THE   HISTORY OF  INTERNATIONAL POLITICS:  From 500BCE  to the present

Submitters name: Mattia Billi

Age Grouping: school/university


Date Written:
June 2004



THE   HISTORY OF  INTERNATIONAL POLITICS:  From 500BCE to the present


-     introduction

- the failure of the renovatio imperii of Charles V of Hapsburg (1555)

- the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)

- from the Louis XIV’s “ universal monarchy ” to the principle of balance of power ( Utrecht 1713 )

- the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire

-    the Vienna’s Congress ( 1815 ) and the balance of  restoration: the Concert of great powers

- 1854-1871: a period of conflicts

- from the bismarckian balance to World War I

- the years between the two wars : the watershed of 1929

- from World War II to bipolarism

- globalization and unipolarism

- conclusion




The history of international politics until World War II is studied from a Eurocentric point of view. It is only with bipolarism and decolonization that Europe lost its centrality in international politics. The “ international political system ” is considered to have been born in Europe in the modern age, together with the modern states; it was then extended over the world through colonization and imperialism; the supremacy of Europe spread the “ European system of states ” and their ius publicum europaeum  ( the forefather of the actual international law ) in the world. The post World War II international political system so derives from the old European system of states. All this can   ( maybe ) justify the Eurocentrism of the history I’m going to outline.

      The end of the Roman Empire was hardly metabolized by Europe in the Middle Ages. The early Middle Ages is also called the Dark Ages, to underline the general crisis that characterized it. From a geopolitical point of view, it is interesting to note the break up of  Mediterranean unity because of the Arab espansion ( VIII century ). This contributed to the creation of a more “continental” identity of  the Christianitas . Charlemagne’s renovatio imperii ( 800 ) demonstrates both the nostalgia of the Roman Empire and the new continental identity of the Christianitas. His attempt at uniting Europe however soon failed after his death. The Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806 bu even if many emperors tried to assert their authority ( Othon The Great of Saxony 962-973, Frederick II of Swabia 1212-1253, Charles V of Hapsburg 1519-1556 ) , it didn’t politically unite Europe.


     The attempt of Charles V failed because of the Reformation and the opposition of France and in 1555 he divided the Hapsburg dominions into two parts:Austrian and Spanish. Though the imperial dream had definitively failed, the Hapsburg dynasty continued to try to impose its supremacy over Europe but it wasn’t able. In fact in 1588 the Spanish Invincible Armada was defeated by the British Royal Navy and in the Thirty Years War ( 1618-48 ) the Austrian were defeated by a coalition of many powers led by France. After that the Low Countries became independent, Germany remained subdivided and  the French monarchy became the strongest power in Europe.1648 is usually seen as the symbolic date of birth of the modern states and of international relations between them.


   Louis XIV ( 1643-1715 ) tried to impose French hegemony over the European system of states during his long reign, but he had been limited by various coalitions of European powers. In particular, in 1700, trying to put a Borbon on the Spanish throne, he caused the Spanish Succession War, in which he was defeated. The peace treaty of Utrecht ( 1713 ) confirmed that in Europe there was no place for a unic empire or for a strong hegemonic state. The principle of balance of power was established ( “ justum potentiae equilibrium  ” in the treaty ), that is one of the most important concepts of international politics. Wars and treaties always respected this principle in the XVIII century, because the main actors ( the great powers ) shared some common values and rules of behaviour: the XVIII century is the triumph of the ius publicum europaeum . This stable system was swept away by the events happened between 1789 and 1815: revolutionary France and Napoleon rejected the principle of balance of power and opened a long period of  destructive and ideological wars, significantly remained in the collective memory as “ The Great War ”.


     The  Vienna Congress in 1815 restored the principle of balance of power, but the great powers understood that the equilibrium was not mechanical and automatic as it was believed in the optimistic XVIII century ( they believed in an automatism similar to the economical one ). They understood that the balance depended on their active will in preserving it. Their collaboration was necessary, and it was achieved through the so called diplomacy by conference : the main Powers met very often to resolve problems and to assure the perpetuation of the  European Concert . In this original system, for the first time, the reason of state was limited to guarantee also the “ reason of system ”. A rigidity in the international political system of restoration was the link between international and internal order. Remembering with fear the consequencies of the French Revolution, the monarchies decided to defend not only the international order but also the internal ones.


     This rigid system had been shaken by the risings of 1820-21, 1830-31 and 1848-49. After 1830 constitutional monarchies like Great Britain and France became more wary of Austria and Russia’s absolutism. Also it must be remembered the “ Monroe Doctrine ” ( 1823 ), expressed by the United States and linked to the processes of independence in South America. After 1848 the system became quite ungovernable. The Crimean war ( 1854-56 ) can be taken as the end of the Concert of great powers. In fact it opened a period of conflicts between the great powers, that is something that hadn’t happened since 1815. The other three wars of this period ( 1859-60, 1866, 1870 ) saw the unification of Germany and Italy, first against Austria then against France. 1870 can be seen as the symbolic date in which the national principle became nationalism. Bismarck, the German chanchellor, built a complex system of alliances to control revanchist France. But the fragile bismarckian balance started to crash after 1890, when Bismarck was forced to resign by the new emperor William II. Tensions grew more and more and when war broke out in 1914, European Powers were already divided into two blocks: the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente.


     World War I revolutionized both internal and international politics. Four great empires collapsed: Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman. The Middle East was assigned to France and Britain ( mandates ), in the Balkans the federation of Yugoslavia was created, in Russia  revolution brought the birth of the Soviet Union and the United States started rising in international politics. In the peace conference of Paris in 1919 Germany was hardly punished, according with French requests ( contemporaries like Keynes and Nitti made serious critics to this ). It is often said that Paris’s Conference prepared World War II; it wasn’t able to restore an international political order as the Vienna’s Congress did: Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Orlando were not Metternich, Talleyrand and Castlereagh. US President Wilson succeeded to make the League of  Nations accepted, but he wasn’t able to abolish the traditional policy of power.


     The years between 1918 and 1939 are called in historiography the years between the two wars and someone interprets the two wars as the Thirty Years War of the XX century. From a retrospective point of view this is surely true. However it must be remembered that in the Twenties war had been refused both politically and culturally; this was a great difference in comparison with the pre-Great War years, when war was exalted. The Locarno and Briand-Kellogg pacts, the Dawes and Young’s economic plans, a Briand’s speech at the League of  Nations in which he spoke about a European federation seemed to open, at last, a new era of peace. The shock that worsened all the latent tensions was the Great Crisis of 1929: protectionism, nationalism and the rise of  Nazism broke the post war stabilization of the Twenties and progressively conducted to the disaster of World War II, which caused the loss of importance of Europe in international politics.


      The United Nations formal new order, promoted by the United States, soon failed, replaced by bipolarism. For more than forty years Cold War and detente alternated; it was a dangerous, enervating but quite stable order. We can say that  bipolarism structured more and more international relations until 1968. In the 70’s and 80’s the two Superpowers had more and more difficulties in controlling the increasing complexity of international politics. Decolonization, the re-birth of Europe and Japan, the development of the Far East had changed the simpler and Eurocentric world of 1945; also the number of states had increased.


     Between 1989 and 1991 the end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union revolutionized international politics. The world has become freer and full of hope but, paradoxically, also more dangerous and unstable. There are no tensions or predictable wars between great powers but there are more local conflicts and after 9/11 terrorism has become an international problem that is still troubling the international community. Although democracy and the respect for human rights have developed in many areas, political and economic stability is still the privilege of few.US unipolarism proves unable to govern the complexity of the global world. At the same time supranational institutions are still far from being able to substitute states in global governance.
     The international political system, after the end of the Cold War, is still searching for a new balance which could receive legitimisation. We can hope that the “ reason of system ” will soon meet a cultural consent on fundamental human rights. All we can do is to study and to act trying to change, accordingly with our values, structures that are historically based but quite never unmodifiable.  


Age Grouping: school/university