The French Betrayal and Pragmatic Foreign Policy

The Story of Cardinal Richelieu

Dylan S.
Dylan S.
Mar 11, 2019 · 6 min read


Whenever historians look at a given continent or extended region, they generally identify a shared identity or history among the states that comprise of that area. For South America, it’s the shared identity of being the byproduct of European colonialism and the shared history of rebelling against it. In East Asia, it’s the shared cultural identity of Chinese influence and the shared history of operating in a tributary system. In Europe, however, historians notice that European countries don’t really have a shared culture or historical experience. This is because Europe never had a homogenous identity. It’s not to say that European states are somehow more unique and sophisticated compared to the countries of other continents, but rather no singular power ever dominated the region, and thus there was no overarching experience shared by all European countries.

So why wasn’t Europe able to develop a homogenous identity? After all, for hundreds of years Europe tried to create what other continents had: hegemony and unification. The major religions, the groups that dictated politics and authority in the pre-enlightenment era, had tried to establish hegemony for the longest time on continental Europe. The Catholic Church got close, as well as Islam, but none could claim total control over Europe.

By the dawn of the 17th century, the Catholic Church and the Habsburg family were dominating political affairs in nearly all of Europe. In 1614, their dominance was challenged when war broke out between the Catholic League and the Protestants from religious tensions that began a century earlier. Initially, the boundaries of the war seemed simple. The Catholic countries would support each other, and likewise for the Protestants. And given how the Catholic League comprised of Europe’s then most powerful countries, it was also assumed that the conflict would be short, decisive, and an inevitable victory for the European Catholics. Things became more complicated, however, when a Catholic French minister plunged a Catholic France into a war against their presumed Catholic allies. It shifted the balance of the war in favor of the Anti-Habsburgs, and forever changed European history.



Instead of honoring the tradition of supporting the Catholic League, France realized that it was in her own interests to support the far weaker Protestant coalition over the Habsburgs. This is because while France may have shared religious values with the Papacy, the Catholic League had become predominantly controlled by the Habsburg Monarchy, which thus diminished the influence and importance of the French state. Cardinal Richelieu, French statesman and mastermind behind France’s involvement in the 30 Years War, reasoned that a weakened Habsburg Monarchy would position France as a major power on continental Europe. They would not achieve hegemony, but their influence in European politics would be far greater with a weakened Holy Roman Empire and Habsburg Monarchy.

Looking at the morality of Cardinal Richelieu’s decision to turn on his allies, the nature of the conversation changes a little bit. For Richelieu, he believed that the interests and goals of the state didn’t have to mirror the religious beliefs of the individual. Thus, Richelieu thought that the state was indeed a separate entity from the church. Continuing on, Richelieu also believed that pragmatism was more important than values. Rather than supporting the people who gave him his cardinal position, he turned against them knowing that it would give France a larger political role and authority on the continent. His pragmatism paired with his belief of national independence from religious mandate, allowed him to justify turning against the members of his own faith.

Naturally, back in the Vatican, Richelieu was labeled as a turncoat and a traitor for his actions against the Papacy. His reputation tarnished, many would characterize him as “… that historical archetype of the scheming hand behind the king” (Tharoor). For example, in the book The Three Musketeers, Richelieu, the antagonist, is described as cunning, vengeful, and scheming in his role as advisor to King Louis XIII. Nevertheless, according to foreign policy expert Ishaan Tharoor, he is still widely misunderstood and slandered for his more pragmatic approach to international relations.



The 30 Years War proved to be a tremendous political success for the French state. After the terms in the Peace of Westphalia, the Habsburgs and Vatican would never rise again to the same amount of power and influence in European politics. But the lesson of the 30 Years War isn’t how it benefited France specifically, but how it created a standard for European power dynamics for the centuries to come. It demonstrated how Europe would never accept hegemony, and that a multitude of self-interested competing states would maintain equilibrium and the balance of power.

According to Henry Kissinger, “The fragmentation of Central Europe (Italy, Germany, Austria) was perceived by Richelieu as a political necessity. The basic threat to France was strategic, not metaphysical or religious: a united Central Europe would be in a position to dominate the rest of the Continent” (Kissinger 23). In short, Kissinger is referencing the unification of the Germanic states and how Prussia became the greatest threat to French authority and Richelieu’s rule of a balanced Europe.

It’s interesting to see how Richelieu’s 17th century mentality continued to exist even centuries after his death. In both the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Paris, it always involved the fragmentation of the German state after the conclusion of both world wars. After all, the allied powers (or triple entente from 1907) knew that a unified German state would upset the ideal balance of power that the French established in the Peace of Westphalia.


The approach of Richelieu and the French state exemplify the main ideas in the doctrine of realism. They examined the distribution of power in their region, prioritized the interests of the state over values, and collaborated with those they don’t usually align with only for the purpose of mutual benefit. In examining the distribution of power in their region, France discovered that the presence of a powerful Habsburg Monarchy hindered the goals of the French state. By prioritizing national interests over values, the French went to war for strategic gain. From collaborating with an enemy exclusively for mutual interest, France secured a strategic advantage over the Habsburg Monarchy and the Papacy.

Not only did Richelieu’s decision to betray the Vatican change the outcome of the war, but it also changed the political history of Europe. By applying realist ideas of foreign policy, he instituted a system that guaranteed no hegemonic power would ever rise to dominate Europe. While the balance of power has shifted from the time of Cardinal Richelieu, this core principle remains intact. The only two times that this system was challenged, being the rise of Napoleon in the 19th century and the rise of Germany in the 20th, in both times a pragmatic coalition of ideologically differing powers dismantled the chance of a single power ruling Europe.

Works Cited & Image Sources

Content Sources:

Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers. New York: Samuel French, 2008. Print.

Kissinger, Henry. World Order. New York, Penguin, 2014.

O’Connel, Daniel. “Armand-Jean du Plessis, cardinal et duc de Richelieu” Britannica, 30 November 2018. Accessed 9 March, 2019.

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Notorious Cardinals: A Rogue’s Gallery of Powerful Prelates” Time, 12 March 2013. Accessed 9 March, 2019.

Image Sources:

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Dylan S.

Written by

Dylan S.

Someone with a passion for politics, international relations, and world history.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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