TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE BALANCE OF POWER' OUT OF REPAIR.
THE Convention of Gastein has probably given the coup de grlice to most sensible men's faith in the European political instrument called balance of power.' As the " pro- visional " disposal made of the quondam Danish Duchies by that document,—of course these disposals are always pro- visional' till the nerves of Europe are a little accustomed to the new shock, and then they are declared permanent, — was the third instance of pure spoliation by a great power' within the last six years, and the spoliation in each case was ignored by the other great Powers, on the ground that their own interests were not sufficiently involved to give occasion to interfere, the fine theory that the great Powers of Europe are always sitting as a sort of committee to prevent encroachments on the weaker Powers which are dangerous in principle to the peace of Europe, can no longer hold out before the "logic of events." The truth is that as four out of five of the great Powers of Europe are in fact all but despotisms, and as no despotism can pretend alarm at the principle of conquest so long as the conquest is made from weak peoples and not so made as to threaten strong thrones, it needs a very special shock, a shock such as does not often startle the world, to make those great Powers feel any real uneasiness at an inroad, how- ever cynical, upon the weak. The gigantic wars of Napoleon did indeed for a time frighten the great Powers of Europe into a certain community of antagonism towards anything which savoured of territorial encroachment. But that feeling has long been dying away. First, Austria gulped down the little republic of Cracow, when an empty and vain protest followed. Then Russia began to deal with the sick man's' possessions, and would probably have been permitted to annex them, had it not suited the French Emperor to make a name for his dynasty in Europe. The Crimean episode no doubt a little delayed the backsliding of the great Powers of Europe into their natural policy of preying unrebuked on their weaker neigh- bours. Nor were they easy enough to begin again, till France had stopped her own mouth by taking willing Savoy and un- willing Nice for her pay after the campaign in Lombardy. At that proceeding Austria, Prussia, and Russia looked on with grim satisfaction, feeling no doubt that their own turn would come soon ; and only England—the one great power not despotic but free—professed any resentment. Next came the turn of Russia to break through the treaty of Vienna by de- liberately absorbing Poland and setting the opinions of the Western Powers at defiance. Last of all, Prussia and Austria —or rather Prussia with Austria as a reluctant accomplice— have found their turn come round, France and Russia not finding their own interests sufficiently deeply involved to take any step on behalf of Denmark. England, the only great power which has not followed the same policy, which indeed by her free, popular constitution, has been forced into a nearly opposite policy, and has given up the Ionian Islands to Greece while all the other Powers were inclosing new territory within their borders, — England, though herself giving instead of taking, has learned even better than the other great Powers to regulate her interference or non-interference abroad by the amount of the selfish risk she might incur in the individual case through remaining neutral. That England will only interfere when English interests are threatened, is, or appears to be, better established than the same principle in the case of any of the despotic States. The other Powers have stood aloof, as much from the wish for a grasping precedent which it may be convenient for them to quote and follow, as from any abstract principle of policy. But England, while uniformly objecting in words to acts of public robbery, has been praised by men of all parties for refusing to draw the sword except on her own behalf. Who, then, can now talk of balance of power' as a principle guarded by the great Powers, and favourable to the weaker Powers of Europe because protecting the latter from wanton aggression? The great Powers, instead of really co- operating to regulate the territorial changes of Europe, take, each what it can get for itself, without seriously alarming the others for their own safety, and feels a modest confidence that no one will interfere so long as only the little neighbours are eaten up. That balance of power' consists in indulging only a moderate greediness has been the principle of the great Powers since the assimilation of Savoy and Nice by France. If
they can only manage to take it turn and turn about, to annex, and to let their annexations keep a fair proportion to those of their sister Powers, the balance may still be retained, though constantly trimmed by equal additions to opposite scales. If
France without Nice and Savoy balanced Russia without a digested and assimilated Poland, Prussia without Schleswig, and Austria without Holstein, then France plus Nice and Savoy probably balances just as well Russia with an over-run and denationalized Poland, Prussia plus Schleswig and Lauen- burg, and Austria plus Holstein—or whatever she ultimately intends to take in place of Holstein, when she gives up Holstein to Prussia. Such, apparently, is the only kind of trimming of the balance which at present has any strong hold of the imagination of the four great despotic European Powers. France has indeed a more generous conception of foreign policy and a certain amount of sympathy with the patriotic- aspirations of distressed peoples, but her own conduct in relation to Nice and Savoy, her selfish views upon the frontier of the Rhine, and finally her task in Mexico, render her both unwilling and unable to do anything alone in the interests of mere justice to prevent the other despotic Governments from following the example of moderate encroachment on con- venient territory which she had set.
But this selfish substitute for balance of power,' this tacit agreement on the part of all the great Powers that each should let the other plunder in turn, so long as nothing is done to. disturb the relative importance of the more powerful States, is not a sort of balance that can long rest undisturbed upon its pivot. It was not this sort of balance of power which was intended when Switzerland was declared neutral, when Belgium was guaranteed against attack, nor even so late as 1852, when the succession was fixed for the throne of Denmark by that common consent of the European Powers on which the Convention of Gastein furnishes so cynical a commentary. The only balance of power' which can have any sort of tranquillizing effect on Europe is a virtual co- operation of the greater Powers to cheek any one of their- own number, or any second-rate power not of their own number, in the unjust use of force against the weaker in- dependent States. At present it appears to mean 'the privi- lege to annex, limited only by fear of each other,' instead of the privilege to resist territorial change, limited only by re- spect for the legitimate wishes of the great populations.' The effect of acting on the former principle is more and more visible every year in Europe. France has never yet laid. the anger and the jealousy to sleep which her cynical seizure of Nice produced. The Radical party in Italy re- garded it, and regard it, as more than an offset against all her timely help. England has never yet quite forgiven it, and the resentment it produced and the fear of a new stroke of the same kind were undoubtedly the disturbing forces which pre- vented England from coming to any hearty agreement with France to protect Denmark. Russia has succeeded in swal- lowing Poland, and whether she can keep it down or not, she deeply irritated the popular feeling both in France and Eng- land in the process. Now that Prussia has followed suit by punishing Denmark for not uniting Schleswig and Holstein, and immediately separating them herself with preparatione for absorbing one if not both absolutely into the Prussian monarchy, German popular feeling is roused into a similar flame of indignation, and the peoples of Europe at least, if not their rulers, are fast learning to believe, with the poet, that "Earth is sick and Heaven is weary of the hollow words which States and Kingdoms utter when they talk of truth and justice." A state of European feeling in which every weak State knows for certain that the Powers of Europe except England will do each what is right in its own eyes, on con- dition only of not alarming each other, and England, though abstaining from all selfish aggrandizement, has completely made up her mind to abstain also from all acts of unselfish generosity that may involve her in war, is not significant of a peaceful future. Some popular confidence in international justice is even more necessary than a mere balance of forces, to keep Europe at rest. The balance of forces may be unsettled any day by a genuine alliance amongst some of these at present mutually distrustful Powers. While each acts sullenly and alone for its own interests there may be a sort of equilibrium indeed, but only unstable equilibrium which once disturbed is never restored. But if two great Powers are once heartily allied for offence and defence, either for the sake of doing or preventing some great injustice, the smouldering irritation of the peoples of Europe will be fuel to the flame, and we may have another war on a grand scale, which these cynical annexations of territory from weak States will in reality have provoked. Talk as we will, and as the laissez-faire school does, of the pacific results of nson- intervention, there is a kind of non-intervention which the great Powers of Europe have recently been studying and practising, that will do as much to stir the passions of Europe as the most fussy and mis-timed intervention. Without a disposition to enforce justice among the strong, the weak can never be either happy or quiet. Permitting your neighbour to be robbed in peace so long as you have reason to believe that you have yourself some security against that unpleasant operation which he has not, will not promote the security of even the best guarded property long.