Bismarck’s Treaty System

Bismarck’s Treaty System

Otto von Bismarck was Chancellor of the German Reich from 1871 until 1890. He is best known for a complex web of treaties with the other European powers – France, Great Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tsarist Russia. These treaties allowed Germany to grow industrially and militarily without provoking attack by any combination of those rival powers.

Bismarck’s diplomacy ending the Balkan Crisis of 1879 increased Imperial Germany’s international prestige, at the same time limiting Czarist Russia‘s influence in that region. Anticipating a frustrated Moscow, Bismarck wisely sought protection from Austro-Hungary via a mutual defense treaty signed in 1879, a treaty relationship which would hold until the end of the First World War.

In 1881 Bismarck pulled off another diplomatic coup by reducing tensions with Tsarist Russia and signing a treaty of mutual defense with Moscow, thereby preventing a possible anti-German coalition between Russia and France. Bismarck extended this system of alliances in 1882 by crafting a treaty involving the German Reich, Austro-Hungary and Italy, adding Rumania in 1883, defending against a possible French-British alliance against Germany.

Unfortunately, this complex, brilliantly devised system of treaties would fall apart not long after the young and impulsive Kaiser, Wilhelm II., took power and decided that Bismarck‘s time had come to an end. Wilhelm II. went on to antagonize and provoke Europe‘s powers in all the ways in which Bismarck had worked so hard to avoid. In August 1914 the Great War began.

Avoid Entangling Alliances

As a nation-state, in their international relations, Americans warn against becoming involved in complexity. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) – an English-American political theorist-activist, author, and revolutionary – instilled non-interventionist ideas into the politics of the American colonies.

His work Common Sense (1776) argued in favor of avoiding alliances with foreign powers and influenced the Second Continental Congress to avoid forming an alliance with France.

George Washington’s farewell address restated Paine’s maxim: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.“

Thomas Jefferson extended Paine’s ideas in his inaugural address on March 4, 1801: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would become the Monroe Doctrine: “In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense.“

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