The Concert of Europe: The Rise and Fall of the First United Nations

by DR HUW J. DAVIES

Two hundred years ago, diplomats from the Great Powers of Europe were redrawing the map of Europe. In April, Napoleon Bonaparte had abdicated, the French Empire defeated. Now it remained for Great Britain, Royalist France, Austria, Prussia and Russia to determine the fate of Europe. Napoleon’s escape from his exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the commencement of the Hundred Days Campaign ended the negotiations, as hostilities were renewed, and the old alliance that had defeated Napoleon in 1813-14 was reborn.

This new war culminated in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and new negotiations commenced in Paris. For the British, the balance of power in Europe was paramount. The British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, the Duke of Wellington, worked hard to ensure that the Great Powers of Europe were evenly matched so as to prevent a new war breaking out on the continent.

Altruistic as this agenda might seem, Britain required a balance of power in Europe, so that she could turn her attention to imperial expansion. Every time war broke out in Europe, Britain was inevitably drawn into the conflict, and precious resources and energy was expended fighting, or more likely paying others to fight, to restore the precarious balance.

In 1815, Castlereagh proposed a new and ambitious project, which would see the Great Powers come together to discuss issues that might otherwise spark a regional and eventually a European-wide war. ‘Let the Allies then take this further chance of securing that repose which all the Powers of Europe so much require,’ he wrote in a memorandum at the end of August, by ‘renewing their meetings at fixed periods … for the purpose of consulting upon their common interests, and for the consideration of the measures … considered the most salutary for the repose and prosperity of nations and for the maintenance of the peace of Europe’.

This became known as the Concert of Europe, and I discuss its foundation, effectiveness and decline in an essay entitled ‘The Legacy of Waterloo: War and Politics in Europe in the Nineteenth Century’, published this week. Castlereagh envisaged regular meetings of Europe’s leaders, to forestall looming crises and prevent future wars. All of this was guaranteed by a perpetual alliance of the Four Powers. Although the formal congress system broke down in 1822, the Great Powers continued to reconvene on an ad-hoc basis when new crises emerged.

In total, 26 meetings occurred between the first Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and the final meeting in London in 1913. In that period, the Ottoman Empire was admitted in 1856, newly united Italy joined in 1867, and the German Reich replaced Prussia in 1871. The United States and Japan also began to participate towards the end of the century.

To suggest that the Concert of Europe was an unmitigated success would, of course, be misleading. No continent-wide conflict engulfed Europe between 1815 and 1914, but numerous wars between European states occurred, not least of which were the Italian Risorgimento (three wars of independence between 1849 and 1866), the Crimean War (1854-56), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The Concert framed these wars, and fed the development of European political ideas during the nineteenth century.

The system worked on moral rather than legal grounds, and any such system needed to demonstrate flexibility. The Concert proved inadequate at dealing with crises within (as opposed to between) Great Powers’ sphere of interests. Thus, Great Britain acted with impunity in South Asia; Russia did so in Central Asia and the Far East; and latterly France and Britain did so in Africa. But in Europe, crises that in the eighteenth century might have produced regional conflicts that spiralled into general European war, were resolved within the framework of the Concert.

Thus, the Greek Revolution between 1821 and 1832; the Belgian Revolution that began in 1830; and the Italian Revolution of 1848, were all settled without Great Power conflicts. This is not to say that blood was not shed, or that violence was ended as a result of Great Power intervention. The Great Powers acted so as to contain the violence and prevent the eruption of a general conflict. This was a step-change in European affairs, which, in the eighteenth century had seen conflicts breakout over similar regional challenges to prevailing authority.

Nevertheless, in 1854, a war between the Great Powers threatened the stability of Europe. Although the Crimean War did not erupt into a general conflict, it served critically to undermine the Concert of Europe. Why, then, in circumstances where the Great Powers had sought to avoid conflict at all costs, did the Crimean War break out? The answer is quite simple: the extra-European spheres of interest of two of the Great Powers began to collide, and no diplomatic mechanism within the Concert offered a solution to a problem born entirely outside the boundaries of Europe.

Ostensibly, the Crimean War erupted between Russia on one hand, and Austria, France, the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain, on the other, because of Russian aggression against the slowly declining Ottoman Empire. The prospect of Russian control of Constantinople was too great a strategic threat to Austria, France and Great Britain. Yet, if this was the sole cause, a diplomatic solution would have been found through the mechanism of the Concert. The problem was that Russian encroachment into the Caucasus and Central Asia began directly to threaten British extra-European interests, namely those in South Asia.

A diplomatic solution proved impossible in 1853-4, because Britain did not want a diplomatic solution: Britain wanted to threaten, undermine and humiliate Russia. By the early 1850s, Russia had emerged as a new France, a power that sought hegemonic power. The key difference was that Russia did not seek (at least for the time being) hegemonic power in Europe, but in Asia, and this directly threatened Britain’s own imperial ambitions. Britain had already fought a costly war in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842 over the perceived threat of Russian expansionism in Central Asia. Although an operational disaster, the war had nevertheless achieved its strategic objectives: a buffer zone to the north-west of British India that would, for the time being at least, prevent any Russian encroachment into Britain’s sphere of interest.

In the Crimea, however, Britain perceived a different but related threat from Russia. The growth of Russian naval power in the Black Sea represented a clear threat to British grand strategy. The prospect that Russia might gain control of Constantinople, and therefore the eastern Mediterranean, and be within striking distance of Egypt, the Red Sea, and therefore India by a different route, was too much for Britain to stomach.

True, Russian naval power was nowhere near so strong as to pose such a threat, but it would be easier to squash Russian naval plans when they were still embryonic. Britain did not want a diplomatic solution to the crisis in 1853-4, because a diplomatic solution would not see the neutralisation of Russian sea power. The war in the Crimea was designed to destroy Russian sea power.

At that point, the Concert of Europe ceased to perform its central function, although it continued to exist until the outbreak of the First World War. Arguably, the transformation of European politics commenced in the 1840s, and culminating in the unification of Germany in the 1870s, had already undermined the Concert. Critically, though, and one potential lesson, is that the Concert ceased to be effective when two of the Great Powers believed that they could no longer utilise its mechanisms to resolve their differences. So long as the present incarnation of the Concert of Europe, the United Nations, can offer the nations of the world the opportunity to resolve their differences, then it is at least achieving part of what Castlereagh set out to create.

Image: Congress of Vienna CC BY-SA 3.0

5 comments

  1. Thanks, Huw, for a very interesting post. I particularly like your link between the Concert of Europe and the United Nations today. I take your point completely. I wonder, though, if this is a bit too Anglocentric. I think the success, or failure, of the Concert would be viewed differently from different European perspectives. Certainly, as you point out, by the 1850s at the latest, it was no longer capable of maintaining the status quo within Europe — its real purpose. By the late 1870s, hadn’t the Concert been largely replaced by a growing system of alliances? Britain might have tried to use it in 1914, but even by this stage surely even Grey recognized that the Concert had been long dead and buried, as the increasing British involvement in Continental politics since 1900 must have shown.

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    1. Thanks Bob. You make a good point. In my essay, I talk (albeit briefly) about the wider issues the Concert faced – in the 1820s particularly after Castlereigh’s suicide, the British viewed the Concert as an obstruction to their achieving their goals, whilst the Prussians were fully engaged in its processes. However, following the Crimean War, the British wanted to re-engage with the Concert, but by then the Prussians were moving toward a united Germany, and viewed the Concert as a potential obstruction to their objectives.

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      1. Another interesting point — various states viewed and used the Concert differently at different points in time. I still think the Concert primarily assisted the British during the 19th century, as most other states sought to overthrow the status quo at some point. To me, the Crimean War was less about the Concert and more about the confluence of British and French interests. I also think that the most European states, domestic issues were the dominant factors for much of this period — whether this meant unification (in its various forms!) or the suppression of political discontent. For Prussia, Austria, and Russia, the ‘Holy Alliance’ was more than a simple scrap of paper for the first half of the century. Indeed, in the second half, Bismarck was able to build upon this for his Dreikaiserbund.

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