The 1815 Congress of Vienna, whose bicentenary occurs this winter, offers a useful historical lesson for crafting foreign policy strategies in an increasingly multipolar world. The summit ended the Napoleonic Wars, and its participants worked together over the next decade to prevent destabilizing regime change. This principle could have reversed many intervention decisions over the last 40 years. Adopting a variation of it now could bring stability.
The Congress, which followed Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814, assembled in September of that year and, after Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba in March 1815, produced a Final Act that was signed on June 9, 1815, just before the battle of Waterloo. Its principal intellectual architects were Klemens von Metternich for Austria and Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh for England (with some direction from Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool). Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord and Czar Alexander I upheld French and Russian interests.
The Congress’s principal innovation was an agreement between major powers providing for regular consultative meetings and intervention to support existing regimes threatened by violent upheaval. Four meetings of the principals were held from 1818 to 1822, the most significant result of which led to the 1820 Troppau Protocol, stating that states undergoing a revolution cease to be members of the European Alliance, and if immediate danger threatens other countries, the alliance will intervene to restore order.
Castlereagh committed suicide in 1822 and his successor George Canning abandoned Britain’s adherence to the Congress System, which consequently became less effective, although the continental powers continued to employ it until Metternich’s resignation in 1848. Congress of Vienna experience was drawn on heavily, albeit selectively, by the negotiators of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, leading to the League of Nations and United Nations.
The Congress of Vienna system differed from current practice in two ways. The decision-making body for addressing international disputes contained only the principal powers with a major stake in the system as a whole, making it more like the G7 than the United Nations. Second, Congress System interventions were undertaken to prevent regime change, not to stimulate it.
Over the last 40 years, had the latter principle been in effect, it arguably would have resulted in intervention in Iran in 1978 to prop up the Shah; in the Gulf in 1990 to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; in Egypt in 2011 to prop up Hosni Mubarak and possibly in Ukraine in 2014 to deter Vladimir Putin. Other interventions, in Haiti in 1995, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 would have failed this test. In Syria, strict adherence to the principle might have resulted in intervention in favor of the Assad regime in 2011, when civil war broke out.
The principal advantage of the Congress System approach is that regime change involves massive political and economic disruption, whose costs can extend over many years, so intervening to prevent such disruption avoids those costs. Indeed each governance change risks producing further ructions, for example the disruptions that have resulted from Iran’s policy trajectory since 1979. The Congress System’s designers, operating in the generation after the 1789 French Revolution, were well aware of such risks.
We cannot know whether Congress System principles applied in the contemporary era would have resulted in happier outcomes. However given the examples above, there could be some logic in adopting Congress System principles today as a way of seeking greater stability for the world’s political system, with less economic fallout and a lower likelihood of a destabilizing change that produces escalating costs over the long term.
The world can celebrate the Congress of Vienna’s bicentennial as the successful resolution of a generation of general European war. However it can also learn something from its approach to international dispute resolution and intervention.