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Can the Congress of Vienna be Restored?

Above: The political situation after the Congress of Vienna in June 1815.

Preventing War

If the main purpose of international organizations is to prevent war, the only one worth examining is the historic congress held in Vienna, Austria, 1814-1815. The others – League of Nations, United Nations – are worth examining only if one wants to appreciate how world bodies typically fail from their main purpose. Not to undercut the valuable social and economic aspects of global meetings, but if war prevention is our singular object, they have all, with minor exceptions, proven empty.

Perhaps the best example of the “exception” would be the Organization of American States (OAS), founded in 1948. Yet this valuable body reflects the range and influence of American power in the Western Hemisphere, going back to the Monroe Doctrine (1823). There have been few wars in the area over history, none major, but the reason is the overwhelming American dominance and geopolitical realities (Andes mountains). The OAS reflects this reality but did not cause it.

The world is another matter.  From the beginnings of the nation-state system (1648), the global arena has been dominated by an incessant warfare “system” that has created the world “orders” that have come and gone since then. At the same time, they have killed untold millions, the latest ending in 1945 leaving 76 million dead in its wake (estimate).

But the system continued, and, to this day still represents the diplomatic anatomy that was first constructed in the seventeenth century. Minor wars have become our daily and accepted reality, “minor” defined as wars incapable of transforming the order of the day. Yet this definition avoids the human cost of such a world. And maybe worse, it has a fatal defect if we assume that history’s tragedies on a global scale remain confined to the past.


“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Jorge Santayana, 1931) might be a guide for our time rather than naïve assumptions that, somehow, the new century has left the old ones dead and buried. The precarious great-power peace that has prevailed since World War II has grown more fragile since the U.S. has turned inward and since Europe has united within itself. The rise of China in Asia, Russia under Putin, and continued global anarchy testifies that history is neither old nor irrelevant and could yet surprise us with how quickly it can return.

But a “return” to history might well be worth examining if we want to “do something” about the present rather than just abdicating to subterranean forces. America, as the architect of the current global order, has a unique responsibility to lead the world down this path. Who else?

Yet America must use a distant and fairly obscure example to emulate. At the same time, the country’s most famous diplomat/scholar, Henry Kissinger, himself a German émigré, has provided the prime (perhaps only) way to go. His first book was itself a historic inquiry as to why the nineteenth century provided great-power peace until its lessons were forgotten in the tragic beginnings of the First World War, 1914. We have all gone “downhill” since.

A World Restored

The book, A World Restored (1957), reviewed how the major European statesmen met at the end of the quarter-century of Napoleonic wars that had devastated the continent (and the world). The title “restored” implied a return to the political stability that monarchy had provided before the French Revolution and rescued the political “legitimacy” that was required for an enduring peace.

In effect, Vienna created a renewed world order based upon “legitimacy,” which Kissinger meant as “acceptance of the framework of the international order by all major powers.” Vienna eliminated neither human nature nor war, but even minor wars, from Kissinger, “may occur, but they will be fought in the name of the existing structure.”

The result was called the “Concert of Europe,” and it defined how great powers avoided major war for a century, unprecedented in European history, before or since. “Concert,” in this regard, is defined as “an agreement in design or plan … act in harmony or conjunction.”

But peace may have created a false sense of security, or an illusion, that it was to be lasting. As Kissinger noted in his Introduction, that was precisely the problem of 1914: they had forgotten what war was like.  “Those ages,” he wrote, “which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace.” The answer, then and perhaps now, is the idea of political “concert,” “an international agreement about the future of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims of foreign policy” (Introduction).


No two periods of history are identical, but parallels exist. When asked recently about the merits of a renewed global concert, Kissinger, now 97, emphasized the presence of three conditions: an “architecture” for mutual security, a “common purpose” to avoid war, and “an intellectual framework” that embraces philosophy and technology. (Washington Post, November 13, A21).

Since the end of the Cold War, America has receded both its global ambitions and its interests in constructing world orders. But the “past is prologue,” and the same country that tried this in 1919 and 1945 still has the time and the resources to start over.

All we need is an architecture, a purpose, and the intellect.

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