Author Topic: Faction and Foreign Policy - a discussion of how it should be viewed  (Read 5222 times)


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Faction and Foreign Policy - a discussion of how it should be viewed

The study of national foreign policies in the sixteenth century – and indeed at many other times in history – is one often considered. It is also difficult to work with and understand, far more so than it in fact should be. The reason for this is that the premises involved are often thoroughly misleading. I shall use the sixteenth century in Western Europe for my examples here, though the conceptual ideas I am writing about are generally far more widely applicable.

Let us take a theoretical short-answer question to begin with. “Explain the key aims and alliances of French foreign policy during the reign of Queen Elizabeth of England.” This seems a reasonable enough question on the face of it, but has been selected for wholly the opposite reason. France, from the early 1560s to the early 1590s, was entirely lacking in a centralised leadership. The concept of a national policy simply does not fit with the manoeuvrings of the Wars of Religion. In fact, three fairly distinct factions – the Catholic League led by the Guise family, the Bourbon-led Huguenot protestants, and a royalist/Valois faction under Catherine de Medici and later Henry III – can be seen during this period. Each independently formed alliances, furthered its own dynastic and religio-political interests, and acted as an autonomous military and political unit. All of them were “French”, but it is difficult to argue that any of them were more French than any of the others. The concept of national policy, therefore, begins to break down.

This realisation is an important one for getting a better understanding of the dynamics of policy. Our tendency as citizens of the modern world is to assume that policy is determined by the nation state, and only by the nation state. This is particularly true in Western Europe and Eastern North America, where by and large central governments have provided policy for over two centuries. The nation state is only one, very specialised, form of faction, however. Considering factions, or politically autonomous “chunks”, allows us to get a far easier understanding than if we try and lump two or three opposing factions into one to fit an arbitrary modern “national” boundary.

So what makes a faction a faction? We have determined that a key factor is a measure of political autonomy – it has an ability to determine its relations to other factions independently. Another key factor is the ability to monopolise force; it is rare to have a faction that has no territory under its de facto control. This is not necessarily universal, however, as it can be argued that the Jesuits operated as a semi-independent faction at times, and equally in modern times Al-Qaeda has been a serious international faction without attempting to take & control territory. The condition that they possess some measure independent power, however, stands firm in both cases. These two broad conditions - an ability to determine its own relations to other factions, and the possession of some form of power that can be used independently – are thus the ones we can base our definition of a faction on.

If we now take a look at the sixteenth century again, an appreciation of faction brings our understanding to life. Instead of seeing maps that rarely change, and the occasional movement of the odd town (one would almost wonder what all the fuss was about) we can now look at the policy of each faction in turn.
The Guises had strong links with Scotland via Mary Stuart, and alliances with the major Catholic powers of Spain and the Papacy: ultimately, their faction was operating on an axis stretching from the Mediterranean to the Highlands, pressing their claims to the English, Scottish, and French thrones. Their alliance with Spain was uneasy for very much this reason – an axis that united the British Isles with France would have provided a permanent counterweight to the Habsburg dominated Germano-Spanish axis. They had a lot of effective power during Charles IX’s reign, where a Royal/Guise faction versus a Huguenot/Bourbon faction can be considered the main spilt. The end of hostilities and the rise in favour of the Huguenot Admiral Coligny, however, alienated the Guises. They may well have instigated the St Bartholomew’s day massacre in which Coligny was killed, and which gave rise to their status as a wholly independent faction.

The actions of the Catholic League show many hallmarks we would associate with a state: signing treaties (the treaty of Joinville brought Philip of Spain in as their major ally), wielding military force (even seizing Paris from Henry III in 1588), and furthering their own policies (Pro-Spanish where Henry III’s supporters tended to the more traditional anti-Spanish position). Thinking of France as a single entity makes it much harder to appreciate the facets of Guise policy.
Looking at the Huguenots, their stance was rather different. It was very much localised and defensive, at least superficially. Their alliances came with the Protestant nations of Europe; some German princes (primarily Calvinist ones), with the Dutch under William of Orange, and most importantly with England. Unlike the Guises, acceptance was the primary aim rather than dynastic control: the massacres of Huguenot Protestants led the remainder to provide a very strong support base for leaders such as Coligny. Their shifts from belligerence in the 1560s to reconciliation at the start of the 1570s, and then back again, are interesting in terms of another definition of faction: a temporal one.

Was the “Huguenot faction” of Henry of Navarre in 1589 the same as that of Louis de Bourbon in 1561? The question is a difficult one. Factions continually change in policy, membership, and powers, which makes them a more difficult tool to use in understanding politics than a simple geographical definition of a country. This is particularly the case given the frequent ceasefires and reconciliations in the French Wars of Religion; did the factions simply blink out of existence in times of peace? Perhaps the best way to resolve these problems is to think about the base unit of history – the human being. The Huguenots of 1561 were very much the same people who fought in 1589, with the same grievances and many facets of their basic agenda consistent. Of course, the exact definition of who was “in” and “out” of a faction still blurs at the edges, but given reasonably consistency in people as well as some consistency in politics, we can attempt to draw those boundaries with a reasonable (if occasionally subtle) degree of accuracy.

The French royals fluctuated in their existence as a truly independent faction, but were perhaps most continually represented by Catherine de Medici. In the early periods of the war they were very much on the Catholic side, then swung towards reunifying neutrality in the lead-up to the St Bartholomew’s day massacre of 1572. It was after this point, from 1575 to 1590, the there can truly be said to have been a three-faction system in operation. The politiques, the royalist faction, favoured a strong crown and some measure of religious tolerance in order to regain national unity and prevent bloodshed. The king (Henry III was crowned in 1575) thus had control of one faction, with Henry of Navarre (second in line to the throne after Henry III’s brother Francois) leading the Huguenots and Henry the Scarred controlling the Catholic league. Each faction, even when they allied, had consistently different policy objectives, but that does not mean that those were set in stone. Henry IV managed to finally win precisely by making his policy objectives more fluid and bringing in a wider coalition of people from Henry III’s faction as well as the Huguenots. His conversion to Catholicism, and the deaths of both Henry III and Henry the Scarred,  finally pulled the vast majority of the French back into a single factional group that formed the basis for the modern nation state we know today.

So much for the concept of national policy. The other question, of course is that term “foreign”. Nowadays, with the comparatively settled borders of Western Europe (settled for about sixty years or so, anyhow), we tend to think that a country has its borders; its foreign policy happens beyond those borders, its home policy happens within them. Simply looking back to our previous example of faction rather than nation being the correct political unit shows an inherent problem in this. What really counts as foreign? Taking the sixteenth century once again, did Charles V’s relations with the German princes count as foreign policy or home affairs? What about the Schmalkaldic League’s seizure of the Habsburg-controlled Dukedom of Wurttemburg? Once one has factions that are not nations, the foreign/home distinction quickly becomes meaningless. Even where one is only dealing with nations, the distinction still requires an appreciation of territorial integrities, which are very modern, arbitrary constructs. Was Calais – an English possession for most of the C16th – a matter of home or foreign affairs? Certainly many English rulers considered it to be as much a part of their territory as northern England (and significantly more important to protect).

The politics of factional relations were not, therefore, “foreign” in the sense we think of today. They were partly territorial, partly a matter of religio-political ideology, and partly dynastic, with other factors including the personal dynamics between leaders affecting policy direction. These things were as much policy drivers at home as abroad – indeed in the case of a ruler like Charles V, one could write a significant length book on what counted as “at home” and “abroad” in the first place.

In assessing the successes and failures of so-called “foreign policy”, or for that matter any leader of the Tudor era, we therefore need to look at a range of motivations one would not consider when looking at most western leaders today. If one only thinks of Charles V as a modern politician in Germany, he appears to be an abject failure in the face of a Lutheran success. To do so, though, is to ignore key elements of his policy. As a dynast he succeeded in retaining both the Imperial and Spanish crowns for his family, as a territorial ruler in effectively preventing French domination in Italy (with final French defeat coming shortly after his death), and as both in halting the Ottoman advance into Europe. By Charles’ abdication, whilst most of the Holy Roman Empire was very clearly outside his control, it can be argued that from the beginning of his reign, and earlier, the German states had operated with a great degree of factional independence. The Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg and the Teutonic Knights in particular were beginning their own slow coalescence into the dynastic-based faction that would one day become the feared military power of Prussia. Thus by Charles’ death, the factions (two, since his brother Ferdinand took Germany and his son Philip, Spain) he left behind were arguably more powerful than those he inherited – particularly in the case of Spain, who now dominated Italy and the Low Countries as well as the Iberian peninsula and their significant holdings in the New World.

As a second example, if we return to the three Henries of 1570s-80s France: what then was their foreign policy? Henry the Scarred was an ally of Spain, Henry of Navarre was backed by England, but these dynamics and others cannot be properly understood without the territorial, religio-political, and dynastic background. Spain was helping the Guises as a Catholic ally whose faction effectively included the only legal Catholic heir to the English throne. Henry of Navarre was initially backed in order to keep England’s traditional enemy weak as well as to prevent a violently Catholic Guise becoming the king of her nearest neighbour. He later slowly dispensed with the need for English aid as he moved towards a more Catholic, conciliatory position and came to inherit much of Henry III’s support by dint of being his ally at the point of the King’s death. This internal or “home affairs” dynamic caused a major shift in English and Spanish policy, yet it is not strictly speaking a matter “foreign” to the French nation.

As a final and famous example, there is the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. This event is often cited in terms of how it affected policy, or how it affected international relations. The truth is that it was not just something that affected policy, or some factor external to the system. It was part and parcel of policy, right down to the very personal decisions made by Elizabeth I. Policy and national affairs are not purely impersonal matters, and are not detached from the people who make the decisions. There are still some overarching trends – even perhaps very predictable ones in the long run – as to how factions form, disappear, re-form, and interact. The dynamics and developments of these, however, are in the hands of the individuals that form the basic sub-units of the faction, and their personal stories and abilities are vital to understanding exactly how and why those patterns and trends were realised in the way they were, and whether things might have played out in a different way.
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