Sunday, December 27, 2009

Diplomatic Complexities at Vienna

The months of negotiations between scores of diplomats representing dozens of nations at the Congress of Vienna are among the most intricate international conferences ever. Trying to form a new working relationship among the countries of Europe in the wake of the twenty-five years of chaos and bloodshed caused first by the French Revolution, and then by Napoleon, was a very challenging task. Many different issues were involved, from taxes to water rights, from agriculture to military strength. Metternich had the idea of holding this congress once peace was very probable:

Napoleon had finally been defeated and forced to abdicate on April 11, 1814, by the combined might of a Quadruple Alliance of Russia, Prussia, Britain, and Austria, with the help, finally, of most of the lesser European powers. His empire, which had at one time encompassed most of Europe, had collapsed in a rush that left physical destruction and enormous political turmoil in its wake. The political disarray was a matter not only of order among states but also of internal order within states. The French were without a ruler, until the coalition of powers who had brought down Napoleon restored the brother of Louis XVI to the French throne: Louis XVIII.

Not only France needed to re-constitute its internal government, but also a number of other nations, which had been overrun by Napoleon, and had lost their internal structure. Historian Charles Mee continues:

The aristocrats - the monarchs, the princes, and the plenipotentiaries who still held their positions after the defeat of Napoleon, or resumed them - were frightened of what the revolution had loosed. They were intent upon restoring not only order among nations but among classes. They mean to restore a concerted and collaborative aristocracy to the rule of Europe.

The treaty that ended the war included Article 22 that called for a congress to be held in Vienna, beginning October 1, 1814, to engage in a general settlement of European affairs.

These negotiations would be delicate and complex:

Since none of the powers was strong enough to impose its will on the others, the situation was ideal for the practice of diplomacy - in which the success of each negotiator would be contingent upon, among other things, the position, strength, will, perceptiveness, persuasiveness, dexterity, and deviousness of all. This was the ground for personal diplomacy that diplomats relish.

These discussions would not be a matter of straightforward simple logic and calculation, but neither would they be inflamed by passion and emotion. The formative idea for much of the congress would be the concept of balancing power among the countries of Europe. Even this would not be a simple mathematical exercise, because Metternich saw that the

idea of equilibrium was too mechanical, too focused on a balance of the external relations among nations. Metternich believed a balance of power must exist not only externally among nations but also internally among factions and classes. The external and internal equilibria buttressed each other; they could not be separated without threatening the survival of the whole society.

He believed, too, that the only acceptable outcome for the congress would be a "legitimate" settlement. By legitimate, however, Metternich meant ... a settlement in which all the powers felt they had a vested interest, and so would commit themselves to maintain the settlement out of conviction, not force. Legitimacy was what the powers would agree was legitimate.

The complexity of these situations meant that sometimes, a diplomat would need to conceal his own intentions and goals, and make it seem as if others were forcing him to do what he secretly wanted to do. The future of the kingdom of Saxony was on the table: should it remain independent, or be absorbed into other nations?

The complexities involved in these calculations can only barely be suggested. The diplomats worked with hundreds of dependent variables that changed from day to day, all of them contingent upon all the others.

At the same time, the delegates had to struggle, as Metternich understood so well, with the calculations of domestic politics. While Metternich might be prepared to sacrifice Saxony, he would have to do it with extreme care, and without anyone crying out, since his biggest political antagonists in Austria were opposed to sacrificing Saxony and might defeat his entire policy if he were to expose this one element of it prematurely.

With patience (the talks went on for months), it worked:

Finally, on October 22, Metternich allowed himself to be persuaded to agree to Prussia's possession of Saxony, but only in the event that the united front against Russia was successful.

Metternich thereby obtained Prussia's help in putting pressure on Russia. The frustratingly slow pace of the negotiations quickened, when it was learned that Napoleon was attempting to make a comeback.

Despite Napoleon's best efforts to insinuate his representatives into the negotiations at Vienna, and to divide and confuse the powers there, in fact his reappearance caused the diplomats in Vienna to unite. And just two weeks after Napoleon arrived in Paris, the duke of Wellington was in Brussels to take command of a new allied army there.

The nations were rallied to the cause of defeating Napoleon, and quickly agreed to combine their military forces. Napoleon's attempted comeback ended quickly. Re-energized and encouraged, the congress resolved many diplomatic debates quickly.

Even the tertiary issues were now promptly settled. A Swiss confederation of twenty-two cantons was formed; its neutrality, and the inviolability of its territory, was guaranteed.

The arrangements formulated in Vienna would shape Europe for the next century. Until World War One, these treaties would keep Europe largely peaceful.

What had been achieved? The Congress of Vienna confirmed the leaders of Europe in the belief that no one power could be allowed to dominate the Continent and that all powers, certainly all the major powers, must work together to preserve the peace and the status quo - seeing themselves as contingent parts of a larger balance of powers on the continent.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Hun and the Pope

In the late 440's and early 450's, Attila expanded his empire into Europe, taking over regions as far north as Denmark, as far south as Italy and Greece, and as far east as portions of Gaul. The western Roman empire, now politically distinct from the eastern, was already in decline, and ill-equipped to defend itself. Christianity had been legal for over a century, but large segments of the population clung to old polytheistic religions. Some of them blamed Christianity for weakening the empire, claiming that the presence of Christians angered the old Roman gods, and that these gods would no longer keep the empire strong. As Attila and his army progressed southward along the Italian peninsula, most of Europe wondered whether the city of Rome itself would be destroyed. In this atmosphere, a leading Christian was bold enough to schedule a meeting with the Hun king. Historian Charles L. Mee gives us the details:

When Leo the Great, the bishop of Rome, rode out of the Eternal City in the year A.D. 452 to meet Attila the Hun, Leo had no arms, no army, no armor, no bodyguards, no great retinue of ambassadors and advisers, advance men and area specialists, no makeup men and publicists, no claque of courtiers, flatterers, or other hangers-on. He went out with only a few fellow churchmen riding alongside him and a couple of lesser officials of the enfeebled and fading Roman Empire.

Attila, the man Leo went to meet, came to the encounter at the head of a large, well-armed, infamously rapacious, battle-hardened army of Huns on horseback: more than three hundred thousand of them according to some sources, men who had a reputation - at the time, if not among recent, more skeptical scholars, who regard him at a comfortable distance - for roasting pregnant women, cutting out the fetus, putting it in a dish, pour water over it, dipping their weapons into the potion, eating the flesh of children, and drinking the blood of women. They supported themselves, as they rode through the countryside, with pillage and extortion. They ate horse-meat and drank vast amounts of wine. Even the Goths were terrified, according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, when the Hunnish cavalry swept into battle, with dazzling speed, howling and yelling, and dashing in all directions at once.

While some modern historians doubt the reports of this savage behavior, others are inclined to accept it, given similar atrocities committed in wars of the 1600's, or even by revolutionaries in the twentieth century.

The Huns, said Ammianus, were "almost glued to their horses," which was part of the secret of their success in war. And if Attila followed his usual custom, he did not dismount when he met the pope, but instead stayed on his horse, one leg thrown casually over the horse's neck, surrounded by mounted companions, ready to turn and scatter at any moment.

The two men met because Attila and his followers, having plundered the northern Italian peninsula, were on their way south, with the apparent intention of sacking the city of Rome. Leo's task was to persuade Attila not to move on down the peninsula and plunder and burn the center of Western civilization.

Sadly, we have no exact records of the discussion between Leo and Attila. Leo, speaking from a position of very little power, had to think of something to say to Attila to make the Hun king hesitate. What would make the Huns turn away from attacking Rome?

What seems most likely, astonishing as it may be, is that Leo told Attila the truth. The truth was that there was a plague raging in Rome, and that if Attila brought his soldiers there by might die of the plague. Such a warning would have struck Attila with considerable force: Alaric had died of the plague after he sacked Rome.

Alaric, king of the Visigoths, had pillaged Rome in 410 A.D., alarming Roman society. Augustine had written his famous book in response to those who said that the Roman gods had caused the Visigoths to attack Rome; the gods were allegedly angry that the Romans were allowing Christians to exist in the city, and pagans were demanding a return to the mass execution of Christians. Augustine had argued that the Visigoths would have attacked Rome regardless of the religion of the city's inhabitants. In any case, Alaric had indeed been killed by the disease shortly after conquering the city, a fact which was well-known to Attila.

To be sure, it may be that Attila had already heard of the plague from others, of as some historians have said, that his army had already been struck by the plague, and his forces were growing weaker moment by moment - and that all Leo did was to add the finishing touch.

Riding with Leo were Avienus and Trigetius, two Roman officials. Why didn't they carry out this diplomatic errand? Why bring along the leader of a religious group, a religious group viewed somewhat suspiciously by many Romans? Why not only bring him along, but why put him in charge of this task? Why not let Roman officials speak for the Roman government? Leo wasn't part of the Roman government, but he was known for his integrity. Leo was honest, and when all of Rome was terrified, concerned about whether the entire city might be destroyed, they trusted Leo. Even those who wanted the Christians executed were willing to put the fate of their nation in the hands of a Christian, because they knew that Leo's reputation for honesty would cause Attila to listen.

But why was it necessary for Leo to make this long trip just to tell Attila what Attila might already have heard from others, or Avienus or Trigetius could quite as easily have said? Perhaps because Leo was the only credible voice in the empire, the only Attila, having been lied to repeatedly by emissaries of the empire, could be counted on to believe. This is why diplomats so often insist, odd as it may seem, that truthfulness is the first among the virtues of a successful ambassador. Delivered at precisely the right moment, it can alter the course of history.

Attila turned back from Rome. He took his army and withdrew from Italy.

There are many unanswered questions about this encounter: what would have happened had Leo not gone to see Attila? How much did Attila know about the plague?

What difference did this meeting between Leo and Attila finally make? In the years that followed, not even Leo could keep the Roman Empire from final dissolution. By the end of the century, all the remnants of the empire in the west had been incorporated into Germanic kingdoms, and the great empire of antiquity was gone forever.

Leo's feat, then, was no so much about adding a few more years to life of the Roman empire, but rather about creating a foundation for a new phase of world history. Yes, he did save Rome for a while longer, but Rome was inevitably falling, and it had started falling before Leo took a leadership position among Rome's Christians. Leo created a safe zone for a new European culture, shaped by Frankish-Germanic culture and Christian spirituality, to take root, and he created this incubator by means of honest diplomacy, not by means of deception. Attila knew that, even if Leo was in some sense an enemy, Leo could be trusted.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Quick Trip from Freedom to Slavery

How can societies quickly and easily become subject to ruthless fascism and totalitarianism? How can leaders, who begin their political careers seeking to bring freedom, wind up imposing harsh absolutism on their nations? We find this over and over again: Robespierre in France, Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mao in China, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

There is a seductive process which turns liberty into tyranny, and which even makes people think that they're doing a good thing as they gradually remove freedom from their society. How does this happen? Perhaps an example will show us: let us take toothpaste for our pattern.

We all know that we should brush our teeth several times a day. It's healthy for us, and we will benefit from this habit over the years. In a free society, however, each person will choose whether or not he will brush his teeth, how often, and when. Nobody will force him to do it, and nobody will be forced to do it.

Personal liberty means that we are free to make bad choices (not brush our teeth), and that we will be exposed to the consequences of those choices (we will then have rotten teeth). But there exists the political temptation to save people from the consequences of their bad choices, and to try to prevent them from making those bad choices in the first place. This political temptation is so seductive because it seems that we're doing something good: we're helping people. But in fact, we are harming people, because we are taking away their individual liberty.

Imagine, then, that someone makes a law, that everybody must brush his teeth three times a day: morning, noon, and night. That's a good thing, right? Because this way we are, after all, making sure that everyone has healthy habits, right? Wrong! We are limiting personal freedom, and it gets worse: because a law is useless unless we have a way to verify that people are complying with it. We must then allow the police to enter anyone's house, with no warning or notice, to inspect that person's teeth and toothbrush. Still worse: we must then have legal actions, because a law is no good unless there are measurable consequences for violating it. We will then start fining or imprisoning people who have failed to brush their teeth in the prescribed manner.

Yes, our example is silly, but observe the principle: motivated by a desire to benefit society, we have followed the slippery slope into totalitarianism, giving rights to the government instead of to the individual.

The difficult thing about freedom is this: we must allow people to make bad choices, and to suffer under the consequences of those choices. We all know it's bad to smoke cigarettes, to borrow too much money, to drink too much alcohol, or to fail to do one's homework. It would be good if everyone avoided these mistakes. But if the government forces people to avoid these mistakes, we've removed their liberty - which is ultimately worse than the consequence of those mistakes.

On the other hand, if the government tries to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes, we again violate the principle of freedom: true liberty includes faces the all the risks of life, and occasionally falling prey to them.

Living in a truly free society isn't always pleasant: we will watch as people misuse their liberty to do unwise, unhealthy and dangerous things, and we will see them suffer the logical effects of those decisions. But if we interfere, even with good intentions, we will find that we have made the worst decision: we will have chosen to give away our freedom.

Ancient Wisdom in Tomorrow's Newspaper

The history of the world does indeed repeat itself over and over again - the same principles and questions come into play, but always in different situations, places, and times - involving different people. This "same only different" quality of history jumps out of the daily news about our world to the reader who is familiar with past civilizations. A recent article by David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, points out four fictions in the minds of voters about their elected leaders. Brooks probably doesn't realize that he has simply re-discovered political notions which would have been familiar to Zeno of Citium and Thales, to Cicero and Edmund Burke:

The first fiction was the government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal

schemes and plans. The concept is here that government isn't a chance to implement some ideal plan in the real world; rather government is about practical compromises. Which leads to realize that

The second fiction was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in government power is exercised through other people. It is only by coaxing, prodding, and compromise that presidents actually get anything done.

Moses and Abraham couldn't abolish the barbaric practice of human sacrifice in a single, revolutionary stroke of the pen. It took generations and decades to persuade, first their own culture, and then other civilizations, to see human life as extremely valuable. Likewise, men like William Wilberforce, Chancellor Metternich, and Abraham Lincoln worked through complex webs of politics to abolish slavery. We can't make things happen in straightforward sweeping revolution, because

The third fiction was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.

We don't get a blank slate or a clean table in civil government. We are simply the latest tweak or revision on many layers of precedent and decision. We can make meaningful change, but it must be envisioned within the context of the existing culture. Any attempt to wipe the slate clean and start over with a new world leads only to chaos and bloodshed, as in the French Revolution, and simply opens the door to exploitation and dictatorship, as in the case of Napoleon.

The fourth fiction was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty.

Even the most brilliant leader doesn't know the future. Humans make plans, but plans are ever subject to revision in the light of new developments or unexpected circumstances. The quality we hope to see in our leaders is not some prophetic ability to see the future, but the skill and wisdom to deal with whichever unknown and unforeseeable events and conditions are in the future. Such wisdom is not an idealistic projection, but rather the practical ability to deal with what actually is. As distasteful as it is, the truth remains that compromise is an essential ingredient in successful governing.