Between 1815 and 1914, the Concert of Europe served as a crucial peacekeeping mechanism, allowing the continent to avoid major war. Learning the right lessons from its successes and possible failures can help us strive to recreate the conditions that led to an imperfect but lasting peace.
LONDON – The world was a relatively peaceful place in the 19th century. Aside from the American Civil War and the Taiping Rebellion in China, there were few protracted conflicts between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. This raises a fundamental question: how did Europe largely avoided major wars for 100 years amid what Hedley Bull called “international anarchy» ?
The prevailing opinion is that the Concert of Europe, established in 1815, played a key role in maintaining peace. Although often seen as a mechanism to maintain the balance of power on the continent, the Concert actually had a normative objective: to prevent war between countries sharing common interests and values.
Essentially, the five great European powers – Austria, Great Britain, France, Prussia and Russia – agreed not to change their borders without mutual consent. The establishment of spheres of influence, serving as physical buffers between these great powers, was an integral part of their geopolitical calculations.
By the end of the 19th century, the Concert of Europe had evolved into a global peacekeeping system, in which various colonial powers were allocated territories during the partition of Africa and East Asia. But while the concert sought to address the “Eastern Question”, the Crimean War of 1853-1856 – which pitted Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire against Russia – highlighted its limits.
The Crimean War was sparked by Russian demands to improve the treatment of Orthodox Christians in Palestine. The escalation of the conflict prompted the Ottoman Empire to declare war, with Britain and France rallying to Ottoman support.
British statesman John Bright placed responsibility for the war on Britain, arguing that its unconditional commitment support encouraged Ottoman intransigence. “Either I would have allowed or forced Turkey to give in, or I would have insisted that it fight the war alone,” Bright said. said.
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The British strategy of supporting the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russia’s eastward expansion was a mistake, he thought. Fears of a Russian attempt to conquer India were paranoia. It was a war of choice, he claimed, and therefore could not be justified. Instead, Bright championed a policy of “hands-off,” coupled with unfettered commercial and financial engagement.
In 1876, the Ottoman Empire once again put the Concert of Europe to the test by massacring thousands Bulgarian men, women and children. The British liberal politician William Gladstone responded with a pamphlet condemning the “Bulgarian horrors» and calling for the forced withdrawal of Turks from Europe. But Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli viewed these atrocities as an inconvenient distraction from the task of supporting the Ottomans against Russian expansionism.
After failed attempts by the Great Powers to establish less oppressive rule in the Ottoman-controlled Balkans, Russia invaded Turkey in June 1877, ostensibly to protect the sultan’s Christian subjects. After overcoming surprisingly strong Turkish resistance, Russia forced the Ottomans into a punitive peace that would have greatly expanded Bulgaria’s size as an Orthodox satellite state and brought it significant territorial gains in the Caucasus.
This time, Disraeli refrained from giving unconditional support to the Turks and Russia recognized that the other great powers had the right to be consulted on any territorial claims. This paved the way for the Congress of Berlin of 1878, organized by Otto von Bismarck, which resulted in a series of compromises, with Britain receiving Cyprus in exchange for Russian gains. Although the final peace agreement was imperfect, it effectively prevented a major European war for the next 36 years.
Ultimately, the 19th century peacekeeping system, maintained by aristocratic elites who knew that full-scale war threatened their status, could not withstand the forces of nationalism and revolution that swept Europe and much of the world in the early 20th century. Their supporters sought to replace the forced peace of empires with a more authentic peace based on democratic principles and national self-determination.
After the end of World War II, the United Nations Security Council was established with the aim of fostering lasting peace. But it lacked the moral cohesion and legitimacy necessary to reproduce the informal system of the 19th century. In reality, the relative peace of the postwar period was not so much a product of the United Nations system as it was the result of the balance of terror between the United States and the Soviet Union. At the end of the Cold War, the world was left without a credible peacekeeping mechanism, paving the way for today’s proxy wars.
The successes and failures of the Concert of Europe offer valuable lessons for establishing new standards for peacekeeping. A key idea, highlighted by Bright and acknowledged by Disraeli, is that providing unconditional military support to a weaker country threatened by a more powerful adversary leaves little room for compromise.
Another challenge is the increased emphasis on moral and legal issues. Today, peace initiatives are often undermined by real or alleged atrocities and the nature of the regimes involved.. Incorporating moral considerations into international relations complicates efforts to maintain world peace. After all, you cannot negotiate with a regime whose moral legitimacy you deny. Therefore, most wars launched by Western countries are implicitly aimed at regime change.
Additionally, the increasing use of economic sanctions, political boycotts, and the indictment of political leaders for war crimes hampers effective diplomacy. These aggressive tactics blur the lines between peace and war and encourage countries to engage in wars of aggression under the guise of self-defense.
While the “Great Game” of the 19th century was marked by British paranoia over Russian expansionism, today’s geopolitical landscape aligns more closely with that of the Cold War.domino theory.” In the past, ideologically hostile governments could obtain information about each other’s intentions through diplomatic and family channels. Nowadays, the role of diplomats is significantly reduced.
Yet the question of whether democracy promotes or hinders the quest for peace remains unanswered. Although history does not provide instructions on how to maintain global stability, it can be a source of inspiration. By learning the right lessons, we can strive to recreate the conditions that led to an imperfect but lasting peace.