Deviations can subvert the system

The Birth of a Great Power System 1740-1815. First Edition
February 24, 2006

This book, designed for undergraduates, is a clear and interesting contribution not only to work on the history of European international relations but also to the theory - particularly associated with the work of Paul Schroeder - that this subject is best approached in terms of a system. This system is seen as moulding the options and policies of individual powers.

H. M. Scott presents his topic in terms of the changes in the system and the rise and fall of the particular powers within it. He valuably links these further to changes in particular states, domestic improvement being seen as a product of international competition.

His account - which is a thorough updating of his contribution to The Rise of the Great Powers 1648-1815 (1983) - is particularly strong on Austria, Prussia and Russia. But it ranges more widely and covers developments outside Europe in so far as they reflected competition between the European powers.

A discussion of great powers in the period that, however, neglects China is all too typical of the Western-centric nature of the standard approach and, partly as a result, this method requires an overhaul. Nevertheless, Scott's deft union of narrative and analysis provides a good guide through the often complex nature of European international diplomacy.

At whatever date a history book starts, there is a risk of creating misleading discontinuities. The mid-18th century can indeed be profitably considered in light of what came earlier; the 1720s and 1730s are too frequently seen simply as a prelude to the 1740s. Fortunately, Scott's able chapter on the situation in 1740 looks back sufficiently to provide the perspective of the longue durée .

I am less convinced than the author, however, of the value of the systemic approach, not least because it seems to offer a structural account that underplays the nature of contingency. Indeed, in some respects the systemic approach reproduces the language of the period, such as the terms "balance of power" and "natural interests", which implied that a hypothetical international system operated according to certain rules. This underplays the impact of the unpredictable personal views of rulers, as well as the logical problem of arguing from a general theory to individual policies.

Once a system and its development are defined, it is all too easy to assume that the events that correspond to the system are explained, and that those that do not correspond are deviations from the norm. This approach also underrates the uncertainties of the past, the role of choice and the difficulties of choosing. It is necessary to ascertain what particular attitudes and ideas meant to specific individuals or groups at particular moments. Such specificity subverts long-term models and is difficult to incorporate into them.

Scott's approach is probably more welcome to undergraduates, and the accessible nature of his book is enhanced by a useful chronology and by a thorough and up-to-date bibliographical essay that does not hesitate to offer judgments. For example, he writes: "For Russia, John P. Le Donne, The Russian Empire and the World 1700-1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment (New York, 1997) and his later and complementary The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650-1831 (New York, 2004), are informative but idiosyncratic and make too much of their geopolitical premises."

These and other judgments are apposite and will be valuable to students. This is a useful book that, within its particular parameters, is the best available.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

The Birth of a Great Power System 1740-1815. First Edition

Author - H. M. Scott
Publisher - Pearson/Longman
Pages - 433
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 582 21717 2

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