Napoleon’s Impact on French-British International Relations

Napoleon’s Impact on French-British International Relations


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France had been at war with its European neighbors for decades prior to the events of 1789 and it was not und 1802 that the conflicts opposing it to other European States would come to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Amiens with England - Napoleon’s Impact on French-British International Relations introduction. The peace of Amiens was short-lived however. In 1803, barely one half years after the treaty, France declared war on England and embarked on what has been called the Napoleonic Wars. In terms of intensity and duration, this conflict was unprecedented and involved every major European power at one point or another in the course of the twelve years that it lasted. This paper will tend to explain the occurrence of the Napoleonic Wars and impact of Napoleon on the French-British international relations.

France, England and Napoleon

At any rate, the situation that was to emerge with the French Revolution did not provide France or Europe with the stability sought. It did however change international relations and the way international action would be conceptualized for many years to come, for the age of the bourgeois revolutions patterned after the French one was about to start in continental Europe. In the mean time, the onset of the Napoleonic Wars was an attempt to go beyond the interregnum of the years 1789-1803 but it did not result in the permanent order France had wished for its own security.

Given the relations France alleged England to entertain with continental monarchies, it saw England’s behavior as a violation of the right of France to live according to its own wishes. For the France of the Revolution, states had to relate to one another as individuals and respect one another’s independence and interests and live peacefully as long as no other state impinged on the other’s right. The perceived concerted interference of foreign powers on France’s own soil (Lyons 1994).

The main threats to France were in fact curbed after Bonaparte took power. His aim had been to root out royalism within and achieve peace with European States without. In early 1802, these two objectives were attained and they were met with satisfaction among all walks of life in France, for keeping the monarchy out was thought to be all that was needed to be secure and prosperous (Bourne 2005: 108).

The French Revolution had purported to be the dawn of a new political culture, which was supposed to put an end to conflicts among peoples. To the revolutionaries themselves, the triumph and spread of reason would eliminate the divisions grounded in passion. Yet the political culture with the face of science was housed in one particular state: France, and not in the others (Bourne 2005).

Unfortunately, “international patterns of amity and enmity have important cultural dimensions” (Jeppenon, Wendt, and Katzenstein 1996: 34) and amity relies on a fair amount of sameness. Once the French Republic was founded on a territorial and ideal basis, the structure which arose in both realms led almost naturally to a pattern of enmity which fed on events such as subversion or alliance formation against France to prove itself as the incontrovertible reality.

The major achievement of Napoleon with regard to England was the peace of Amiens in 1802. As it was seen by the French statesmen, the treaty was not just a formal end to the conflict between France and England. It was also an end to English intervention in European affairs and the recognition of France’s hegemony in continental Europe (Deutsch 1961: 133). Yet peace between foes does not signify their merger into a single entity and identity. The difference persists and so does the potential for mistrust and conflict.

Going into these negotiations, France had one predetermined set of truths to put forth and it wished to have them prevail. Bonaparte knew in advance what the outcome must be. Social interaction by way of diplomacy fell in the second category of social communication, the strategic one. Whether England was sincere or not mattered little as far as Napoleon’s view was concerned. British foreign policy since the Revolution had already produced a diagnosis of the situation and a characterization of England as the evil other.

England was a threat to France and its Revolution and was trying to destabilize it. Hence, France must act in a way that best served its preservation as a nation-state. Bonaparte assumed that England’s government was thinking and acting strategically in order to undermine France’s position. This, in the first place, was a strategic move on the part of France because it situated itself vis-à-vis the England (Godechot 1971).

In the absence of a republican regime in England that recognized France, the question remained the way to guarantee its preservation. What the realist paradigm professes is that security can be achieved by developing one’s military potential and establish a balance of power or that a great power should take it upon itself to provide order as a form of international public good for the benefit of all members of the society of states. However, the idea of such a society of states fails to account for the somewhat arbitrary nature of the great power’s behavior.

France was but one nation where a set of ideas had been developed and put into practice. As legitimate and as universal as these claimed to be, they were the product of a subject own evolution and confrontation with its environment and therefore, were not an objective truth. Yet, the reliance of French statesmen on an absolute called Reason provided a powerful justification for not compromising with England. What is more, as subject, France felt justified to define the rules of behavior and by extension the deviant nature of the British Other (Jepperson et al. 1996: 46). France did not question its own righteousness though it did that of England.

Before the rupture between France and England, the possibility of contracting was barred due to the mistrust of France toward England. In order to defend its own conception of truth, France was left with the two possibilities referred to above, i.e., establish a balance of power or impose its hegemony in the state system of Europe. Both solutions were envisaged by Napoleon Bonaparte but the impossibility of establishing the former would eventually lead to the latter through the conquest of European monarchies by France to assert its hegemony over the continent to defend it against England’s ambitions.

Establishing a Balance of Power

While negotiating peace treaties with lesser power of Europe, Bonaparte had accused England of interfering with peace attempts. France had been attempting to reach an agreement with Austria at Campo Formio in its negotiations with the Austrian plenipotentiary. While there was an improvement in the situation as the parties agreed to keep the positions they now occupied in Italy and Germany, the Austrian negotiator was disavowed by the minister for foreign affairs who now required that France signed peace with both Austria and England, or there would be no peace at all (Godechot et al. 1971: 103-104).

As a result of this apparent about-face on the part of Austria, Bonaparte claimed that British diplomacy must have been behind France’s enemy’s decision. He complained that, “the cunning of the English has neutralized the effect which my simple and frank advances must otherwise have had on Your Masjesty’s heart” (Bonaparte in Lyons 1994: 180). He had long identified England as the evil and France’s prime foe that thwarted his effort toward a peace settlement on the continent.

Though he was to succeed in signing the peace with Austria, further event would provide additional “proofs” of England’s bad intentions. The year and a half that followed the peace of Amiens was to be rich in occasions to represent the danger posed by England and thus serves as justification for the resumption of war. In spite of peace, Napoleon Bonaparte’s basic reading of British policy had not changed (Fischer 1961).

The treaty of Amiens was concerned essentially with putting an end to the fighting and establishing a balance of power in Europe to the extent that this was believed to be the condition of peace. However, a mere interruption of hostilities was not enough to put an end to the animosity between France and England. In order to reach this state, it was agreed at Amiens that England should withdraw from Malta and Egypt so as not to threaten France’s commercial fleet as it headed for the Levant. In addition, England had hoped that the treaty would be supplemented by a trading agreement whereby England would gain commercial access to the European market (Fischer 1961: 111-112).

According to Godechot, Hyslop and Dowd (1971: 64-66), the priority of the French government was nor economic policy though some areas of France were in need of development while others that had been prosperous thanks to the war had to be kept on track. For both of them, trade issues were nevertheless considered of significant in as much as economics tied into security. Their economic and social security depended on steady revenues, hence the eagerness of one to gain access to markets and of the other to protect them. For France especially, the route to the Levant was crucial because it allowed for colonial as well as commercial expansion. The presence of British troops in Malta, on this shipping line explains the insistence of the French that it be evacuated.

But as France refused to grant England commercial access to Europe, the British delayed indefinitely its pullout from Malta and Egypt because French policy “hurt” England. Bonaparte, on the other hand, rejected the linkage of the purely political issue of the Amiens settlement with the trade issue. For France, the treaty had been an agreement between two legal entities and should be honored as a piece of international legislation. It is precisely in the contractual nature of the treaty of Amiens that one must look for the deceit England was accused of (Deutsch 1975).

For France as well as for England, the problem lay in the outposts each had or wished to have in the Mediterranean Sea. The mere presence of England in Malta and Egypt and the reliance of balance-of-power politics on the part of France justified Napoleon’s occupation of Belgium and the Netherlands as well as France’s oversight of Switzerland and Italy which were formerly independent sister republics. The attitude of the French government shortly before the hostilities may be explained, as Fischer (1961) points out, by the fact that it was no longer far-away colonies such as Canada which were now threatened, but France’s continental interests in the neighboring countries and in the Mediterranean (Fischer 1961: 125).

Napoleon feared that Malta might become a second Gibraltar thanks to which England would have the complete control of this sea; ir was not only the trade and colonial endeavors of France that were at stake, but it was also the independence of its Sicilian, Neapolitan and more generally Italian allies that caused the most concern as far as the balance power was concerned (Deutsch 1975: 80-81). Thus, it is not only peace in France that was the issue but peace on the continent in as much as it was required for the republic. The bilateral relations between France and England are linked to the fate of Europe when Bonaparte claims that the British will be responsible before ail of Europe should war break out (Deutsch 1975).

Belief in the merits of a balance of power was such that the evacuation of Malta specifically took on a significance that may have been exaggerated. It seems however that another element Napoleon Bonaparte resented particularly was England’s refusal to honor the terms of the treaty France had signed in good faith. While Napoleon accused England of cunning behavior toward France, he vehemently denied that France, for its part was preparing itself for a confrontation with England. For Bonaparte, the Malta question is an illustration of the failure of reason and trust in dealing with England. It is indeed surprising that only this element would suffice to declare war on it once again. But the insistence on the evacuation of Malta was not just a matter of legal principle applied to an agreement between two States. Bonaparte had in mind the image and prestige of France (Lyons 1994).

The contest taking shape is both one of power measured in terms of military capabilities and one in terms of moral prestige. The latter element was supplemented by France’s republican regime and the benefits that were supposed to derive from its implementation. Justice meant a republican order inside and European order outside. The treaty of Amiens did not mention the sister republics and their evacuation by France whereas it did stipulate that of Malta and Egypt by England. Though the sister republics were friendly to France and hence potentially threatening to England, the First Consul simply brushed aside the British objection to French oversight of these territories (Dwyer and Mcphee 2002: 178-179).

The aim of Bonaparte’s portrayal of the British Other was to convince the French people of the prevalence of his conceptions of right and wrong. According to Bourne, Napoleon’s approach to diplomacy did not stop at representing the Anglo-French duel. It was also intimately tied to his person as the enlightened ruler. In Bourne’s words:

He flattered the conviction of the French that they were the ‘grand nation,’ and convinced them that their version of their rights or of the rights of their neighbors was not subject to protest or revisions…While he strengthened the control of France beyond her borders, he associated it with his personal supremacy. He became an imperial figure long before the Republic was transformed into the Empire. (Bourne 2005: 301)

In Bonaparte’s mind, a failure to follow through with the strict application of the treaty was an attack on the First Consul, on France as a nation, against Europe and against Justice. For Napoleon, therefore, order and justice constituted one and the same problem as far as Europe and France were concerned. Although one might claim like Bull (1995) that “there is also an inherent tension between the order provided by the system and society of States, and the various aspirations for justice that arise in world politics” (Bull 1995: 83), in France’s view there could be no justice save the one which it defined for itself and for others.

The contradiction raised by Bull (1995) can only exist in a world of competing relative claims to truth. Here, France’s truth was not in question. The kind of justice it upheld required that England and continental monarchies share the French view of the European state system and consequently, that they agree to its demands. To the extent that the republic and the French worldview were grounded in the Enlightenment, it constituted a kind of “truth package” to be accepted en bloc. The order sought here is order as seen by France.

To the British objection to France’s control of the sister republics, Bonaparte replied that nowhere were they mentioned in the treaty (Bourne 2005: 306), hence his dismissal of them as grounds for England’s shirking from its treaty obligations. Faced with the prospect of making concessions to the British, Napoleon’s other potential concerns became secondary to the implementation of the Amiens treaty.

Imposing France’s hegemony was thus about reorganizing Europe on … new bases: from which could emerge a later but more solid and more productive peace, because it would be founded on a new organic order instead of the old equilibrium compromise. It would be a Europe of associated nationalities under the temporary direction of France so as to defend it against the old superstitious forces and States of the ancient régime, a Europe akin to a federation of free peoples. (Dwyer and Mcphee 2002: 100)

And indeed, with the expansion of France into Germany and Austria after 1803, Europe went from a patchwork of kingdoms and principalities to a smaller, secularized state system that was to a greater or lesser extent under the control of Napoleonic France (Lyons 1994: 203).


Although there have been many wars during the nineteenth century, none of them had quite the same scale and duration as the Napoleonic Wars. In terms of influence and scope they were more like skirmishes. With the defeat of Napoleon’s army in the mid-1810s, the Napoleonic Wars came to an end and France was pushed back behind its “natural borders” that were presumably all France ever wished for. In France, the regime reverted to a republic and even with the restoration, which brought to power new monarchs, the basic constitution and principles according to which France was governed did not change. The monarchical regimes that re-emerged were similar to the one Talleyrand had hoped for and that Bonaparte had created in 1804. The constitutional principle had been firmly implanted.

The outlook Napoleon Bonaparte had on the world was in what he saw in France and in other States. Bonaparte was a product of the French Revolution and of the ideas that had presided over it. From Rousseau, he took the key concept of the unity of the nation and the quasi-sacred character of its sovereignty. The Enlightenment had provided the framework for understanding and action, a new and coherent set of ideas according to which communities and the world could be reconceptualized and remade. In stark contrast to the republican regime of France, the rest of Europe was still living under a backward monarchical order; the same order the French had overthrown in 1789 because it was seen as irrational and arbitrary. The Revolution had been the consequence of a prior intellectual revolution and the republic was the actualization of ideas, which were radically new.

Though Napoleon and the people who backed him had failed in their bid for the domination of Europe, the ideas and values that underlay the French Republic did not disappear. Both in France and in the rest of Europe the political and ethical project of the Enlightenment worked its way to power through “civil” wars and state unifications and under the stewardship of “noble men.”


Bull, Hedley. 1995. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan.

Bourne, Henry Eldridge. 2005. The Revolutionary Period in Europe 1763 to 1815. Kessinger Publishing

Dwyer, Philip and Mcphee, Peter 2002. The French Revolution and Napoleon: A Sourcebook. Routledge

Deutsch, Harold C. 1975. The Genesis of Napoleonic Imperialism. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press

Fischer, Herben Albert Laurens. 1961. Bonapartism: Six Lectures Delivered in the University of London. London: OUP

Godechot, Jacques, Hyslop, Beatrice F. and David L. Dowd. 1971. The Napoleonic Era. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Jepperson, Ronald L. Wendt, Alexander and Peter J. Katzenstein. 1996. “Norms, Identity, and Culture in National Security.” In Katzenstein, Peter J. 1996. The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lyons, Martyn. 1994. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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