This paper is based on Leopold von Ranke’s 1833 essay “The Great Powers”. Upon reading and re-reading the essay, I started to wonder what von Ranke, if he were still alive, would say about the historical developments of the latter half of the twentieth century. I wondered how he would assess the Cold War, and the increasing dominance of American culture in the world outside the United States. I was curious which countries he would see as ‘great nations’ today. In this short paper I will attempt to answer some of these questions.
Before going into detail about my own thoughts, I will briefly summarize the work this paper is based on, “The Great Powers”. The essay deals with the development and politics among the leading nations in Europe between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth century. In the sixteenth century, France and Spain were the dominating powers in Europe. By the late seventeenth century however, during the reign of Louis XIV, France had overtaken Spain to become the dominant power in Europe. France could reach this status because it was not only the strongest military power, but also it was able to use its diplomatic skills and alliances with other states to its advantage.
However, not all European states were willing to accept France’s hegemony, so other states started balancing against it. The leader of this movement was the protestant prince William III of Orange, who later replaced the catholic James II, who had been close to Louis XIV but was disliked by the people, as king of England.
England under William III gained unprecedented national unity, as the new king worked together with the parliament, and they had the support of the people. At roughly the same time, Austria managed to re- conquer Hungary from the Turks, who were allies of the French. In the early eighteenth century then, Russia defeated France’s ally Sweden in the Northern War. Prussia also became stronger, and conquered one of Austria’s most important provinces, Silesia.
The rise of these states naturally brought about a decline in France’s status, and one of the objectives of the France in the late eighteenth century was to regain that status as the leader of Europe. The French government tried to enlist the help of the Third Estate for reforms, but when the Third Estate proved too strong, and revolutionary elements took over. After the French Revolution France under Napoleon emerged stronger than ever before. In his concluding remarks Ranke draws an analogy with literature. He asserts that for the flourishing of a world literature the independent development of individual countries’ literatures is vital, just as for a flourishing world community the independence, both political and cultural, of nations is vital.
What France was to Europe between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century, the US is to the world in the twentieth and twenty-first century. What is remarkable is that there are a number of parallels between the France von Ranke writes about, and the US today. Just like France could dictate politics in many European states during the height of its power, the US influences politics in various countries around the world today.
The covert diplomacy and playing of two sides against each other – when two dogs fight for a bone, the third runs away with it – that von Ranke noted about France has by no means disappeared. The US often simultaneously supported two fighting parties, be it within one country, or conflicts among states. In 1953, a secret US coup used differences between the shah of Iran, who was a constitutional monarch but desired absolute power, and his prime minister, to gain access for American companies to the oil fields in Iran and keep the country under its sphere of influence. In a similar coup, the US replaced the democratically elected socialist president of Guatemala with a military dictator in 1954. (Schulzinger 1998, pp. 241- 245)
Just like the France characterized by von Ranke, the US was perceived as arrogant for not consulting with its Western European allies, but always acting in its own interests. As in Europe several hundred years earlier, other states started to become wary of the unpredictable hegemon who kept its friends as much in check as its foes, and decided it was better to look out for themselves (Schulzinger 1998, pp. 268-269).
Another parallel can be seen in the rivalries between two great powers. Von Ranke briefly mentions the “opposition and balance” between France and Spain in the sixteenth century that determined political life in Europe then (Ranke 1833, p. 182). It is striking how similar this appears to the US and the Soviet Union of Cold War times. In sixteenth-century Europe France emerged as the stronger country from this rivalry, in the twentieth century the US did.
The France of the seventeenth and eighteenth century dominated Europe not only politically, but also culturally. Literature, music, and architecture were French or imitations of French examples. Even the language spoken at most European courts was French. It is widely known that the Prussian king Frederick II, who according to von Ranke made Prussia into a ‘great nation’, spoke better French than German, and about ninety percent of the books in his library in his rococo-style Sanssouci palace (French “without worries”) are written in French. Similar things could be said about the Swedish, Polish, or Russian courts.
During the Cold War, the Russian language and culture had a similar influence in the republics of the Soviet Union. However, the influence was never so large that the governments of Warsaw Pact states other than the Soviet Union spoke Russian. The influence of the US culture on the other hand has been much wider. During the twentieth century, American culture and lifestyle gained immense popularity all over the world. The most obvious examples are Hollywood movies and the omnipresent fast food chains, but also household items like washing machines, dryers, TVs, and the number of cars per household.
Von Ranke claims that culture plays a vital role for a country to become politically dominant (Ranke 1833, pp. 187-188). This is a realist standard of measurement, corresponding with Kenneth Waltz definition of a country’s power. Waltz points out that a state’s power cannot be measured only by its military strength, size of territory, endowment with natural and human resources, economic capability, or political stability, but only by all these factors combined (Waltz 1979, p. 131). It follows that to challenge a dominant state, or to attain dominance for itself, a nation needs to become powerful in all these regards (Ranke 1833, p. 189).
In von Ranke’s analysis, several states managed to become such great powers: England, Austria, Russia, and Prussia. In all four cases, the rise in power and status was not only grounded in military strength, but also in an increased political stability and growing cultural influence. In the case of England, political stability came from the new king William III of Orange. The king was protestant like the English people, not catholic like his predecessor James II. He also made an effort to work together with the Parliament rather than against it. As a result the king had the backing of the people, which made governing and collecting revenues much easier, and national sentiment stronger. With the increased income, William III built up the navy to make England the supreme sea power. On the cultural side, England’s literature not only flourished, but also William Shakespeare’s works became popular outside of the country. (Ranke 1833, pp. 189-192)
Austria gained status mostly through military power and the expansion of its territory, as Austria managed to re-conquer Hungary from the Ottoman Empire. Russia became great power under Peter I. In the 1709 battle of Poltava, Peter I decided the Northern War in favor of Russia. He proceeded to build a new capital, St. Petersburg, with European-influenced architecture, from scratch. This demonstration of military power gave Russia the power to influence politics in northern and eastern Europe, for instance in Poland where France had given the orders earlier (Ranke 1833, pp. 191- 197). Peter’s international orientation also paved the way for developments in Russian literature and music that started with Lomonosov and his contemporaries, and would reach their height in the nineteenth century with Pushkin, Dostoevky, and Tchaikovsky.