Collective Security - Early history

Although the modern idea of collective security was born in 1914, it has roots in the distant past. Elements of collective security were present in some of the leagues of ancient Greek states, and likewise in the experiment of the Holy League in Renaissance Italy (1495). China saw some unsuccessful experiments in cooperative leagues of independent states in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C . prior to a period of bitter warfare ending in the victory of one state that imposed unity. In his De recuperatione sanctae terrae (ca. 1306), Pierre Dubois produced a plan of this sort in Europe, and in the seventeenth century, Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, produced a more famous plan, which proposed keeping the peace by general pledges to defend the territorial status quo. Similar schemes flourished in the eighteenth century, when such philosophers as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham were among the authors of "plans for perpetual peace." Among the romantic utopians of the earlier nineteenth century was Comte Henri de Saint-Simon. The little world of Swiss independent cantons proved an interesting laboratory for such experiments. Although it seldom worked effectively, collective security as a "universal alliance" of all the states within a given international system (which in former times could embrace a particular area such as China, Greece, Italy, or Switzerland) is a basic, archetypal mode of international relations, lying somewhere between total state egoism (in which states may be allied with each other in hostile or "balance of power" groupings subject to alteration) and a federated or unitary superstate that has managed to absorb the lesser sovereignties.

In the nineteenth century, the classic era of nationalism, Europe found little room for collective security. The nineteenth-century "peace movement" looked mainly in other directions. Quite vigorous in the decades preceding the out-break of war in 1914, this world peace movement put its emphasis on arbitration, disarmament, and the growth of international law by voluntary agreement. In accordance with the spirit of the times, people felt that progress toward peace would come gradually and voluntarily. The long era of European peace embracing most of the period from 1815 to 1914, and especially from 1871 to 1914, was not favorable to the consideration of drastic plans. Most people complacently assumed that the Western world had set its feet firmly on a path that led slowly but inevitably to the extinction of war. The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 reflected this outlook. Leading spokesmen of the pre-1914 period rejected a "league of force" as impracticable and too extreme, although in the early 1900s there was some discussion of a European "league of peace" pledged to nonaggression and arbitration of disputes. Thus, for example, the French socialist Jean Jaurès suggested such a league in 1900.

In the realm of practical statecraft, the "concert of Europe" invoked from time to time was a nebulous conception without any permanent organization or specific constitution. A general congress of all the European powers might be assembled to deal with a particular crisis, as happened in 1856 and 1878, but this was really only an extension of the methods of traditional diplomacy, in which states negotiated with each other through their appointed agents of foreign policy. Multistate conferences of a more restricted membership, including the signatories to a particular treaty or convention, might also be held on an ad hoc basis, as, for example, the Algeciras Conference of 1906 that dealt with the Moroccan crisis. In such meetings of the powers there was at most a faint foreshadowing of a permanent and regularized international league or society.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Collective Security forum