The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe : Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change
Scholars have long argued over whether the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended more than a century of religious conflict arising from the Protestant Reformations, inaugurated the modern sovereign-state system. But they largely ignore a more fundamental question: why did the emergence of new forms of religious heterodoxy during the Reformations spark such violent upheaval and nearly topple the old political order? In this book, Daniel Nexon demonstrates that the answer lies in understanding how the mobilization of transnational religious movements intersects with--and can destabilize--imperial forms of rule.
Taking a fresh look at the pivotal events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries--including the Schmalkaldic War, the Dutch Revolt, and the Thirty Years' War--Nexon argues that early modern "composite" political communities had more in common with empires than with modern states, and introduces a theory of imperial dynamics that explains how religious movements altered Europe's balance of power. He shows how the Reformations gave rise to crosscutting religious networks that undermined the ability of early modern European rulers to divide and contain local resistance to their authority. In doing so, the Reformations produced a series of crises in the European order and crippled the Habsburg bid for hegemony.
Nexon's account of these processes provides a theoretical and analytic framework that not only challenges the way international relations scholars think about state formation and international change, but enables us to better understand global politics today.
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Princeton University Press
January 01, 2009
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Excerpt from The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe by Daniel H. Nexon
IN JUNE 1546 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of a vast realm stretching from the New World to Central Europe, began preparations for war against the rebellious towns and princes of the Protestant Schmalkaldic League. He explained to his sister, Mary of Hungary, that
if we failed to intervene now, all the Estates of Germany would be in danger of breaking with the faith . . . After considering this and considering it again, I decided to embark on war against Hesse and Saxony as transgressors of the peace against the Duke of Brunswick and his territory. And although the pretext will not long disguise the fact that this is a matter of religion, yet it serves for the present to divide the renegades.1
Charles's gambit inverts one of the standard stories found in political-science scholarship: that elites use the rhetoric of identity--whether religious, ethnic, or nationalist--as a way of generating support for policies that, in truth, serve their own power-political or material ends. Critics often challenge such stories, of course. They argue that a particular set of claims about identity reveal the genuine interests of elites. Or they suggest that even if elites deploy identity claims cynically, we still need to understand why such claims succeed or fail in generating popular support for particular policies.2 We seldom, however, envision the reverse: that a head of state might seek to fragment the opposition by hiding his religious objectives behind a cloak of political rhetoric.
It is even more striking, then, that Charles's divide-and-rule tactics met with initial success; his forces scored a decisive victory in the Schmalkaldic War. But at the 1547-1548 Diet of Augsburg, he overplayed his hand. The 1548 Interim of Augsburg sought to reconcile religious schism in Germany, but instead prompted a new Protestant alliance against Charles. With the support of the French king, Henry II of Valois, it seized the offensive against Charles and his supporters. Charles's brother, Ferdinand, opened negotiations with the rebels. Ferdinand ultimately concluded the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. Charles abdicated his titles and divided his domain between Ferdinand and Charles's son, Philip II of Spain.3
This chain of events represents only one puzzling part of a much larger story: how the Protestant Reformations led to a profound crisis in the European political order.4 Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the emergence of new forms of religious heterodoxy catapulted much of the European continent into violent conflict, caused political authority in entire states and regions to implode, and destroyed the Habsburg bid for European hegemony. Despite significant attention to early modern Europe among international-relations scholars, few treat these events as an explanatory puzzle. Some look to the period merely for evidence of the enduring struggle for security and domination among great powers. Others expend a great deal of energy arguing over whether or not the Protestant Reformations, and the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which supposedly put an end to inter-state religious conflict in Europe, marked the origins of the modern, sovereign-territorial state system.5
Contemporary developments render our comparative lack of interest in the dynamics of religious struggles in early modern Europe all the more puzzling. We live, many tell us, in an age of religious revival. Anxieties about violent religious movements now exercise a strong influence over foreign and domestic policy in the United States, Europe, and many other political communities. Most existing attempts to draw "lessons" from the European experience, unfortunately, suffer from extraordinary superficiality or a terminal infatuation with stylized stories about European political development. Thus, serious policy analysts inform their readers that "Islam's problem" is that it never had a "Westphalian moment." Some suggest, similarly, that Islam needs a "reformation" that will break the hold of its clerics and usher in an era of tolerant religious pluralism and secularism.6 Henry C. K. Liu, writing in the Asia Times Online, draws an even more breathtaking set of analogies:
The Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War, a secular war with religious dimensions. Subsequent wars were not about spiritual issues of religion, but rather revolved around secular issues of state. The "war on terrorism" today is the first religious war in almost four centuries, also fought mainly by secular institutions with religious affiliations. The peace that eventually follows today's "war on terrorism" will also end the war between faith-based Christian evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists. Westphalia allowed Catholic and Protestant powers to become allies, leading to a number of major secular geopolitical realignments. The "war on terrorism" will also produce major geopolitical realignments in world international politics, although it is too early to discern its final shape . . . . [It] will eventually lay to rest U.S. hegemony and end the age of superpower, possibly through a new balance of power by sovereign states otherwise not particularly hostile to the United States as a peaceful nation.7
Whatever the merits of these claims, the fact remains that international-relations theorists have been staring directly into the face of a rich and consequential case of the impact of transregional and transnational religious movements on conflict, resistance, political authority, and international change for decades. Yet we have mounted few sustained investigations into its causal processes and mechanisms.8
This book addresses, first and foremost, this oversight: I provide an explanation for why the Protestant Reformations produced a crisis of sufficient magnitude to alter the European balance of power, both within and among even its most powerful political communities. I argue that the key to understanding this impact lies in the analysis of the dynamics of resistance and rule in the composite political communities that dominated the European landscape. Many of the most important political ramifications of the Protestant Reformations did not stem from any sui generis features of religious contention; they resulted from the intersection of heterogeneous religious movements with ongoing patterns of collective mobilization.
Religious contention, given particular formal properties and specific ideational content, triggered up to five processes extremely dangerous to the stability of early modern rule:
It overcame the institutional barriers that tended to localize resistance against the rulers of composite states, thereby making widespread mobilization against dynastic rulers more likely.
It undermined the ability of rulers to signal discrete identities to their heterogeneous subjects, thereby eroding their ability to legitimate their policies on a range of issues, from religion to taxation.
It provided opportunities for intermediaries to enhance their own autonomy vis-a`-vis dynastic rulers; religious contention complicated the tradeoffs inherent in the systems of indirect rule found in composite polities.
It exacerbated cross-pressures on rulers--by injecting religious differentiation into the equation, by increasing the likelihood of significant resistance to central demands, and by creating often intense tradeoffs between political and religious objectives.
It expanded already existing channels, as well as generated new vectors, for the "internationalization" of "domestic" disputes and the "domestication" of inter-state conflicts.
Given the right circumstances--a transnational, cross-class network surrounding religious beliefs and identities--the spread of the Protestant Reformations therefore activated many of the existing vulnerabilities in early modern European rule. Not every instance of religious contention, of course, produced all of these dynamics. Variation in institutional forms, the choices made by agents, and other contextual factors also influenced how these mechanisms and processes played out in particular times and places. And nonreligious contention sometimes triggered similar processes. On balance, however, the injection of religious identities and interests into ongoing patterns of resistance and rule made cascading political crises more likely than they might otherwise have been.
This explanation contributes to this book's secondary task: to assess the status of the early modern period as a case of international change. Was the early modern period, as Daniel Philpott suggests, a "revolution in sovereignty" or otherwise, as traditionally understood in international-relations theory, a key moment in the emergence of the modern state system?9 My answer involves two claims. On the one hand, the Protestant Reformations shaped the development of the sovereign-territorial order, but in far more modest ways than many international-relations scholars assume. On the other hand, a better analytic approach to the concepts of "continuity and change" in world politics allows us to see what kind of a case of change the Reformations era represents: one of the rapid emergence of new actors--transnational religious movements--altering the structural opportunities and constraints of power-political competition.
The third, and final, goal of this book is to specify precisely such an analytic framework for the study of international continuity and change. I develop an approach to this problem, called "relational institutionalism," in the second chapter. It combines key aspects of sociological-relational analysis with historical-institutionalist sensibilities. This framework provides the theoretical infrastructure for my explanation of the book's primary puzzle, as well as for how we should understand early modern Europe as an instance of international change. But I also intend it to serve as a novel way of approaching inquiry into continuity and transformation in world politics. Relational institutionalism, I argue, incorporates insights from the major prevailing approaches to the study of international relations; it also provides a way of reconciling some of their apparently very different claims about the fundamental dynamics that drive international relations.
The next three sections of this chapter offer a more comprehensive introduction to these facets of the book. I provide greater detail with respect to my central argument about the impact of the Protestant Reformations on early modern European politics, and I briefly elaborate on my claims about the Reformations' role in the emergence of the sovereign-territorial state system. The second section situates the subject matter of this book within the broader debate about international change; the third section provides an overview of the analytic wagers and key claims associated with a relational-institutionalist approach to international change. In the final section, I discuss the organization of the rest of the book.
My argument begins with the most banal of claims: we cannot understand the political impact of the Protestant Reformations without reference to the institutional structures and dynamics of early modern European states. How, the reader might ask, could it be otherwise? Some of the most influential international-relations literature on international change in early modern Europe, I answer, pays very little attention to patterns of resistance and rule. Scholars too often content themselves with taking a "before" and "after" picture and then explaining the changes in between primarily through an assessment of the content of new religious beliefs and identities. This kind of analysis provides us with a great many insights, but it spends too much time in the realm of the spirit--of ideas, doctrines, and what constructivists call "constitutive norms"--and not enough in the profane world of political disputes over taxation and governance.10
Princes, magnates, urban leaders, and ordinary people in early modern Europe pursued wealth, power, security, and status through the medium of existing authority relations and well-rehearsed forms of political contention. Their political struggles, within the confines of existing political communities, almost invariably involved disputes over the extent of local rights and privileges, the scope and distribution of taxation, and the relative power of different social classes.11 Such conflicts often included what we would now call an "international" dimension. Princes, magnates, and even urban leaders sometimes negotiated, conspired, or allied with outside powers. Rulers exploited internal conflicts to advance their power-political interests and make good their territorial claims.12
Early modern European polities were neither radically decentralized "feudal" entities nor modern nation-states. Many historians now use the term "composite state" to describe the heterogeneous political communities that dominated the early modern European landscape. Whether confederative or imperial, ruled by hereditary or elected princes, or operating as autonomous republics, most early modern European states were composed of numerous subordinate political communities linked to central authorities through distinctive contracts specifying rights and obligations. These subordinate political communities often had their own social organizations, identities, languages, and institutions. Local actors jealously guarded whatever autonomy they enjoyed. Subjects expected rulers to uphold their contractual relationships: to guarantee what they perceived as "customary" rights and immunities in matters of taxation and local control.13
By the end of the fifteenth century, dynastic norms and practices almost completely dominated European high politics.14 Rulers and would-be rulers competed to extend not only their own honor, prestige, and territory, but also that of their dynastic line. They did so through principles--marriage, conquest, inheritance, and succession--that, as Vivek Sharma argues, "were the primary organizing principles of European government for over six centuries."15 As Richard Mackenney notes, for "those who governed, the interests of the family were all important" and that, in consequence, "the survival or extinction of the dynasty was the difference between peace and war, and the accidents of inheritance shaped the power blocs of Europe as a whole."16
Dynastic rulers enjoyed important advantages over other political leaders, including superior access to the means of warfare and greater political legitimacy in the context of political expansion and consolidation. Such advantages meant that the most significant pathway of state formation in the late medieval and early modern periods was dynastic and agglomerative. In Wayne te Brake's words, "Most Europeans lived within composite states that had been cobbled together from pre-existing political units by a variety of aggressive 'princes' employing a standard repertoire of techniques including marriage, dynastic inheritance, and direct conquest."17
Charles of Habsburg's expansive monarchy presents the most spectacular case of dynastic agglomeration. Between 1515 and 1519, Charles acquired--as a result of contingencies of dynastic marriage, death, insanity, and political maneuvering--a realm including present-day Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, parts of what is now Italy, Germany, and Austria, as well as Spain's New World possessions. He became king of the Romans and, later, emperor, which placed him in charge of the unwieldy Holy Roman Empire.18 His wealth, territories, and his status as emperor "raised the spectre of a Habsburg universal monarchy in Europe, fuelled by the bullion of the Indies and the trade of Seville."19
Martin Luther began his public call for reformation of the Catholic Church in 1517. Historians and social scientists continue to debate why, and to what extent, Luther's actions sparked an explosion of heterodox challenges to the institutional structure and theological principles of the Catholic Church.20 But his influence, and that of other religious leaders and movements, led to over a century and a half of tumult across Latin Christendom. The Reformations did so, as I have suggested, because of the ways they intersected with the underlying dynamics of early modern European politics.
Early modern European composite states suffered from chronic instabilities. They were, as we have seen, agglomerations of different peoples and territories divided by distinctive interests and identities. They enjoyed comparatively weak coercive and extractive capacity and relied largely on indirect rule through magnates, urban oligarchs, and other elites who often pursued their own interests and agendas. Endemic dynastic conflicts, for their part, outstripped the extractive capacities of early modern states, engendering resistance and rebellion among their subjects. Dynastic composite states, moreover, experienced recurrent succession crises. ZDynastic succession only functioned smoothly if a ruler lived long enough to produce a competent male heir old enough to assume the reins of power. In an era of high infant mortality and minimally effective medical care, disputed successions occurred with great frequency.21
Many of these sources of instability, however, also conferred specific benefits to dynastic rulers. First, the composite quality of early modern states created strong firewalls against the spread of resistance and rebellion. Because subjects in different holdings had different identities and interests, and because they were ruled via distinctive contractual relations, they had little motivation or capacity to coordinate their resistance against the centralizing impulses of their rulers.
Second, the underlying bargains of composite states reflected and exacerbated the stratification of early modern European society along divisions of class and status. Composite states distributed rights and privileges among urban centers, aristocrats, and rural society in such a way that for one group to gain an advantage meant a diminishment in the position of another. Rulers exploited these fault lines through strategies of extending differential privileges, such as granting exemptions to nobles to secure their loyalty during periods of urban unrest.
Subjects riven by class and regional differences could not easily join together to oppose their rulers. Dynastic agglomerations, therefore, usually only suffered widespread internal conflict under three conditions: when exogenous shocks, such as famines, led to generalized unrest; when rulers severely overreached in their demands and thus provoked simultaneous uprisings; or when a succession crisis drew in contending elites from across the dynastic agglomeration in the high stakes struggle over who would control the center.22
Early modern struggles over central and local control, taxation, and the distribution of rights and privileges were often contentious; they usually ended in blood and tears. But only under specific circumstances did they spiral out of control and risk collapsing central authority. The spread of heterodox religious movements intersected with sources of chronic instability in early modern Europe and made them more dangerous. At the most basic level, once a dispute over tax collection took on religious dimensions, the stakes became even higher: the ultimate fate of one's immortal soul. The interjection of religious disputes into routine political disagreements rendered them much more difficult to resolve.
The spread of heterodox religious movements also produced new social ties centering around common religious identities and grievances. These ties often crossed regional, class, and even state boundaries. In doing so, they created the potential for the most dangerous kinds of resistance to rulers--insurrections that were well funded, militarily capable, highly motivated, and that mobilized diverse peoples and interests against their rulers.
Religious disagreements were neither necessary nor sufficient to produce such rebellions. Religious conflict played, at best, an indirect part in the Catalan (1640-1652) and Portuguese (1640-1668) revolts against the Habsburgs and the French Fronde (1648-1653). All of the major "wars of religion," in fact, involved disputes over some combination of taxation, local autonomy, succession, and factional control of the court. Religious movements, particularly if they had limited class or regional appeal, might actually hinder individuals and groups from forming effective alliances against their ruler's demands. The Dutch Revolt (1572-1609), the Schmalkaldic Wars (1546-1547), the French Wars of Religion (1562- 1629), and other religious-political conflicts in early modern Europe all displayed aspects of this complex relationship, in which the spread of reformation interacted with the structural dynamics of resistance and rule to produce both a variety of different specific outcomes and an overall crisis in the European political order.
What, then, were the ultimate implications of the Protestant Reformations on international change in early modern Europe? Not, I argue, the emergence of a sovereign-territorial state system in 1648. The Reformations stretched early modern states to their limits. They nearly collapsed the French composite state and produced an independent Dutch polity locked in conflict with its erstwhile Habsburg overlords. The Reformations directly undermined the Habsburg bid for hegemony and weakened the dynastic agglomerative path of state formation. They expanded the conditions of possibility for the future construction of national, sovereign states by linking religious differences to territory.23 As J. H. Elliott writes of Castile and England, "As strong core states of composite monarchies," both "sharpened their own distinctive identities during the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, developing an acute, and aggressive, sense of their unique place in God's providential design."24
As many international-relations theorists note, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked the rise of new theories of sovereignty, of notions of "reason of state," and of the balance of power.25 The Reformations contributed to these developments. Most of the important theories of sovereignty developed in the period were reactions to the turmoil produced by religious conflict.26 Conflicts between dynastic and religious interests forced statesmen and scholars to justify their policies through doctrines of "necessity" and other conceptual innovations that held, in essence, that long-term religious goals should be made subservient, in the short-term, to security and power.27 We cannot fully appreciate such conceptual changes in the absence of an understanding of the practical political consequences of the Reformations.
State institutions, if not the specific contours of dynastic agglomerations, weathered the storm of the Reformations. This fact suggests that we need to be extremely careful about overplaying the broad impact of religious contention on the emergence of the modern state.28 Shifts in the nature of warfare and economic relations ultimately contributed more to the emergence of a Europe composed of sovereign-territorial and nation-states than did the introduction of new religious ideas.29 But recognizing the more subtle impact of the Reformations on European state formation should not blind us to their importance in the study of international relations and international change.
EARLY MODERN EUROPE AS A CASE OF POLITICAL CHANGE
The field of international relations has a strong "presentist" bias. Colin and Miriam Elman argue that "social scientists have an explicit mandate to seek out policy-relevant knowledge, and to answer the 'so what' question."30 I believe that international-relations scholars study world politics, whether in its historical or contemporary manifestations, and that this "explicit mandate" justifies, on its own, analysis of the political impact of the Protestant Reformations. The study of early modern Europe, however, has important implications for the debate about continuity and change in international-relations scholarship.
One of the most enduring questions in international-relations theory-- even before there was such a distinct field of inquiry--concerns whether the nature and conduct of world politics undergoes significant alterations over the course of time. Realists argue that their basic parameters are constant: world politics has been, and will always be, marked by a struggle for power between political communities. Cultural practices, norms, beliefs, and identities may alter, but they themselves will never change the underlying texture of international relations.31
In this view they echo one of their canonical theorists, Niccolo` Machiavelli, who chastised those who read history as if "the heavens, the sun, the elements, human beings had changed in their movement, organization, and capacities, and were quite different from what they were in days gone by."32 Or, as Kenneth Waltz notes in his seminal but much-maligned Theory of International Politics, "State behavior varies more with differences of power than with differences in ideology, in internal structure of property relations, or in governmental form."33
A variety of other schools disagree. English-school scholars adopt a strongly historicist approach to world politics; they trace mutations in international society as a way of understanding the "primary institutions" that govern contemporary world politics.34 A more recent approach, known as "constructivism," articulates a view of international relations as socially and historically contingent: as cultural and social relations alter, so, too, does the basic texture of international politics. "Anarchy," as the title of one of Alexander Wendt's well-known articles claims, "is what states make of it."35
Nonrealist scholars, in general, study international change with two objectives. They seek to demonstrate that the basic processes of international politics are far more malleable than realists suggest. But they also hope to discover from past instances of international change how present developments might alter the parameters of international relations in the not-so-distant future.36 In this latter task, they are joined by those in the realist tradition who, while stressing the basic continuity of power-political competition--whether in the form of the rise and decline of hegemonic states or the workings of the balance-of-power mechanism-- also want to understand how shifts in military technology, economic relations, and other factors might shape future struggles for power.37 We need more, not fewer, inquiries into the two crucial questions of international-relations theory: how plastic the texture of international-relations really is and under what kinds of circumstances that texture undergoes significant alterations.