The result of the revolutions of 1830 was to divide Europe into two opposing diplomatic combinations and, in most European questions in the years immediately following the risings of 1830, the eastern powers—Russia, Austria and Prussia—were to be found ranged against Great Britain and France. This separation, as Palmerston noted in 1836, was ‘not one of words but of things, not the effect of caprice or of will, but produced by the force of circumstances. The three and the two think differently and therefore they act differently.’
The differences were largely matters of political principle and method. The eastern courts were bound together by a common belief in autocratic government and a common fear of a resurgence of the revolutionary principles of 1789 and 1793. They took a completely static view of the organisation of Europe and believed that changes in the political and social structure of the Continent, or of its member states, must be resisted lest the whole edifice fall in ruins. In addition, since they regarded all movements for constitutional reform, or—in the case of subject nationalities—for national self-determination, as ‘revolutionary’, they claimed for themselves the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the smaller states of Europe in order to extirpate these heresies before they spread. The western powers, on the other hand, stood for liberal and constitutional government, rejected the theory of intervention advanced by the reactionary governments of eastern Europe and, whenever it was within their power to do so, encouraged and protected other constitutional regimes.
It would be a mistake, however, to regard the two opposing combinations as cohesive and mutually exclusive leagues; and certainly if we view the years which stretched between the revolutions of 1830 and the outbreak of the Crimean War as a whole, it would appear that the powers ignored their ideological differences as often as they observed them. If, for instance, co-operation with France was ‘the axle’ upon which Lord Palmerston’s policy turned, that statesman had no compunction about concluding agreements with the eastern powers in moments when he considered the French to be acting in a manner which jeopardised British interests or menaced the peace of Europe; while, on the French side, Louis Philippe showed a growing desire—once his regime was firmly established—to seek an accommodation with the eastern powers even at the expense of his entente with England. In much the same way, the Austrian chancellor, Mettemich, was impelled on occasion, through fear of the Near Eastern policy of Tsar Nicholas of Russia, to discuss with Britain means of restraining him; while the tsar, when irritated by the Baltic ambitions of his Prussian ally, was quite capable of co-operating with Britain to defeat them. There was, in short, despite the ideological division of the great powers, enough free play in the European system to permit diplomatic alignments to shift as new problems arose; and this was not the least important reason why the years 1830-54 were years of peace, and years in which the territorial balance of power established at Vienna in 1815 was maintained.
The flexibility of the system of alliances is ideally illustrated by the first serious diplomatic crisis of this period, that caused by the revolution of the Belgian provinces in 1830. This dispute, which began in an atmosphere of menacing hostility between the eastern and western groups of powers, was solved in the end, after many shifts of position, by the concerted action of the five powers; and it is still considered to be one of the notable victories gained by the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century.
In August 1830 the long smouldering resentment of the inhabitants of the Belgian provinces against their forced union with the Dutch burst into flames; a sudden rising in Brussels was followed by revolutionary disturbances throughout the land; a provisional government was formed on 26 September; and in the first week of October this body began to deliberate on various draft declarations of independence. These events constituted a clear violation of the treaties of 1815, which had prescribed the perpetual union of the Low Countries and had justified this decision by the necessity of erecting a barrier against future French aggression; and they could not help but be a matter of concern to the great powers. The king of the Netherlands confidently expected that the eastern powers at least would intervene on his behalf; and it is known that the emperor of Russia was eager to do so. In Vienna Mettemich also felt that intervention was the only way of preventing ‘the universal shipwreck of Europe’; while in Berlin, although Frederick William HI was betraying the indecision which always affected him in moments of crisis, his soldiers seemed ready to act and were indeed holding staff talks with the Russians.
In face of this threat, the western powers acted with commendable dispatch. Late in September, the veteran Talleyrand arrived in London as the new French ambassador. In his first conversations with the king and the duke of Wellington, he warned that intervention in the Low Countries by eastern forces would lead to prompt retaliation and that only a firm insistence upon the principle of non-intervention would prevent war. Wellington agreed and immediately circularised the other courts, urging them to refrain from action until representatives of the five powers had held friendly conversations in London concerning the future of the Belgian provinces.
The eastern powers accepted this invitation to conference reluctantly and probably only because Mettemich and his opposite number in St Petersburg, Nesselrode, thought that the discussions might persuade Wellington to join the eastern powers in a campaign to restore the authority of the king of the Netherlands. It was not, however, Wellington with whom they had to deal. Before the London Conference had an opportunity to apply itself seriously to the difficulties in the Low Countries, the Wellington government had fallen from office; and Palmerston, Foreign Secretary in the new Grey cabinet, had become the chief British negotiator.
It has been suggested that the new Foreign Secretary was animated by the desire to destroy Holland’s economic threat to Britain by detaching the Belgian provinces from her. As a matter of fact, Palmerston privately regretted the Belgian revolt, for he believed that the continued union of the Low Countries ‘would have been most advantageous to the general interests of Europe’. He was realist enough to believe, however, that the independence movement had gone too far to be reversed; while, as an Englishman, he had no desire to see the troops of another great power in an area which had always been of special interest to his country. He eagerly joined with the French, then, in insisting that the principle of non-intervention be observed by all powers, urging simultaneously that the powers should accept the fact of Belgian independence under conditions which would, as far as possible, repair the breach in the system of 1815.
He was aided in this endeavour by the sudden rising of the Russian Poles against their suzerain in November (cf. ch. XIV, p. 362), an event which absorbed the military energies of Russia, diverted the attention of Mettemich and the Prussians toward the situation in their own Polish provinces and made all three powers more amenable to peaceful solutions in the West. By 20 December Palmerston was consequently able to secure the assent of all members of the conference to Belgium’s independence. This victory, however, eliminated only one of many problems that had to be solved. The new state had to be provided with definite boundaries and with a ruler; the disposition of the so-called barrier fortresses had to be decided; and the Belgians and the Dutch had to be persuaded to accept the conference’s decisions. Moreover, as the threat from the east became less serious, the attitude of the French became less reasonable. Talleyrand now argued that public opinion in France would not be satisfied unless Louis Philippe were granted some compensation for the admirable restraint he had shown; and the Paris government began to indulge in manoeuvres which indicated that they desired a Belgian ruler who would be subservient to French interests.
Angered by what seemed to be bad faith on the part of the French, Palmerston reacted as he was to react on many future occasions in his dealings with Paris, with an abrupt resort to threats and menaces. The vigour with which he rejected Talleyrand’s claims and his evident willingness to make a common front with the eastern powers convinced the French plenipotentiary that retreat was necessary; and on 20 January 1831 Talleyrand joined the other members of the conference in signing a protocol which, by delineating the boundaries of Belgium and Holland and establishing Belgium as a neutral state under the permanent guarantee of the powers, constituted a kind of self-denying ordinance for France, as for the other signatories. But the French government hesitated to ratify this protocol, and, in addition, became involved in an elaborate intrigue to secure the throne of Belgium for Louis Philippe’s son, the due de Nemours. This double policy increased Palmerston’s irritation and led him to intimate plainly that Britain was fully prepared to go to war to prevent any part of Belgium from falling to the French. The British, he said in a private letter at this time, occupied the position of ‘impartial mediators between France on the one hand, and the three other Powers on the other,... as long as both parties remain quiet, we shall be friends with both; but... whichever side breaks the peace, that side will find us against them’.
These admonitions seem to have produced their desired effect. With the advent of the moderate Casimir Perier government to power in Paris, the co-ordination of Anglo-French policy was largely restored; and, after the Belgian National Assembly had elected Leopold of Saxe-Coburg as their future ruler, the two powers succeeded in persuading the other members of the conference to agree on a definitive settlement for submission to the Belgians and the Dutch. The ambiguity of French policy was, it is true, not yet at an end. When the Dutch king sent his armies into Belgium in August and when the conference authorised Anglo-French intervention to expel him, the French troops showed a stubborn reluctance to leave the country after their mission had been accomplished; and the British Foreign Secretary was once more forced to resort to threats, and to say ominously that ‘the French must go out of Belgium or we have a general war and war in a given number of days’. Once again, however, the French gave way, abandoning even the hope that they might be able to dictate to the Belgians which of the barrier fortresses should be demolished. Moreover, this was the last flicker of French resistance and on 15 November 1831 they joined with the other powers in the famous treaty by which Belgium was accepted as a member of the European state system. The ratifications of this document were not completed until May 1832, and the Dutch king did not accept the loss of Belgium until April 1839, his prolonged resistance being made possible by the refusal of the eastern courts to join in coercive measures against him. But by the end of 1831 the Belgian dispute had ceased to constitute a diplomatic problem, although there was a flurry of indignation in December 1832 when an Anglo-French force bombarded the citadel of Antwerp and forced the Dutch to surrender that stronghold to the Belgian king.
The successful avoidance of war during this crisis had been possible, in the first instance, because of the determined collaboration of Britain and France, and it is not too much to say that the entente cordiale, which was to last, with some interruptions, until the very eve of the revolutions of 1848, was consummated in the negotiations of 1830 and 1831. At the same time, the limitations of that entente were clearly set forth by Palmerston in his frequent warnings to Paris; and it was unfortunate for the July Monarchy, in another crisis ten years later, that its statesmen did not remember Palmerston’s conduct in the Belgian dispute. As for the eastern powers, they quite clearly regarded the separation of the Low Countries as a dangerous weakening of the barrier against France. Distracted by troubles in their border districts, however, they could not act to support their opinions, and, in the end, they decided that concerted action with Britain and France was preferable to a solution imposed by the western powers alone. The disagreeable necessity which confronted them was probably eased by Palmerston’s constant disavowal of partisan or national objectives and his ability to portray conference decisions as actions taken ‘for European objects and to maintain peace and preserve the balance of power’.
The acquiescence of the eastern powers was doubtless influenced also, however, by the restraint displayed by Britain and France in the Italian and Polish affairs. During the troubles in Italy which followed the risings in Parma, Modena and the Romagna in 1831 there were many heated parliamentary speeches and not a few incautious ministerial pronouncements in Paris; but in the end the Casimir Perier government decided that support of the revolutionaries was inexpedient and that—in view of Mettemich’s determination to restore order in the Peninsula—insistence upon the principle of non-intervention would be dangerous. In this policy of caution the French were encouraged by the British government; and Mettemich was permitted to carry out his police action without serious opposition. Similarly, in the Polish question, although Louis Philippe considered the possibility of mediation between the tsar and the rebels, he was dissuaded by Palmerston, who took his stand on the treaties of 1815, refused to give more than formal sympathy to the Polish cause and won the praise of the wife of Russia’s ambassador in London for his ‘very loyal conduct towards Russia during the struggle in Poland’. The prudent behaviour of the western powers had the effect of diminishing the latent hostility of the two European groups; and it is interesting to note that in October 1831 an ambassadorial conference in Paris could agree on a protocol which recommended a general reduction of European armaments and spoke in glowing terms of the ‘happy restoration of agreement among the Powers’.
These signs of reconciliation were, however, misleading, and, in the course of 1832 and 1833, the gulf between the eastern and western powers widened sharply. The measures adopted by the tsar to punish the Poles (see chs. IX and XIV) angered public opinion in the West; and Metternich’s encouragement of the repressive measures adopted by the lesser German courts in their campaign against political agitation contributed to the same result. Simultaneously, the dispatching of a French army of observation to Ancona in Italy in 1832 awakened all of Mettemich’s suspicions of France’s desire for aggrandisement. But perhaps the most important factor in dividing Europe into two opposed camps was the turn of events in the Near East (see ch. XVI, p. 428).
In the latter part of 1831 Mehemet Ali, the pasha of Egypt, who had long aspired to extend his control over Palestine, Syria and Arabia, manufactured a dispute with the pasha of Lebanon and sent an army under his son Ibrahim to invest Acre. Sultan Mahmud II, after trying vainly to adjudicate the quarrel, declared Mehemet a rebel and set out to crush him. In the subsequent campaigns, however, which lasted throughout 1832, his forces suffered a series of disastrous defeats; and by December the Egyptians were threatening to overrun all Asia Minor and to take Constantinople itself.
The Egyptian advance was a matter of concern to all powers with interests in the Levant; and the Austrian government for one—regarding Mehemet Ali simply as a rebel who must be suppressed—sought to promote collective action by the powers to preserve the integrity of the Ottoman empire. Mettemich’s attempts in this direction, however, aroused no enthusiasm in Paris, where the government enjoyed cordial relations with Mehemet and was more interested in mediation between the sultan and his vassal than in any coercive action; and, while they were received more warmly in London, they had no tangible effect there either. At this stage in his career, Palmerston was still undecided concerning the policy best designed to promote British interests in the Near East, and, while he was inclined to agree that collective action was desirable, he wished London rather than Vienna to be the centre of conversations between the great powers, a condition that was quite unacceptable to Mettemich, who always longed to restore Vienna as the diplomatic capital of Europe.
While the unrewarding discussions between Vienna and London were proceeding, the sultan, in his extremity, turned to Russia for aid; and, in February 1833, to the dismay of the western powers, Russian troops disembarked on the shores of the Bosporus and the Russian fleet anchored at Constantinople. This Russian intervention was the decisive factor in effecting peace between the belligerents in May, on terms that left Mehemet Ali in possession of Syria, Adana and Tarsus. But the Russian action had an even more alarming result. Before the tsar’s forces withdrew, a new treaty was signed between Turkey and Russia at Unkiar Skelessi on 8 July 1833. This document, while confirming existing treaties between the two powers, announced that for eight years Russia and Turkey would be mutually bound to defend each other’s dominions in the event of aggression from without. By a separate article, however, Turkey was freed from the obligation of sending naval and military aid to Russia in time of war, provided she would close the Dardanelles to armed vessels, ‘not allowing any foreign vessels to enter therein on any pretext whatever’.
Unkiar Skelessi provided a European sensation, since it appeared to give Russia a preferential position at the Porte. In London, Palmerston professed publicly to be scornful of the document, but he joined with France in a spirited but fruitless attempt to prevent ratification of the treaty, and there can be little doubt that he feared that it would make Turkey a Russian satellite or promote her speedy partition. At the same time, he was furiously indignant with Mettemich, accusing him of having been privy to the tsar’s intentions and of having misled the British government. This was perhaps unjust, since the evidence seems to indicate that the treaty was an unpleasant surprise to Vienna. But western suspicion of Austrian and Russian policy was now fully inflamed, and received apparent confirmation in September 1833 when Nicholas met the Emperor Francis and Mettemich at Munchengratz. At this meeting, the tsar apparently sought to reassure the Austrians concerning his intentions in the Near East, but the talks covered other subjects as well. Before they were finished, the eastern partners had agreed on future measures of repression to be employed against the Poles and the German liberals, and they had concluded a formal alliance which recognised the right of any sovereign to summon the aid of the eastern powers if threatened by revolution. This pronouncement seemed to herald a new offensive against the liberal west, and the British and French governments drew together to oppose it.
They found an opportunity to make an effective rejoinder in the Iberian Peninsula. It is unnecessary here to go deeply into the political complications of the Iberian countries; but it can be noted briefly that, since 1831, Britain and France had been lending encouragement and disguised military aid to the efforts of the young Portuguese queen Maria to regain her throne, which had been seized in 1828 by her uncle Dom Miguel. In July 1833—roughly at the same time that the Russians were negotiating the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi—a Portuguese fleet under the command of a British admiral captured the bulk of Miguel’s naval forces and, a few weeks later, Maria’s armies entered Lisbon and deposed him. Within a week of these events, King Ferdinand VII of Spain died, leaving the throne to his infant daughter, with his wife Christina as regent. This settlement was, however, immediately challenged by Ferdinand’s brother, Don Carlos, who raised the standard of revolt and joined forces with the Portuguese pretender, Dom Miguel. Since Pedro and Miguel were both men of unrelieved reactionary views, and since they enjoyed the sympathy of Metternich, the young queens became perforce identified, in the popular mind, with the cause of liberalism, although there was little in their politics to justify this.
In any event the French and British governments extended their protective mantle over the Spanish queen, as over the Portuguese; and Palmerston decided to use this popular cause as the basis for a diplomatic gesture designed to answer, and defy, the pronouncements of Unkiar Skelessi and Munchengratz. Thanks to his initiative, Britain and France in April 1834 converted their understanding with the two queens into a Quadruple Alliance, which dramatically set forth the western powers’ intention of preventing the application of Metternich’s theory of intervention in the peninsula. This, Palmerston boasted, would ‘serve as a powerful counterpoise to the Holy Alliance of the East’, for ‘the moral effect in Europe of a formal union of the four constitutional states of the West... must be by no means inconsiderable’.
This combination did have the happy effect of discouraging adventures by other powers in Spain and Portugal, and although disorders and civil war continued for years, the cause of the queens was ultimately triumphant. The Quadruple Alliance seemed also to confirm that rigid division of Europe between east and west which had first become apparent in 1830. In actuality, however, the fluidity that characterised the diplomatic alignments of this period continued. The Anglo-French entente, for instance, was much less intimate than enthusiasts for the Quadruple Alliance supposed. Indeed, within a month of the signature of that alliance Louis Philippe was closeted with Prince Esterhazy, the confidant of Mettemich, and was suggesting that he had adhered to the alliance reluctantly and that he would be better pleased by a permanent arrangement with Austria.
This demarche of the king’s, which he was to repeat periodically for the next five years—although never receiving the encouragement he desired— was doubtless animated by his growing conservatism and by his keen desire to be accepted as an equal by his royal colleagues on the Continent. But Louis Philippe was not alone in his growing dislike of the Anglo-French entente. The basic weakness of that combination, as Raymond Guyot has pointed out in La premiere entente cordiale, was that there was no real community of economic interest between the two nations. French industrialists complained angrily about the menace of British competition and demanded tariff schedules which were received with dismay and indignation across the Channel. British and French trading interests fought bitterly in Greece and in Spain and in more remote markets in Africa and the Pacific. These things inevitably affected the official relations of the two countries. In 1837 Palmerston was grumbling that the ruling motive in France was ‘jealousy of the commercial prosperity of England and a desire to arrest the progress of that prosperity’; and, the following year, when tariff negotiations between the two countries failed to reach any tangible result, his ambassador in Paris warned the French government that ‘two nations cannot continue to be united politically unless they are bound directly together by the bond of commercial affairs’. The British Foreign Secretary continued to believe in the political advantages of union with France and reminded his envoys abroad that ‘it is of great importance to us, not only to be well with the French government, but to appear to all Europe to be so’; but he was conscious both of the forces driving the two countries apart and of the manoeuvres of the French king and realised that he might have to revise his attitude toward the eastern powers at any time.
These disruptive tendencies in the entente—and the fact that they were not entirely unappreciated in the eastern capitals—had a marked effect upon the alignment of the powers during the Near Eastern crisis of 1839 and 1840. This affair, like the earlier one of 1833, had its origins in the ambitions of Mehemet Ali, who clearly regarded his settlement of 1833 with the sultan as a mere truce and who, in May 1838, told the consuls in Alexandria that he meant to declare his independence. Sultan Mahmud, on his part, was eager to settle the old score with Mehemet, and it was, in fact, Mahmud who took the initiative in opening hostilities in April 1839. The sultan’s forces, however, were no more effective in their new campaign than they had been previously. In June, the flower of Mahmud’s army was routed at Nezib; in July the whole of his fleet deserted to the enemy; and at the end of the year Mehemet Ali seemed once more to be in a position to make of the Ottoman empire what he pleased.
Long before this dangerous stage had been reached, the great powers had begun to move. In London, for instance, Palmerston betrayed none of the indecision which had marked his conduct in the earlier crisis. Between 1833 and 1839 successful experiments in steam navigation both on the Red Sea and the Euphrates had greatly enhanced the importance of the overland routes to India in British eyes, and this fact had strengthened Palmerston’s determination that neither Russia nor Mehemet Ali, whom he came to regard increasingly as a client of France, should be allowed to dominate them. As the outbreak of hostilities neared, it was his desire to arrange a concerted demarche of the powers which would not only check the Egyptian pasha but would replace the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi with a general guarantee of Turkish integrity. In the late spring of 1838 and throughout the summer months he strove to persuade the other powers that it was necessary to concert a policy before an act of aggression should be committed. Both the Austrians and the French seemed ready to co-operate, but Palmerston received no encouragement from St Petersburg. With his customary forthrightness, he bombarded the Russian capital with notes, on one occasion going so far as to warn that ‘Europe never would endure that the matter should be settled by the single independent and self-regulated interference of any one power’, a clear intimation that Britain would resist unilateral action taken on the basis of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi. After reading this despatch to Nesselrode, the British ambassador reported that that minister had answered that Russia regarded Unkiar Skelessi more as a burden than as anything else. Russia remained, however, unresponsive to all suggestions of a ‘concert prealable' throughout the year 1838.
Once the fighting had begun it was Mettemich who seized the initiative, seeing once more an opportunity of drawing the European Concert to Vienna. In May 1839 he began talks with the four ambassadors in Vienna and established what was in fact a continuing conference on the eastern crisis. It was this body which—after the crushing defeats suffered by the sultan’s forces in June and July—despatched the instructions that formed the basis of the famous collective note of 27 July, presented to the sultan by the representatives of the five powers in Constantinople, informing him that the powers were preparing to intervene and urging him to make no concessions to Mehemet Ali until they had made their wishes known. Mettemich’s prompt action doubtless heartened the Turkish government, at a time when it was shaken by military disaster and by the sudden death of Mahmud II, and encouraged it to continue its resistance. But it led also to a surprising move on the part of the tsar. For, at the beginning of August, Nicholas made it clear that the collective demarche had been made without his approval and that, while accepting it, he utterly rejected the suggestion that Vienna should be the centre of future discussions on the eastern question. This news, and the tsar’s apparent anger at Austria’s participation in what he seemed to regard as an anti-Russian demonstration, was an overwhelming disappointment to Mettemich and, suffering from what appeared to be complete nervous collapse, he retired to his estates.
Nicholas, however, had no desire to play a lone hand in the Near East. He was impressed by the British warnings of the previous year, and realised that unilateral action on his part might precipitate war with Great Britain. Moreover—as Nesselrode had already intimated—he had come to regard Unkiar Skelessi as a burdensome arrangement and one which the Turks themselves would repudiate if they were assured of British support; and, in the circumstances, he was prepared to abandon it in favour of any arrangement which would retain that closure of the Straits which was so advantageous to Russian interests. Finally, the tsar saw an opportunity of driving a wedge between Britain and France and of isolating the country which he persisted in regarding as the chief breeding ground of revolution and disaffection in Europe. Accordingly, in September 1839 he sent one of his ablest diplomatists, Baron Brunnov, to London to convince Palmerston of Russia’s willingness to co-operate in finding a method of stopping Mehemet Ali and maintaining the integrity of the Turkish empire.
In Palmerston’s eyes Russia’s willingness to give up Unkiar Skelessi outweighed all other considerations; and he and the Russian envoy had little trouble in framing the outlines of a Near Eastern settlement which provided for coercive action to force Mehemet Ah to give up most of his gains and—once hostilities were terminated—for an international agreement closing both the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to the warships of ah powers. As Palmerston and Brunnov neared agreement, the Austrian and Prussian envoys in London secured the right to participate in the talks and indicated that their governments would support the terms agreed on. At the same time, Palmerston loyally communicated the substance of the conversations to the French ambassador, hoping to secure French collaboration in the projected intervention of the powers.
His wishes in this regard were not, however, satisfied. French public opinion was enthusiastic about Mehemet Ah’s military victories and neither the Soult government nor the Thiers government which succeeded it in March 1840 was willing to antagonise boulevard sentiment by depriving the Egyptian pasha of his gains. Thiers, moreover, refused to believe that the other powers could unite in effective coercive measures against Mehemet, and he was encouraged by Francophil elements in England— some of them close to the cabinet—to believe that England would never abandon France. He therefore resisted all proposals from the Foreign Office.
Conversations between the great powers and debates within the British cabinet continued throughout the first six months of 1840. Palmerston, however, was now determined that, if France would not co-operate, it was important ‘for the interests of England, the preservation of the balance of power and the maintenance of peace in Europe’ that the other powers act without her. If they failed to do so, he argued, Russia might renew the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi; and the result would be ‘the practical division of Turkey into two separate states—one the dependency of France and the other a satellite of Russia, in both of which our political influence will be annulled and our commercial interests sacrificed’. The Foreign Secretary made it clear to his cabinet colleagues that, unless his views were accepted, he would resign, an event which would certainly have precipitated the fall of the Whig government. In the end he had his way and, on 15 July 1840, was able to sign a Quadruple Agreement with the representatives of the eastern powers.
This agreement, which was based on the terms already agreed to by Palmerston and Brunnov, was the decisive turning point in the Near Eastern crisis; and it is unnecessary here to go into details concerning the manner in which the four powers executed it and forced Mehemet Ali to retire to his Egyptian dominions. It should be noted, however, that for three months after the conclusion of the Agreement the peace of Europe hung in the balance, for public opinion in Paris was exasperated by the isolation of France, and there was angry talk of war against England and—rather illogically—of an assault across the Rhine. The situation was aggravated by Thiers’ reluctance to face facts and withdraw from a position which was untenable, by Palmerston’s indifference to the susceptibilities of his former allies and by the sultan’s desire to use the support of the powers to crush Mehemet Ali utterly and to force his deposition. The fall of the Thiers government in October, however, and some skilful diplomacy on the part of Mettemich, which forced the dismissal of the sultan’s more intransigent advisers, alleviated the tension and opened the way for a settlement which returned to the sultan what he had lost in 1833, while leaving Mehemet Ali secure in Egypt.
Before the crisis was completely liquidated there were manoeuvres on the part of single powers which throw some interesting light on the nature of the European alliance system in the first half of the nineteenth century. Late in 1840, for instance, Nicholas I asked the British ambassador whether Great Britain would ‘object to record and establish by some act the alliance which... happily existed between the four Powers to serve as a security against any efforts that France might make to awaken revolutionary feelings in Europe, or against, perhaps, a revolutionary war’. This invitation to formalise the isolation of France by written or verbal agreement was embarrassing; and Palmerston hastened to decline it. This he did in a courteous dispatch in which—while emphasising Britain’s intention of continuing ‘to watch attentively and to guard with care the maintenance of the Balance of Power’, and while stating that ‘an attempt of one nation to appropriate to itself territory which belongs to another nation’ would constitute ‘a derangement of the existing balance’—he explained the constitutional difficulties which prevented the British government from entering into ‘engagements with reference to cases which have not actually arisen’.
It is instructive to note that, while this exchange was taking place, Mettemich was working at cross-purposes with the tsar. The Austrian chancellor had never been entirely happy about the agreement of July 1840, and he seems to have suspected both Palmerston and the tsar of desiring war with France. To prevent that, Mettemich’s biographer has written, ‘he was determined if the worst came to the worst to secede from the concert of July, to draw Prussia with him and to conclude a separate agreement with France’.3 Mettemich was never forced to go that far; but throughout the critical months he used his influence at London and Paris and at Constantinople and Alexandria to promote moderate solutions; and if France was able to find her way back to the concert and to give her assent to the so-called Straits Convention of 13 July 1841 which terminated the long crisis, this was due in large part to the success with which Mettemich, aided by the Prussians, mediated between her and the other powers.
Palmerston’s willingness to turn against France in the Near Eastern crisis of 1839-40 and Mettemich’s policy in the last stages of that crisis reveal how little the ideological differences of the powers were apt to influence their attitudes when issues arose which affected their interests, or the maintenance of peace and the balance of power. It is not too much to say that, by the 1840’s, the division between the ‘liberal powers’ and the ‘reactionary powers’ had broken down completely. Certainly in the years that followed the eastern settlement Britain’s official relations with Russia and France’s official relations with Austria seem on the whole to have been more untroubled than the relations of the western powers with each other. It is true that between 1841 and 1846, when Peel was Prime Minister in England and Lord Aberdeen was at the Foreign Office, every effort was made to restore the entente cordiale with France. But despite the close relations between Aberdeen and Guizot, who was Louis Philippe’s chief minister in these years, the two countries were involved almost continuously in contention. A dispute between British and French missionaries in Tahiti led to bitter exchanges between the London and Paris press in 1842; rivalry between the two countries’ diplomatic representatives in Greece caused relations to deteriorate to a point where the French king complained to the Austrian ambassador in Paris of ‘the unfortunate tendency of the British government at all times to support revolutions and thus disturb the peace of Europe’; and finally, shortly after Palmerston’s return to the Foreign Office in 1846, the entente broke down completely in a wave of British indignation over the marriage of Louis Philippe’s son, the due de Montpensier, to the Spanish Infanta, a marriage which appeared to violate previous French promises and to threaten a French hegemony in the Peninsula.
Fully aware of the political disadvantages of isolation, the French government redoubled its efforts to reach an understanding with Austria. In May 1847 Guizot sent a special agent to Vienna to conduct negotiations with Metternich; and, when this demarche was accepted with cordiality, he followed it up with a letter in which he wrote: ‘France is now disposed and suited to a policy of conservatism. She has long attained her objects and occupied her place A policy of entente is therefore natural to us and founded on the facts.’ Metternich was at this time preoccupied with the upsurge of revolutionary agitation in Germany, in Switzerland and, especially, in Italy (see chs. XIX and XXI); and, although he was never entirely convinced of the genuineness of the French conversion to conservatism, he welcomed a collaboration which might be used to protect the Vienna settlement from the troubles rising against it. Thus, the new entente came into being, although—as events were to prove—too late to have an effect upon the course of European developments.
Meanwhile Anglo-Russian relations had become more friendly than they had been since the days of the alliance against Napoleon. The tsar had not been rebuffed by Palmerston’s answer to his proposals of alliance in 1840 and he persisted in his efforts to secure British friendship. In 1844, indeed, he paid a visit to England, talked with Peel and Aberdeen about the state of Turkey, assured them that he would do everything in his power to maintain the status quo and urged them to consider the necessity of an Anglo-Russian understanding concerning the policy to be followed if that proved to be impossible. Apart from this, he insisted that there was no reason for the hostility which had existed between the two countries in the past. ‘Years ago,’ he said to Peel, ‘Lord Durham was sent to me, a man full of prejudices against me. Merely by contact with me, his prejudices were all driven to the winds. And that is what I hope to bring about with you, and generally in England. I hope to dissipate those prejudices by personal intercourse.’
Professor Seton-Watson has suggested that, if the personal contact established by the tsar during this visit had been maintained, the misunderstandings which led to the Crimean War in 1854 might have been averted. This is a hypothesis which it is, of course, impossible to prove. There can be no doubt, however, that the new rapprochement between Russia and Great Britain was a more effective diplomatic combination than the tentative entente between Austria and France and that it was instrumental in preserving the balance of power and the general peace during the storm that now descended on Europe.
The revolutions of 1848 (ch. xv) were the most serious threat that had yet developed to the treaty structure and the balance of power that had been established in 1815. The paralysis of Austria and Prussia, the sudden transformation of France from a liberal-conservative monarchy to a radical republic, and the awakening of the national aspirations of the peoples of Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Schleswig-Holstein opened a dismal prospect to the two powers on Europe’s periphery, and it is not surprising that they should have felt a common interest in preventing, as far as possible, the chaos and disruption that they feared. Shortly after receiving the news of the revolutions in Vienna and Berlin, Nicholas was writing to Queen Victoria and arguing that only the ‘intimate union’ of Russia and Britain could ‘save the world’; and, in answer to a similar communication from Nesselrode, Palmerston wrote on 11 April 1848 to his ambassador: ‘Assure Count Nesselrode that our feelings and sentiments towards Russia are exactly similar to those which he expresses to you towards England. We are at present the only two Powers in Europe (excepting always Belgium) that remain standing upright, and we ought to look with confidence to each other.’
It would perhaps be an exaggeration to speak in terms of Anglo-Russian co-operation during the revolutionary disturbances, for the two powers went their separate ways and were not always in complete harmony. But their objectives were similar; each desired to prevent the local disturbances from precipitating a general war which would upset the careful arrangements of 1815 and destroy the balance of power; and each was careful not to interfere with the methods used by the other to accomplish this end.
British policy, once more under the capable direction of Palmerston, was in the first instance inspired by the desire to restrain ambitious designs on the part of the new republican government in France. It is true that the Foreign Minister of that government, the poet Lamartine, had, as early as 27 February, declared that ‘the republican form of government had neither changed the position of France in Europe, nor its loyal and sincere intentions of preserving friendly relations with the powers that wish, as she does, the independence of nations and the peace of the world’. But on 4 March, in a long ‘Manifesto to the Powers’, he announced that ‘the Treaties of 1815 legally no longer exist in the eyes of the French Republic’, although he added in the same breath that ‘their territorial clauses are a fact admitted by her as basis and starting point in relations with other nations’ and, furthermore, that ‘the French Republic will not start war against anyone’.
Palmerston recognised in this curious effusion a desire to appease boulevard sentiment without committing France to dangerous adventures. The policy which he adopted—and which was in fact outlined before the ‘Manifesto to the Powers’—was similar to that adopted in 1830: he would restrain Europe from attacking France provided France refrained from attacking Europe. The revolutions in Vienna and Berlin in March removed any possibility of a campaign against the new republic; but the attitude of friendship assumed from the outset by the British was not without effect in persuading the French government to exercise caution and moderation in the months that followed.
This was all the more important since there were other forces at work which sought to persuade the republic to participate in a general attack upon the status quo. The revolution of 18 March in Berlin, for instance, led certain German liberals, including Max von Gagem and the new Prussian Foreign Minister, Heinrich von Amim, to conceive an elaborate plan whereby Prussia would take advantage of the rising of the Poles in Posen to liberate all of Poland, deliberately challenging Russia to a war and, in the enthusiasm which such a conflict would arouse, forging a new united Germany under Prussian leadership. The supporters of this project believed that Great Britain would preserve a benevolent neutrality while their designs were carried out; but they desired the aid and collaboration of France. Accordingly, on 23 March, Amim invited the French government to join in a public declaration of alliance, the object of which would be to reconstruct Poland, and he asked further that France send a naval squadron into the Baltic whenever Prussia should consider it necessary.
This scheme—which is interesting primarily as an illustration of the dangerous possibilities inherent in the European situation at the time— came to nothing, in large part because of the restraint exercised by the tsar, who was careful to make no move which might give support to the German war party, and by the French government, which decided not to commit its fortunes to a Prussian government whose stability it distrusted. But the attitude of both Russia and France was probably influenced by the determined intervention of Palmerston in this affair. On 30 March Stratford Canning, passing through Berlin, had talked with Frederick William IV and with his new Foreign Minister; and the king had urged him to dissuade Arnim from plans which would certainly involve Prussia in war with Russia. Canning reported this to London, and Palmerston immediately despatched a stem warning to Berlin, urging the Prussian government ‘to abstain from any proceeding which could justly be considered by Russia as aggressive’. The tone of this despatch destroyed Amim’s illusions concerning Britain’s benevolence towards his plans; and it seems also to have encouraged the king—who had until now been so cowed by the victory of revolution that the tsar had contemptuously labelled him ‘the king of the streets’—to take a firmer line with his ministers. By May, Frederick William was threatening to abdicate if any anti-Russian policy was adopted, and the Amim scheme was dead.
A much more serious threat to the peace had meanwhile arisen in Italy, where, encouraged by the collapse of the Mettemich regime, the populations of Lombardy and Venetia had risen in revolt and were being supported by the king of Sardinia, who aspired to be the liberator of Italy from Austrian domination. Here again Palmerston intervened as peacemaker, although his policy was less obviously successful and was never fully understood either by his sovereign or by his own party. Initially, his objective was to persuade the Austrian government to give up her Italian provinces, not because he had any enthusiasm for Italian unity, or because he wished to weaken the Austrian empire—indeed, he always maintained that a strong Austria was indispensable to the balance of power and the ‘political independence and liberties of Europe’—but rather because he was sure that Austria could not put down the disaffection in Italy and that an attempt to do so would invite French intervention and lead to war. In May and June the Austrian government was willing at least to discuss the possibility of freeing Lombardy, but the intransigence of the provisional government at Milan blocked any agreement; and, in July, the Austrian victory at Custoza and the forced evacuation of Lombardy by Piedmontese troops changed the situation radically. For both the Milanese government and that of Piedmont now began to consider a direct appeal for armed intervention by France—an event which would undoubtedly precipitate a general war.
The French government was not anxious to go to war, but, as General Cavaignac admitted, ‘if there came a popular appeal for assistance from the Italian people... no government established here would long be able to resist the demand’. It was necessary, therefore, to find some substitute form of action which would be acceptable to French public opinion and which would make intervention unnecessary. This was now supplied by Palmerston who proposed joint Anglo-French mediation between Austria and Piedmont on the basis of a previous Austrian suggestion that Lombardy might be joined to Piedmont. The French government grasped this suggestion eagerly, and the crisis passed. Palmerston’s association with France was later described by his sovereign as ‘a most iniquitous proceeding’, but it is clear that ‘he had provided the French government with the only possible excuse for not going to war’, and there is much justification in his own boast in the House of Commons that the mediation had ‘contributed to the maintenance of peace in Europe’.
Apart from this, the joint mediation cannot be described as successful, for the Austrian government, now under the energetic leadership of Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, refused to make any concessions whatever and insisted not only on holding Lombardy but on instituting the most brutal of repressive measures in the rebellious province. In the circumstances, there was little that Palmerston could do but maintain his close association with France and hope that the disorders in Italy would come to an end as quickly as possible. Tension mounted once more in the spring of 1849, when the king of Piedmont was so misguided as to reopen his war with Austria and so unfortunate as to suffer another disastrous defeat at Novara. It was clear now that, if Austria imposed unreasonable terms upon the defeated sovereign, French intervention might yet become a possibility, despite the apparently pacific intentions of the new French president, Louis Napoleon. Palmerston, therefore, redoubled his efforts to make the Austrians see reason; and, since his personal relations with Schwarzenberg made objective discussion impossible, he instructed his ambassador in Paris to approach Baron Hubner, the Austrian leader’s confidential agent, and to convince him that Britain’s only desire was to see ‘Italy pacified as soon as possible’. This and the increasing activity of French agents in Italy helped to convince Schwarzenberg that it would be wise not to humiliate Piedmont needlessly; and peace was finally signed at Milan in August 1849, ending the dangerous situation and restoring in Italy the territorial arrangements of 1815.
Throughout this affair Palmerston had acted with a studied disregard for Italian national aspirations; and his guiding motive had always been defence of the balance of power. This determined his attitude also in the face of events taking place in eastern Europe, and especially in Hungary, where the revolutionary government of Kossuth was attempting to assert its independence of Vienna. Whatever his private sympathies may have been for the rebels, Palmerston could not approve of a revolt which, if successful, would weaken Austria as the bulwark of order in central Europe, and he rejected all advances from Kossuth’s representatives with the argument that he had ‘no knowledge of Hungary except as one of the component parts of the Austrian Empire’. The decisive role in restoring Hungary to order was played by the Russian government, which sent troops to the aid of Francis Joseph’s armies. It is important to note, however—especially in view of Palmerston’s spirited protests against Austrian persecution of the rebels once their cause was broken—that the British Foreign Secretary not only raised no objections to the original Russian intervention but actually encouraged it. In April 1849, indeed, he was telling the Russian ambassador in London that Russia must act in aid of Austria, but must then ‘finish as quickly as possible’, advice which Baron Brunnov correctly interpreted to mean that the British Foreign Secretary desired Russia to assume responsibility for maintaining the balance of power in eastern Europe.
That Russia was fully prepared to do this is shown, not only by her role in the Hungarian revolt, but also by the policy she observed in German affairs in 1849 and 1850. Here the careful balance arranged in 1815, whereby the bulk of the German states were loosely organised in such a way as to serve as a buffer between the contiguous territories of the great powers, had been overthrown by the events of March 1848; and the assembly of liberal politicians at Frankfurt had striven manfully through the rest of that year to create a unified German empire out of the ruins of the old Germanic confederation. Their experiment had failed, because of the rapid recovery of Austria and Prussia and because of the Prussian king’s scornful refusal, in April 1849, to accept the imperial crown which the Frankfurt Parliament had offered him (see ch. XV, p. 407). These events had reassured the tsar, who had no desire to see a united Germany on his western flank; but almost immediately he had cause for greater concern. For, on the basis of a plan conceived by Josef Maria von Radowitz, Frederick William IV attempted in 1849 to unite the German princes in a league under his leadership, a league, moreover, which would exclude Austria from membership, while seeking friendly relations with her. The Austrian government, not unnaturally, objected to this project; throughout 1849, while it was still preoccupied with events in Italy and Hungary, it did everything in its power to sabotage Prussian negotiations with the other princes; and in 1850, Schwarzenberg, whose Gewaltnatur—as Friedjung has written—‘drove him to decisions by force’, bluntly confronted Prussia with a choice between abandonment of the project or war.
The year 1850 was one of growing crisis between the two German great powers, and by late summer war seemed quite possible, for neither Schwarzenberg nor Radowitz was in a mood to back down. At this juncture in what was probably the most serious of the war threats produced by the revolutions of 1848, Russia intervened. In June the tsar warned Frederick William that changes in European treaties that were made without the approval of the co-signatories must be considered as acts of aggression; and, after this almost classic definition of the balance-of-power philosophy, he threw his weight behind the Austrian objections. Whether the tsar’s forces were capable of intervening effectively in an Austro-Prussian war is a doubtful question; but there is no doubt that the tsar’s stand was decisive. It gave the reactionary court party in Berlin additional arguments with which to convince the king to jettison Radowitz and his plan; and, at Olmutz in November 1850, Prussia capitulated to Austrian demands and allowed the German settlement of 1815 to be restored.
In the solution of this question Great Britain played no part. In the last troublesome international complication to arise from the revolutions, however, the British government took the lead, with the tacit approval of Russia, in promoting a settlement designed to leave the balance of power undisturbed. This was the protracted dispute caused by the revolt of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein against the Danish crown and by the subsequent intervention of Prussian and German Federal troops in their behalf. As early as June 1848 Nesselrode and Palmerston agreed that they had no desire to see the balance of forces in the Baltic disturbed by a German victory; and, although it meant opposing liberal sentiment in Germany and the duchies, Palmerston undertook the difficult task of mediation, as the best means of avoiding the possibility of a Russo-Prussian war. Two years of incessant negotiation, with three spells of fighting and three armistices, had passed before the Prussian king was persuaded to sign a treaty which, in accordance with British and Russian desires, restored the status quo; and even when that result had been achieved the British and Russian governments felt it advisable to seek a definitive settlement of the status of the duchies in a Five Power Conference which met in London in 1851 and 1852.
That conference is not without significance, for it was the last successful meeting of the Concert of Europe in the long period of peace which had begun in 1815. Only two years after it had completed its labours, war came at last between the great powers, and, when it came, forces were released which eventually destroyed that balance of power which had been so jealously guarded by Russia and Great Britain during the revolutionary years.
In view of the number and the nature of the crises which filled the years from 1830 to 1854, it may seem surprising that this was a period of continual peace. It has been suggested above that this was partly due to the very nature of the system of diplomatic alignments, to that fluidity which enabled single powers to shift their position and their influence at crucial moments when war threatened. Yet the more one contemplates the changing combinations of the period, the more one is apt to be impressed by other factors which made this fluidity possible, and indeed necessary. The truth of the matter seems to be that, despite the deep ideological divisions of the powers, there was a remarkable consensus of opinion among them.
With the exception of France, who seldom dared admit her uniqueness, all powers accepted the balance of power: that is to say, they accepted the territorial arrangements laid down at Vienna in 1815 and they agreed with the broader principle that no state should obtain aggrandisement without the consent of the others. Acceptance of the balance, moreover, implied certain other things. It implied a high degree of restraint on the part of single powers; it implied a respect for existing treaties; and it implied a willingness—in moments when members of the system were led by ambition or indiscretion to seek unilateral aggrandisement—to participate in concerted action to restrain them.
In their dealings with each other in the pre-Crimean period, the great powers observed these rules of behaviour. There can be little doubt that open support of the Polish rebels in 1830 or of the kingdom of Piedmont in 1848 would have been accepted with enthusiasm by liberal opinion in France and England; but the governments of the two countries preferred to refrain from policies which might have embroiled the whole European system. It is possible that the tsar could, without serious opposition from the other powers, have exacted a higher price for his aid to Turkey in 1833, but Nicholas always shrank back from anything that could be regarded as unilateral aggrandisement and, if he thought of the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, he always did so in terms of equitable partition among the powers, based on prior agreement among them. Throughout this period, also, treaties were accorded a degree of respect which they have not enjoyed in more recent years; and the most striking feature of the dispute over the occupation of the Republic of Cracow by Austria in 1846 is the surprised indignation with which this action was greeted by European opinion in general and the frantic efforts made by Mettemich to compose legal arguments with which to justify it.
Finally, there was a general willingness on the part of the powers to participate in efforts to maintain peace and the balance of power. This is especially notable in the case of Great Britain, whose geographical position and world-wide interests made her connection with the European system more tenuous than that of the continental states and who had, in the 1820’s, seceded from the conference system established in 1814 and 1815. Yet, even at the moment of that secession, Castlereagh had expressed Britain’s readiness to play her part in European affairs when the balance of power was threatened; and this promise was reiterated, and acted upon, continually in the years 1830-54. The essential nature of Great Britain’s tie with the continental system was clearly recognized in Palmerston’s note to the tsar in January 1841; and it was defined again in 1852 by Lord John Russell when he said in the House of Commons:
We are connected, and have been for more than a century, with the general system of Europe, and any territorial increase of one Power, any aggrandisement which disturbs the general balance of power in Europe, although it might not immediately lead to war, could not be a matter of indifference to this country and would, no doubt, be the subject of conference, and might ultimately, if that balance was seriously threatened, lead to war.
National self-restraint, respect for the public law as defined in treaties, and willingness to enforce its observance by concerted action were, then, the conditions which made possible the maintenance of peace and the balance of power in the period 1830-54. The most notable thing about the Crimean War which broke out in 1854 was that it destroyed those conditions.
The origins and the course of the Crimean War are discussed elsewhere in this volume (ch. XVIII) and may be passed over here. Yet it is important to note that that curious conflict marks a significant turning point in European history. Behind it lay forty years of peace; before it stretched fifteen years in which four wars were fought by the great powers of Europe, with the result that the territorial arrangements of the Continent were completely transformed.
That this was true was due primarily to the fact that the Crimean War destroyed the old consensus that had existed between the powers and radically changed their attitude toward the existing distribution of forces on the Continent. As an American historian has written, ‘there remained in 1857 no great political force irretrievably committed to the preservation of things as they then stood’. In the case of France, the war had released her ruler from the inhibitions from which he had suffered, or the restraints which he had observed, in his early years of power. In 1853 Napoleon III had referred to himself as ‘a man carried by the force of a new principle to the exalted level of the old dynasties’. The new principle was that of the plebiscite but beyond this was the principle of nationalities; and, when his victories in the east had confirmed his popularity and his power, Napoleon became increasingly intent upon securing a general rearrangement of the map upon national lines. In the case of Austria, whose very existence was bound up with the maintenance of the 1815 settlement, new and dangerous tendencies were also apparent. Conscious of the universal indignation and distrust which Austrian diplomacy during the war had inspired in the other courts, and perhaps fearing reprisals, the Austrian government increased its efforts to consolidate its position and influence in Germany, using methods which were in complete violation of the practices of collaboration with Prussia which had been honoured since 1815 and undermining the foundations of the federal system which it had been at such pains to restore in 1850. And Prussia, too, was left feeling insecure at the end of the war and, because insecure, more inclined to consider the advantages of an adventurous foreign policy. This feeling was encouraged by the reluctance with which the other powers had invited Prussian participation in the peace conference at Paris in 1856, a reluctance which seemed to reflect doubts concerning Prussia’s right to be considered a great power; it was encouraged by Austrian tactics in the German confederation; and it was encouraged most of all by a growing disinclination on the part of the liberal opposition in Prussia to support an army unless that army were employed to solve the German question. Not until 1862 did the leader appear who was to transform Prussia from an upholder to an opponent of the old balance of power, but the forces which were to determine Bismarck’s policy were already at work and, even in 1856, he was writing: ‘In the not too distant future, we shall have to fight for our existence against Austria and.. .it is not within our power to avoid that, since the course of events in Germany has no other solution.’
But the most striking effect of the Crimean War in changing the attitude of the powers towards the existing order is to be seen in the case of the two powers who had been the staunchest defenders of the balance of power and who, indeed, when the revolutions of 1848 had prostrated Europe, had maintained it by their joint efforts. The damage inflicted by the war in Russia and the grave need for internal reforms in the Russian empire convinced statesmen in St Petersburg that the active foreign policy of the past must, at least temporarily, be discontinued. Nesselrode, now at the end of his long career, admitted this when he spoke of ‘the almost absolute necessity of devoting ourselves to domestic matters and the development of our moral and material resources’. This in itself was a significant change, for under Nicholas I Russia had been the strong support of the existing treaty structure, and she had, moreover, by her close association with Austria and Prussia, prevented the German dualism from degenerating into open antagonism and war. The projected change in Russian policy, then, clearly threatened to weaken the cause of European order.
The Russian government, however, was now less willing to support that order. Humiliated by her defeat in the war and, even more, by the loss of Bessarabia and of her rights upon the Black Sea, Russia had in fact become a revisionist power; and for the next fifteen years the new emperor, Alexander II, had only one objective in foreign policy: to free his country from the shameful conditions imposed by the Peace of Paris in 1856. The weakness of the country and the pressure of internal events made any immediate attempt to achieve this end impossible—Russia’s policy was perforce that described in 1856 by Nesselrode’s successor, Gorchakov, in the words: ‘Russia is not sulking; she is silently biding her time’—but the objective was not lost to view. Indeed, it produced a new strain of opportunism in Russian policy, for Russian statesmen were willing now to consider agreements with other revisionist powers, who promised to support Russia’s Black Sea claims if she would not interfere with their designs elsewhere.
The existing balance of power and the public law of Europe were jeopardised also by a growing tendency on the part of Great Britain to withdraw from continental troubles. For the English people the Crimean War had been a frustrating and inconclusive conflict which had brought little glory to British arms. In the period that followed there was a general desire to avoid risks that might lead to a new conflict. This did not mean, immediately, that Britain would abstain from intervention in continental disputes. Indeed, it was generally believed that her position as a great power implied a moral obligation to make her opinion known in European affairs. As Tennyson had written:
As long as we remain we must speak free
Though all the storm of Europe o’er us break.
No little German state are we
But the one voice of Europe; we must speak.
Unfortunately, it proved difficult to base an effective foreign policy upon a desire to avoid risks and an insistence upon the right to preach to Europe; firmness of purpose was hard to maintain when ‘conscience and reason [were] at internal war’; and Europe was soon diverted by the spectacle of British statesmen taking determined, and even belligerent, positions in diplomatic crises and then retreating precipitately and awkwardly when serious resistance developed. This was especially notable during the Polish revolt of 1863 and the German attack upon Denmark in 1864 (see ch. XIX, p. 515), and Britain’s policy of ‘menaces never accomplished and promises never fulfilled’ in those crises weakened both her reputation and her influence.
This was clearly realised in England itself and, in 1864 in a notable debate in the House of Commons, representatives of all parties joined in attacking the principles which had animated Palmerston’s diplomacy since 1830. While the Radicals, led by Richard Cobden, urged that the time had come to apply the philosophy of laissez-faire to foreign policy, the Tories argued that Britain’s national interest lay overseas rather than in Europe and that the theory of the balance of power was ‘founded on the obsolete traditions of an antiquated system’.
There was general agreement at the end of this debate that Britain must base her policy exclusively on the principle of non-intervention, and this, indeed, became the shibboleth of all ministries between 1865 and 1870. But this was not the non-intervention enunciated by Castlereagh and practised by Canning and Palmerston, in accordance with which Britain would refrain from intervening in the domestic concerns of other nations but would always reserve the right of freedom of action if other powers refused to obey the same rule. Non-intervention as practised in the years 1865-70 was interpreted to mean almost complete abstention from continental affairs, and this at a time when attacks on the old territorial balance were becoming frequent occurrences. ‘There was a time when they interfered with everything’, a French observer wrote, ‘and they have finished by not wishing to interfere with anything.’ The statement is accurate. Not only did Britain play a negligible role in European affairs in these years, but, as if to give legal expression to her new isolation, the House of Commons, in March 1868, deleted from the Mutiny Bill that traditional phrase which stated, as one of the reasons for the existence of a British army, the necessity of preserving the balance of power of Europe.
The new fears, resentments and hesitations of the powers in the post-Crimean years produced an atmosphere admirably suited to the new breed of statesmen who appeared now on the European stage—the Gorchakovs, Cavours and Bismarcks who, unlike their predecessors, had no personal connection with the Vienna settlement and were completely unresponsive to the ideals associated with it, who were proud of their ‘realism’ and lack of sentimentality, and who found it easy to justify breaches of law by appeals to the natural egoism of states. This is not the place to follow in any detail the steps by which they carried out their designs, but it is at least worth noting that, in their hands, diplomacy became an instrument, not for the preservation of peace, but for the promotion of war. There is no better way of illustrating this than by considering the character and purpose of the alliances they concluded.
In the years before 1854, alliances and diplomatic alignments were generally defensive, and were concluded to protect the partners from the threat of such things as revolution or an attempt by another power or group of powers to extend its influence in such a way as to disrupt the balance of power. The Anglo-French entente in 1830, the association of the three eastern courts, the Quadruple Alliance of 1834, Britain’s association with the eastern powers in 1840 and even the ‘permanent’ Quadruple Alliance proposed by Nicholas I in 1840 were combinations of this nature.
In the period after 1856, however, alliances and diplomatic ‘understandings’ were generally concluded for an aggressive purpose, either to secure the collaboration of the partners in a projected war against a third party or to facilitate the designs of one of the partners by assuring him of the benevolent neutrality of the other. The Pact of Plombieres, concluded between Cavour and Napoleon III in 1858, is perhaps the best example of this new type of alliance, and the nature of the compact is best described in Cavour’s own words:
The Emperor began by saying that he had decided to support Sardinia with all his forces in a war against Austria provided the war should be undertaken for a nonrevolutionary cause, and could be justified in the eyes of diplomacy, and even more in the eyes of the public opinion of France and Europe.
The search for this cause presented the principal difficulty The Emperor came to my aid and we put our heads together and went through the whole map of Italy looking for this cause of war which was so difficult to find. After having traversed without success the whole Peninsula we arrived almost with certitude at Massa and Carrara and found what we had sought with such ardour.
Plombieres was perhaps the first deliberate war-plot in the nineteenth century, but it was by no means an isolated case. A secret treaty of March 1859, concluded between France and Russia, provided for Russian neutrality in the event of a French war against Austria and for Russian troop movements to divert Austrian forces, while France in return promised her assistance in efforts to revise the treaty of 1856. And there was no essential difference between the Plombieres pact and the famous Italo-Prussian alliance of 8 April 1866, for not only was the latter agreement predicated on the assumption of war but it contained a provision for the invalidation of the treaty if war had not begun within three months of the exchange of signatures.
The designs of the realists and the operation of their alliances might, of course, have been frustrated if the Concert of Europe had remained an effective instrument and had been able to record successes similar to those of 1830, 1841 and 1852. But, although attempts were made, in the great crises which occurred after 1856, to summon the concert, there were few meetings of the five powers and only one—the conference on the Luxemburg dispute of 1867—that succeeded in averting a war. In general, the statesmen of the period seemed to lack the ability, or the will, to collaborate. An international congress might have prevented the war of 1859 but failed to meet because of British suspicion of Russian and French motives and Austria’s refusal to participate if the kingdom of Sardinia were permitted to attend. A conference of the powers did meet in 1864 to try to restore peace between Denmark and the German powers, but it failed utterly in its purpose, and Disraeli was, on the whole, justified in saying of it: ‘It lasted as long as a Carnival and, like a Carnival, it was an affair of masks and mystification. Our Ministers went to it as men in distressed circumstances go to a place of amusement—to while away the time, with a consciousness of impending failure.’
Britain’s growing isolation after 1865 further weakened the possibility of collaborative action in the interests of peace, because it became increasingly clear that she was unwilling to accept the kind of responsibility and assume the kind of commitments which would restrain the continental realists. When the German powers were approaching war in 1866, Lord Clarendon resisted suggestions of British mediation, pointing out that ‘neither English honour nor English interests are involved’, and the failure of a conference to meet before the conflict broke out was probably due in part to the pains Clarendon took to convince the chancelleries of Europe that Britain could not undertake to enforce the decisions of any conference by military means. Even in the case of the Luxemburg conference, the British government was most reluctant to participate; and, when the Grand Duchy had been placed under the collective guarantee of the great powers, and the conference had completed its labours, the European courts were disagreeably surprised to learn that Britain would not attempt to enforce the guarantee if it were violated by another signatory power. This seemed to make a mockery of the public law; and, in the face of this attitude on the part of a power which in the years 1830-54 had been the strongest advocate of concerted action, it is not surprising that the Concert of Europe was an ineffective instrument in the post-Crimean period, and that, having failed to avert wars, its sanction was not even sought to legitimise the territorial changes effected by them.
The failure of the concert was, of course, merely the reflection of the disappearance of that consensus to which reference has been made above. After 1856 there were more powers willing to fight to overthrow the existing order than there were to take arms to defend it. That fact alone made inevitable the destruction of the balance of power which had been contrived so painfully at Vienna and maintained with such care for almost half a century.