3.6 Balance of Power

5 min readjanuary 21, 2023

Catherine Brown

Catherine Brown

Jillian Holbrook

Jillian Holbrook

AP European History 🇪🇺

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After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, a new competitive state system developed, heralding new patterns of warfare and diplomacy. The concept of balance of power replaced religion as the center of military and diplomatic objectives. Balance of power asserted that nations could secure their own security by preventing any one state from gaining too much power.
Thus, nations had increased incentive to work together to prevent domination by any one nation and check the power of other nations.
After the Thirty Years War, France emerged as the dominant European power under the rule of Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” In addition, the decline of the Holy Roman Empire–which was not holy, Roman, or much of an empire–as well as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, allowed other nations to expand. 

The Wars of King Louis XIV

Louis XIV wanted to expand France’s borders, causing other nations to align to offset France’s power. France’s main rival was Spain, as Louis desired to take over Spanish Habsburg possessions. In the Dutch War, Louis invaded the Spanish Netherlands but was forced to retreat by combined English and Swedish pressure, leading to the Dutch War (1672-1678), during which Spain ceded Flanders and Franche-Comte to France.
In response, William of Orange created the Grand Alliance (aka the League of Augsburg) with England, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire to check French expansion.  The Nine Years' War, which pitted the Grand Alliance against France, resulted in the loss of the French territory Lorraine (although France kept the Alsace region) and the acceptance of William of Orange as the rightful King of England. 
The War of Spanish Succession was most damaging for Louis and France. Charles II of Spain died without an heir, meaning the Spanish throne would be passed to Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip. Other European nations feared this would allow Louis XIV to merge the Spanish and French thrones. The Grand Alliance went to war against France to prevent Philip from taking the throne.
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ended the war. Philip could become King of Spain (Philip V), but the Spanish and French thrones could never unite. Austria also gained control of the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) as well as Naples, Milan, and Sardinia. The Duke of Brandenburg became King of Prussia, which would emerge as a powerful German state. Finally, the war devastated the French economy, driving France into deep debt and turning public opinion against Louis XIV. 

Decline of Empires 

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the subsequent Peace of Augsburg left the Holy Roman Empire religiously divided between Protestantism and Catholicism. The Thirty Years' War and the Treaty of Westphalia politically divided the empire into 300 states. The Holy Roman Emperor had no army, revenue, or even central authority, and as a result, Habsburg-ruled-Austria and Hohenzollern-ruled-Prussia became the leading German states within the empire. 
Poland also experienced a decline in the 18th century. The king was elected by the diet (legislature), made up of nobles who restricted monarchical power, and all political decisions required the unanimous support of all nobles, meaning little was ever accomplished. Poland soon became vulnerable to stronger nations, and throughout the 18th century, it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. After the final partition in 1795, the state of Poland ceased to exist. 
The Ottoman Empire also experienced a marked decline. After combined Austrian, German, and Polish forces expelled the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Ottomans ended their westward expansion, sparking a gradual period of decline. The empire would remain intact until WWI, but it was increasingly regarded as the “sick man of Europe.” Internal pressures, despite attempts to modernize, weakened the empire throughout the 19th century. 

Technological Developments 

The Military Revolution

Advances in military technology created new forms of warfare, including greater reliance on infantry, firearms, mobile cannon, and more elaborate fortifications, causing a military revolution. These developments were financed by heavier taxation, requiring a larger bureaucracy, which furthered the rise of consolidated nation-states. New military techniques and institutions tipped the balance of power to states that were able to acquire sufficient resources to support a growing, modern military.

Sweden: Gustavus Adolphus

The Swedish military revolution of the early 17th century, also known as the Gustavian era, was a period of significant military and political change in Sweden under the leadership of King Gustavus Adolphus. Gustavus Adolphus, who ruled from 1611 to 1632, implemented a number of sweeping changes to the Swedish military and government, transforming it into one of the most powerful and modern armies of the time. These changes included the creation of a standing, professional army, the establishment of a centralized command structure, and the introduction of new tactics and technology, such as the use of mobile artillery.
Gustavus Adolphus was a skilled military strategist and tactician, and his innovation and leadership were instrumental in Sweden's military successes during the Thirty Years' War and other conflicts in the early 17th century.

Spain: The Habsburgs

One of the key aspects of Spain's military revolution under the Habsburgs was the development of a powerful navy. During the 16th century, Spain's navy was expanded and improved, making it one of the most powerful navies in the world at the time. This allowed Spain to establish a global empire and control the seas, which was essential to the country's economic and political power.
Another aspect of Spain's military revolution was the development of a powerful and well-trained infantry. The Habsburgs introduced a new type of infantry, known as the tercio, which was composed of pikemen, musketeers, and arquebusiers. These soldiers were highly trained and well-equipped, becoming instrumental to Spain's military successes during the 16th and 17th centuries.
However, Spain's military revolution also had its downsides. The Habsburgs' constant warfare and expanding empire drained the country's resources, leading to economic difficulties and eventually to the decline of Spain as a major European power.
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