Oslo, Norway. 28 August. That great Norwegian author and social realist Henrik Ibsen once wrote that, “The strongest man in the world is he that stands almost alone”. Back here in Norway’s compact but complete capital Oslo on the edge of ‘Europe’ one gets a different perspective that is beyond the alternative reality that is today’s EU. September marks the bicentennial of the Congress of Vienna which established a balance of power in Europe that was sustained for almost exactly a century before it collapsed catastrophically in August 1914. With the balance of power in Europe again in flux is it not time for a new Congress of Vienna?
As a good Oxford historian I counsel against the use of too much ‘history’ to explain too much ‘present’. It tends to make for bad history and a depressing present. This would no doubt have satisfied Metternich the arch-conservative architect of the Congress. He saw his primary duty as the prevention of a new Napoleon and the need to contain the revolutionary/nationalist forces that might have de-stabilised the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
That was then and this is now. The Congress worked because Europe in 1815 was open to a Metternich peace and the new balance of power it sought. France lay defeated, Russia exhausted, Germany did not exist, and the great victor Britain saw its future not as a continental European power but as a global imperial power. Indeed, with America colonising itself the Congress marked the start of the second British Empire and unquestioned British supremacy for over sixty years.
However, the Congress does strike two far-distant chords. First, there is similarity between today’s European Union and the balance of power system that Metternich sought to craft. For all the rhetoric about political union the EU was built on the premise that Europe’s major powers are roughly equal. With Germany’s rise to pre-eminence that is no longer the case and the balance of power mechanism implicit to the EU sees its law-based approach under ever-increasing pressure from one over-mighty, albeit well-intentioned, subject.
With Russia launching a new offensive this morning in south-eastern Ukraine (perhaps the Russian forces in question are all lost) President Putin looks ever more like a Russian Sparta to the EU/Germany’s Greece. For all the incomprehension at Russia’s bad behaviour in Ukraine it certainly reflects Moscow’s unease about the changing balance of power in Europe.
In 1814 then as now Britain, Russia and Turkey were peripheral powers. Russia had been a part of the coalition that defeated Napoleon and Moscow initially saw the Congress as a means to extend power and influence westward. However, Russia very quickly came to see itself as separate from European security and saw the failing Ottoman Empire as an opportunity to extend its writ into the Mediterranean, parts of south-eastern Europe and the Middle East. Crimea, then as now, was vital to Russia as a warm water port from which to extend its naval influence. This ambition led to the Crimean War in 1853 and the British and French siege of Sevastopol.
Today, Britain, Russia and Turkey are the three "almost alone" powers in Europe. However, unlike in 1814 they stand alone in relative weakness rather than relative strength. None of them like the current order, not one of them has a clear idea what to do about it, all of them could almost stand alone, but Europe would be much the easier if they did not.
In a sense 2014 is the completion of a full systemic cycle that started in 1814 and includes 1914. The question for Europe remains the same – what to do with big power both at Europe’s core and its periphery. Little but rich Norway grapples daily this question but unencumbered by big power, or at least the appearance of it, Norwegians take a typically pragmatic view.
But here’s the twist. Were it merely a question of institutional relationships between peripheral states and the EU a political settlement could surely be made. The problem is that the EU is fast becoming an alibi/metaphor for German power. Britain cannot fold itself fully into the Eurozone core of the EU because that would be to acquiesce to German power. The Russian strategic mind is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of German power in whatever form it takes and in spite of endless talk of a special relationship between Moscow and Berlin. Indeed, Moscow pretends it is countering EU influence rather than German influence in what is fast becoming Europe’s most complicated political relationship. Ankara has a special but complicated relationship with Germany that is exacerbating a deepening inner struggle over whether it is a European power or Middle Eastern power, a secular or quasi-theocratic state. It is a struggle further exacerbated by a Germany that pretends to want Turkey in the EU but in fact does not.
Therefore, maybe it is time to see the current struggle for Eastern Ukraine not as an issue solely between Russians and Ukrainians but rather the reflection of a shift in European power and its consequences. If so it is time for a new Congress of Vienna to reassure Europe’s marginal powers that the EU and its revolutionary ‘integrationism’ is not some new and unintended form of German-led Bonapartism.
However, ‘Europe’ had better move quickly. Metternich’s only true intellectual rival at the Congress of Vienna was the French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. He might have been speaking of Europe today when he famously said, “If we go on explaining we shall cease to understand each other”. Europe's simple and eternal truth is that whatever the language or the setting the Old Continent is only secure when power is in balance. The strongest man in the world is he who stands with others.