The Congress System


The Congress System – An Admirable And Enlightened Example Of International Co-operation ? Essay, Research Paper

After the Congress of Vienna it became apparent that there was a new hierarchy of power in Europe. The hegemony of France was destroyed and she had been replaced by Great Britain and Russia as the dominant force behind European affairs. Both these nations were peripheral powers with interests and possessions beyond Europe, but aside from this, the two had alarmingly little in common. They had been united in their common antipathy to Napoleon, but now with France at last defeated, they were beginning to drift apart mainly as a result of their rival pretensions to the leadership of the new Europe. The first signs of a rift between these new dominant forces in Europe was at the Vienna Conference, when decisions were being made as to how best to keep peace in Europe. It was widely accepted by the great powers that the best way of fulfilling this objective was to maintain the four-power alliance already in existence and in so doing keep France in check. In 1815 each of the four allies recognised France as the principal source of danger to both peace and order, as not only was she the home of the revolution but also the power least satisfied with the new territorial arrangements. So, the continuation of the alliance against France seemed the obvious answer to preventing further bloodshed in Europe. However, the maintenance of the alliance raised two important questions: first the form it was to take; and second, in the aftermath of the disagreements between the allies at Vienna, which power, Great Britain or Russia, would dominate it. The separation of these two questions never occurred and the Anglo-Russian power struggle virtually dominated all other issues in the next decade. In November 1815, the British and Russians each made their own proposals for the continuation of the alliance. A practical basis for co-operation was the aim of Catlereagh’s Quadruple Alliance, with its provision under Article VI for periodic meetings of the powers. His intention was that within this arrangement England and Austria would have a special and dominant relationship, enabling them to control Russia as well as to contain the French. As far as revolutions were concerned, Castlereagh thought it best that the powers should consider each problem as it arose. Alexander’s alternative alliance certainly believed in keeping Monarchs in their rightful places and was therefore on the whole against any form of revolution. Apart from this monarchical solidarity against revolution, the alliance was extremely vague and this was in part due to the fact that Alexander, unlike Castlereagh, had evolved no clear strategy with which to pursue Russian aims in the post-war world. When it became clear to him that the Holy Alliance was an ineffective counterpoise to the Quadruple Alliance he all but abandoned it and concentrated his efforts at undermining British influence through the alliance which Castlereagh had created. The only possible basis for continued co-operation between Great Britain and Russia: a determination to keep France in check. However, it was Britain herself who found herself becoming increasingly alienated after Vienna and this was something which she did not mind all that much. Great Britain owed her strength to her fast developing economy, her extensive overseas trade and her unrivalled naval power. The fact that in 1815 Castlereagh had jealously guarded Britain’s undisputed mastery of the seas and oceans, while simultaneously seeking to contain the power of France and limit the expansion of Russia had given the French and Russians a community of interest. Both these nations resented what they regarded as Britain’s double standards, maintaining her own naval hegemony while attempting to restrain the military power of her rivals. Indeed, Great Britain and the continental powers had different priorities in the decades following Vienna and there was a general distrust amongst the nations of Europe of British commercial policy, which was regarded as aggressive and the British government was suspected of a willingness to sacrifice political principles for commercial gain. Certainly Britain was not as keen as the other European states to maintain the existing political and social structures, but only that peace and order were maintained as a necessary condition for economic and commercial expansion. Britain’s unwillingness to support the invasion of Spain and Naples in order to restore the previous rulers confirms the above point. During the years after Aix la Chapelle, Great Britain gradually receded from the affairs of the ‘Concert of Europe’, until only observers were sent to conferences and by the time Canning took over as Foreign Minister, he had no hesitation in winding up Britain’s role in European affairs. He felt it was necessary to do this as not only were there vital issues, like the intervention in Spain, that Britain was not willing to agree to, but also there was a desire to be without alliances and commitments which would certainly involve the country in war again if another European conflict developed. Therefore Britain returned to her s tandard post-war policy, in those days, of isolation. Of the other European great powers, Russia was the most powerful as already mentioned, and although Austria and Prussia both recovered their positions as the leading Central European powers, they were never going to hold as much sway as Russia or Britain, so for this reason, they spent most of the time after Vienna attempting to ally themselves to the countries who would offer them protection from invasion. Austria feared an attack from Russia and therefore initially allied herself with Britain, the only country capable of fighting Russia on equal terms, and then on the withdrawal of Britain from Europe, she sought to remain on friendly terms with Russia. Prussia on the other hand feared an attack from the west, coming from France, and as a strong sense of dynastic links inclined the Prussians towards Russia and an equally strong feeling of German solidarity drew them towards Austria, the Prussians were always energetic advocates of an Austro-Russian understanding directed against France. France’s basic aim in foreign policy was to find a revisionist ally, as only by doing this could she hope to undo the 1815 settlement and to rid themselves of the coalition against them and the consequent isolation. While the coalition against her existed, France was forced to play the same role as Austria and Prussia; she had to attach herself to either Russia or Great Britain. However, unlike the two German states, France sought an alignment not for security but to break out of isolation and to begin to destroy the Vienna settlement. The ultimate aim of French foreign policy was to regain the leadership of Europe which she had lost to Britain and Russia in 1815. With Britain and Russia locked in a bitter struggle for power, France plotting to regain her position as leader of Europe and Austria and Prussia frantically allying themselves to whichever country best suited their needs, the atmosphere in Europe after Vienna could hardly be described as amiable. The Congress System could never be described as ‘admirable’ or ‘enlightened’ when there were so many problems facing post-war Europe: the Anglo-Russian struggle for the leadership of the alliance was the dominant issue from the beginning, and linked with this problem was the question over the nature and purpose of the alliance. Should it be permanently restricted to the four victorious allies, or should it be extended to include France? Was the alliance intended to be no more than the framework within which the allies consulted each other on common problems, or should the allies use the alliance as the means to establish principles for common action and as the ultimate sanction for action itself? The fact that the revolutionary spirit was still alive and well in Europe made the issue over the alliance all the more important, and can itself be classified as another problem. By the 1820’s, a fourth major problem had arisen: revolution within the Ottoman Empire, which raised the wider issues of what action the great powers should take and brought Anglo-Russian disagreements to the fore. Also, there was the attempt by France to recover from the disasters of defeat and occupation and to exploit all the tensions between the four allies to promote in order to do so. It was the interaction of these five problems which resulted in the collaspe of the alliance and the Congress System by the mid 1820’s. The Congress System represented the first attempts by any nations to set up an international organisation, which would meet regularly to keep order and prevent war, considering this, the countries involved should be commended on their efforts. However, the conflicting interests and rivalries in the post Napoleonic era ensured that any attempts to maintain a co-operative organisation were ultimately doomed.Bibliography: <:#284,9360>Years of Nationalism L. Cowie & R. Wolfson <:#284,9360>The Great Powers and the European States System F.R. Bridge & R. Bullen <:#284,9360>An Illustrated History of Modern Europe D. Richards <:#284,9360>Europe 1780-1830 F.L. Ford

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