“Le Congrés ne marche pas: il danse.” This famous quote on the slow progress of negotiations in 1814 stems from the enigmatic Prince de Ligne, whose death added a well-attended funeral to the countless festivities that surrounded the Congress of Vienna. Two hundred years after this meeting of the great European powers took place, research reveals more about the grand balls arranged, wine spilt, and mistresses invited, than about the negotiations themselves. Comparing this yet decisive peace conference with the recent Ukraine crisis negotiations in Minsk lets our era appear dreadfully dull: Instead of parties and prostitutes, there are only politicians pulling all-nighters, and frowning exhaustedly into cameras afterwards. Nevertheless, the negotiators in Minsk this February may not be as different in character from the crowned heads, who dominated the dancing Congress of Vienna, as it might appear at first glance.
After Napoleon had been defeated in 1814, the Congress of Vienna brought together the five great powers of the day, namely, Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia. Their representatives decidedly influenced the negotiations with their distinct characters. It was, for example, only due to the skillful machinations of the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand that France was even included in the negotiations, while it was still considered a likely aggressor. Austria was represented by its brilliant conservative Chancellor Prince Klemens von Metternich, who is often considered the congress leader for having artfully played out the participants against one another to establish the European order between legitimate monarchs he preferred. Great Britain had its Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, Prussia by Prince von Hardenberg and Russia by Tsar Alexander I, feared by the others due to his country’s power and considered unreliable due to his fickleness.
In contrast to the negotiations in Minsk in 2015 with the participation of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, the five powers at the Congress of Vienna dominated not only Europe at the time but most of the world: Great Britain was already the greatest colonial power and the power distribution had not yet shifted in favour of the United States.
At the Congress of Vienna, the main objective was the establishment of a balance of power through territorial gains and losses that would deter each power from wanting or being able to overthrow it easily. Therefore, the major concerns of Metternich and Castlereagh were to contain both France, the unpredictable power responsible for the foregoing wars, and Russia, which was already the most powerful country on the continent in 1815, as Henry Kissinger argues.
This type of territorial containment through strengthening border-states and establishing alliances like the Quadruple Alliance against France in 1815 became popular again after World War I with the cordon sanitaire, the West strengthening the South Eastern states against Communist Russia. Today, Russia shows that it also knows how to play the game, on the one hand, by expanding its former spheres of influence again, protesting any Western infringement and, on the other hand, by trying to rival the European integration by a similar Eurasian process, argues Theo Sommer, former chief editor and publisher of the German newspaper, Die Zeit.
All of the state representatives who participated at the Congress of Vienna have been examined in various ways over the years. Tsar Alexander I is thereby often considered the most interesting character of them all, due to his power but also his zeal in pursuing varying ideologies. In Diplomacy, Kissinger argues that the Russian Emperor was the only one who was an absolutist monarch in every way, completely free and unencumbered to change his mind as he pleased. While in 1804 still heavily influenced by liberal ideas and proposing a world government to ensure universal peace, in 1814 at the Congress of Vienna he was ardently arguing in favor of conservative values and for upholding the status quo. It was therefore Alexander I who fostered the idea of the Holy Alliance, which based the European balance of power not only on a material equilibrium, but also on shared Christian values. This infusion of ideology in the negotiations left the other representatives at a loss of how to react, and Castlereagh even went so far as to consider the Emperor’s mind not ‘completely sound.’
This aversion to ideology in diplomacy can be traced back to the 17th century and Cardinal Richelieu’s concept of raison d’état, which regarded national interest more important than any moral or religious values. Influenced by this reasoning, Talleyrand, Metternich and Hardenberg were determined to uphold and strengthen the states they represented by backing one party on a certain issue and supporting another one on the next occasion without taking morality into account, as the American historian Paul W. Schroeder illustrates. The contemporary depiction of Russian President Putin as an irrational and dangerous man, due to his domestic actions, does therefore not lack a certain irony: regardless if seen as aggressor with the aim of re-establishing the Soviet Union, or as the defender of Russia against the expansion of NATO and the EU, one could argue that he is actually only reviving the old principle of raison d’état, leaving international law and norms in the dust in order to attain and secure national interests.
At the Congress of Vienna, the only exception to this focus on national self-interests was Lord Castlereagh of Great Britain. The British objective was not territorial gain, but the establishment of a balance of power that would last; indirectly favourable to the British by leaving them free to focus on overseas expansion and ensuring trade with Europe. Accordingly, Castlereagh was often the leading figure in finding compromises that favoured equilibrium, as was the case with the establishment of the United Netherlands or the German Confederation. His successes, however, were soon diminished by the increasing British rejection of its participation in the Concert of Europe and a turn to “splendid isolation.” This left the system, which Castlereagh had helped to establish, to Metternich and his conservativist manipulations. Thomson argues that the U.S. repeated this mistake later by refusing to participate in the League of Nations, essentially established by Woodrow Wilson and returning to isolationism after World War I.
Both the U.S. and Great Britain were absent from the negotiations in Minsk in February 2015. In the case of the U.S. this may, however, not be constructed as a sign of a return to isolationism – from the very beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has pressured all parties involved, but especially Russia, to participate in peace negotiations. Great Britain, on the other hand, seems to be increasingly determined to distance itself from Continental Europe once again, especially from the EU, and has announced a potential referendum on its EU membership by 2017.
The approaches to multilateral negotiations and the techniques for ensuring peace by containing states, through certain territorial arrangements and alliances, that could be observed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, see their equivalents appear in 2015. While the competence of the contemporary negotiating actors will not be questioned here, it is clear that the pomp of the negotiations 200 years ago resulted in more entertaining stories than the frowning and frustrated politicians of today.