Remembering the Vienna Congress: lessons for the EU

By Lucile Dussoubs:

Le gateau des rois, / tiré au Congrès de Vienne en 1815. Depicts the leaders of Europe squabbling over the map of Europe at the Vienna Congress. Photo: British Museum (published under fair use policy for intellectual non-commercial purposes)
Le gateau des rois, / tiré au Congrès de Vienne en 1815. Depicts the leaders of Europe squabbling over the map of Europe at the Vienna Congress. Photo: British Museum (published under fair use policy for intellectual non-commercial purposes)

This month marks 200 years since the end of the Vienna Congress. This bicentennial should give the European Union (EU) the opportunity to dive back into the study of what has long been regarded as a golden age for European diplomacy. It could also help the EU draw out useful conclusions about its current efforts in foreign policy.

The Vienna Congress, which took place from September 1814 to June 1815, had as its aim the settlement of the borders of Europe to establish a stabilised order in a continent deeply shocked by the Napoleonic wars. This question was solved thanks to personal – sometimes friendly – relationships between the famous old aristocratic diplomats Metternich, Talleyrand and Castlereagh. The ‘personal factor’ had a major impact during the conference. It helped Talleyrand to not only impose France’s wishes at the negotiating table, but to preserve her status as a great European power. This he achieved despite both Napoleon’s surrender and the crisis caused by the Hundred Days, which saw Napoleon return from exile on Elba in March, right in the midst of the conference, and raise an army.

Organisers of international conferences no longer appreciate the importance of interpersonal relationships and the personality of each negotiator when planning a meeting. The European Union High Representatives for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have always been openly nominated based on their knowledge of international relations, but also thanks to their discretion, lack of charisma and their not-too-openly affirmed opinions. Of course, it is a major struggle to find an individual able to embody the specificities of each member state. But that should not come at the expense of ambitious choices.

Another major lesson of the Congress of Vienna is that the demonisation of a traditional partner is not a useful tool to achieve diplomatic goals. Post-Napoleonic France was a major threat for the stability of all states present. But none of those states were tempted to humiliate France. This strategic choice was in opposition to their respective publics. Nevertheless, it allowed the European countries to synchronise their actions when the next major crisis emerged with Napoleon leaving the Island of Elba.

In the case of today’s EU strategy towards one of its major threats, Russia, the lessons of Vienna seem to have been forgotten. Countering Russia’s propaganda around its invasion of Crimea and its presence in the battlefield with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine required the EU to develop and reinforce a counter-narrative. The EU engaged rapidly in an information war that it has won, at least on its own territory. But the European leaders have not realised the risks of a rising wave of anti-Russia sentiment. For historic, geographic and cultural reasons, Russia still is and will remain an unavoidable partner and a strategic neighbour. Further demonisation will only lead to more incomprehension and resentment. If hostility towards Russia is latent in many European countries – especially in the Baltic states – it has definitely been increased by politicized top-down discourses for which the EU is largely responsible.

What’s more, the Congress of Vienna is one of the most exuberant demonstrations of European ‘total’ diplomacy. Total diplomacy is defined by a context in which foreign policy efforts are constant and supported by any means possible from state-to-state negotiations to the arts. In Vienna, the conference was a success in large part due to parallel activities aimed at facilitating the talks. One of the main examples of this ‘total’ diplomacy was the organisation of what would now be considered outrageously extravagant meals, concerts, and entertainment. But far from being anachronistic, this recreational approach to diplomacy was of the utmost modernity.

The European Union should not be afraid to engage more in ‘total’ diplomacy. While this may be difficult at a time when the EU is trying to reduce its expenses, and the EU has no interest in organising meetings that would be mere copies of G7 conferences, there is definitely a middle ground between its current – very traditional – approach to diplomacy ‘on the phone’ or ‘around a table’, and this more ambitious approach.

The EU should also be more willing to use its ‘smart power’ more openly. The Union has unique know-how on how to balance hard and soft power, military effectiveness and the world’s strongest policy for cooperation and partnership: it should not be ashamed of using its historic background to gain influence.

Another major diplomatic innovation of the Congress of Vienna was the establishment of the ‘Concert of Nations’ among the European states. The coordination and reinforcement of the relations between the major countries of the continent was not strong enough to avoid the First World War but can still be considered as a lasting first attempt to normalise the constant exchanges among traditional partners. The ‘Concert of Nations’ preserved the stability of the region and helped to coordinate the agendas of all the actors. Of course, this stability came at the expense of a continued validation for imperialist regimes.

It is interesting to consider that contemporary European international relations principles are based on the legacy of the Congress of Vienna. The EU has taken pride in pushing for better relations with all partners and sharing the same values, such as the respect for democracy and civil rights. It is also trying to help all countries wishing to strengthen these values, and to push them when these values are too little or non-existent through programs of development, human rights education efforts or grants for political reforms. At the same time, and even if all EU citizens should take pride and continue to stand up for these values, the legacy of the Concert of Nations is that of successful ‘global’ diplomacy, including emerging countries that are often less keen on moral guidance in international relations.

Finally, the Congress of Vienna is a clear demonstration of the State being the major diplomatic actor. The negotiating table was filled with representatives of well-established governments who were credited with the intentions of the heads of their respective states, often kings. The institution of the State was not suffering from the competition of other actors such as journalists, who were not present in the room, or by civilians interests.

Two centuries later, the emergence of new actors in the international arena represents the major change regarding diplomacy in its power and means. Various groups have been challenging the traditional representation of diplomacy as being reserved for the State. The Syrian opposition, the Islamic State, the Ukrainian separatists or terrorist groups all pretend to deserve the right to be as legitimate as the State to act on the international sphere, and to represent a sufficiently important part of the population to be regarded as unavoidable interlocutors. The declarations by the European Union that it is not considering talks with non-established groups like those risk weakening the institution’s reputation for transparency, but also comes with moral dilemmas.

A new paradigm is thus needed to make sense of all the European efforts in foreign policy. Both ‘post-Westphalian diplomacy’ (to emphasise the recognition of the state as the main actor of diplomacy) and ‘post-Vienna diplomacy’ (to highlight the emergence of the ‘European Concert’) are not satisfactory benchmarks anymore. The emergence of new players – almost always competing with the European bloc – requires the affirmation of a new reflective space and institutional mechanisms. After all, two hundred years have passed.

Lucile Dussoubs is currently completing her MA in International Conflict Studies at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

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