Magazine article UN Chronicle

Three Lessons of Peace from the Congress of Vienna to the Ukraine Crisis

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Three Lessons of Peace from the Congress of Vienna to the Ukraine Crisis

Article excerpt

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. …

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