Castlereagh: A Life by john bew . Oxford University Press, 2012, 752 pp. $39.95.
"The past," the novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, "is a foreign country; they do things differently there." There is certainly much that is alien about the world of Robert Stewart, better known as Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822), who helped usher in a new European order as British foreign secretary during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Nowadays, for example, one would not expect two senior politicians from the same party, both cabinet ministers, to fight a duel in the middle of a war, as Castlereagh and then Foreign Secretary George Canning did in 1809. And of course, there were some more fundamental differences: the British government of Castlereagh's day was elected by a narrow, all-male franchise determined by property ownership, and King George III, in his saner moments, was no mere constitutional figurehead but a power in his own right. Outside Great Britain, continental Europe would seem stranger still, with systems ranging from the Napoleonic tyranny in France to absolute monarchies in Austria, Prussia, and Russia. In international politics, wars of aggression and territorial annexation were still the norm.
But there is also much that is familiar about this world. Castlereagh's career played out in a parliamentary setting of intrigue and political maneuvering not dissimilar to those found in Washington and London today. In the international arena, Castlereagh confronted a landscape fractured by diverging national interests and profound ideological cleavages that would be recognizable to any modern diplomat. Given these resemblances, Castlereagh's successful management of competing great-power aspirations continues to resonate, inspiring statesmen such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the subject; the former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, who wrote a book that favorably contrasted Castlereagh's careful diplomacy with the more unilateralist tendencies of his contemporaries and successors; and the United Kingdom's current foreign secretary, William Hague, who wrote a 2005 biography of Castlereagh's boss, Prime Minister William Pitt, the Younger. What draws modern statesmen to Castlereagh, Hurd wrote, is a shared belief "in quiet negotiation, in compromise, [and] in cooperation with other countries . . . which could span an ideological divide." The followers of Castlereagh distinguish themselves from proponents of "a noisier foreign policy," based on unilateral action, liberal sympathies, and a penchant for intervention.
In a new biography, the historian John Bew revises this classic view, presenting Castlereagh as more ideological and less realist (but no less realistic) than the conventional portrait. The result is a magisterial guide to Castlereagh's life that should inform the general understanding of international politics today. Even among highly educated people, few remember more about Castlereagh than his name. But one can draw direct links between his ideas and many features of contemporary world affairs, including institutions such as the United Nations, disputes over sovereignty, humanitarian interventions, and wars of preemption and prevention. Castlereagh's career also offers many enduring lessons for Europe in its current time of crisis: that the United Kingdom must play an active role on the continent, that Germany is the focal point of the European system, and that Europe should strive toward ever-greater unity in order to master its internal and external demons.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BALANCE
At the heart of Bew's narrative is a masterly account of Castlereagh's diplomacy, which was based on an unshakable belief that maintaining a balance of power in Europe was central to the United Kingdom's security. Like most members of the British political class, Castlereagh was deeply concerned about the growth of France's power: 20 years after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled the vast majority of continental Europe outside Russia. …