level, Versailles was an expensive exercise in Bourbon propaganda. Versailles also served to keep some 2000 troublesome nobles—the bane of Louis’ childhood—in an elegant detention camp where they could jostle for the petty privileges of propinquity to the King rather than engage in the substantive affairs attendant to war that Louis so much and so long enjoyed.



When Colbert died in 1683, Louis’ instincts for domestic as well as international hegemony deepened and coarsened. At home, he began a species of Inquisition to solidify the Catholic faith in his realm. With fire and his notorious dragonnades, recalcitrant Huguenots were coerced into an embrace of Catholicism. Though flight was forbidden, hundreds of thousands nonetheless made their way to Holland, Prussia, and England where they joined the ranks of the anti-Louis coalition that emerged at the end of the 1680’s. When Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, Frederick William invited the Huguenots to come to Brandenberg. Other German princes followed suit. Soon tens of thousands of Louis’ best soldiers, sappers, and engineers had dispersed throughout Protestant Europe.

Louis’ neighbors were hardly made more secure by the rivulets of Huguenot immigration since Louis reckoned his success in war as well as his peacetime diplomacy in terms of French expansion. Part of the king’s reasoning, after some of his earlier preoccupation with glory faded, was “security”; hence, his demands on his neighbors were directed to creating a kind of 17th-century “free-fire zone,” a vast “dueling field”—as his minister of war, Vauban put it—where the overwhelming number and competence of French infantry could prevail as supporting fire poured down from the finest fortifications in Europe.

By the mid-1680’s, Louis’ appetite for territory had achieved a kind of autistic autonomy and momentum of its own. In a trumped-up legal process, artfully called “Reunions,” the king instructed his lawyers to advance arguments in front of tribunals composed of crown-appointed jurists. The king’s brief was that once France acquired territory, any of the dependencies of the newly obtained region would thenceforth devolve to France. Any subsidiary dependencies of annexed territory were, in turn, promptly arrogated, and registered.

For several years, those who had contending claims to those advanced by Louis—the Swedes, the Austrian emperor, and the Spanish—were either too weak or too preoccupied by the Turks; for in 1683, Kara Mustafa, “The Turkish Wallenstein,” stood before the gates of Vienna with 200, 000 troops, including sappers and engineers lent by the French Army. The seige lasted 59 days and only a Polish-German force led by Sobieski and Charles V, the duke of Lorraine, effected Vienna’s rescue. Once the Ottomans had been driven to their last Balkan redoubts some six years later, and William of Orange assumed the English throne (1688), a new coalition against Louis, backed by William of Orange, congealed; but the beginning of the Grand Alliance—the League of Augsberg—only served to stymie Louis temporarily from gaining more. At the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Louis XIV deigned to recognize William III as king of Great Britain; but in turn, Louis obtained acceptance of nearly all the “reunions” of the 1680’s. Moreover, Parliament voted only 7000 soldiers for William’s army and reduced the navy.

The Tories then forced William to send his guards away. “In fact,” wrote Winston Churchill,

. . . . William reckoned he could guarantee European security, but [instead]. . [o]fficers and men were cast upon the street or drifted into outlawry in the countryside. . . . [I]n the name of peace, economy, and isolation, they [the Tories] prepared the ground for a far more terrible renewal of war. . . .”

The development of effective countervailing power to a greatly enhanced France, a development sometimes chronicled as inevitable as the seasons, was, in fact, by no means certain. It was 50 years into Louis’ reign, at a point when Louis claimed the right to place a zealously Catholic king on England’s throne, while attempting the unification of Spain and France under the crest of the Bourbons, that William’s stratagem of perpetual coalition war would have a chance in England’s Parliament. By then, Spain had allied with France—bringing along the Indies, South America, and a great part of Italy. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Savoy, also aligned with France. But by the reckoning of most military historians, it was only the leadership of Marlborough and Eugene, added to the miraculous sums raised by the English Parliament, that drove Louis back to frontiers defined at Westphalia in 1648.


As the University of Chicago’s great economic historian John U. Nef who wrote 40 years ago, war had “declined in seriousness” in the age of Louis XIV. By the end of the 17th century, Nef wrote, war had become more controlled and cerebral and, thus, “congenial to the thought of an optimistic and rational age.” “The older conception of military campaigns persisted,” as Nef put it, “only in the east of Europe.” Nef, Robert Osgood, Hans Morgenthau, R. R. Palmer and other contemporary “liberal realist” scholars have asserted that the management of late 17- and 18th-century power through coalition diplomacy produced a period in which the forces of moderation in international society had their greatest victory.

Part of the evidence that warfare in the age of Louis heralded a new moderation in international society is the observation that, as Professor Palmer put it, “[e]xcept for the effects of civil war in Spain and of starvation in France, war [in the late 17th and early 18th centuries] foreshadowed the typical warfare of the 18th century, fought by professionals rather than whole peoples. . .commerce and sea power were the principle stakes. . . .” And since professional soldiers cost a great deal of money, they were not used profligately, it is commonly argued by today’s liberal realists. Hence, it became, as Daniel Defoe observed, “frequent to have armies of fifty thousand. . .within view of each other, and spend a whole campaign in dodging, or, as it is gently called, observing one another and then march off into winter quarters.”

Some battles were, indeed, more formalized and less bloody than before; but war’s object nonetheless, almost always included destroying enemy forces. As the Raimondo Montecuccoli, lieutenant general and field marshal of the army of the Austrian Hapsburgs, put it: war is the “activity in which adversaries try to inflict damage on each other by all possible means. . . .” Using a formulation later taken up by Frederick the Great (and the German General Staff), Montecuccoli argued that armies fought until “whosoever at the end disposes of more forces intact. . . .” “Philosophers may debate,” Montecuccoli wrote, “whether a permanent state of war exists in nature, but statesmen cannot doubt that there can be no real peace between powerful competing states; one must suppress or be suppressed, one must either kill or perish.” Even battlefield victory was not sufficient for Motecuccoli; those who fled had to be “hunted and annihilated” lest they regroup to fight again. In sum, for most commanders of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, real combat, once begun in earnest, knew few limits and allowed little quarter.

As a result, carnage, even when it could be localized, grew immense. Battlefield losses—when battle was given at places where commanders felt they either had an edge or had no choice—reached the tens of thousands. Indeed, the death toll from late 17th- and early 18th-century battles—at Blenheim, Ladnen, Malpequet, Ramilles, and Oudenarde—were not regularly exceeded until the Battle of Bordino and the American Civil War. In each late 17th- and early 18th-century test of arms, the better-sighted guns and longer-ranged, fasterfiring cannon of the day caused far higher casualties than had been the usual case at the start of the 17th century.


*He died at the age of 64 of massive kidney stones and had to buried at night, in parish plot, lest the people be stimulated to riot.



*Duke Francois Eugene of Savoy—a child of the commandant of the Swiss guards and the chief lady in waiting to the queen, a woman who had to flee France because she had been accused of being a poisoner.



The new technology of war was matched by a new administrative science: the lethality of combat increased as a function of the state’s ability to organize a soldier’s pay, victualage, housing, and to field a constant supply of munitions. Firepower also expanded in proportion to the spread of the new science of discipline. If cudgeled sufficiently, and marched insensate, as the disagreeable Col. M. de Martinet discovered, troops could be quick-marched in formation for a month or two while on campaign, then formed along dense, staggered lines. On command, they would produce a great continuous rain of fire, while receiving in kind from their adversaries.

Any new security at the end of the 17th century was apparent only when measured by the ghoulish yardstick of the Thirty Years War. It was a rare year in Europe, during the later part of the 17th century—perhaps but four in all—that was without war. War had become nearly universal in frequency and scope, extending from the Straits of Mallaca to Mexico.

As Voltaire remarked in an examination of Louis’ time:

It is one of the results of the ingenuity and fury of men that the ravages of our wars are not confined to Europe. We drain ourselves of manpower and money so as to go to the far reaches of Africa and America. . . .

As a result of incessant war, the period of Europe’s emerging balance of power proved as deadly as the latter part of the century. Peasants were no longer tortured for their savings; priests were no longer tied to wagon wheels to run with dogs. But ordinary citizens were not given much more safety than they had enjoyed during the Thirty Years’ War. Pillage emerged as a matter of state policy, rather than being the reward of combatants, as had been the rule 50 years earlier; and a frank policy of “preventive terror” was employed by the armies of Louis—along with those of Marlborough, Leopold, and Charles XL

Piqued at Genoa’s aid to his Spanish enemies, for instance, Louis had the city blown apart; he then ordered the resultant rubble—two thirds of every building that had once stood in the city—thrown into the sea. In his campaign against Holland in the 1670’s, Louis’ forces savaged the potential staging areas of his enemies with such a “barbarous” ferocity that an “astonished” Voltaire found that Dutch children still read “books which recount the deed and thus inspire hatred of the French in future generations.”

In the last 20 years of the 17th century, whole provinces on the French frontier were reduced to ash and ruin: to leave no forage for the enemy; to teach an enemy a lesson; to inspire fear; to exact revenge. Louis called it his “policy of frightfulness.” When more-than a few of his generals balked at Louis’ orders, the king himself threatened their recall and disgrace. “Not a stone, not a stone,” the mighty Louis intoned, as Heidelberg, Mannheim, Trier, Speyer, Oppenheim, Worms, and host of smaller cities were given over to torch and terror.

In undertaking an avalanche of war, Louis mobilized the largest forces Europe was to see until Napoleon. Taxes to support the immense armies of the day far exceeded the level that had been reached in the Thirty Years’ War. By the end of the century, every state in Europe, save England, teetered on bankruptcy. Depleted by the ever-increasing cost of war, even the relatively well-heeled governments of the day were forced to let soldiers and sailors go during rare times of truce or peace. Former soldiers turned into brigands and highwaymen while the continent shivered under the press of a radical change in climate. Crops failed. Plague worked its way back through Europe. By 1694, Fenelon, the king’s one-time religious savant, wrote: “. . .your people are dying of hunger. . . . All France is nothing more than a great desolate hospital without supplies. . . .” But Louis had reached a stage of moral deafness. Even when the king’s brother, M. d’Orleans, asked that Louis lighten the people’s burden, Louis dismissed the dead and dying as “canaille. . .not much of use on this earth. . . . I pray you not to meddle in what does not concern you.”

Half Hapsburg, married to a Hapsburg, reigning over the most powerful states in Europe, Louis XIV could have had a manifest diplomatic legitimacy by definition. As the quintessential sovereign of his day, Louis could have provided a different standard for organizing international relations had he been only somewhat more temperate. But by his ceaseless claims on his Hapsburg cousins everywhere their interests touched his, Louis contested almost every element of the emerging, but still fragile international order adumbrated at Westphalia. No diplomatic credential could be presented without risk that a Bourbon envoy might contest his place in a processional. No border Rhineland prince could be safe from annexation. And nearly every state in Europe was certain to know of French excesses from the 200, 000 that fled in terror of the 1680’s, into the Huguenot Diaspora.

Whatever territorial and administrative inhibitions he might have privately acknowledged, none were made clear by his actions. As in the case of the great 20th-century dictators, one can speculate that Louis may have had limits to his schemes. But the French monarch seems to have been living proof that power defines its own interests. His unremitting activity after 1668 had no real plan or design. Early on, he seemed animated by a mix of commerce, revenge, and pique. Later, his design was said to “round off French frontiers.” The apogee of Louis’s ambition came in his attempt to unite the Spanish and French patrimony, while supporting Catholic James II’s return to the English throne. But always, Louis’ actions seemed to illustrate that with power, the appetite tends to grow with the feeding.

France, by becoming the Leviathan state, grown overstrong and predatory, posed a profound danger to any emergent European “system” comprised of autonomous states. International “society” was still inchoate when Louis assumed power. Only in the process of defending themselves did Europeans forge a new commonweal predicated on independent, sovereign power. The objective of a balance of power as a desirable European condition had been a matter of prescriptive comment for some time in Louis’ youth. But explicit mention of the balance of power finally made an appearance in Europe’s public law at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. In the wake of Louis’ final defeat, the signatories to Europe’s peace pledged to take

care [that] suspicions. . . be removed from the mind of men and [that]. . Peace and Tranquillity of the Christian World. . .be ordered and stabilized in a just Balance of power (which is the best and most solid foundation of mutual friendship and lasting concord).

By the time Louis found it “easy” to leave life, he had perversely helped foster the balance of power as a general principle of European society. Louis’ inadvertent legacy was a European solidity that was to moderate the first half of the 18th century. It hardly seems coincidental that the first proposals in modern times for new forms of international organization, based on the management—by professional diplomatists—of power with equivalent power, appeared in the wake of Europe’s collective experience with Louis’ incessant wars. In a work published in 1716, Callieres, one of Louis’ diplomatic servants, spoke of an emerging “freemasonry of diplomats” who reported through increasingly well-developed and autonomous ministries, separate from the department of war. Not long before Louis died in 1715, the opening of the Academie politique for training young professional diplomatists heralded a separate and increasingly professionalized diplomatic service, charged with the management of state relations in time of peace, and with forging coalitions in time of war. In the years following Louis’ death, diplomatic conversations still employed the grammar of interests, but a new logic developed.

Like the liberal realism of our own time, a school of thought arose following Louis’ death, which held, as a major premise, that the “lesson learned” from all the Sun King’s wars was that force had become an ironic, but nonetheless empirical precondition of international society. “[T]hough some may laugh and call them Utopian dreams,” Clausewitz wrote, there is a tendency to “equilibrium defined by the balance of power, revealing itself only when in danger of being upended.” Clausewitz’s argument was that once war had become bureaucratized (by the end of the 17th century) it inevitably ceased to function as an instrument of dynasts, and had become an extension of rational government policy. The “sum total of relations between states,” Clausewitz argued, would serve to “maintain stability of the whole rather than to promote change, at least that tendency will be present.” War, it was thus argued, forced a kind of rationalist’s paradox in that war’s purpose had developed into something other than victory. In reality, as Clausewitz concluded, “a better kind of peace” had become the object of war; and force had come to be joined to the sturdy twin of European law, prosperity, and order.

For a while, the expectation of equilibrium, predicated on a balance of power did sustain the independence of states and a modicum of stability. On reflection, however, it was merely an Indian summer of tranquillity that had bussed Europe at the time of Louis’ passing. Three generations on, the leader of the best organized military machine in Europe, Frederick of Prussia, like Louis, a parvenu, found fame, military reputation, and the urge to expand frontiers, irresistible.

Notwithstanding the promise of the balance of power to preserve the independence of significant states, Poland—the savior of Europe a hundred years before—disappeared. Then, in France, all the furies capped at Westphalia erupted in the guise of nationalism, giving yet more and still bloodier proof to the truth that anarchy, aggression, and war are endemic to international society.


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