Waterloo and Vienna: learning from history (by Ambassador Yakovenko for RT)

These days, as the celebrations of the Waterloo 200th anniversary have just concluded in Europe and Britain, it is time to reflect on the legacy of the turbulent era that ended in 1815.

The popular memory of European nations preserves the battles fought during the Napoleonic wars – Trafalgar, Austerlitz, Borodino, Leipzig, Waterloo to name the key ones – but, regretfully, not the peace that followed and that was conceived at the Congress of Vienna, which agreed its decisions several days prior to Waterloo.

The grand diplomatic gathering did not only redraw borders of the traumatized continent. It designed the first collective security system that guaranteed peace in Europe for decades to come.

At the Congress, the so called Concert of Europe was established – balance of power maintained by agreement among the leading nations: Russia, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and France. Just like Russia had contributed to the military victory over Napoleon in the campaigns of 1812 and 1813-1814, the Russian Emperor Alexander I made a crucial contribution to the Congress by his vision of a fair and sustainable settlement in Europe, which brought France as an equal power to the Concert of Europe.

In Vienna the monarchs and their ministers realized that peace could only be maintained through continued diplomatic interaction and coordination of the major powers. They were guided by magnanimity and foresight, born at the age of Enlightenment. The next years saw a number of pan-European congresses, and in Vienna the first ever permanent intergovernmental organization was established - Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine, still in existence today. These were the first steps which 130 years later led to the creation of the United Nations.

Significant effort was put in Vienna to create a peace in which all countries’ interests would be protected. Notably, Duke of Wellington vigorously insisted that France should have equal rights with other major nations. This makes a striking contrast with the flawed Versailles system, which humiliated and excluded both   Germany and Russia. The tragic consequences of such settlement were foreseen early on by John M. Keynes in his “The economic consequences of the peace”.

The system created in Vienna was far from perfect. It did not take peoples’ right to self-determination into account. The rivalry between its founding members led to the senseless Crimean War and sowed the seeds of the First World War. The United Nations Charter laid foundations for a world system of collective security. Nothing was done for Europe divided between two opposing alliances. The end of the Cold War provided opportunity to fix that flaw, but it was missed and inevitably led to the present state of European affairs. It’s not late yet to learn from history and agree a post-Cold War settlement, which would save us a lot of trouble and lost opportunities in a radically changed global environment.