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The Concert of Europe: A Fresh Look at an International System

  • Richard B. Elrod (a1)

This essay examines the Concert of Europe as an international system and offers some general reflections and tentative conclusions about the meaning, the nature, and the operation of concert diplomacy between 1815 and 1854. It focuses upon the assumptions and procedures engendered by the Concert which restrained and moderated the policies of the European great powers by peaceful means. It concludes that the European Concert was a conscious and reasonably successful attempt to devise a stable and peaceful system of interstate relations.

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1 Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, trans, by Howard, Richard and Fox, Annette Baker (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books 1973), 6.

2 See, for example, Taylor, A. J. P., The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1954), xix-xx.

3 Medlicott, W. N. concludes that ”it was the peace which maintained the Concert and not the Concert that maintained peace.” Bismarck, Gladstone, and the Concert of Europe (London: Athlone Press 1956), 18. Another common view is that the Concert was just the old balance-of-power system perpetuated in another guise: Gulick, Edward V., Europe's Classical Balance of Power (New York: Norton 1955), 88n., 156–59. Concert diplomacy admittedly accepted and incorporated the principle of the balance of power. But I believe that a distinction must be drawn (and in fact was drawn) between the balance of power, seen simply as a distribution of power among essential members of the states system, and balance-of-power politics, which featured confrontation as the first premise, and which had a natural tendency to seek preponderance rather than balance. See Rosecrance, Richard, Action and Reaction in World Politics (Boston:Little, Brown 1963), for some perceptive comments on this subject.

4 I make no pretense here of presenting an essay based on original research; nor do I wish to quarrel with those scholars who subscribe to alternative interpretations. In justification of the approach I am taking, I wish to offer one additional comment, however. The current emphasis among historians upon the primacy of domestic politics and among international relations theorists upon methodological experimentation and general systems analysis has produced in many cases a disdainful view of ”traditional” diplomatic history and of mere ”praxeology” (the term is Aron's). While admitting the justice of these critiques to a point, I feel that theory could often be more concretely grounded in actual historical situations and developments, and that such international systems as the Concert of Europe may yet retain instructional value. Moreover, the proponents of the Primal der lnnenpolitik, while they broaden our understanding of the motivations and formulation of foreign policy, are much less satisfactory in explaining the multifaceted interaction, and the results, of foreign policies once they are introduced into the international arena. Here, it seems to me, the nature and structure of the existing international system becomes crucially important. The Concert of Europe is a good example.

The literature incorporating the approach of the primacy of domestic politics is generally familiar. I refer only to the works of Fritz Fischer, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Helmut Bohme, and Wolfgang Mommsen in Germany, and Arno J. Mayer in the United States. For some recent trends in international relations research, see Finnegan, Richard B., ”International Relations: The Disputed Search for Methods,” Review of Politics, xxxiv (January 1972), 4066; and Phillips, Warren R., ”Where Have All the Theories Gone?” World Politics, xxvi (January 1974), 155–88.

5 I am particularly indebted to the recent work of Schroeder, Paul W., Austria, Great Britain, and the Crimean War: The Destruction of the European Concert (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972), which contains a trenchant analysis of concert diplomacy in the concluding chapter. The following studies were also of special assistance: Webster, Charles K., The Art and Practice of Diplomacy (New York: Barnes and Noble 1962), esp. 55–69; Holbraad, Carsten, The Concert of Europe: A Study in German and British International Theory, 1815–1914 (London: Longmans, Green 1970); Albrecht-Carrie, Rene, ed., The Concert of Europe, 1815–1914 (New York: Harper 1968); Hins-ley, F. H., Power and the Pursuit of Peace: Theory and Practice in the History of Relations between States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1957); Hinsley, , ”Reflections on the History of International Relations,” in Gilbert, Martin, ed., A Century of Conflict, 1850–1950: Essays for A. J. P. Taylor (New York: Atheneum 1967), 1934; Hoffmann, Stanley, The State of War: Essays on the Theory and Practice of International Relations (New York: Praeger 1965); Aron (fn. 1); and Rosecrance (fn. 3).

6 The critiques by the Abbe de Saint-Pierre at the beginning of the eighteenth century and by Kant at the end are familiar. Yet even Edmund Burke, a defender of equilibrium politics, conceded during the Seven Years' War that ”The balance of power, the pride of modern policy, and originally invented to preserve the general peace as well as the freedom of Europe, has only preserved its liberty. It has been the origin of innumerable and fruitless wars.” Quoted in Butterfield, Herbert, ”The Balance of Power,” in Butterfield, H. and Wright, Martin, eds., Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1966), 144.

7 Minor Poems, Ault, Norman and Butt, John, eds., Twickenham edn., vi (London: Methuen 1954), 82.

8 These judgments contradict the conclusion of many theorists that balance-of-power politics in the eighteenth century permitted only limited wars (the ”stylized wars of position that only rarely affected the civilian populations”) and was a system of, basic moderation. Hoffmann (fn. 5), 101; Hinsley, Power … (fn. 5), 179.; For ample evidence to the contrary, one need only turn to Sorel, Albert, Europe and the French Revolution, trans, by Cobban, Alfred and Hunt, J. W. (New York: Anchor Books 1971), esp. 6485. In comparison to the present century, the warfare of the era of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great may indeed appear mild. Even so, it is most difficult to conceive of the wars of the Sun King as conflicts which did not involve civilian populations; or of the Seven Years' War as a limited war of position; or of the partitions of Poland as an example of the preservation of independent states; or, finally, of the various plans for the destruction of Prussia, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey as evidences of moderation. Yet all characterized balance-of-power politics in the period. Cf. also Schroeder (fn. 5), 403.

9 Depeches inedites du Chevalier de Gentz aux Hospodars de Valachie, ed. Prokesch-Osten, Anton von (Paris: Plon 1876 –1877), I, 344–45. An English translation of this essay (”Considerations on the Political System Now Existing in Europe”) is available in Walker, Mack, ed., Metternich's Europe, 1813–1848 (New York: Harper 1968), 7183

10 Grimsted, Patricia K., The Foreign Ministers of Alexander I (Berkeley: University of California Press 1970), 239.

11 Schenk, H. G., The Aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars: The Concert of Europe — An Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press 1947), 27.

12 Craig, Gordon A., ”The System of Alliances and the Balance of Power,” in the New Cambridge Modern History, X (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1960) 267.

13 Webster, Charles K., The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh: Britain and the European Alliance, 1815–1822 (2d ed., London: G. Bell 1934), 144.

14 Several scholars distinguish between the ”era of the congresses” and ”the Concert of Europe” after 1823. See Nichols, Irby C. Jr., The European Pentarchy and the Congress of Verona, 1822 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff 1971), 325.

15 Metternich's efforts to convert the Paris ambassadorial conference into a headquarters for antirevolutionary surveillance and action, and Palmerston's ambitions to create a league of liberal states are well known. For the former, see Guillaume Bertier de Sauvigny, Metternich et la France après le congres de Vienne, I: De Napoleon á Decazes (Paris: Hachette 1968), 116; and Webster (fn. 13), 73. Palmerston's desire for a ”western confederacy of free states” is discussed in Webster, Charles K., The Foreign Policy of Palmerston, 1830–1841 (2 vols., London: G. Bell 1951); quote from I, 347.

16 Webster (fn. 13), 160.

17 Gentz (fn. 9), 477; Walker (fn. 9), 73. Castlereagh wrote in September 1815 that ”There is not a Power, however feeble, that borders France from the Channel to the Mediterranean that is not pushing some acquisition under the plea of security and rectification of frontier. They … are foolish enough to suppose that the Great Powers of Europe are to be in readiness to protect them in the enjoyment of these petty spoils. In truth, their whole conception is so unstatesmanlike that they look not beyond their own sop; compared with this, the keeping together of a European force has little importance in their eyes.” Phillips, W. Alison, The Confederation of Europe (26 ed., London: Longmans, Green 1920), 138.

18 de Sauvigny, G. Bertier, ”Sainte-Alliance et Alliance dans les conceptions de Metternich,” Revue Historique, Vol. 223 (April-June 1960), 263.

19 The hassle between Metternich and Palmerston over a conference on the Eastern Question in 1833 (and the resulting delay) is a typical example. See Webster (fn. 15); and Anderson, M. S., The Eastern Question, 1774–1923 (New York:St. Martin's 1966), 7987.

20 Mosely, Phillip E., Russian Diplomacy and the Opening of the Straits Question in 1838 and 1839 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1934), 73.

21 Realities of American Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1954), 92.

22 This function of concert diplomacy was recognized even by twentieth-century diplomats. Friedrich von Holstein, in defending the call for a European conference on the first Moroccan crisis, advised the German foreign minister that ”this idea has the advantage that while it affects French interests, it does not affect French pride.” Holstein to Billow, April 5, 1905, in Rich, Norman and Fisher, M. H., eds., The Holstein Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1961), IV, 328–29. Cf. Rich, , Friedrich von Holstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1965), II, 700, 708.

23 The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 provides several examples of the special care taken not to slight the standing and reputation of great powers. See Bertier de Sauvigny (fn. 15), 189–209; and Webster (fn. 13), 123, 153.

24 Th e French and British invitation of Cavour to the Paris Congress of 1856 and their repeated efforts in the following decade to include Italy in great-power consultations was a direct violation of this rule and an open insult to the Austrian Empire.

25 Cf. the dispatch of Metternich quoted in Bertier de Sauvigny (fn. 18), 263.

26 Abundant evidence of this facet of concert diplomacy is furnished in the memoranda prepared by Castlereagh and by Baron Humboldt of Prussia prior to the opening of the Congresses of Vienna and Aix-la-Chapelle; they are printed as appendices in Webster, Charles K., The Congress of Vienna, 1814–1815 (New York: Barnes and Noble 1966), 168–93.

27 As Metternich wrote Gentz in 1823: ”Before talking about congresses, it is necessary to come to an accord on many matters, and the way to do this is through simple conferences.” Sweet, Paul R., Vriedrich von Gentz (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1941), 239.

28 Castlereagh frequently used the term in regard to Alexander I. His meaning did not differ substantially from Metternich's in the latter's emphasis upon a ”point of moral contact” and ”une pentarchie morale.”

29 Webster (fn. 15), I, 505.

30 This was Metternich's meaning in attributing the Russian retreat in Turkey in 1834 (withdrawal from the Danubian Principalities and reduction of the Turkish war indemnity) to the Tsar's ”good will.” Ibid., I, 341. Austria herself abjured possible additional gains in Italy for much the same reason: ibid., I, 210. See also Paul W. Schroeder, Metternich's Diplomacy at its Zenith, 1820–1823 (Austin: University of Texas Press 1962); and Reinerman, Alan, ”Metternich, Italy, and the Congress of Verona, 1821–1822,” The Historical Journal, xiv (June 1971), 263–87.

31 Something that neither Napoleon III nor Gladstone ever understood was that the Concert could not be used to impose their version of reform upon Europe; that it could not simultaneously seek to avoid armed conflicts between the great powers and promote changes which would probably occasion them. The French Emperor's proclivity for conferences and congresses cannot, I think, be taken very seriously, despite his frequent calls for them (but cf. Eckhard, William, ”Conference Diplomacy in the German Policy of Napoleon III, 1868—1869,” French Historical Studies, iv [Spring 1966], 239–64). W. H. C. Smith's conclusion is accurate: ”The pattern of Napoleon Ill's diplomacy rarely varied: when bilateral or unilateral action became too risky, the danger could be lifted by multilateral action.” Napoleon 111 (London: Wayland Publications 1972), 159. It is incredible that Napoleon actually believed his various schemes for the reconstruction of Europe could be achieved through congresses or by peaceful means. His proposals included the cession of Venetia to Italy by Austria; the creation of an independent Poland; the destruction of Turkey; and the partition of Austria. See Tapie, Victor, ”Le traite secret de 1859 entre la France et la Russie,” Études d'his-toire moderne et contemporaine, v (December 1953), 116–47; and Elrod, , ”Austria and the Venetian Question, 1860–1866,” Central European History, iv (June 1971), 149–70.

In a similar vein, Gladstone's efforts in the 1880's to resurrect the European Concert so that the great powers could cooperate in imposing British-type reforms upon the Ottoman Empire manifested an alarming misconception of what concert diplomacy was about. The only effect of his attempts was to frighten the continental powers and to solidify their opposition to his overtures. Gladstone then had to choose between the Concert and his ideology (he chose the latter). Medlicott (fn. 3).

32 Certainly the rights of neutral states were less secure after the breakdown of the Concert. See Lademacher, Horst, Die belgische Neutralität als Problem der europäischen Politik, 1830–1914 (Bonn: Ludwig Rohrscheid Verlag 1971), esp. 196–200, 477; and Imlah, Ann G., Britain and Switzerland, 1845–1860 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon 1966).

33 Austen Chamberlain's comment on the League of Nations seems to fit here: ”I am firmly convinced that the true line of progress is to proceed from the particular to the general, and not, as has hitherto been embodied in Covenant and Protocol, to reverse the process and attempt to eliminate the particular by the general.” Gooch, G. P., Studies in Diplomacy and Statecraft (London: Longmans, Green 1942), 180.

34 A case in point was Britain's treatment of the Austrian Empir e in the second half of the century. Th e British expected Austria to restrain Russia in the east an d insisted that a strong Austria was a European necessity. Yet simultaneously they advised reforms and concessions that would have made Austria incapable of performing the requested tasks—or, later in the century, simply ignored her. The retort of the Austrian Ambassador to England in the 1860's was fully justified: ”You pretend always to be interested in our prosperity and power; and, in spite of that, you advise us first to cede Venetia, then Galicia. By dint of your interest and friendship, you will finish by reducing us by half.” Apponyi to Rechberg, May 18, 1863: Haus-, Hof-, und Staats-archiv (Vienna) (Politisches Archiv VIII: England), carton 60.

35 As Metternich noted in 1824, ”The Holy Alliance has never played a role in any issue … for the simple reason that what is in reality nothing can only produce nothing.” Bertier de Sauvigny (fn. 18), 256. Similarly, the definition of nonintervention (attrib-uted to Talleyrand) as a metaphysical and political phrase meaning almost the same thing as intervention was fundamentally accurate. It did not prevent repeated unilateral British interventions (in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and elsewhere) whenever London deemed it necessary. (A recent reassertion that the ideological gulf between East and West was ”unbridgeable,” however, is Scott, Ivan, ”Counter-Revolutionary Diplomacy and the Demise of Anglo-Austrian Cooperation, 1820–1823,” The Historian, xxxiv [May 1972⊻, 465–84.)

36 The change in British policy, which began even before Castlereagh's suicide, was greatly accelerated by his successors, Canning and Palmerston. See Webster (fn. 13), 488–89; and Temperley, Harold W. V., The Foreign Policy of Canning: England, the Neo-Holy Alliance, and the New World (2d ed., London: Thomas Nelson 1925), 449, 470–71. Palmerston, though he often participated effectively in concert diplomacy, was increasingly disposed to adopt the promotion of liberalism and a policy of confrontation with Russia, to prefer British to European diplomatic victories, and to enjoy the ”salutary moral humiliation” of other great powers: Webster (fn. 15), I, 406; II, 532, 736. The emergence of Russophobia in Britain was another ominous development: ”Great Britain's policy was, in the main, more provocative than Russia's.” Gleason, John H., The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1950), 23.

37 Conclusive arguments are presented in Schroeder (fn. 5); and Baumgart, Winfried, Der Friede von Paris, 1856 (Munich: Oldenburg Verlag 1972).

38 Perhaps the classic example of a foreign venture undertaken to distract domestic unrest in this period was the French expedition to Algiers in 1830. ”Only in patriotism and in activity could the French forget their internal disagreements and act as one nation.” Johnson, Douglas, Guizot (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1963), 265.

39 Remak, Joachim, The Gentle Critic: Theodore Fontaine and German Politics (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press 1964), 13.

40 Plumb, J. H., The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1625–1725 (London: Macmillan 1967).

41 Hoffmann (fn. 5), 20.

42 There are some encouraging efforts in this direction on other subjects. Brian Healey and Arthur Stein, applying quantitative methods to a catalogue of events identified by diplomatic historians, examine a number of well-worn cliches about the balance-of-power system and conclude that many of the interpretations are simply invalid: ”The Balance of Power in International History: Theory and Reality,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, xvn (March 1973), 3361. Schroeder's, Paul W. seminal article, ”World War I as Galloping Gertie,” written from the viewpoint of an historian, emphasizes the systemic dynamics that led to the breakdown of the European system prior to the First World War, Journal of Modern History, xliv (September 1972), 319–45. Gabriel Almond and Scott C. Flanagan, though dealing with political modernization rather than international relations, offer some suggestive insights in discussing ”system functionalism” and ”political systems and systemic crisis” that could be applied to international systems as well: Almond, , Flanagan, , and Muntlt, , Crisis, Choice, and Change: Historical Studies of Political Development (Boston: Little, Brown 1973), 58, 46–57.

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