A Europe of free peoples

The worldwide impact of the pandemic and the shock of the war in Ukraine have revived public interest in the question of international order, and of Europe’s place within it. After decades of relative peace — strengthened by an powers global economy — the existing balance of and the institutions guarding it have suddenly revealed their intrinsic fragility. While current debates tend to focus on the heritage of the two world wars, historians are naturally looking back at the previous crucial step in the reorganization of international relations: the collapse of Napoleon’s revolutionary empire and the Congress of Vienna that in 1814-15 redesigned the contours of European frontiers. The history of the relations of European powers among themselves and with the rest of the world does, of course, stretch far further back than the past two hundred years. However, it is at the start of the nineteenth century that the impact of international markets on national identities, the right of peoples to self-determination and the ideal of a European federation were first discussed in terms that resonate with our own modern concerns.

At the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, the National Constituent Assembly solemnly professed its intention to respect the independence of all other nations, rejecting the territorial ambitions of the ancien régime. Soon, however, these universalistic aspirations to peace and non-interference were swept away by the war that opposed France to the European monarchies. Initially undertaken to defend the country’s “natural” frontiers from counter-revolutionary forces, the war led the new republic to occupy the neighboring territories of Belgium, Holland, northern Italy and Switzerland. The conquering campaigns of Napoleon’s empire were in a way the continuation of this policy of territorial expansion, undertaken in the late 1790s by the revolutionary governments. While the initial project of creating a network of “sister republics” was replaced by more conventional imperial rule, in both cases the justification was France’s mission to “liberate” other peoples from oppression, creating a federation of states that supposedly freely to join France and to adopt her laws and values. Even after Napoleon’s defeat and abdication, when the victorious monarchies undertook to redesign the political geography of the continent, the notion of Europe as a federation of free nations – rather than as a set of rival kingdoms – did not entirely disappear. Despite strong pressures in the direction of a full restoration of past values ​​and authorities, the return to the pre-revolutionary world order appeared to the leaders of the great powers both impossible and inexpedient.

Glenda Sluga’s The Invention of International Order explores this crucial turning point in modern history by resorting to a deliberately unconventional approach. Her book is neither a straightforward historical narrative of the events around the Congress of Vienna nor a presentation of the different doctrines of international that inspired its protagonists, but rather a somewhat eclectic combination of the two, organized around key themes and personalities. Disrupted by Napoleon’s brief return to power in the spring of 1815, the Congress was an unusually protracted affair, accompanied by an inordinate flurry of receptions and festivities. At the time the image of the jolly crowd of sovereigns and diplomats dancing away, instead of attending their negotiations, was the favorite object of caricatures and satires. Sluga takes advantage of the richness of informal activities that developed around the official diplomatic meetings – and of the mass of private documents that record them – to stress the importance of the social dimension of diplomacy.

She is especially interested in the role that women active in the different courts and diplomatic circles played in the negotiations: hosting, exchanging, canvassing, but also, in some cases, providing intellectual and political fuel to the official male actors. The star role in this nebula of female presences is rightly attributed by Sluga to the liberal intellectual Germaine de Staël. Her experience of ministerial and diplomatic cabinets, her international network of high-placed connections and her reputation as the writer who had stood against Napoleon’s despotism made of Staël an especially authoritative voice. While she had no part in the negotiations at Vienna, she had actively canvassed to bring together the coalition that brought about Napoleon’s defeat: she was on friendly terms with the Russian tsar Alexander I, with the French general who had become the heir to the Swedish crown, Bernadotte, and with several prominent British (mainly Whig) politicians; the main negotiator for France, Talleyrand, was an old friend who owed her his first appointment as minister of foreign affairs in 1797.

Precisely because of her engagement, Staël offers a good illustration of the contradictions implicit in the exercise of redesigning the post-revolutionary landscape. As early as 1800, in her seminal work De la littérature, Staël had identified Europe’s strength in the diversity of national cultures, which completed and enhanced one another. Instead of recognizing this variety, the new First Consul Bonaparte – to whom she had offered in vain a copy of her book – had pursued a policy of forced territorial and administrative unification. But if forcing unity on reluctant populations was wrong, what was the alternative fifteen years later? Should Europe, in the name of national sensibilities, revert to the discriminations and superstitions of the ancien régime just to satisfy entrenched popular prejudices? When she returned to Paris in 1814 after years of exile, Staël was shocked to see the capital occupied by foreign soldiers, some of them from “the extreme borders of Asia”: she had campaigned to see Napoleon gone, but now resented France’s defeat by troops of barbarians. In her eyes the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy would be acceptable only if Louis XVIII was ready to subscribe to the kind of constitutional regime her father, Jacques Necker, had advocated in 1789, and for which she herself had militated at the beginning of the revolution ; but would the king be prepared to accept this, or would he listen instead to the recriminations of the émigrés who clamored for a return to the past?

Another problematic issue, especially for liberal observers, was the role of markets in the shaping of Europe’s identity. Sluga indicates among the “social” elements in the diplomatic negotiations the influence of those army suppliers and bankers who for years had financed the war, and were now preparing over the economic conditions of the peace. In his eloquent pamphlet The Spirit of Conquest (1813), Staël’s friend Benjamin Constant had outlined the radical opposition between war and commerce: yet the war had often proved economically advantageous, and not just for a handful of speculators, as the economic crisis that struck Europe in 1815 was to prove. Besides, by Constant’s own account, commerce was as much of a unifying force as imperial conquest. How could national identities be preserved in the face of the homogeneity created by the growing integrated market? Could one really distinguish the good uniformity of commerce from the bad one of imperial rule?

French conquest had been carried out in the name of the universal principles of the revolution. Now three of the victorious sovereigns – the Catholic Austrian emperor, the Protestant king of Prussia and the Orthodox tsar – presented themselves as the paladins of Europe’s Christian values ​​under the name of the Holy Alliance. (Once again the inspiration came from a woman, the mystic Barbara von Krüdener.) Some of the negotiators, including Castlereagh and Metternich, expressed privately the view that this notion of a holy coalition was meaningless, if not ludicrous. But what really mattered in the Vienna agreements was neither the ideological veneer nor the elaborate negotiations over vanishing principals and remote stretches of frontier. It was rather the principle that important powers should exercise together a permanent vigilance, monitoring their respective forces and positions. The problem with this project was that sovereigns no longer had the same capacity to control their foreign policies that they had enjoyed before the French Revolution: instead they had to contend with the unstable domestic forces represented by public opinion, electoral choices and popular movements.

The Invention of International Order is not always a reader-friendly work, especially for those who are not familiar with the historical sequence, as the narrative remains somewhat fragmentary and repetitive. The book offers an original perspective on the unfolding of diplomatic negotiations, but its main merit is to show how the difficulties we are struggling with today – globalization, national sovereignty, the definition of internationally shared values ​​– have never really found any straightforward answers.

Biancamaria Fontana‘s books include Germaine de Staël: A political portrait2016

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