Lessons from the past could shape future peace talks

  • 1 November 2016

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended decades of religious wars in Europe, established the concept of national sovereignty and pushed the influence of Christian churches away from politics. Similarly, the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, signalled a new stage in international relations and set principles that still exists today.

The Congress was held for European countries between September 1814 and June 1815. It sought to resolve issues resulting from the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire. At the Congress, European powers met for the first time to discuss matters instead of relying on envoys and correspondence. This marked the beginning of a new phase in international diplomacy.

The General Treaty of the 1815 Congress of Vienna and the principles it established represent a distinctive mark in the history of international relations. The "balance of power", the most prominent principle, enabled reforms in the east of Europe between Prussia and Russia to ensure that neither country controlled the eastern part of the continent and threatened the entire European security. France was curtailed so that it could no longer threaten other European countries, while Holland and Belgium were unified to create a military force north of France. In addition, the Austrian role was increased by giving it new influence in Italy in order to allow military intervention, should the need arise, in France. This new "balance of power" contributed to stability in Europe and no major war took place for almost a century, save for small wars, mainly the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Undoubtedly, this shows that the Congress established strong foundations for peace.

Another important principle set forward by the General Treaty of the Congress of Vienna is the principle of "nonalignment" that established Switzerland’s permanent neutrality. Others included banning the slave trade and setting up freedom of navigation in international rivers. In addition, the Congress provided these powers an opportunity to meet directly and discuss matters through their representatives – this constituted a significant transition in the history of international diplomacy.

Historians and scholars frequently compare the Congress of Vienna of 1815 to the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which formally ended the First World War. Participating powers in the Congress of Vienna succeeded in creating a world order based on an intricate balance of power and containment of the defeated, instead of humiliating them. This order paved the way to a century of stability, as previously noted. In his book World Order, published in 2014, Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, views the negotiations leading to the General Treaty of the Congress of Vienna as a model for achieving peace after long and destructive wars and conflicts. On the other hand, the arrangements made by the Versailles convention lasted for only about 20 years. Germany considered the articles of the Treaty of Versailles inequitable, oppressive and humiliating. This created an environment conducive to the emergence of Adolf Hitler, who exploited the oppressive treatment Germany experienced from the provisions dictated by the treaty. This in turn enabled him to instigate a second destructive world war.

The Versailles decisions could not prevent the Second World War from erupting as nobody understood the lessons from the Vienna negotiations and why they were successful in maintaining world peace for a whole century.

The first and foremost of these lessons is not to humiliate the defeated, but rather to contain and rehabilitate them. The allies took note of this in 1945 in their approach to dealing with Germany and Japan when reconstructing the two countries and integrating them into the international system. Consequently, both countries have become active contributors to stability.

A comparison between the Congress of Vienna and the Treaty of Versailles reveals the role that leaders can play in shaping history and in steering the events towards peace or war. The Austrian statesman, Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, who headed the Congress of Vienna, played a pivotal role because he did not seek retaliation against France. On the other hand, the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, who headed the Peace Congress in Paris in 1918, imposed harsh punishments on Germany.

The world today needs to learn lessons from the Congress of Vienna of 1815 along with the developments and negotiations leading to it and the personalities who contributed to its success. With conflicts prevailing among influential superpowers, our world faces major challenges that make achieving international consensus and successfully addressing these challenges practically impossible. After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many people wondered whether he could be the Metternich of the 21st century. However, Mr Obama failed to act on his promised US policies.

In fact, under his leadership, the US gradually withdrew from world affairs, abandoning its responsibilities as a superpower. Until a new Metternich comes along, someone who can achieve the desired global consensus, or at least the bare minimum of it, the Vienna Treaty of 1815 will provide a repertoire of lessons and experiences to inspire those in search for world stability and conflict management.