Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 5 – Two Revolutionaries

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 fifth chapter of his book, called “Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck”.

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.

Following the Crimean War, Europe witnessed a series of conflicts that reshaped its political landscape. The collapse of the Metternich system led to wars including those involving Piedmont, France, Austria, Prussia, and others. This era of turmoil ended with a significant shift in power dynamics, as Germany rose to prominence at the expense of France. The traditional moral restraints under the Metternich system faded away, making way for a more power-centric approach in international relations, known as Realpolitik.

This new era in European politics was largely shaped by two central figures: Emperor Napoleon III of France and Otto von Bismarck of Prussia. They both rejected the conservative principles of the old Metternich system, which emphasized the preservation of royal families, suppression of liberal movements, and state relations based on mutual agreement among rulers. Instead, they focused on Realpolitik, emphasizing power and strength in international affairs.

Napoleon III, once a member of Italian secret societies and later Emperor of France, and Bismarck, a Prussian aristocrat and opponent of liberalism, were instrumental in dismantling the Vienna settlement established in 1815. Napoleon III, though not as ambitious as his uncle, sought territorial gains for France and championed nationalism and liberalism. He believed the Vienna system limited France’s potential. Bismarck, on the other hand, resented the Vienna system for keeping Prussia subordinate to Austria within the German Confederation. He saw the need to abolish this system for Prussia to achieve German unification.

However, the impact of these two leaders on Europe’s political landscape was quite different. Napoleon III’s efforts backfired, leading to outcomes contrary to his intentions. His actions inadvertently facilitated the unification of Italy and Germany, weakening France’s geopolitical position and diminishing its influence in Central Europe. His policies ultimately left France more isolated than before, contrary to his goal of breaking free from the constraints of the Vienna settlement.

Bismarck’s influence, in contrast, was transformative. He steered German unification away from the expected parliamentary and constitutional path envisioned in the Revolution of 1848, instead emphasizing Prussian power. His approach to unification, which was neither fully democratic nor authoritarian, reshaped Germany in a way that had not been anticipated by any major political group. Bismarck’s adept manipulation of both domestic and foreign affairs marked a significant departure from traditional diplomacy, setting a course that his successors would struggle to navigate.

Napoleon III, often referred to as the “Sphinx of the Tuileries,” was known for his enigmatic and ambitious plans, which remained a mystery until they gradually unfolded. He was credited with ending France’s diplomatic isolation under the Vienna system and initiating the dissolution of the Holy Alliance through the Crimean War. Yet, Otto von Bismarck saw through Napoleon’s facade, considering his intelligence overestimated.

Napoleon III, despite being a self-proclaimed revolutionary, yearned for legitimacy and acceptance among Europe’s traditional monarchies. This desire was complicated by the lingering memories of the French Revolution and the reluctance of European powers to intervene in France’s internal affairs. Eventually, they recognized the republican government of France, which transitioned from Alphonse de Lamartine’s leadership to Napoleon III’s presidency and ultimately his self-declared empire in 1852.

When Napoleon III declared himself Emperor, the issue of recognition by other monarchies arose, particularly regarding whether they would address him as “brother.” Austria was the first to accept Napoleon’s new status, signaling the end of the Metternich era. However, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia refused to extend this fraternal recognition, revealing the psychological divide between Napoleon and the other European rulers, a factor contributing to his aggressive foreign policy approach.

Ironically, Napoleon III was more suited for domestic policy, which he found dull, than for foreign affairs. His contributions to France’s domestic development were significant: he brought the Industrial Revolution to France, encouraged the growth of large credit institutions, and transformed Paris into a modern city with wide boulevards and grand public buildings. Yet, his passion lay in foreign policy, where he struggled with conflicting emotions and a lack of daring and insight.

Napoleon III’s foreign policy was characterized by personal ambivalence and a reliance on public opinion. He frequently engineered crises in Italy, Poland, and Germany, only to recoil from their consequences. His support for national movements was inconsistent, as seen in his approach to Italian nationalism and Polish independence. His policy in Germany was particularly erratic, as he failed to predict the outcome of the Austro-Prussian War and missed opportunities to shape events to France’s advantage.

Napoleon’s desire for a European Congress to redraw the map of Europe, without a clear vision of the desired changes, was never realized. This reflected his fundamental inability to take significant risks for substantial change. This lack of strategic clarity was criticized by contemporaries like Lord Clarendon and Lord Palmerston.

Napoleon III’s inability to choose a consistent strategic direction for France proved detrimental. His support for national self-determination conflicted with the geopolitical reality of Central Europe. By undermining the Vienna settlement, which had ensured France’s security, he inadvertently paved the way for a unified Germany, a potential threat to French security.

In the end, Napoleon III’s policy was idiosyncratic and driven by his fluctuating moods and interests. His alienation of potential allies and support for revolutionary movements left France isolated at a crucial time in European history. His actions, particularly in Italy, were viewed as improbable and risky by other European leaders. His inability to align France’s long-term interests with his tactical decisions ultimately led to the end of French dominance in Europe and the rise of a unified Germany.

Napoleon III surprised European diplomats with his decision to engage in a war against Austria, except for Otto von Bismarck, who had anticipated and even welcomed such a conflict to weaken Austria’s influence in Germany. In 1858, Napoleon formed a secret agreement with Camillo Benso di Cavour, Prime Minister of Piedmont, to wage war against Austria. This alliance aimed at unifying Northern Italy under Piedmont’s leadership, with France gaining Nice and Savoy as rewards. By 1859, this plan was set into motion when Austria declared war in response to Piedmontese provocations, and France joined the conflict, presenting itself as a defender against Austrian aggression.

Napoleon, influenced by a cultural affinity with Italy and underestimating Germany’s emerging power, saw the Italian unification as a strategic move to weaken Austria, France’s main rival in Germany. He pursued a dual strategy: to emerge as a European statesman leading a congress for territorial revisions, or to gain territorial advantages from Austria in a stalemate situation. However, his victories in Italy ignited anti-French sentiments in Germany, risking a wider conflict. Startled by this and the horrors of war he witnessed at Solferino, Napoleon hastily agreed to an armistice with Austria, leaving his Piedmontese allies in the dark.

This Italian adventure weakened France’s international position. Napoleon’s dreams of a medium-sized satellite state in a divided Italy clashed with Piedmont’s nationalistic ambitions. His annexation of Savoy and Nice alienated Great Britain, and his failure to secure a European congress further isolated France. Meanwhile, German nationalists saw opportunities for their own unification amidst this chaos.

Napoleon’s handling of the 1863 Polish revolt further isolated France. His attempts to garner support for Poland from Russia, Great Britain, and Austria failed. His proposal to Austria to give up its Polish territories and Venetia in exchange for gains in Silesia and the Balkans found no takers. Napoleon’s focus on peripheral European issues, neglecting the central issue of German unification, led to France losing its influence in Germany, a cornerstone of its foreign policy since Richelieu.

The 1864 Danish conflict over Schleswig-Holstein marked a significant shift. Austria and Prussia’s joint action against Denmark, disregarding the German Confederation’s rules, showed Germany’s capacity for offensive action. This coalition should have prompted a European Congress intervention, but Europe’s disarray, largely due to Napoleon’s actions, prevented it. Napoleon’s indecision between upholding traditional French policy to keep Germany divided and supporting nationalistic principles led to inaction, allowing Austria and Prussia to resolve the Schleswig-Holstein issue themselves.

Napoleon’s ambivalence was further highlighted in his views on Prussia. While he admired Prussia’s nationalistic and liberal qualities, he feared German unification. His passive encouragement of an Austro-Prussian war, under the mistaken belief that Prussia would lose, backfired. He hoped for a conflict that would allow him to reshape Germany according to his vision, but his indecisiveness and lack of clear strategy prevented any significant intervention.

Napoleon’s pursuit of a European congress to avoid war and gain concessions was repeatedly rebuffed. The other powers, wary of Napoleon’s intentions, refused to participate. His reluctance to clearly state France’s demands left Bismarck convinced that French neutrality could be bought. Napoleon’s gamble to gain territories in Italy and Western Europe, which did not align with France’s core national interests, contrasted sharply with Bismarck’s focus on tangible, strategic goals. Napoleon’s inability to balance his revolutionary ideals with the practical realities of European politics ultimately led to his diplomatic isolation and the rise of a unified Germany under Prussian leadership.

French leaders, including Adolphe Thiers, recognized the risks of Napoleon III’s approach and criticized his pursuit of irrelevant compensations. Thiers, a strong opponent of Napoleon and later President of France, accurately foresaw the rise of Prussia as a dominant force in Germany. He advocated for a clear French policy opposing Prussia, invoking the defense of German state independence and the broader European balance. Thiers argued that France should resist German unification to maintain European stability and its own independence.

Despite these warnings, Napoleon III underestimated the potential consequences of the Austro-Prussian War. He expected Austria to triumph and prioritized dismantling the Vienna settlement over considering France’s historic national interests. When Prussia and Austria went to war, Prussia’s swift and decisive victory contradicted Napoleon’s expectations. He missed the opportunity to assist Austria, as per Richelieu’s diplomatic tradition, and his hesitant actions led to France’s growing insignificance in German affairs. The Treaty of Prague in August 1866 saw Austria withdraw from Germany, and Prussia annexed several territories, signaling a departure from the principle of legitimacy in international relations.

Prussia’s victory led to the creation of the North German Confederation under its leadership and paved the way for the eventual unification of Germany. France, isolated and weakened, failed to form alliances with Austria, Great Britain, or Russia due to its past actions. Napoleon’s attempt to recoup losses by maneuvering around the Spanish throne succession only led to further humiliation.

In a strategic misstep, Napoleon III’s demands regarding the Spanish throne succession were manipulated by Bismarck to provoke France into declaring war on Prussia in 1870. The edited Ems Dispatch, leaked to the press, portrayed France as being snubbed by Prussia, fueling public outrage and leading to war. Prussia’s victory in this conflict was swift and marked the completion of German unification, proclaimed in the Palace of Versailles.

Napoleon’s foreign policy, driven by a quest for publicity and a lack of a coherent strategy, collapsed under the weight of his many aspirations. His efforts to dismantle the Metternich system and disrupt the Holy Alliance ultimately led to a reorganized European order, with Germany emerging as the dominant power. The principle of legitimacy gave way to a system based more on raw power, highlighting a gap between France’s perceived dominance and its actual capacity. Napoleon’s repeated calls for a European congress to revise Europe’s map remained unfulfilled, as he lacked the strength to enforce his radical ideas and the consensus to support them.

France’s foreign policy, shaped by its desire to lead rather than follow, has been a consistent theme since the Crimean War. Historically, France has aligned itself with smaller powers, as seen in its partnerships with countries like Sardinia, Romania, and various German states in the nineteenth century, and with nations such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania during the interwar period. This approach stemmed from France’s reluctance to play a secondary role in alliances with major powers like Great Britain, Germany, Russia, or the United States, which it viewed as incompatible with its self-perceived grandeur and global mission.

This trend continued into the post-de Gaulle era, especially regarding France’s relationship with Germany. Despite historical apprehensions, France chose to foster a friendship with Germany, yet it remained wary of German dominance. Geopolitically, it would have been logical for France to seek closer ties with the United States to diversify its options. However, national pride and the pursuit of independent leadership led France to seek other alliances to counterbalance American influence, often favoring a European consortium even if it meant acknowledging German preeminence.

In contemporary times, France often positioned itself as a counterweight to American leadership, striving to elevate the European Community as a global power and engaging with countries it believed it could influence. Since the end of Napoleon III’s reign, France has struggled with its inability to project the universalist ideals of the French Revolution and find a suitable platform for its ambitions. The national consolidations in Europe diminished the conditions that once facilitated French preeminence, leading to a century-long struggle for France to reconcile its aspirations with its actual capabilities. This gap between desire and reality has often manifested in a particularly assertive and distinctive style of French diplomacy.

The transformation of the European political landscape in the 19th century, initiated by Napoleon III, was completed by Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck, initially known as a staunch conservative opposing the liberal revolutions of 1848, paradoxically introduced universal male suffrage and established an extensive social welfare system. Although he initially resisted the idea of a German imperial crown for the Prussian King, he ultimately facilitated the unification of Germany under Prussian dominance, defying liberal principles. This unification process marked a return to the intense power struggles of the 18th century, now amplified by industrial capabilities and national resources. Bismarck’s Realpolitik turned foreign policy into a raw contest of strength, replacing the harmonious ideals of the previous era.

Bismarck’s rise to prominence and his strategic achievements were as unexpected as his multifaceted personality. Known for his “blood and iron” policy, he was also a lover of poetry and art. His approach to Realpolitik was characterized by a sense of proportion, which he used as a tool for moderation rather than aggression.

Bismarck’s success partly stemmed from the inability of the established order to recognize its vulnerabilities to conservative-seeming revolutionaries. He began his career under the Metternich system, which was built on a balance of power in Europe, a German equilibrium between Austria and Prussia, and alliances founded on conservative values. However, Bismarck challenged these fundamentals. He believed that Prussia, now the strongest German state, did not require alliances with conservative powers like Russia. He saw Austria as an obstacle, not an ally, to Prussia’s mission in Germany. Bismarck perceived Napoleon’s dynamic diplomacy more as an opportunity than a threat, contrary to the prevailing view of his contemporaries.

In a significant speech in 1850, Bismarck criticized the belief that German unity required parliamentary institutions, signaling his departure from the Metternich system’s principles. He suggested that Prussia could assert its influence unilaterally, without needing to align with Austria or other conservative states, and manage its internal affairs independently of foreign alliances.

Bismarck’s strategic approach was to maintain nonalignment while forging diverse alliances, positioning Prussia advantageously in relation to other powers. He capitalized on the fact that Prussia’s primary foreign policy interest was in German affairs, unlike other European powers, which were entangled in complex international issues. This focus allowed Prussia to remain flexible and opportunistic in its foreign relations.

Bismarck was open to aligning with any country, including France under Napoleon III, if it served Prussian interests. This stance represented a modern echo of Cardinal Richelieu’s policy, which prioritized state interests over religious or ideological alignments. Bismarck’s willingness to consider Napoleon III, perceived as a revolutionary threat by conservative Prussians, as a potential ally, highlighted his pragmatic approach to foreign policy. This strategy of aligning with diverse powers for pragmatic gains mirrored Richelieu’s prioritization of national interest over religious affiliations and demonstrated Bismarck’s skill in navigating the complex political landscape of his time.

Bismarck’s departure from traditional Prussian conservative principles mirrored the earlier conflict between Richelieu and his clerical critics. While the Prussian conservatives emphasized the importance of universal political principles over power, Bismarck believed that power itself provided legitimacy and advocated a doctrine of self-limitation based on a realistic assessment of power. This difference in ideology led to a significant rift between Bismarck and the conservative establishment in Prussia.

A poignant illustration of this conflict is seen in the exchange of letters in the late 1850s between Bismarck and Leopold von Gerlach, his mentor and a key figure in his rise to prominence. Bismarck proposed a diplomatic approach towards France, prioritizing strategic advantage over ideological alignment. He argued for the necessity of Prussia to be prepared for a confrontation with Austria and to exploit diplomatic opportunities.

Gerlach, however, could not accept the idea of strategic advantage justifying a departure from principle. He advocated for the restoration of the Holy Alliance to isolate France, a stance deeply rooted in his antirevolutionary principles. Bismarck’s suggestion of involving Napoleon in Prussian military maneuvers, a move deeply offensive to Gerlach, epitomized the ideological divide between them.

Bismarck’s disagreement with Gerlach stemmed from a fundamental difference in understanding. Bismarck’s approach to Realpolitik required flexibility and the ability to exploit opportunities without the constraint of ideology. He positioned Prussian patriotism above the principle of legitimacy, arguing that loyalty to their country required keeping options open, including potential alliances with France. Bismarck rejected the notion that legitimacy was inherently linked to Prussia’s national interest and instead emphasized the importance of tactical flexibility and preserving diplomatic options.

The rift between the two men became irreconcilable over Prussia’s stance towards the Franco-Austrian war over Italy. Bismarck saw Austria’s retreat from Italy as an opportunity to weaken its influence in Germany, while Gerlach viewed Napoleon’s actions as a threat akin to the expansionism of the first Bonaparte. Bismarck, like Richelieu before him, differentiated between personal belief and the duties of statesmanship, emphasizing the role of practical politics over moral or ideological considerations.

Bismarck’s philosophical stance highlighted the distinction between personal beliefs and the realities of political leadership. He accepted that his service to the King and the country might lead to outcomes he personally disagreed with but saw this as necessary for effective statesmanship. This fundamental difference in approach marked a significant shift in the nature of political leadership and foreign policy, foreshadowing the challenges that would face Prussia and later Germany.

Bismarck’s approach to foreign policy marked a significant departure from the ideals of his mentor, Leopold von Gerlach, and the Metternich system that had shaped European politics in the early 19th century. While Gerlach and the Prussian conservatives held onto universal political principles, Bismarck believed in the relativity of beliefs and the supremacy of power as a source of legitimacy. He saw the role of a statesman as evaluating ideas based on their utility in serving national interests, rather than adhering to rigid ideological doctrines.

Bismarck’s philosophy was informed by the emerging scientific understanding of the universe as dynamic and ever-changing, akin to Darwin’s theory of evolution. He believed that careful analysis of circumstances should lead statesmen to similar conclusions about the national interest, a view that contrasted sharply with Gerlach’s unwavering commitment to the principle of legitimacy.

In Bismarck’s view, Prussia’s history and strength positioned it as a leader in the quest for German unity, independent of liberal ideologies or universal values. He challenged the notion that nationalism was inherently linked to liberalism and posited that Prussian institutions were robust enough to withstand external influences. This belief enabled him to consider using democratic currents as tools in foreign policy, a stark departure from traditional Prussian conservatism.

Bismarck’s diplomatic strategy was not constrained by sentimentality or the need for legitimacy but was driven by a pragmatic assessment of power. He saw Prussia’s internal stability as a strategic advantage that could be used to challenge the Vienna settlement and exert pressure on other European powers, particularly Austria.

As ambassador to the Confederation and later to St. Petersburg, Bismarck consistently advocated for a foreign policy grounded in the practical assessment of power, aligning with the political approaches of historical figures like Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. He argued that foreign policy should be based on the art of the possible and the science of the relative, prioritizing state interests over personal sympathies or antipathies.

In Bismarck’s analysis, Austria emerged not as an ally but as a competitor for dominance in Germany. He viewed Austria as an obstacle to Prussia’s ascendancy and believed that the two powers were competing for the same political space in Germany. Bismarck’s approach to foreign policy, characterized by a focus on national interest and a pragmatic understanding of power dynamics, marked a new era in European politics, setting the stage for significant changes in the balance of power on the continent.

Bismarck, a figure emblematic of his era, represented a significant shift from the Metternich system that had dominated European politics. This system, akin to an intricate clockwork, maintained a delicate balance where disrupting one part could unsettle the entire mechanism. Bismarck, however, saw the world through the lens of Realpolitik, viewing the universe as dynamic, where the interaction of fluctuating forces shaped reality. His philosophy was underpinned by the idea that power determines legitimacy, and that a state’s actions should be evaluated based on their effectiveness in serving national interests.

Frederick William IV, the Prussian king Bismarck initially served, found himself torn between the traditional conservatism espoused by Gerlach and the opportunistic Realpolitik advocated by Bismarck. Bismarck urged the king to prioritize Prussia’s interests over personal regard for Austria, viewing Austria as an obstacle to Prussian hegemony in Germany. Bismarck’s proposals, such as attacking Austria during the Crimean War or seizing opportunities during Austria’s conflict with France and Piedmont, reflected a strategic ruthlessness that would have been anathema to Metternich but lauded by Frederick the Great.

Bismarck applied his relativistic analysis to the European balance of power, exploring various alliances and policy shifts, depending on what served Prussia best. His approach contrasted sharply with the Metternich system’s preference for adjustments through European consensus. Bismarck’s disregard for existing treaties and shared values represented a diplomatic revolution, ultimately leading to an arms race and heightened international tension.

The disintegration of the Holy Alliance after the Crimean War, with Austria siding against Russia, opened the door for Bismarck’s Realpolitik. He recognized that the diplomatic landscape had fundamentally changed, setting the stage for Prussia’s rise. Bismarck’s strategic vision saw the German unification under Prussian leadership not as an expression of popular will, but as a result of diplomatic maneuvering and the application of power.

Despite Bismarck’s success in achieving German unification and his prudent foreign policy thereafter, the consequences of his approach eventually led to rigid international systems and heightened tensions. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany created an enduring enmity with France, eliminating the possibility of a Franco-German alliance that Bismarck had once deemed essential.

Bismarck’s domestic policies also had profound implications. The German constitution he designed, while innovative, resulted in a political system where nationalism became increasingly chauvinistic and democracy remained limited. Bismarck’s successors lacked his diplomatic finesse, leading to a reliance on military strength and ultimately to war.

Both Napoleon III and Bismarck left complex legacies. Napoleon’s inability to reconcile his revolutionary ideals with their practical implementation led to strategic paralysis for France. Bismarck, on the other hand, set Germany on a path of greatness that exceeded the nation’s capacity to sustain it. Their respective legacies illustrate the challenges of leadership and the consequences of their actions on the trajectory of European history.

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