The Congress of Vienna at 200
The enduring legacy of the best peace conference of all time.
- The Quintuple Alliance of 1818 was prepared to intervene in domestic quarrels, but not to overthrow existing regimes.
- The Congress of Vienna created the idea that major powers could work together on a recurring basis to preserve peace.
- The Congress of Vienna adopted two principles about major and smaller powers that we abandoned -- to our detriment.
- In the Congress System, intervention would take place only to prevent or reverse regime change, not to produce it.
The bicentennial of the Congress of Vienna is upon us soon. The conference had been organized to settle the questions outstanding from the 22-year Napoleonic Wars.
The Congress itself opened officially on October 1, 1814 and the Final Act was signed on June 9, 1815.
Despite all the attention paid this year to the outbreak of World War I and the effective failure of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles to create a stable order, it was the Congress of Vienna that basically established the foundation of the global system we inhabit today.
The 1814/15 conference established a number of principles of international governance, some of which we have kept and others that we would do well to re-apply.
However, the Congress of Vienna for the first time attempted to create a “Congress System” which aimed at the future and regular coordination between the Great Powers.
This resulted in the Quadruple/Holy Alliance of 1815 (which became the Quintuple Alliance when France joined in 1818.)
The Congress System established in Vienna at the time was highly effective for the crucial years of economic disruption following the wars’ end. Four Congresses met between 1818 and 1822, at Aachen, Troppau (Opava), Laibach (Ljubljana) and Verona.
Systemic support for legitimate governments
The Alliance powers’ principal objective was to prevent any outbreaks of revolutionary violence, especially the overthrow of legitimate governments. The lack of such a system in place after the disruption of the French Revolution in 1789 had led to 20 years of war.
Accordingly, the Alliance was prepared to intervene in domestic quarrels, but only to prop up or restore existing regimes, not to overthrow them. This was encapsulated in the 1820 Troppau Protocol, mostly the work of the Austrian Klemens von Metternich. It provided that:
“States, which have undergone a change of government due to revolution, the result of which threatens other states, ipso facto cease to be members of the European Alliance, and remain excluded from it until their situation gives guarantees for legal order and stability. If, owing to such alterations, immediate danger threatens other states the powers bind themselves, by peaceful means, or if need be, by arms, to bring back the guilty state into the bosom of the Great Alliance.”
System-stabilizing, no doubt. However, the system showed its strains, once the immediate danger of systemic destruction had lifted.
Serious divisions surfaced as soon as a proper response to a constitutional uprising in Spain had to be found in 1822.
A British Foreign Secretary not interested in peace
The system was ultimately destroyed when George Canning, the British Foreign Secretary for much of the 1820s, made it clear that he was not interested in working with the Continental autocracies to preserve the peace of Europe.
The result was several 19th century wars that might have been avoided and the creation of two 20th century successors to the Congress System, the League of Nations and the United Nations, neither of which had its strengths.
The Congress of Vienna nevertheless produced a number of new ideas that have survived to this day. One was the principle that the major powers could work together on a recurring basis to preserve peace and ensure that the world order met certain generally agreed objectives.
At the time, an important such objective was to stamp out the slave trade, which had been prohibited by Britain in 1807 and was abolished in French, Spanish and Portuguese possessions.
Later in the 19th century, the Congress of Vienna precedent began to be used to move towards free trade on a coordinated basis.
This was impossible at the Congress itself, since only the British delegation and the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, was convinced even theoretically of free trade’s advantages.
But significant progress was made on free trade, so that by the mid-19th century various international agreements covering shipping, postal services and other international trade matters emerged.
A principle to preserve peace and promote trade
The principle of major powers working together to preserve the peace and promote trade has survived to this day. International agreements and Congresses have been succeeded by permanent international bureaucracies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
There were however two principles adopted at the Congress of Vienna which we have abandoned, much to our detriment.
The first was that decisions should be agreed between a small number of major powers, each of which was large enough to disturb peace on a Europe-wide basis and which shared a basic commitment to the existing international order.
Smaller powers, for their part, were expected and indeed compelled to abide by decisions reached by the larger powers. This principle survives today in the G7 economic club, but is notably absent in the UN, the WTO, NATO and other international agencies.
A golden rule for our time
The other principle of the Congress System, embodied in the Troppau Protocol referred to above, was that intervention would take place only to prevent or reverse regime change, not to produce it.
You can see the beneficial effects of applying such a principle by considering the U.S./NATO interventions since the 1970s.
Under the (now imaginary) Troppau Protocol, intervention would have been legitimate in 1979 to prop up the Shah of Iran, in 1990 to remove Saddam Hussain from Kuwait, in 2011 to prop up Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — and possibly in 2014 to remove Russia from Ukraine, but on no other occasion.
Alternative history is impossible to prove scientifically, but I cannot help thinking the world would be very much better off under such a system-stabilizing regime.
The Troppau principle of intervention in limited cases only to prop up existing regimes when change would endanger the country’s neighbors has a number of advantages over our current ad-hoc approach to intervention.
Politically, the chance of unforeseen bad outcomes from regime change is eliminated. The mullahs’ regime in Iran and the chaos in Libya were both largely unforeseen before the removal of their predecessor regimes.
In any event, they were both far worse for the country’s inhabitants and the world as a whole than the regimes they replaced.
Minimizing counterproductive disruption
Economically, the Troppau principle is optimal because it minimizes counterproductive disruption: An existing regime, however corrupt, is already taken into account by businesses seeking to operate in the country, and hence propping it up eliminates substantial “menu-changing costs.”
The economic chaos from regime change is even worse when regime change involves geographic disruption. The countries of former Austria-Hungary suffered badly during the inter-war period, as did the post-Soviet republics in the 1990s and the countries of former Yugoslavia after 1991.
Human history contains many examples of well-constructed peace treaties following painful conflicts. But the Congress of Vienna was about the best of them, benefiting from far-sighted statesmanship of the highest quality from at least two participants, Metternich and Castlereagh. Many of its principles still govern our world today; we would do well to revisit some of its innovations that we have lost.
Editor’s Note: This is adapted from www.prudentbear.com, where this text was originally published.