The Duke of Wellington orders the line to advance at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. (Getty Images)

June 18, 2015


Two hundred years ago, the Battle of Waterloo put an end to France’s imperial ambitions and marked the beginning of a century of British global dominance. The battle was a landmark in Britain’s lasting strategy to retain a balance of power on the Continent. But the culmination of World War II brought about a fundamental change in this strategy that is now playing out as a EU referendum bill makes its way through the British Parliament.


“It has been a damned nice thing. The nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Two hundred years ago today, the Duke of Wellington uttered these words after his famous victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo. The battle had indeed been hard-fought; Wellington’s 67,000 British troops stared down the barrels of France’s 69,000-strong army. Muddy conditions mitigated some of the French artillery threat, as cannonballs failed to skip across the battlefield with their usual deadly effect. Nevertheless, neither side could gain the upper hand until the late arrival of the Prussian army, headed by Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, shifted the balance firmly in Britain’s favor.

The Battle of Waterloo was important not only for the British, but for the entire Continent as well. Along with the accompanying Congress of Vienna, it marked the end of the explosive period that followed the French Revolution, and it symbolized a successful, but ultimately temporary, attempt by leaders of the Old Europe to quash nationalism and movements for social equality. (These forces would re-emerge over the following century.) The French Revolution had unleashed a maelstrom of new ideas in Europe, a wave that the resourceful Bonaparte rode as he led his armies to victory after victory, redrawing the boundaries of the Continent and building an empire. Though a coalition of European armies had defeated him in 1814, he reassembled support and threatened the allied powers yet again only a year later. Waterloo proved to be the climactic victory that ended French ambitions for continental dominance, ushering in a century of relative peace.

Rise of the British Empire

For Britain, the Battle of Waterloo was a resounding success. It not only subdued France, a major rival, and paved the way for Britain’s global dominance; it also proved the effectiveness of Britain’s balance-of-power strategy in action. The strategy’s origins can be traced back to the end of England’s Hundred Years’ War with France in the 15th century. The discovery of the Americas soon afterward left Britain, with its Atlantic coasts, well positioned to take advantage of the world’s new continent. Meanwhile, the loss of its possessions on the European mainland, which had been obtained through conquest and marriage, freed Britain from Continental entanglements and, as a result, the maintenance of expensive land forces. The ruling Tudor dynasty built up Britain’s maritime capability, and the country soon profited — first through piracy and later through established colonies and trade routes of its own. Eventually, the Royal Navy came to dominate the world’s sea-lanes.

Britain’s island status protected it from foreign attackers, so long as no other nation developed a strong enough navy to challenge Britain’s own — a point proved in an early scare, when inclement weather fortuitously defeated a large Spanish invasion fleet. The best way to prevent such a threat from occurring again was to make sure that no single power controlled the European peninsula. Over several centuries, Britain repeatedly intervened on the side of weaker forces to maintain a balance of power against any potential hegemon. When Spanish King Carlos II died in 1700, Britain stepped in to ensure that the French and Spanish crowns were not united, defeating French troops at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. And when Bonaparte set about building a French Empire and, adding insult to injury, persuading the remaining Continental powers to halt trade with Britain, London dispatched Wellington’s army to fight up through Spain and counter the new French threat.

The Treaty of Paris and the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 were clear demonstrations of Britain’s strategy. Having obtained its maritime rights in the Treaty of Paris, Britain’s priority in the Congress of Vienna was to ensure that no power emerged supreme in the New Europe. In pursuit of this goal, Britain initially joined forces with Austria and Prussia, then with Austria and France, to try to keep Russia from annexing all of Poland. Britain then opposed Prussian plans to annex Saxony and move the Prussian king to a freshly prepared region in the Rhineland, since it wanted France hemmed in by stronger buffer states.

Though Britain failed to get everything it wanted at the Congress of Vienna, the Continent that emerged was composed of a relatively even balance of forces that, except for the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars, saw an unusually lengthy period of peace. The lack of conflict with Continental adversaries enabled Britain to focus its efforts on commercial pursuits around the world. At the peak of the British Empire, its colonies covered 22 percent of the Earth’s landmass — an empire “upon which the sun never set.” But the Congress’ clampdown on nationalism could not last forever; the unifications of Germany and Italy shifted the Continental balance once more, forcing Britain to intervene in 1914 and 1939 to contain the rise of a potential hegemon.

A Weaker Britain Adjusts Its Strategy

The two World Wars took a toll on Britain, accelerating the demise of its empire. The United Kingdom that emerged in 1945 faced a different world: The United States had inherited the British global role of patrolling the oceans and guaranteeing trade, while Europe had set itself on a course toward gradual integration. The island nation was forced to change its strategy; as a weaker player, it had to work to avoid being absorbed by one of its allies. It began balancing between its American cousins and its European neighbors, preventing either from gaining excessive influence over it. As part of this strategy, and to maintain its sway in Europe, the United Kingdom joined the European project in 1973. Still, it has always been a reluctant integrationist, negotiating opt-outs and rebates for itself whenever possible.

In the past 15 years, the uneasy arrangement has become strained as Europe’s integration efforts have ramped up. The 1999 adoption of the euro as a single currency, of which the United Kingdom opted out, and the accession of 12 new members were merely symptoms of the union’s wider trends of becoming larger and more tightly knit. These trends have created problems for the United Kingdom’s strategy of maintaining influence in Europe without being fully absorbed by it.

As a result of the growing tension, the United Kingdom’s new Conservative government has introduced a referendum bill that is currently making its way through the Houses of Parliament. British Prime Minister David Cameron has given himself the task of renegotiating the United Kingdom’s relationship with the Continent, at which point the country will hold a public “in-out” referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. The goal of the renegotiation is to loosen Europe’s embrace; British leaders hope that the threat of the world’s fifth-largest economy departing the bloc will induce European negotiators to grant the United Kingdom the ability to retain both its influence and autonomy. Such an outcome would allow the United Kingdom to maintain its balance-of-power strategy,

The Europeans will face their own constraints, namely, the fact that the concessions the United Kingdom seeks would undermine the European Union’s cohesion. The deal London ultimately secures will define the result of the referendum. If the British public delivers a negative verdict and rejects the offered adjustment as insufficient, the United Kingdom’s planned step toward autonomy could ultimately become a giant leap.

Much has changed over the past 200 years. The United Kingdom’s fortunes have risen and fallen, but the Duke of Wellington would surely recognize one aspect of its strategy that has remained unchanged: the importance of maintaining an even balance between competing forces.


— The Battle of Waterloo: A Landmark in Britain’s Geopolitical Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.