Concert of Europe
CONCERT OF EUROPEeurope's new order
rise of the alliance system
The legal basis of the Concert of Europe was established in the Second Treaty of Paris. Concluded on 20 November 1815 in the aftermath of Napoleon I's return from exile and the Waterloo campaign, that document established a twenty-year alliance of Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Britain against any renewal of French aggression. In turn Article 6 of the alliance provided for future meetings of the European powers to promote domestic tranquility, international peace, and general prosperity.
In the context of European relations since the Renaissance, Article 6 was little more than a pious exhortation—certainly a slender thread on which to weave a century's diplomacy. The Concert of Europe, however, was as much a state of mind as a formal organization. It reflected a collective acceptance of restrained policies in pursuit of limited objectives. This was a sharp contrast to the eighteenth century in particular, when the ambitions of Europe's powers were constrained primarily by the means available to achieve them. The Concert of Europe differed as well from the generally accepted definition of a balance of power system: a more or less stable equilibrium maintained by states combining to check attempts by other states or alliances to dominate the international system. The concert paradigm primarily reflected the experiences of the revolutionary/Napoleonic era, when ideology and bureaucracy had combined to increase exponentially the political, economic, and above all military power available to governments.
Napoleon was not merely the embodied consequence of this development. He was also a stalking horse and a scapegoat for the mutual anxieties of his former enemies. Not only did they not trust each other—they did not trust themselves to use effectively the tools potentially lying in their hands. The real challenge facing the Great Powers in 1814 and 1815 had not been restoring an order disrupted beginning in 1789. It was creating an order from the chaos produced by the French Empire's challenge to the Continent. Inevitably the redrawn map of Europe was an artificial construction whose legitimacy was open to challenge on a broad variety of grounds, and a comprehensive compromise in which none of the principals emerged entirely satisfied.
In these contexts the four signatories of the Second Treaty of Paris were able to agree that their interests were best served in the foreseeable future by maintaining the status quo created in 1815—a perspective accepted as well by Bourbon France, for both principled and pragmatic reasons. That consensus in turn inspired a second one: that a rough equality existed among Europe's five major powers. This was not so much a positive equality based on respective strength, actual and potential, but a negative equality reflecting the capacity (most recently demonstrated at the Congress of Vienna) of any of the five to disrupt any general agreement by some combination of force or guile.
This concept of mutual equality in turn put paid to any notions of a great-power consortium exercising hegemony over the rest. Instead the Concert of Europe accepted the idea of intermediary bodies—smaller states and buffer zones—arguably including the whole of Germany and Italy, designed to cushion great-power interaction, and with their legitimacy correspondingly guaranteed. The result was a situation best expressed by the name of a lake in Massachusetts that is forty-nine letters long. Translated from the original Nipmuc, it means roughly "you fish on your side; I fish on my side; nobody fishes in the middle."
Restraint, limitation, cooperation—these were the watchwords of European diplomacy in the decade after 1815. Not every government and every statesman was happy with the process or its results. In particular George Canning, British foreign secretary from 1822 to 1827, favored a return to the individualist, competitive international relations of the eighteenth century: "every nation for itself and God for us all." The concert nevertheless not only endured but grew stronger.
In good part this increased strength reflected the increasingly specific definition of a geographic area within which the concert functioned. Austrian intervention in Naples and French intervention in Spain against local revolutionary movements during the early 1820s were processed as acts in the concert's general interest—a policy facilitated by the care the principal actors took to avoid directly aggrandizing themselves. When in contrast Britain took a hand in supporting the wars of independence in Spanish America in the same period, the concert concerned itself primarily—and successfully—with limiting the European consequences of the rebels' success. Similarly, tensions over Greek and Egyptian revolts against Ottoman rule in the 1820s, and a resulting war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire (1828–1829) strained concert relations but led to a tacit acceptance of the Near East as outside the sphere of concert interest.
The Near East crisis nevertheless indicated that the concert's original commitment to the status quo of 1815 could not be sustained indefinitely. In 1830, as part of a general revolutionary movement that also brought a new dynasty to the throne of France, Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands and secured French support. A series of international agreements solved the issue—in Belgium's favor—by redefining the parameters of stability. In future, it was agreed, no changes in the newly modified arrangements could occur without the approval of the five Great Powers. That meant none of them could act unilaterally—but it also allowed for negotiation and compromise.
Order continued to prevail over revolution, ambition, and entropy in the revolutions of 1848. The system established at Vienna survived, essentially because the Great Powers withstood the temptation to fish in their neighbors' troubled waters. The best example was tsarist Russia's massive commitment of its armies to restore the Habsburg order in an Austrian Empire shaken to its foundations. Less obvious but no less significant was Britain's functioning as a mediator of disputes.
The Restoration of 1849 to 1850 could not remove the major changes occurring in the European system. The Eastern Question, the fate of the Ottoman Empire and its subject peoples, continued to strain the concert's structure. An ambitious adventurer, Louis Napoleon, assumed power in France, with visions of a new empire brought into being by French manipulations of the forces of nationalism and liberalism. The Crimean War (1853–1856), the first great-power conflict in forty years, was nevertheless as much a failure (and in some cases a rejection) of crisis management by individual states as a manifestation of general concert breakdown. The conduct of the war itself pitilessly exposed the military shortcomings of all the participants. The settlement reached at the Congress of Paris in 1856 was a concert outcome in a negative sense—all the participants were dissatisfied; none obviously profited from their respective adventures in high-risk diplomacy. The Concert of Europe was undermined and weakened. It nevertheless remained something more than a convenient fable on which states could agree to camouflage their individual ambitions.
This fact was manifested over the next decade in the Wars of German Unification. Prussia's Otto von Bismarck, emerging as a ruthless and effective player of Europe's power game, sought in the final analysis to structure his initiatives in a concert context. He negotiated no more than temporary, instrumental coalitions with other states, while simultaneously working to convince Europe's foreign offices that Prussian aggrandizement within the concert system would ultimately prove a force for stability. Prussia's wars were designed to be short and sharp, with objectives limited and obvious enough to be permanently negotiable. Bismarck successfully ascribed the failure of that formula in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) to the intransigence of the radical leaders of the revolutionary French Republic to recognize their defeat.
In the succeeding decade Bismarck strove mightily to establish himself and the new German empire as the "honest broker" of Europe—or at least Europe's croupier, recognized as playing a straight game. When the Eastern Question again flared into war between Russia and Turkey in 1877, Bismarck kept the conflict isolated until Russia, again disabled by military and economic weakness, sought negotiations. The Congress of Berlin in 1878, like its Paris predecessor, succeeded in balancing discontents. This time, however, the antagonisms ran deeper and endured longer than the reconciliations.
Bismarck's concert was weakened by three tectonic flaws. One was Bismarck's assumption after 1871 of an insurmountable Franco-German antagonism, which led him to seek France's permanent marginalization. The second was the growing imbalance of power between Russia and Austria-Hungary. Initially Bismarck sought to maintain comity by fine-tuning their relations through the Three Emperors' Leagues of 1872 and 1881. Increasingly he found himself constrained to behave in ways construed as taking sides—usually in Austria's favor, at the expense of Germany's Russian relationship. The third structural defect of Bismarck's Europe involved Britain's withdrawal—or by some interpretations its drifting away—from a continent where its growing relative military weakness prevented effective exercise of direct influence.
Bismarck struggled with all his considerable skill to prevent reversion to a balance of power system he considered little more than a preliminary to inevitable war. During the 1880s he turned to a system of limited-commitment, defensive alliances that eventually culminated in the Mediterranean Agreements of 1887 and the accompanying Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. This loose network of treaties brought all the powers of Europe except France into a network in which any aggressor would, in theory, confront in isolation an overwhelmingly powerful defensive coalition of the other powers. One might describe it as the Concert of Europe, with formal agreements replacing the underlying commonality of purpose that informed the original.
The weaknesses of Bismarck's system were obvious to his contemporaries. Its complexity required a manager who stood higher above the tensions and conflicts of the powers than even Bismarck could be trusted to do. It depended as well on a common commitment to the status quo that in an age of nationalism, imperialism, and economic rivalry was scarcely to be depended upon. In the aftermath of Bismarck's dismissal in 1890, alliances proliferated. The Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 was a classic "marriage of convenience" between states feeling themselves isolated by Bismarck's web. The Austro-German-Italian Triple Alliance, which had evolved in the 1880s as a symbol and a deterrent, took on a cutting edge. Periodic efforts around the turn of the century to negotiate an Anglo-German alliance foundered on the simple ground that the two states had nothing to bring them together. In contrast, particularly after the experience of the South African Boer War (1899–1902), Britain had strong grounds for settling its extra-European disputes with its direct rivals. Britain gave up its long-standing policy of "splendid isolation" in 1902, when a naval treaty with Japan enabled the Royal Navy to begin concentrating against Germany. In 1904 the Entente Cordiale with France signaled Britain's return to direct involvement in Continental politics. Germany, increasingly perceiving itself "encircled," responded with a series of clumsy initiatives that not only brought Britain and France closer but also led in 1907 to an Anglo-Russian agreement as well.
If these regroupings of power had a common result, it was that they contributed to diplomatic insecurity rather than alleviating it. Specifically Germany's sense of isolation increased exponentially as its Italian connection frayed, and Austria, torn by ethnically based domestic crises, began declining from a European to a regional power. A long-standing arms race that escalated after the First Moroccan Crisis of 1905 tended to increase reliance on armed force as opposed to diplomacy as an instrument of first recourse in settling disputes. Ironically, the insecurity contributed significantly to reviving the Concert of Europe, at least as a concept, in the years before World War I. The alliance systems that had ostensibly replaced it had too many loopholes, too many escape clauses, for any of their respective members to feel certain of support in a crisis. The projected devastation of a high-tech, great-power war was another encouragement to resolve disputes peacefully—especially disputes originating outside the Continent.
The Concert of Europe successfully oversaw the partition of Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the first decade of the twentieth it took up the even more delicate Eastern Question. While not able to prevent Italy's annexation of the Ottoman province of Libya or the two Balkan Wars that followed in 1912 and 1913, the powers were able to act in concert to prevent a general war. Germany checked Austria; Britain held back Russia; the overall balance among the Great Powers was sustained. What was fading was the concept of collective interest. To be effective the Concert of Europe required participants to think broadly and trust others to do so as well. It required internal calibration of behavior, so that states not seem excessively threatening to others. The Concert of Europe, in short, depended on levels of perspective and wisdom conspicuously absent from the European stage by 1914. In part the concert was taken for granted; in part it was dismissed as obsolete. Certainly the Sarajevo crisis and its apocalyptic aftermath showed that while all the Great Powers were ready enough to profit from the Concert of Europe, none of them were willing to take risks or make sacrifices to sustain the system that had maintained peace and stability for a century.
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——. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848. Oxford, U.K., 1994.