29.1.2: Diplomacy in the 19th Century
The Congress of Vienna established many of the diplomatic norms of the 19th century and created an informal system of diplomatic conflict resolution aimed at maintaining a balance of power among nations, which contributed to the relative peace of the century.
Describe the role diplomacy played on the European continent after Napoleon
- Although the notion of diplomacy has existed since ancient times, the forms and practices of modern diplomacy were established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
- The Congress of Vienna was a meeting of the major powers of Europe aimed at providing a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
- The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other and remain at peace. Another goal was to develop a system of diplomatic conflict resolution called the Concert of Europe, whereby at times of crisis any of the member countries could propose a conference.
- Meetings of the Great Powers during this period included: Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), Carlsbad (1819), Troppau (1820), Laibach (1821), Verona (1822), London (1832), and Berlin (1878).
- The Concert’s effectiveness ended with the rise of nationalism, the 1848 Revolutions, the Crimean War, the unification of Germany, and the Eastern Question, among other factors.
- Later in the century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, through juggling a complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations, and alliances, used his diplomatic skills to maintain the balance of power in Europe to keep it at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.
- Concert of Europe
- A system of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power. It is suggested that it operated in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the early 1820s, while some see it as lasting until the outbreak of the Crimean War, 1853-1856.
- Congress of Vienna
- A conference of ambassadors of European states chaired by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich and held in Vienna from November 1814 to June 1815, though the delegates had arrived and were already negotiating by late September 1814. The objective was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other and remain at peace.
- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord
- A French bishop, politician, and diplomat. He worked at the highest levels of successive French governments, most commonly as foreign minister or in some other diplomatic capacity. His career spanned the regimes of Louis XVI, the years of the French Revolution, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe.
Development of Modern Diplomacy
In Europe, early modern diplomacy’s origins are often traced to the states of Northern Italy in the early Renaissance, where the first embassies were established in the 13th century. Milan played a leading role especially under Francesco Sforza, who established permanent embassies to the other city states of Northern Italy. Tuscany and Venice were also flourishing centers of diplomacy from the 14th century onward. It was in the Italian Peninsula that many of the traditions of modern diplomacy began, such as the presentation of an ambassador’s credentials to the head of state. From Italy, the practice spread across Europe.
The elements of modern diplomacy arrived in Eastern Europe and Russia by the early 18th century. The entire edifice would be greatly disrupted by the French Revolution and the subsequent years of warfare. The revolution would see commoners take over the diplomacy of the French state and of those conquered by revolutionary armies. Ranks of precedence were abolished. Napoleon also refused to acknowledge diplomatic immunity, imprisoning several British diplomats accused of scheming against France.
After the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 established an international system of diplomatic rank with ambassadors at the top, as they were considered personal representatives of their sovereign. Disputes on precedence among nations (and therefore the appropriate diplomatic ranks used) were first addressed at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, but persisted for over a century until after World War II, when the rank of ambassador became the norm. In between, figures such as the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck were renowned for international diplomacy.
Congress of Vienna and the Concert of Europe
The Congress of Vienna of 1815 established many of the diplomatic norms for the 19th century. The objective of the Congress was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other and remain at peace. The Concert of Europe, also known as the Congress System or the Vienna System after the Congress of Vienna, was a system of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power. It is suggested that it operated in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the early 1820s, while some see it as lasting until the outbreak of the Crimean War, 1853-1856.
At first, the leading personalities of the system were British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord played a major role at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815, where he negotiated a favorable settlement for France while undoing Napoleon’s conquests. Talleyrand polarizes scholarly opinion. Some regard him as one of the most versatile, skilled, and influential diplomats in European history, and some believe that he was a traitor, betraying in turn the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Restoration. Talleyrand worked at the highest levels of successive French governments, most commonly as foreign minister or in some other diplomatic capacity. His career spanned the regimes of Louis XVI, the years of the French Revolution, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe. Those he served often distrusted Talleyrand but like Napoleon, found him extremely useful. The name “Talleyrand” has become a byword for crafty, cynical diplomacy.
The Concert of Europe had no written rules or permanent institutions, but at times of crisis any of the member countries could propose a conference. Diplomatic meetings of the Great Powers during this period included: Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), Carlsbad (1819), Troppau (1820), Laibach (1821), Verona (1822), London (1832), and Berlin (1878).
The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) resolved the issues of Allied occupation of France and restored that country to equal status with Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. The congress, which broke up at the end of November, is of historical importance mainly as marking the highest point reached during the 19th century in the attempt to govern Europe by an international committee of the powers. The detailed study of its proceedings is highly instructive in revealing the almost insurmountable obstacles to any truly effective international diplomatic system prior to the creation of the League of Nations after the First World War.
The territorial boundaries laid down at the Congress of Vienna were maintained; even more importantly, there was an acceptance of the theme of balance with no major aggression. Otherwise, the Congress system, says historian Roy Bridge, “failed” by 1823. In 1818, the British decided not to become involved in continental issues that did not directly affect them. They rejected the plan of Alexander I to suppress future revolutions. The Concert system fell apart as the common goals of the Great Powers were replaced by growing political and economic rivalries. There was no Congress called to restore the old system during the great revolutionary upheavals of 1848 with their demands for revision of the Congress of Vienna’s frontiers along national lines.
The Congress of Vienna was frequently criticized by 19th-century and more recent historians for ignoring national and liberal impulses and imposing a stifling reaction on the Continent. It was an integral part of what became known as the Conservative Order, in which the liberties and civil rights associated with the American and French Revolutions were de-emphasized so that a fair balance of power, peace and stability might be achieved.
In the 20th century, however, many historians came to admire the statesmen at the Congress, whose work prevented another widespread European war for nearly a hundred years (1815–1914). Historian Mark Jarrett argues that the Congress of Vienna and the Congress System marked “the true beginning of our modern era.” He says the Congress System was deliberate conflict management and the first genuine attempt to create an international order based upon consensus rather than conflict. “Europe was ready,” Jarrett states, “to accept an unprecedented degree of international cooperation in response to the French Revolution.” It served as a model for later organizations such as the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945. Prior to the opening of the Paris peace conference of 1918, the British Foreign Office commissioned a history of the Congress of Vienna to serve as an example to its own delegates of how to achieve an equally successful peace.
Otto von Bismarck: Balance of Power Diplomacy
Otto von Bismarck was a conservative Prussian statesman and diplomat who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. He skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to maintain Germany’s position in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace. For historian Eric Hobsbawm, it was Bismarck who “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers.”
In 1862, King Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, a position he would hold until 1890 (except for a short break in 1873). He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, aligning the smaller German states behind Prussia in its defeat of France. In 1871, he formed the German Empire with himself as Chancellor while retaining control of Prussia. His diplomacy of pragmatic realpolitik and powerful rule at home gained him the nickname the “Iron Chancellor.” German unification and its rapid economic growth was the foundation to his foreign policy. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations and alliances, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain Germany’s position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.
Diplomacy in the 19th Century
“Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congress_of_Aix-la-Chapelle_(1818). Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Maurice_de_Talleyrand-Perigord. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Talleyrand-perigord.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomacy#/media/File:Talleyrand-perigord.jpg. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.