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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 four-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 possibility that the Spanish Monarchy might fall into the hands of another great power led France, Great Britain, and the Dutch Republic to enter into two partition treaties (22 CTS 197 and 22 CTS 471) in the interests of peace.

However, just before his death in November 1700, Charles II frustrated those hopes for lasting peace by making a new testament in which he (1) dictated that the Spanish Monarchy had to remain one and indivisible, (2) appointed Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV of France, to be his universal successor, and (3) stipulated that if Louis XIV rejected the succession, it would pass to Archduke Charles of Austria. Philip of Anjou’s assumption of the Spanish throne as Philip V (1700–1746) (as well as a series of French provocations) resurrected the grand alliance of Britain, the Dutch Republic, and the Austrian Habsburgs that had fought France in the Nine Years War. By 1702, the War of the Spanish Succession was in full flow and was to continue for more than a decade longer.

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).

Histoire amoureuse et badine du congres et de la ville d'Utrecht en plusieurs lettres écrites par le domestique d'un des plenipotentiaires à un de ses amis. / par Augustinus Freschot. Peace Palace Library. Digitized by Bert Mellink and Lilian Mellink-Dikker from the partnership "D-Vorm VOF". CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Histoire amoureuse et badine du congres et de la ville d’Utrecht en plusieurs lettres écrites par le domestique d’un des plenipotentiaires à un de ses amis. / par Augustinus Freschot. Peace Palace Library. Digitized by Bert Mellink and Lilian Mellink-Dikker from the partnership “D-Vorm VOF”. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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. Others 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 (Frederik Dhondt, ‘From Contract to Treaty. The Legal Transformation of the Spanish Succession 1659–1713’, Journal of the History of International Law, 13 (2011) 347–75), 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 – and a special role of the great powers. Between 1713 and 1740, France and Britain would assume this responsibility by forming an objective alliance to uphold the Utrecht compromise. It is here that lurk the older roots of the modern system of collective security as a trust of the great powers.

Headline image credit: Allegory of the Consequences of the Peace of Utrecht by Paolo de Matteis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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