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What Europe needs is a “Bismarck”

Published on 11 September 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Arguably, the most important multilateral gathering on the XIXth century, in the West, was not the Vienna Congress of 1815, which froze international relations for the first half of the century, but the Berlin Congress of 1878. Many historians of international relations have failed to understand this point, which left them belaboring and bewailing the “collective folly” of 1914, whose centenary we remember this year. The current unsettled state of international relations allows them easy analogies to this past. Viewed from a distance, the pundits’ warning of the “hidden hand of a malevolent god,” or the emergence of “emotionalism” of “fundamentalism,” look like excuses for sedulous inaction.

While the Vienna Congress did a lot of dancing and “cleaning up,” eliminating many statelets and other oddities, it chose not address the issues of the day: the emergence of national aspirations among many peoples of Europe (nor did it take up the issue of imperialism, which Napoleon had raised in Egypt). Germany and Italy were left groping for a way to unite. Poland was “deep-sixed” – its army of patriots left stranded to die in Haiti, of all places. The Slavs, and their identities, now awakened, had nowhere to go. No surprise that, by 1821, Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian patriot whose pan-European role is insufficiently recognized today, had started the Young-X movement, which spread across many countries in Europe and beyond. The “X” changed with the nation, but “Young” remained a constant feature until well in the XXth century.

By 1878, Germany and Italy had become states. The Porte was included in the ensuing “stability pact” – the Berlin Congress -a cartel of “first tier states” committed to the status quo in the region. Competition among “first tier powers” was relegated to areas outside Europe – the age of imperialism was created as a safety valve for ambitions of the warring states.

Bismarck’s great achievement was to sense that such a cartel could exist on two conditions:

  • Germany, as the pivot of the system, had to exert self-restraint in colonial matters. And indeed, as long as Bismarck was in power, Germany tinkered and toyed with overseas adventures, but these fell far short of becoming a destabilizing factor in international relations.
  • The Porte, the “sick man on the Bosporus” had to be included as well. It needed protection from destabilizing regional ambitions of Russia, but also of the Hapsburg monarchy.[1]

Bismarck created this system not out of selflessness or farsightedness in international relations. His ambition was a strong German state after its helter-skelter emergence through the fluke event of the Franco-German war of 1870. The Iron Chancellor created an international relations system that allowed Germany foregoing foreign affairs distractions. He sensed that Germany would emerge from this period of self-restraint economically and socially stronger than other countries.

And in fact, as long as he was in power, he concentrated – depending on the coalition he confronted in Parliament – on cultural, economic, and social issues. Out of the forces at hand he tried to build a secular, industrially strong, and socially inclusive state.

The “Berlin Congress” system worked as long as the German center understood its equilibrating role. Despite the blindness of Bismarck’s successors, the system stood firm until after Agadir in 1911. What destroyed it, in the end, is not the “march of folly” of the “first tier states,” but the sudden emergence of “second tier states” in the Balkans, which destabilized the situation (for details, see my 294). This is what usually happens with cartels: under its umbrella small competitors prosper, and their ambitions destroy the system. Germany’s foreign policy ambitions might have been contained, but not the emerging nationalism of the Balkan states.


It is time for analogies.

Europe emerged helter-skelter from the defeat of Germany in WWII, and the need for Western Europe to stand up to the perceived Soviet threat. This threat has now receded (as France’s revanchism did, for a while at least). Europe might do well in heeding Bismarck’s lesson and concentrate on consolidating internally. The eternal issues of inclusion – political, economic, and social – as well as the flip-side – incompetence and corruption – are on the table.

What Europe needs is a Bismarck-type set of politicians, working together to build a strong state out of the bits and pieces of the European Confederation. Diplomats being diplomats, unfortunately, they have reverted to the Congress of Vienna model of sedulous stasis – aka as “consensus” – which is a perversion of “closure.”[2]

To hide the stasis, the “unique” EU political model is being exported to its periphery, and beyond. In so doing, EU diplomats remind me of XIXth Christian missionaries, mixing (here political) religion with trade advantages into an explosive and destabilizing mix.[3] What emerges is the secular equivalent of “rice Christians:” Conversion to democratic values and institutions has obvious (and narrow) pecuniary origins.

They also remind me, however, of the fostering of Balkan nationalism, which in the end destroyed the Berlin Congress system. Its great strength was the inclusion of the Porte in the system – a regime far from the ideals or practice of other European countries. It was understood, however, that its stability was just as essential to the system as Germany’s self-restraint. The concerns for the Porte’s subject peoples were taken care of (admittedly imperfectly) through ad-hoc instruments like Protectorates, Capitulations and the world of the Consuls.[4] The West’s current ideology of the “unitary” state prevents necessary flexibility in dealing with the periphery.

[1] One tends to forget nowadays one of the outcomes of the Congress, which was the voiding of the Treaty of Santo Stefano, far too favorable to Russia.

[2] Under conditions of uncertainty, “consensus” is never possible, for a new element can always be added, disrupting it. What one needs is prior agreement on “closure,” so that can move forward, and start again. This wisdom was present, for a while at least, in international trade negotiations. The current stasis could be traced to the abandonment of closure for consensus.

[3] China is here is a tell-tale example. The Taiping Rebellion had its murky origins on Christian ideologies (Mao would use Marxism, another Western ideology, with greater success). The Boxer Rebellion had its origins in rural discontent on account of extra-territoriality granted both to missionaries and their flock.

[4] For a fictional presentation, see Ivo ANDRIC (2000): The days of the Consuls. Derada, Belgrade.

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