Three Lessons of Peace: From the Congress of Vienna to the Ukraine Crisis

The year 2014 will be remembered as a transitional year in the political climate of Europe. Following the civil war in eastern Ukraine and the incorporation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the continent is experiencing a reversal from a system of consensus into a system that is more reminiscent of the past opposition between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This shift may seem even more surprising, because the new order that had rapidly emerged after the end of the cold war, with its regular conferences and summits, had become the order of the day. Unfortunately, international relations do not follow a uniform path of progress; there is, of course, no “end to history”.

There were also highlights in the past. In particular, the experience of the Congress of Vienna after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte was a watershed in international relations. Its bicentenary in 2014-15 is a useful opportunity to reflect on a question that has come back to the fore with the current crisis in Ukraine: when strong differences arise between two or more powers, what is the most effective and least costly way to resolve them? In the absence of effective international arbitration, three methods have been traditionally used: war (as a judicial duel), the balance of power (two military blocs that mutually neutralize each other, by fear of an open conflict), and conference diplomacy. All three were applied in Europe in the post-Napoleonic era and in that order.

The first one was war. Napoleon engaged in his own campaigns of invasion deliberately, and with cold-blooded determination. For him, as Carl von Clausewitz would later write: “War is an act of violence intended to compel the opponent to fulfill one’s will”. Undoubtedly, the Emperor of the French used this form of argumentation effectively against two of the great powers of the time, Austria and Prussia: with two fast campaigns in 1805 and 1806, he decisively defeated the first, and effaced the second from the map. Applying the principle that “might makes right”, he obtained satisfaction for all his claims, including the hand of the daughter of the Emperor of Austria.

War is, however, a risky affair and it tends to attract retribution. Napoleon’s campaigns were costly both in human and economic terms for France, and for Europe in general. Most of all, his invasion of Russia ended in a dismal debacle, and was followed by a lightning-fast Russian counteroffensive into the heart of Germany, culminating in the Battle of Leipzig of October 1813 (also called Battle of the Nations). In the end, the Allies occupied Paris in May of the following year. It was their turn to write the treaties as they pleased; the French plenipotentiaries could not help but bow and sign them.

The question then was how to rebuild a new European order: this was the task of the Congress of Vienna, which took place from September 1814 to June 1815. After a French Revolution and twenty years of war, the borders of many States had been arbitrarily changed, and some had even been effaced from the map. Hence the continent, and particularly Germany, was in a state of political chaos. Most of all, there was a new threat. Europe had long been divided along two military alliances, a phenomenon then called the “balance of power”—alliances changed, but there had always been two opposed blocs. (The previous years had been no exception, since the French Empire had prompted the creation of continental coalitions.) As soon as Napoleon was defeated, mistrusts and rivalries resurfaced almost immediately. It seemed that history was going to repeat itself.

The crisis broke out in the winter of 1815, when the Russian Tsar Alexander I manifested his desire to extend his control over Poland. Russia’s two rival powers, Prussia and Austria, became seriously alarmed about this scheme, which would have moved Russian borders further west. Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, did not want to give Russia control of the heights above a main invasion route to Vienna; the Tsar’s plan also threatened to turn Prussia into a Russian vassal state. Austria and Prussia went as far as proposing a secret alliance to recently defeated France. As for Britain, Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Minister, was concerned about the growth of Russian power and the rift between the continental powers. There was a real risk that the Russian project, however well intentioned, could degenerate into a new division of the continent, and possibly war.

Fortunately, the worst was avoided thanks to skillful diplomatic maneuvering, and because both sides wanted to find an amicable solution. Austria and Prussia wished to ensure their own security, but they especially wanted peace after two decades of exhausting war. As for the Tsar, he had sought to forge an alliance with England as early as September 1804, and beyond that, a European “federation” that would be founded on the law of nations (an idea that reconnected with “Plans of Perpetual Peace” of the Enlightenment). Hence the last thing he wished was a new conflict, frozen or open. On realizing that his plan was leading to an impasse, he backtracked and accepted the need to negotiate. Another aspect, which can be summarized under the paradoxical principle that “peace is for the strong, war is for the weak”, is that being the victor of Napoleon, he was in a good position—morally and on the ground—to sue for peace.

Eventually, the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 9 June 1815 defined the territorial settlement of Europe in general, and Poland in particular. The Polish crisis had an unexpected outcome in that it eventually reinforced the solidarity between the Allies. In September of the same year, the Tsar proposed a short treaty to the other powers called the Holy Alliance. It was original in that it was not for making peace but to maintain it. In an initial version (censored by Metternich), it even suggested that Russia, Prussia and Austria were “a single nation”, and it provided for a common army. In its final form, it contributed to the birth of the Congress System: for a few years (until 1822), the Great Powers met regularly to talk about security and matters of interest. To do so, they chose different cities in Europe for their meetings, starting a tradition that continues to this day: Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary), Troppau (Opava), Vienna again, Laibach (Ljubljana) and finally Verona. This marks the birth of conference diplomacy in international relations.

Most of the European States, with the exception of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Holy See, signed the treaty of the Holy Alliance. The British were nevertheless content to participate in a continental system that allowed them to defend their own interests in Europe, which were mostly about sea trade. The Congress System became a functional example of how powers with different interests could meet regularly to establish a common ground for collective security in Europe. Conferences (which were called “congresses” at the time) were not perfunctory meetings, possibly to honour some institutional agenda or hold a public front, but substantial activities aimed at solving specific issues. For three additional decades until the Crimean War (1853-56), there was no division of Europe into two alliances, but only a single bloc, which came to be known as the Concert of Europe. The phrase “European family” had an unprecedented vogue during those years.

This political system had however its flaws, because it aimed at the preservation of the principles of status quo and dynastic legitimacy, at all costs. On the internal side, it led to public disorders and the repression of civil liberties, from censorship of the press to the shutdown of parliaments, a phenomenon called the Reaction. Unfortunately, the task of the congresses became mostly to “keep the peace” among the populations in Europe, through coordinated and often brutal interventions of the allied armies. The end result was an endless succession of insurrections during the 1820s, down to the revolutions of 1848. Count Adam Czartoryski, former minister of the Tsar turned Polish patriot, lamented that though the Holy Alliance was concluded in the name of the holy and eternal laws, diplomacy had turned this guarantee into venom.

Considering this historical experience, are there lessons that could be drawn from the Polish crisis of early 1815, and birth of the Congress System, for today’s crisis in eastern Ukraine? We could highlight three of them.

The first is that the division of the continent into two antagonistic blocs was never safe for European security. The monarchs and diplomats of 1815 realized that it could not establish peace, much less maintain it; instead of a balance of (military) power, they preferred a balance of negotiation. Today, an escalation by a reinforcement of the antagonisms between NATO and Russia would only succeed in redividing Europe in two opposed blocs. In such a frozen conflict, peace would be an “armed truce”, with an increased risk of open conflict.

The second lesson is that negotiation between the two parties can lead to more effective results than confrontation, and at a lower cost. The successful outcome of the Polish crisis in 1815 materialized because one of the parties that could afford it, prudently retreated from the struggle, thus allowing a space for negotiation to take place. Today, only a concurrent de-escalation of military threats would open avenues for the peaceful settlement of differences.

The third lesson of the system of Vienna is that ignoring the desires of populations, or else coercing them, leads to endless political disorders. Censorship of the press and military interventions from foreign powers—no matter how well intentioned—failed to calm public unrest; they only restrained it for a while. One additional requirement that today’s conference diplomacy must therefore meet, compared to that in 1815, is to pay more attention to demands by the concerned populations for political representation (a right that was sadly denied to the Poles). To establish a lasting peace—and hence security—it is therefore not sufficient to concentrate on the geopolitical interests of the States involved, during diplomatic negotiations. It is now an established principle that human populations are not chattel that can be seized, like Napoleon did, or traded between States, like the Great Powers did at the Congress of Vienna. Much to the point, the Charter of the United Nations insists on fundamental human rights, as well as the dignity and worth of the human person. Hence, before deciding on any territorial settlement, the desires of all citizens concerned should be carefully reconsidered, within the framework of a rigorously free and legal democratic referendum. To satisfy the criteria of legality, it would have to be organized under the sovereignty of Ukraine, the pre-existing State recognized by the international community. 


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