Napoleon’s Impact on International Relations

Jeremy Black tells how the delicate system of international relations and ancien regime diplomacy was shattered by the Emperor’s arrogance and refusal to play by the rules.

Napoleon was a meritocratic monarch: he seized power through his own determination, rather than through inheriting the throne: indeed he created a new monarchy. Yet this determination was founded largely on force and a selfish unwillingness to accept the views of others, characteristics retained throughout his years of power. In many respects they stemmed, not only from Napoleon’s personality, but from the regime under which he had risen to prominence and the fact that he had risen as a general – one who specialised in offensive warfare, moreover.

The government of the Directory (1795-99) believed war necessary in order to support the army, to please its generals and to control discontent in France, not least by providing occupation for the volatile military. Military convenience, lust for loot, the practice of expropriation, political conviction and strategic opportunism all encouraged aggressive action, as with the occupation of the Papal States and Piedmont and the invasion of Switzerland in 1798. The Directory could neither inspire trust nor seek compromise with conviction. Mutual diplomatic distrust, rather than the specific points at issue, proved the crucial element in leading France and Austria to renew hostilities in 1798.

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