Historians generally have presented the expansion of the international system from the 1850s to the outbreak of the First World War by tracing the various historical factors back to a primary fundamental one. Some studies give more weight to a specific aspect, such as the bourgeoisie, or the imperialist powers, European hegemony, or the crisis of the lesser powers. The flaw in this analysis is that it gives too little weight to the interactive processes at work between the Mediterranean and Atlantic European areas and between these and the rest of the world: the former are depicted as dynamic, the latter as passive or as dominated by the British, French, and German states.
None of these analyses properly takes into account the optimism that percolated on both sides of the Atlantic, heralding the intention of Americans and Europeans to seek converging forms of coexistence, so that geography might no longer be an obstacle to the circulation of people, ideas, culture, goods, and technology. The growing similarity of different areas of the world is a defining trait of nineteenth-century civilization, which stopped being solely European and took on an international air, not just because the economic interests of two continents converged but because this new wave of Westernization was marked by the establishment of similar political, economic, social, and cultural institutions of both continents.
The balance-of-power principle governed the new order, as a result of which wars took place over a smaller geographic area and tended to be brief. This principle applied to all the sovereign European and non-European states and reinforced by the growth of free trade and the expansion of multilateral relations, both facilitated by adoption of the gold standard. Other factors that furthered the interaction of nation and world included the general acceptance of constitutionalism and of the liberal order as principles recognized by all states, so as to balance citizens’ freedom against the power of government. The liberal order, which guaranteed freedom of assembly, opinion, and the press, encouraged a strong public opinion that became international in this period. It also strengthened property rights, which in turn stimulated the free circulation of people and goods, and the formation of one market governed by a meeting of supply and demand, and the growth of consumption.
Modern institutions in the Euro-American world made the great discontinuity with the vanished Ibero-American world more striking; their distinctive feature was precisely the convergence of the national and international dimensions, made possible by new technologies such as the mail, telegraph, and telephone, which improved communication, and the easier and faster movement of people and goods by railroad, large sailing ships, and steamships. An easy to visualize the transformations covered in this chapter is to keep in mind the new global dimension that resulted from reduced travel time, which also helped accelerate the propagation of ideas and products and promoted cooperation.
From European to international concert
One of the more significant phenomena of the second half of the nineteenth century was that all the Euro-American countries were much more active on the international scene than they had ever been. The prerequisite for this greater dynamism was the renewed balance-of-power principle: unlike the situation before the American, French, and Latin-American revolutions, the idea of sovereignty now included the meaning of nation and was no longer just an attribute of monarchies. In this period, inspired by Rousseau, the ideal of people’s sovereignty took hold, reinterpreted at the constitutional level by liberalism, allowing the new American republics, which until then had been recognized as de facto governments, o become sovereign states de jure.
The traditions that for centuries had bound Latin America to Europe facilitated the American countries’ participation in the international system The Congress of Vienna began a reexamination of the ideas basic to the notion of the Concert of Europe which was in effect at the time of the eighteenth-century revolutions. The Concert of the Europe was an informal agreement among the European monarchs, who pledged to balance their power and maintain peace on the Continent and in their overseas colonies. The new concept of national sovereignty incorporated the United States and the Latin American republics in this downsized power club, thus creating an international order open to all states, independent of their form of government. The result was an evolving international order based on consent and cooperation.
The new order took shape at the time of the Crimean War and the Congress of Paris (1856), which restored pace in Italy and the Near East but did not prevent the creation of the Kingdom of Italy with Rome as its capital (1870) or of the German Empire (1871); the two new states would mark the beginning of the decline of the Russian and Austrian empires and the definitive victory of the nation-states. Thus the Concert of Europe, redefined by the Congress of Vienna, became intercontinental, regulating itself on the new principle that no sovereign state could be excluded, so long as each state recognized that its importance on the international scene depended on its economic and military power, geographic location, and ability to form coalitions and alliances with other sovereign states in times of crisis. The new order was thus open ended because the number of great powers was neither predetermined nor limited to Europe. The new order was at work when Germany, toward the end of the nineteenth-century, began to question Britain’s hegemony; when Japan became a power in the Far East in the early twentieth century; and in the new muscular role that the United Stated started assuming in the late nineteenth century.
The transition from a European concert to an international one gave birth to an international system of states that took into account their unequal weight and affirmed the idea that, no matter how small a state’s power, it was sufficient to guarantee it a role in the balance of power. The new system was no longer fixed, unyielding, but offered to all sovereign states the possibility of joining.
Still, the new order was not strong enough to prevent nations such as the kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia, Prussia, Mexico, Japan, or Chile to act like soccer sweepers to increase their power, even if this did not sit well with the other powers. Thus Piedmont and Prussia could become sovereign states; Mexico could defeat the French on the international scene and liquidate Maximilian’s empire; Brazil could become a republic and send into the exile the House of Braganza, which was relates to tge great reigning European dynasties, and Chile could pursue a power policy in the South Pacific and to stand up to European and North American pressure.
This system was not a closed universe, since it did not rely simply on the economic, military, and political power of the large and medium-sized states but also on the actions of the smaller states, for they too could destabilize the balance. The small states were interested in joining because they also pursued the idea of national interest, that each state must guarantee its own existence, and growth, now and in the future. The idea of national interest gave specificity to the concepts of sovereignty and independence, was submitted to public scrutiny by evoking geographic integrity and natural borders, and spread forcefully to both North and Latin American countries, most of which had indistinct national borders.
The defense of the national interest was especially strong in the dissatisfied European nations, especially those that, like Italy, had acquired the status of nation-state late, but it was also strong overseas, where the national interest was at work in the multiplicity of conflicts and disputes about the definition of national borders. To defend their national interest, Latin American countries also established alliances or counted on the neutrality of large and medium-sized European powers. They understood that participation in the international system would facilitate the resolution of conflicts and preserve peace.
The transition from the European concert to the international one widened Europe’s participation in non-European areas. To deal with growing competition from the smaller states, the major European countries improved their military and naval power by increasing their military budgets and underwriting the growth of shipyards, weapons factories, and related industries.
The broadening of the international community and the rapid growth of resources to be used for both diplomacy and the military brought about a shift in the balance of power. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a greater flexibility in the international order favored those countries willing to devote a larger part of the revenues to their international standing. As a matter of fact, new sovereign states such as the United States and Italy, and especially Germany, came into their own as powers by increasing their army and navy budgets, supporting foreign trade, and intensifying their diplomatic and cultural presence abroad. In this period an international concert took shape in which some old powers such as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Austria, and recent ones such as Germany, the United States, Italy, and Japan, became the leading countries. As a British jurist wrote at the time, this more flexible international order would encourage the idea of an international supreme court of appeals, which the creation of the League of Nations would try to implement.
Nationalist but also pacifist and socialist tracts in countries dissatisfied with their ranking in the international order criticized the system that was taking shape; they argued that it favored the European plutocracies at the top of the system, without their hegemony guaranteeing peace. On the country, the ruthless competition among them, especially outside Europe, would lead the world to war.
From the end of the nineteenth century to the 1930s, all countries in Europe and the Americas developed an interest in measuring their power quantitatively. The simple indicators used in the late 1800s – such as territorial size, population, education level, number of industrial, banking and commercial enterprises, and foreign trade – began to be supplemented by economic variables such as production and employment. These data yielded the first estimates of national wealth and its translation in terms of army and navy power, measurable in terms of armed men, battalions, cannon, battleships, corvettes, and submarines – which contributed indirectly to the birth of the air force. To understand the importance of a country’s industrial and technological strength in defining its military deterrent (seen as synthesis of its power in the international scenario), it suffices to consider that the eight superpowers owned 68.4 percent of the world’s industrial production in 1880, 81.5 percent in 1913, and 74.8 percent in 1928. These countries led not only in military power but financially, as is evident in their ability to export capital to other countries and manage the supping of goods.
Competition among the superpowers also favored the rise of new powers. Examples are the role played by British capital in the birth of U.S. power, the French loans used to build up Russia’s industry and military, and the alliance Great Britain offered to japan in order not to lose its foothold in the Far East. Another example is the opportunity the European superpowers extended to the nonindustrialized Latin American countries to professionalize and modernize their armies and build a modern navy and air force, using the greater financial resources gained from growth in production and exports.
However, the superpowers used their military industry to secure orders from nonindustrialized countries interested in buying a deterrent to protect their sovereignty, pursue their national interest, and secure their borders. As a result the nonindustrialized countries developed a foreign policy whose broad lines mimicked those of the superpowers, reproducing the phenomenon that I have described for Atlantic Europe, that is the constant growth of military expenditures.
Between 1850 and 1870 the Latin American republics constituted almost half of the world’s sovereign states, had succeeded in affirming their sovereignty and had avoided recolonization by Spain or the intervention of Napoleon III. To defend their sovereignty, they resorted to all available diplomatic, political, and strategic channels, maintaining good relations with all countries without forming alliances with any. The Latin American governments found it convenient to reformulate and adapt the new order to their needs and strengths, making it more flexible. Their presence helped end the exclusively Eurocentric order and break up the asymmetry between Europe and Latin America that till governed the commercial treaties signed in the 1820s and 1830s.
Carmagnani, M. (2011). The Other West: Latin American from invasion to globalization. University of California Press.