European Diplomatic Revolution

European Diplomatic Revolution
European Diplomatic Revolution

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, ending the Thirty Years’ War, is considered the beginning of modern diplomacy in Europe. The treaty established the idea of nation-states by acknowledging the sovereign rights of individual countries.

As such, conflicts came to revolve around issues related to “the state.” In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht, ending the War of the Spanish Succession, formalized the fundamental principle of the new diplomacy—balance of power.

The idea behind the doctrine dictated the preservation of the status quo, so that no one nation-state held authority over any other. If the balance of power shifted in favor of any member state, all other states had a vested interest to intervene, even if by force, in correcting the shift.


In 1789 the French Revolution unleashed myriad ideas that threatened the balance of power in Europe. Fears spread among Europe’s elite that the lower classes would overthrow the old order, or ancien régime, through violence. Accordingly, European leaders aimed their diplomatic efforts at minimizing the Revolution’s influence.

However, Napoleon I’s conquest of continental Europe in the wake of the Revolution shifted the balance in France’s favor nonetheless. Accordingly, a British-led coalition formed to counter the shift in power on the continent.

In the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the idea of equilibrium among the nation-states reemerged to preserve peace. As a result, Europe entered a period that would characterize the 19th century—the congress system, popularly known as the Concert of Europe, due to the spirit of cooperation it ushered in among the major European nations. The system’s intention was to enforce the peace settlement established by the Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon.

Led by Austria’s Prince Clemens von Metternich, participants of the Congress—Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia—set the course of European affairs, agreeing to prevent future conflicts that would endanger each nation. Although differing ideologically, it was a formal pledge to keep events like the French Revolution and the American Revolution from unbalancing the status quo.

Unfortunately, the revolutionary turmoil of 1848 signaled the end of the Concert of Europe. Triggered by events in Sicily and France, a wave of revolutions swept across the continent that marked the downfall of the ancien régime.

Influenced by liberal reformers and dismal economic conditions, the poor working class and starving peasants reacted violently to the changes that had oppressed them. Doomed by broad reform goals and mediocre leadership, the uprisings were quickly suppressed with negligible affects on the European way of life.

Despite a few exceptions—the end of feudalism in the Habsburg Empire, the freeing of serfs in Russia—little changed other than the deepening of the socioeconomic conditions that had started the revolutions. In light of the chaos, the European nation-states isolated themselves from one another, concentrating efforts on their own national interests.

By 1875 upheavals and nationalist sentiment undermined the congress system. Amid conflicts like the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War, the Concert of Europe came to an end. At midcentury, diplomacy had become synonymous with the display of military force and the demonstration of military might.

Ushering in an era of new imperialism based on creating empire for empire’s sake, it became the means for establishing trade partnerships, colonial outposts, and expanding and securing national interests, with considerable effect.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 epitomized the nature of the new diplomacy: establish dominance or be dominated. With the Spanish defeat, the balance shifted from the European continent toward the United States at the close of the 19th century. However, it would take World War I to establish fully the new diplomatic paradigm.