When Klemens Von Metternich, 19th century Austrian diplomat extraordinaire, thought about European stability, he walked a tightrope between the Tsar’s goals with those of Napoleon. He had Austria serve as an “impartial mediator” in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and at the same time promising to throw Austria’s weight against Napoleon. This pretense of neutrality was maintained until 1813 when Napoleon was increasingly pressed by his adversaries.
At the Congress of Vienna, Metternich balanced Russian, French, Polish and Austrian and even emerging German interests. It was an artful effort that his admirers contend inspired a century of relative peace. Henry Kissinger, who wrote about and studied Metternich’s diplomacy, applied the Metternichian strategy with the outreach to China during the Cold War a gesture that, some argue, led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
By any measure, the United States is the globe’s most powerful nation, but many international trouble spots and a mature economy that cannot sustain America’s traditional role since World War II, have altered global perspectives. Hence an examination of American foreign policy based on Metternichian principles may prove to be a useful exercise.
In three separate theaters, balance of power notions have contemporary applications: The Far East, Europe and the Middle East.
China’s attempt to dominate the South China Sea has alarmed its neighbors. However, the fevered concern might well translate into a genuine Asian defense pact that pools military and logistical efforts as a counter-weight to Chinese ambitions and possible aggression. This pact would require diplomatic skill worthy of a Metternich, but it is plausible and could establish a tentative balance in the Pacific basin and the China Sea.
Similarly, Sunni nations that fear Shia ambitions and an imperial Iran could unite under the flag of a Red Sea Treaty alliance, a congress devoted to defense and regional stability. In fact, the Arab League might serve as the catalyst for this defense condominium.
Since the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940’s, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was the bulwark against Soviet aggression. While NATO still exists, its influence has been tested by Putin’s actions in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. NATO has not been defanged, but it must be rebuilt and reorganized based on a contemporary threat assessment. Several European states are compromised because they rely heavily on Russian natural gas; nonetheless, there is a pervasive fear of Finlandization – a condition that might support mobilization decisions.
Admittedly these are fragile reeds on which to build a foundation for global equilibrium. Yet in the absence of an American policeman, these alliances may represent the best hope for the future. Without a balance, either dominance or anarchy is likely. Equilibrium, or Metternichian desideratum, does not emerge spontaneously. American diplomacy would be helpful, if only a strategic global vision would emerge.
History does not repeat itself – to cite a cliché. However, there are profound lessons in the past. There isn’t an American Metternich and the Congress of Vienna does not resemble the United Nations. But could a balance of power scenario based on regional concerns usher in an era of relative stability? Offsetting aggression requires resistance in the form of defense organizations. Many states are poised for the challenge since the tides of historical force cannot be ignored.
Organizational management, the spur to unite, may rest with the United States, even if America does not lead these coalitions. Fear may be the motivation for unity as it was in the 19th century. The shadow of the Congress of Vienna could be the penumbra for contemporary diplomacy. But is there a will and is there a way?