Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 4 – The Concert of Europe

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the fourth chapter of his book, called “The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

During Napoleon’s first exile in Elba, the victors of the Napoleonic Wars convened at the Congress of Vienna in September 1814. This congress aimed to establish a new international order, a task that became more pressing with Napoleon’s escape from Elba and eventual defeat at Waterloo. Key negotiators included Austria’s Prince von Metternich, Prussia’s Prince von Hardenberg, France’s Talleyrand representing the restored Louis XVIII, Russia’s Tsar Alexander I, and England’s Lord Castlereagh.

The efforts of these diplomats led to a remarkable period of peace in Europe, with no major conflicts among the Great Powers for over a century. The Congress of Vienna’s success was attributed to its establishment of a balance of power based on shared values and moral equilibrium, rather than mere force. This unique situation was believed to be so well-constructed that it discouraged any attempts to disrupt it. The underlying belief was that a sense of justice and shared values among nations reduces the likelihood of conflict, underscoring the importance of compatible domestic institutions in maintaining peace.

In terms of territorial adjustments, the Vienna settlement closely followed the Pitt Plan. Austria and Prussia were strengthened in Italy and Germany, respectively. The Dutch Republic gained the Austrian Netherlands, France was restored to its pre-revolution borders, and Russia acquired Poland. Britain, adhering to its policy of limited continental expansion, confined its gains to the Cape of Good Hope.

The concept of balance of power was integral to Great Britain’s vision of world order. However, nations do not typically see themselves merely as parts of a security system; they have their own aspirations and roles. Austria and Prussia, for instance, had complex relationships and historical roles that needed to be acknowledged within the overall balance of power.

Austria, having failed to dominate Germany in the Thirty Years’ War, sought to maintain its leading role in the region, especially over Prussia, which had emerged as a formidable military power. The relationship between Austria and Prussia, and their relations with other German states, were crucial for European stability. Germany’s historical dilemma was that it was either too weak, inviting foreign intervention, or too strong, inciting fear among its neighbors.

The Congress of Vienna sought to create a stable Central Europe by consolidating but not unifying Germany. The German Confederation was established, balancing Prussia’s military strength against Austria’s prestige. This structure prevented both French aggression and an overpowering German unity.

In terms of peace settlements, the approach at Vienna was notably different from that of the Treaty of Versailles. The victors at Vienna, understanding the need for a balance between victory and reconciliation, treated France with a degree of generosity. France was reduced to its pre-revolutionary borders but was not excessively penalized. This approach helped avoid the resentment that would later plague the Treaty of Versailles.

Britain, believing in the natural self-interest of nations for defense, did not see the need for formal guarantees. However, Central European countries, weary from centuries of conflict, sought more concrete assurances. Austria, in particular, being a diverse empire, sought to establish a framework of moral restraint to mitigate the emerging forces of liberalism and nationalism. The key to maintaining peace was seen as the ability of major states to resolve their disputes within a framework of shared values and restraint.

Following the Congress of Vienna, the European powers established two significant alliances: the Quadruple Alliance and the Holy Alliance. The Quadruple Alliance, comprising Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, was formed primarily to prevent any resurgence of French aggression, much like a modern-day deterrence mechanism. On the other hand, the Holy Alliance, which included Prussia, Austria, and Russia, was a novel concept proposed by the Russian Tsar. Unlike any alliance before, it aimed to reform international relations based on religious values and conservative principles, with an emphasis on maintaining the status quo and legitimate rule in Europe.

The Holy Alliance was met with skepticism by Britain, whose foreign policy principles opposed intervention in other states’ domestic affairs. Despite its seemingly lofty ideals, the alliance effectively served as a mechanism for conservative monarchs to jointly counter revolutionary movements, while also limiting unilateral actions by any single power.

This period marked a shift in international relations, where moral restraint and vested interest in domestic stability began to influence the behavior of Great Powers. Contrary to the eighteenth century, where compatible divine-right monarchies still engaged in frequent conflicts, the post-Vienna era saw a greater emphasis on preserving the established order and legitimacy.

Metternich, Austria’s key diplomat, played a crucial role in shaping this new international order. He championed the idea that legitimate rule was synonymous with peace, in stark contrast to the Wilsonian belief in democracies as inherently peace-loving. Metternich’s experience with the French Revolution shaped his view that established rights and laws were inherent and not subject to legislative creation. This belief was a cornerstone in maintaining the stability of the Austrian Empire, despite emerging liberal and nationalistic trends that threatened its traditional structure.

Metternich’s diplomatic strategy involved balancing the interests and geopolitical ambitions of Austria’s allies, Prussia and Russia, against the revolutionary threats of the era. He successfully convinced them to prioritize the status quo over potential territorial gains, thereby prolonging Austria’s influence in Europe.

Metternich’s approach to diplomacy was characterized by pragmatism and a focus on maintaining a balance of power through moderation and cooperation. His foresight in identifying potential threats and his commitment to a stable Central Europe were crucial in maintaining European stability during a time of significant change and challenge. This approach contrasted sharply with the more idealistic and interventionist policies of later democratic states.

Austria, while needing Russia as a counterbalance to France, was cautious of its unpredictable ally, Tsar Alexander I. Talleyrand and Metternich perceived Alexander as a complex character driven by a mix of ambition and vanity. For Metternich, the challenge with Russia wasn’t about containing its aggression but moderating its ambitions. Alexander was seen as desiring peace, but on terms that would assert his personal dominance and influence.

Metternich and Britain’s Castlereagh differed in their approaches to managing Russia. Castlereagh, representing a distant island nation, was inclined to resist only direct threats that disturbed the balance of power. Metternich, however, being at the heart of Europe, couldn’t afford such a risk and sought to preemptively manage potential threats from Russia. He believed that even a small conflict could unleash Russia’s ambitions, so he focused on keeping close ties with Alexander to prevent such scenarios.

Metternich’s strategy had two main aspects: fighting nationalism without overexposing Austria and avoiding unilateral actions, especially wary of Russia’s possible expansionist tendencies. He believed in a philosophy of moderation and pragmatism, aiming to reduce claims of others rather than aggressively pushing Austria’s own. Metternich also sought to involve Russia in time-consuming consultations to temper its zeal.

The second aspect of Metternich’s approach was to foster conservative unity among the European powers. He skillfully balanced the interests of Austria, Russia, and Britain, using their conservative alignment to control the pace of events and prevent drastic changes in the balance of power. However, this balance was difficult to maintain as time passed and the memory of Napoleon’s threat faded.

As Britain became more reluctant to involve itself in European affairs, Austria became increasingly reliant on Russia, further entrenching conservative values. This reliance created a cycle where Austria’s dependence on Russia strengthened, leading to a more rigid defense of conservative principles.

Castlereagh, understanding Austria’s challenges, proposed periodic congresses to review European affairs. However, Britain was uncomfortable with the concept of a European government, similar to later American reservations about the League of Nations. This British reticence was evident in the early congresses, where Britain’s participation was limited and focused mainly on containing France.

The only time Britain found such diplomacy aligning with its interests was during the Greek Revolution in 1821, when Russia’s actions in the Ottoman Empire threatened British strategic interests. However, even in this context, Britain’s engagement was limited and cautious.

The attempt by Castlereagh to involve Britain in a system of European congresses ultimately failed, mirroring Woodrow Wilson’s later challenges with the League of Nations. Both leaders recognized the need for their powerful nations to actively participate in international affairs to prevent future crises. However, domestic constraints and historical traditions in both Britain and the United States limited their involvement in these international systems.

Castlereagh and Wilson shared the belief that the international order established after major wars required active participation from key nations. They saw security as a collective responsibility, with the understanding that aggression against any nation eventually affects all. Despite their efforts, domestic politics and long-standing national traditions hindered the full realization of their visions for collective security and international cooperation.

The concept of collective security is challenged by the diversity of national interests and the complexity of security issues. Members of such a system often find it easier to agree on inaction rather than coordinated action. This was evident in the reluctance of both the United States and Great Britain to fully commit to systems of collective security like the League of Nations and the European Congress system. In these countries, the perceived lack of immediate threats and the belief in their ability to manage alone or find allies in times of need led to a hesitancy to engage in these international systems.

Castlereagh and Wilson faced challenges in integrating their nations into collective security frameworks. While Wilson’s ideas resonated with American values and influenced future U.S. foreign policy, Castlereagh’s views were out of sync with British foreign policy traditions, leaving no lasting influence.

Lord Stewart, Castlereagh’s half-brother and British observer at the European congresses, focused more on defining the limits of Britain’s involvement rather than building a European consensus. Castlereagh himself emphasized that the Quadruple Alliance was not intended to govern the world or oversee other states’ internal affairs. Ultimately, Castlereagh, caught between his convictions and domestic political realities, found no solution to this dilemma, tragically ending in suicide.

As Austria grew more dependent on Russia, Metternich faced the challenge of balancing Russian ambitions with the need to maintain European consensus. He managed to maintain this balance for nearly three decades, dealing with revolutions across Europe while preventing Russian intervention in the Balkans. However, the Eastern Question, primarily concerning the Balkan nations’ struggles for independence from Turkish rule, posed a significant challenge to Metternich’s system.

The Crimean War, triggered by France’s challenge to Russia’s traditional role as protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, marked a turning point. The war’s deeper causes were geopolitical ambitions rather than religious claims. Austria, trying to maintain its delicate balance of alliances, initially declared neutrality but later pressured Russia to retreat from Moldavia and Wallachia, contributing to the end of the war.

Austria’s decision to align with Napoleon III and Britain during the Crimean War weakened its longstanding alliance with Russia, leading to the dissolution of the conservative unity that had been crucial for maintaining the Vienna settlement. This shift towards power politics, away from the conservative unity that had mitigated confrontations, led to heightened national rivalries and increased risks for all involved, particularly for Austria.

Great Britain, on the other hand, adapted well to the new international system driven by power politics. British leaders, following a policy of “splendid isolation,” focused on preserving their country’s freedom of action and avoiding entanglements in European alliances. This approach was possible due to Britain’s strength, geographic isolation, and lack of dependence on continental alliances. British foreign policy was characterized by a pragmatic focus on national interests, with leaders like Palmerston and Canning emphasizing a cautious approach to international commitments and interventions. This stance allowed Britain to maintain its equilibrium in Europe while pursuing colonial expansion overseas.

Great Britain’s foreign policy allowed it to maintain a degree of independence in international affairs but did not prevent it from forming temporary alliances to address specific situations. As a naval power with no large standing army, Britain sometimes needed continental allies. British leaders, pragmatic and flexible, often set aside past conflicts to forge new alliances as circumstances required. For example, during Belgium’s secession from Holland in 1830, Palmerston initially threatened France with war but later proposed an alliance to ensure Belgium’s independence.

This pragmatic approach, however, often led Britain to switch sides or form new coalitions to preserve the balance of power in Europe, a strategy that earned it the nickname “Perfidious Albion.” Despite its opportunistic nature, this policy effectively maintained peace in Europe, especially as the Metternich system started to decline.

The 19th century was a period of British dominance, marked by industrial leadership, naval supremacy, and internal political stability. British foreign policy was characterized by pragmatism and flexibility, with leaders unwilling to be constrained by rigid doctrines. Whether supporting Greek independence, intervening in the Hungarian Revolution, or staying noninterventionist during Italy’s revolt against Habsburg rule, Britain’s actions were driven by a commitment to maintaining the balance of power, rather than by ideological considerations.

The core principle of British foreign policy was to act as a guardian of the balance of power, often supporting the weaker against the stronger. This principle was so ingrained in British diplomacy that it required no explicit justification; it was simply assumed to be the right course of action. British consistency in foreign policy objectives, such as keeping the Low Countries free from major power control, was a testament to this commitment.

Britain’s policy towards Austria evolved over time. Initially considered an important counterweight to Russia, Austria’s weakening after the Revolution of 1848 and its erratic policies led Britain to view it as less crucial. Britain’s focus shifted to preventing Russian control of the Dardanelles, leading to a more detached stance towards Austria’s defeats in Italy and Germany.

British foreign policy underwent a significant shift in the early 20th century as fear of Germany began to dominate, leading to alliances that would have seemed unlikely in the past, such as with Russia. This change reflected Britain’s adaptability and its enduring commitment to national interests and maintaining the balance of power.

The representative nature of British political institutions played a key role in shaping its foreign policy. With public opinion and open debates influencing decisions, Britain often displayed unity in times of war, although this also meant that foreign policy could change with shifts in political leadership. Despite these fluctuations, British foreign policy remained consistently focused on protecting national interests and preserving equilibrium in Europe.

In contrast to the United States, which saw its democratic institutions as a model for the world, Britain viewed its parliamentary system as unique and irrelevant to other societies. British policy was practical and self-serving, showing support for foreign revolutions only when it aligned with national interests.

In summary, British foreign policy in the 19th century was marked by a focus on national interests, a pragmatic approach to international alliances, and a commitment to maintaining the balance of power in Europe. This approach allowed Britain to navigate the 19th century with only one war against another world power: the Crimean War. This conflict was followed by fifteen years of turmoil until another European equilbrium emerged.

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