The Peace of Utrecht and the Balance of Power
The years 2013 and 2014 mark the tercentenary of the peace settlement that put an end to one of the major and most devastating wars in early-modern European history, the War of the Spanish Succession (1700–1713/1714). The war erupted after the death without issue of the last Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II (1665–1700). Charles’s death triggered a violent conflagration of the European diplomatic system, which the major rulers of Europe had anticipated with dread but had proven incapable of averting.
When the sickly Charles II assumed the throne of Spain as a 4-year-old in 1665, the problem of his succession already troubled the mind of many a European prince. The riddle of the future of the vast Spanish Monarchy, which contained among other territories Naples, Milan, the Southern Netherlands and the colonies in Latin America and Asia, had the potential of disrupting the fabric of Europe and was a question of vital interest to all the powers of Europe. The major candidates for the succession were the emperor and the Austrian Habsburgs, the French Bourbon dynasty of Louis XIV (1643–1715) and the Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasty. After the Nine Years War (1688–1697), the leader of the anti-French coalition, William III, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (1689–1702) and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic (1672–1702) negotiated a partition treaty with Louis XIV to divide the inheritance between the three main contending houses (First Partition Treaty of Loo/The Hague of 24 September/11 October 1698, 22 CTS 197). After the death of the Bavarian candidate, Joseph Ferdinand (1692–1699), a Second Partition Treaty was made (London/The Hague, 13/25 March 1700, 22 CTS 471). These treaties were vested on the acknowledgement that the Spanish Monarchy was too great to fall into the hands of a great power such as the Austrian Habsburgs or France, as this would destroy the balance of power and allow such a power to threaten the liberty and interests of all. To William III, who had built his career on warding off the French attack on the Dutch Republic in 1672 and on his preventive strike against England to impede England from joining France in a new attack in 1688, the containment of France had been the backbone of his policies for almost three decades. Now, the threat of the resurrection of the old Habsburg empire of Charles V (1516–1558), which was almost as threatening to the freedom of Europe as the union of France and Spain, forced him to raise his resistance to ‘universal monarchy’ to a higher level of abstraction. It gave a powerful boost to the idea of the balance of power as a general principle of international relations.
Just before his death in November 1700, Charles II had made a new testament in which he dictated that the Spanish Monarchy had to remain one and indivisible and in which he appointed Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, to be his universal successor. The stipulation that upon an eventual rejection of the inheritance, the crown would pass to the second son of Emperor Leopold I (1658–1705), the Archduke Charles, left Louis XIV with little choice but to accept the testament. Philip of Anjou assumed the Spanish throne as Philip V (1700–1746). That and a series of French provocations resurrected the grand alliance of Britain, the Dutch Republic and the Austrian Habsburgs which had fought France in the Nine Years War. By 1702, the War of the Spanish Succession was in full flow.
By the winter of 1708–1709, after a series of defeats, the French King was willing to enter into serious negotiations. His refusal to promise help against his own grandson Philip V in case the latter refused to cede the Spanish throne prevented an agreement. The victory of the Tories in the 1710 British elections, which led to an estrangement from the Dutch Republic, and the ascension of Archduke Charles to the imperial throne as Charles VI (1711–1740) opened the door to a Franco-British compromise. The foundation of that compromise was the preservation of the balance of power by preventing a union between the French and Spanish monarchies and by dividing the Spanish Monarchy.
After having reached a secret, preliminary agreement with Versailles in late 1711, London forced its reluctant Dutch allies to convene a universal peace conference, which met at Utrecht in early 1712. After more than a year of further negotiations – most of which took place at a bilateral level between and in London and Versailles – on 11 April 1713, the first major peace treaties were signed at Utrecht (most important of all, that between France and Britain, 27 CTS 475). As had been the case at other ‘universal’ peace conferences before, peace was concluded not in one multilateral instrument, but through a series of bilateral peace treaties, some of them supplemented by a treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation. On 13 July 1713, the peace treaties between Spain and Britain (28 CTS 295) as well as between Spain and Savoy (28 CTS 269) followed. Between then and February 1715, some additional treaties were concluded at Utrecht. Meanwhile, Louis XIV also reached peace with the Austrian Habsburgs at Rastatt on 6 March 1714 (29 CTS 1) and with the Holy Roman Empire at Baden on 7 September 1714 (29 CTS 141).
Through the Peace of Utrecht/Rastatt/Baden, the Spanish Monarchy was divided. While Philip V retained Spain and the Spanish colonies, the Italian and Belgian possessions for the most part went to the Austrian Habsburgs. But the crucial piece of the puzzle was the agreement that the French and Spanish monarchies would never be united under one person. Thereto, Philip V had to cede all his rights to the French throne, while the princes in line for the French and Spanish succession after him had to cede their rights to the Spanish throne.
Utrecht’s greatest claim to fame in the history of international law is the textual inclusion of the principle of the balance of power in the text of some peace treaties. Article 2 of the Hispano-British Peace of 13 July 1713 (28 CTS 295) literally stipulated that peace in Europe could only be sustained if the balance of power were preserved. Therefore, the union of the crowns of France and Spain could never be condoned and had to be excluded for the future. The article incorporated the different charters of cession of Philip V and the French princes, as well as their acceptance by Louis XIV. The article was based on similar clauses in the treaties of 11 April 1713, which did, however, lack a direct reference to the balance in the body of the article. But they also incorporated the same charters, all of which held such a reference.
It has been said by international lawyers that the introduction of the balance of power in the Utrecht Peace Treaties promoted it into a foundational principle of the positive law of nations (Twiss 1884; Oppenheim 1905). Others (Duchhardt 2000) have pointed at the scarcity of references to balance of power in later treaties of the 18th century.
It is indeed remarkable that direct references to the balance of power in 18th-century treaties remain relatively rare and in almost all cases relate to matters of dynastic succession. The concrete legal implications of adopting the balance of power as a principle of the law of nations may indeed have been restricted to superseding the normal order of dynastic succession in a few cases but in the Europe of the 18th century this was a change of the greatest order. Since the rise of the dynastic ‘states’ in the late 15th and 16th centuries, claims to dynastic legitimacy to rule over certain territories formed the underlying fabric to the political and legal order of Europe. These were based on an amalgamation of feudal, canon and imperial law, historic rights, dynastic inheritance, conquest and cession by treaty. Much of these lay embodied in the rules of succession that held together most states – which were in fact personal unions of different realms – and were constitutive and constitutional to that state. The supersession of these rules was nothing less, as Dhondt has convincingly argued (Dhondt 2011), than the transformation from a legal order based on legitimacy and at times ‘universal monarchy’ to a horizontal order based on treaties and agreement. This new order assumed recognition of common responsibility for the ‘security and tranquillity of Europe’ – a much repeated catchphrase in late-17th and 18th-century treaties (Lesaffer 2005) – and a special role of the great powers (Osiander 1994; Lesaffer 2002). Between 1713 and 1740, France and Britain would assume this responsibility by forming an objective alliance to uphold the Utrecht compromise (Dhondt forthcoming 2015). It is here that lurk the older roots of the modern system of collective security as a trust of the great powers.
Treaties forming the Peace of Utrecht (including the Treaty of Rastatt and the Treaty of Baden)
Treaty of Peace and Friendship between France and Great Britain, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (27 CTS 475)
Treaty of Peace and Amity between France and the Netherlands, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (28 CTS 37)
Treaty of Peace and Amity between France and Savoy, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (28 CTS 123)
Treaty of Peace and Amity between France and Prussia, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (28 CTS 141)
Treaty of Peace and Amity between France and Portugal, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (28 CTS 169)
Treaty of Peace between Savoy and Spain, signed at Utrecht, 13 July 1713 (28 CTS 269)
Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Great Britain and Spain, signed at Utrecht, 13 July 1713 (28 CTS 295)
Treaty of Peace between the Emperor and Spain, and France, signed at Rastatt, 6 March 1714 (29 CTS 1)
Treaty of Peace and Commerce between the Netherlands and Spain, signed at Utrecht, 26 June 1714 (29 CTS 97)
Treaty of Peace between the Emperor and Spain, and France, signed at Baden in Ergau, 7 September 1714 (29 CTS 141)
Treaty of Peace between Portugal and Spain, signed at Utrecht, 6 February 1715 (29 CTS 201)
Related treaties signed at Utrecht
Treaty between France and Portugal for a Suspension of Arms, signed at Utrecht, 7 November 1712 (27 CTS 335)
Treaty of Guarantee of the Barrier between Great Britain and the Netherlands, signed at Utrecht, 29, 30 January 1713 (27 CTS 373)
Convention between Great Britain and Savoy respecting the Commerce of Sicily and Great Britain, signed at Utrecht, 8 March 1713 (27 CTS 397)
Convention between France and Savoy for a Suspension of Arms, signed at Utrecht, 14 March 1713 (27 CTS 405)
Convention for the Evacuation of Catalonia and for an Armistice in Italy between the Emperor, Spain, and Great Britain, and France, signed at Utrecht, 14 March 1713 (27 CTS 409)
Treaty between the Emperor and Spain and Prussia, signed at Utrecht, 2 April 1713 (27 CTS 465) [providing for the cession to Prussia by the Emperor of the town of Guelders and various neighbouring places in satisfaction of claims by Prussia formerly entertained by Charles II of Spain, Prussia in exchange now renouncing such claims]
Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between France and Great Britain, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (28 CTS 1)
Treaty of Navigation and Commerce between France and the Netherlands, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (28 CTS 83)
Provisional Regulation of Trade in the Spanish Low Countries between Great Britain and the Netherlands, signed at Utrecht, 26 July 1713 (28 CTS 355)
Treaty of Navigation and Commerce between Great Britain and Spain, signed at Utrecht, 9 December 1713 (28 CTS 429)
Other related treaties
Règlement instituted by Great Britain and the Netherlands for the Government of the Spanish Netherlands pending the Placing of the King of Spain in Possession, signed at Brussels, 5 October 1711 (27 CTS 167)
Preliminary Articles for a Treaty of Peace between France and Great Britain, signed at London, 27 September (8 October) 1711 (27 CTS 187)
Treaty for the Suspension of Arms between France and Spain, and Great Britain, signed at Paris, 19 August 1712 (27 CTS 315)
The Asiento between Spain and the East India Company (Great Britain), signed at Madrid, 26 March 1713 (27 CTS 425)
Preliminary Treaty of Peace between Great Britain and Spain, signed at Madrid, 27 March 1713 (27 CTS 455)
Treaty of Alliance between the Netherlands and the Grisons, signed at The Hague, 19 April 1713 (28 CTS 189)
Act for the Cession of Sicily by Spain to Savoy, signed at Madrid, 10 June 1713 (28 CTS 203)
Agreements for the Execution of the Treaty for the Evacuation of Catalonia between the Emperor and Spain and Great Britain and France, signed 22 June, 31 July 1713 (28 CTS 233)
Treaty between the Emperor and Spain and Great Britain and the Netherlands for a Barrier for the Netherlands, signed at Antwerp, 15 November 1715 (29 CTS 333)
Treaty of Commerce between Great Britain and Spain, signed at Madrid, 14 December 1715 (29 CTS 369)
Agreement between the Emperor and the Netherlands, signed at Antwerp, 30 January 1716 (29 CTS 383)
Liquidation Convention between the Emperor and the Netherlands, signed at Antwerp, 31 January 1716 (29 CTS 395)
Convention for Explaining the Articles of the Asiento of 26 March 1713 between Great Britain and Spain, signed at Madrid, 26 May 1716 (29 CTS 465)
Convention between France and Sicily, signed at Paris, 4 April 1718 (30 CTS 293) [for the settlement of a question of frontier delimitation left unclear by Article 4 of the Treaty of Utrecht of 11 April 1713]
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