In the early 1950s, Henry Kissinger completed his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. He studied the decade following the French Revolution, from 1812-1822 in which two world leaders took very different approaches to putting their countries in positions of potential power. Henry Kissinger details how British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Robert Castlereagh and Austrian Foreign Minister Prince Clemens von Metternich applied doctrines of “non-interference” and “legitimacy,” respectively, to “[rescue] stability from seeming chaos…”
This is an interesting piece to relook given today’s context. Many recent works have wondered what the state and future of world order holds. Consider Foreign Affairs journal’s edition that kicked off the New Year: Out of Order. The National Intelligence Council recently released their Global Trends future forecast – Paradox of Progress – in which they observe that “the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War. So, too, perhaps is the rules-based international order that emerged after World War II.” Similarly, the Brookings Institute has also taken on new effort to understand the implications recent political and social changes will have on the order that emerged out of WWII.
In these moments, when future projections come from many directions, I find it useful to rewind the historical clock and see how the world dealt with itself during analogous times of uncertainty. Hence, let us look at how Kissinger portrays the post-French Revolution period in which much of the world was in serious upheaval and Eurasian states were jockeying for positions of power. Take a look at the following links related to Kissinger’s 1957 book, which was a publication of his Harvard dissertation. Note the circumstances he identifies regarding chaos and uncertainty about the order of Europe.
When Napoleon was defeated in Russia, the problem of constructing a legitimate order confronted Europe in its most concrete form…It is for this reason that the year 1812 is the starting point of our discussion. However one conceives it—and it has been given a variety of interpretations ranging from the moral vindication of national self-determinations to the tragic destiny of the Hero—this year marked the moment when it became evident that Europe was not to be organized by force. But the alternative was not nearly so apparent. It was clear that there were new forces loose in the world clamouring [sic] for popular participation in government.
See also the challenge Britain and Austria faced given their geographic and political situations of the time.
Every statesman must attempt to reconcile what is considered just with what is considered possible. What is considered just depends on the domestic structure of his state; what is possible depends on its resources, geographic position and determination, and on the resources determination and domestic structure of other states. Thus Castlereagh, secure in the knowledge of England’s insular safety, tended to oppose only overt aggression. But Metternich, the statesman of a power situated in the centre [sic] of the Continent, sought above all to forestall upheavals.
Britain was an insulated state, protected somewhat by geography from the geopolitical risk of self-interested neighbors. Geopolitical competitors, on the other hand, surrounded Austria. Consequently, the two states, and the two statesmen, viewed their potential risks and opportunities through different frames of reference. Imagine for a moment the distinct frames of reference each might have had given their particular positions in the world. Now, consider how states today view themselves with respect to other states and other emerging forms of global power given their particular political circumstance.
There are many lessons to learn from Castlereagh and Metternich and from how Britain and Austrian dealt with resettling following a tumultuous upset to the international order. Some questions I would ask now: is the analogy useful; is the analogy to today’s international system actually analogous; do the doctrines of non-intervention and legitimacy still hold in today’s global restructuring? That is why I am convinced, that as we discuss the nature of global order today, we need to also study how order has evolved.
Here are some options to read more from Kissinger’s dissertation-turned-book: