Concert of Europe Revisited: From Metternich to Kosovo and back

Paper presentation at the International Conference “Vienna Congress and the Balkans – 200 years later”, 5 June 2015, Shkup

The paper examines the impact of the Concert of Europe in today’s international system. The legacy of this system is multidimensional. The most important concepts and principles of international law and international relations such as: collective security, right of intervention, multilateralism, balance of powers and international community were established for the first time 200 years ago in the Congress of Vienna. These concepts and principles have been transformed and advanced over time, transforming the international society itself.

The Concert of Europe represents an international order with the longest period of relative peace in the history of international relations, and the Congress aftermath has been regarded as a balance of legitimacy and power. According to Zelikow, the leaders of the triumphant states had a status quo view of international affairs. The existing balance of powers should be preserved, they claimed, even restored, in terms of proper balance (juste equilibre) achieved by redistribution of forces (repartition des forces). Seen theoretically, the best account of the Concert of Europe is given by the defensive realism theory of international relations, sometimes even rejecting the general agreement that the Concert of Europe rested on a Balance of Powers. Scholars such as Elman and Labs give us a view of differences between offensive and defensive realism, arguing that it is a matter of the latter theory of IR in cases when states try to preserve the status quo. This argument taken alone was opposed by Rendall who says that “to claim that states would pass up cost-free opportunities for power and influence is alien to any form of realism”, because great powers restraint was due to unit-level factors, including domestic factors as crucial. As Waltz will say ’International-political theory at times needs a theory of the state’. The international system of Concert of Europe mattered, but so did the great powers. This claim is supported also by another scholar Shroeder, according to him, the general structure of the Concert of Europe order as a political equilibrium, an equilibrium of rights and satisfactions, thus rejecting the notion of a system based on mutual deterrence. I would add to these arguments also common fears, such as the threat of revolution and the disruptive forces of nationalism.

In the focus of this study is the principle of intervention in particular and its evolution from Metternich’s right of intervention to contemporary principle of humanitarian intervention, R2P (Responsibility to protect) and other kinds of military interventions. In his latest book “World order”, Kissinger argues that the division between internal policy and foreign policy is disappearing. Westphalian system is going to an end once again. Thus, the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention are transforming and adapting to the actual international environment.

The concept of the right of intervention has been evolved in a way which in this paper I have called ‘from Metternich to Kosovo and back’. Challenging the sovereignty of the Westphalian old system first became a norm in the Congress of Vienna, in the agreement about the joint intervention of Great powers that would take place to stop a revolution happening in their states. It was clearly a realist approach. Then, an idealistic approach of perceiving international relations, propagated by Wilson after the First World War made non-intervention a norm in the international society, once again. During the Cold War armed intervention was not a legitimate practice.

Reka argues that in the 21st century human sovereignty should prevail over the state sovereignty, proclaiming the need for a new international law with a human face. During the evolution process of the concept of the right of intervention, Kosovo is a turning point. It was in 1999, that the Blair Doctrine of the international community emerged and it was after the Kosovo war that Kofi Annan announcing a ‘developing international norm’ to forcibly protect civilians who were at risk from genocide and mass killing. In a Post Cold War Era, we can even talk about the “new norm of Security Council-authorized humanitarian intervention” introduced regarding the Kosovo case such as unilateral intervention which reflects the long road ahead to reach the “new solidarity”, as Weeler says.

International relations theorists’ debate regarding the humanitarian intervention as well as legitimising it, takes place merely between realist and pluralist objections of the practice of humanitarian intervention and the proponents of it who draw mostly on the English School theory and constructivism, who claim that legitimacy is constitutive of state actions, by developing thus a solidarist theory of humanitarian intervention. As Bull, states ‘the major fault line that divides realism from the English School is that, even when a state decides to break the rules, it recognizes that it owes other states an explanation of its conduct, in terms of rules that they accept’. The concept of the human intervention nowadays represents one of the most important binomials of the international society, consisting of order and justice which sometimes may lead to legal exception from its rules. The most appropriate theory for a doctrine of humanitarian intervention would be the solidarist one, challenging the existing frameworks in international relations and international law that rely only on the humanitarian motives for undertaking a humanitarian intervention.

However, the new concept of the Responsibility to protect R2P, which was introduced in 2005 has helped in easing the debate between opponents and proponents of the humanitarian intervention. Responsibility to Protect, would make the intervention legitimate and fundamental of state actions. Even though, in introducing this concept a key question regarding the motives of the states to engage in such operation having in mind the high cost both financially and their human lives, has not been answered yet.

Finally, the word ‘back’ in my thesis includes the latest phase of the transformation of the ‘right to intervene’ concept, which I think has gone back to its origin, assuming the responsibility and right of the great powers (nowadays, only powers) to intervene and impose their collective will on states threatened by internal rebellion.

Lessons learned and conclusions

In the Concert-era, Europe had the monopoly of creating the world order. It should take the role and responsibility that it corresponds to contribute in shaping today’s world order, as well. International law concepts should advance and modify according to the new international environment. Crucial reforms in multilateral and collective security organizations such as UN should take place in order to reflect the current situation of the international society. Common values, interests, as well as fears should be common ground for cooperation in the 21st century as well, especially in the post 9/11 and terrorist threats era. In a current world with tendencies of polarization between democratic and autocratic states, Metternich approach of persuading liberal states to cooperate with the autocratic ones, should be taken into consideration. Also, a very important lesson to be taken from Concert-era is the actual need for internationalization of ethics, which is happening gradually by all the subjects of the international system. There are real expectations that states besides of pursuing their own national interests, they do also pursue the interest of the international community as a whole.

In every crucial moment of international order development we should revisit Concert of Europe, because, as Kissinger says, ‘the Concert of Europe is a timeless and universal international system’.


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