Communication and mutual understanding with both allies and opponents are key to a successful foreign policy. The skillful alliance formation and peacemaking of Klemens, Prince von Metternich and Robert, Viscount Castlereagh after the Napoleonic Wars led to a century of peace and rapidly increasing prosperity; the lack of it in 1914 and the late 1930s led to global catastrophes. In a world where one power is a clear hegemon as from roughly 1985 to 2015, communication may be less necessary, though understanding is always helpful. But today there is no hegemon, and foreign policy must be rethought to prevent economic and political apocalypse.
The need for communication and understanding is best illustrated by comparing the attitudes of leading statesmen at the beginning and the end of the century-long peace of 1815-1914. Castlereagh took journeys that often lasted a month or more in appalling conditions to meet with Metternich, the French statesman Charles, Prince du Talleyrand, the Russian Karl, Reichsgraf von Nesselrode and the Prussian Karl, Prince von Hardenburg and settle the affairs of Europe. Under this Congress System, as well as the Congress of Vienna, subsequent Congresses were held in 1818 at Aix-la-chapelle (Aachen), in 1820 in Troppau, in 1821 in Laibach (Ljubljana) and 1822 in Verona, although Castlereagh was absent from Troppau and Laibach and dead by the time of Verona, which Arthur, Duke of Wellington attended in his stead.
After Verona, Canning reversed British foreign policy, removing the amiable communication and deep understanding of the Congress System. He did this for two reasons. First, he believed that the embryo states formed from the wreckage of the Spanish empire in the Americas would be important markets for Britain, while European monarchs did not approve of their liberal-dominated independence movements. Second, he disliked Austria, Prussia, Russia and Charles X’s France, believing them to be autocracies opposed to the “liberal” movements he favored.
Robert Earl of Liverpool, his boss as Prime Minister, in his last letter to Canning, expressed his doubts about this in relation to Portugal, having developed the suspicion that Dom Miguel, whom British forces had deprived of the throne, had majority popular support, whereas Britain’s protégé Maria II, with an inferior genealogical claim, was supported only by urban liberals. It was a pattern to be repeated infinite times over the next half century by Henry, Viscount Palmerston and his successors who followed Canning in their illusions. Again and again they supported “liberals” favored by an urban intelligentsia minority over traditional rulers favored by the vast majority of the local populace. Needless to say, Whig-oriented historians, from pompous multi-volume Victorians to slim “woke” moderns exhibiting a wide variety of pronouns, have followed Canning’s and Palmerston’s examples without asking the common-sense questions that had dawned on the ailing but intelligent Liverpool in January 1827.
There followed a century of British statesmen kicking sand in the faces of traditional Continental rulers, with the ungrateful Whiggish Queen Victoria refusing to meet Metternich, the savior of Europe, on his visit to London in 1849. Thus, by the time of Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary in 1906-16, there was little personal contact between the top statesmen of Europe, except within the belligerent alliances which Britain had ineptly joined through the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, expanded in 1907 to include Russia.
When a Serbian terrorist assassinated Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Grey should have sprung into action. It was obvious that the European system of two heavily armed mutually hostile alliances was thoroughly unstable; only a massive dose of communication and understanding could alleviate this. Kaiser Wilhelm II needed to be convinced that Germany was not surrounded by hostile powers determined to keep her in subjugation; Britain’s joining the Franco-Russian alliance had worsened this suspicion. Austria-Hungary needed to be convinced that terrorists were universally detested, but that a direct assault on Serbia could precipitate a Europe-wide conflagration that would undoubtedly cause its delicately-constructed but immensely valuable political architecture to collapse.
Only Grey, remote from the quarrel, had any chance of achieving this, but it meant getting on a special train to Berlin and Vienna for face-to-face meetings with counterparts he barely knew. Castlereagh had done this without hesitation in the snows of January 1814. For Grey, it was at least summer, so progress towards Berlin would be relatively swift and extremely comfortable, on a special train by which he could reach Berlin or even Vienna at a speed unimaginable to Castlereagh. However, Grey was a lazy man, fond of fishing and cricket, not over-intelligent and not at all fond of foreigners (a disadvantage for a Foreign Secretary, one would think!) Hence, he stayed home, and the result was a farrago of misunderstandings and three miserable subsequent decades.
In 1938, the slide to war recurred. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, while also not fond of foreigners, was a man of capable energy, unlike Grey. He flew to Munich twice in 1930s airplanes to negotiate with Hitler, travel more comparable to Castlereagh’s snowstorm-harried coach than Grey’s potential luxurious special train, and his efforts deserved a better success. Indeed, they would have achieved success had not his previous Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden alienated Italian leader Benito Mussolini irretrievably by imposing oil sanctions over Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Mussolini naturally felt that, since France and Britain had been annexing African and Asian countries for the previous two centuries, and even the United States had done so in the Philippines only thirty years earlier, there should be no problem with Italy doing likewise when an opportunity occurred. Eden however was a priggish moralist and believer in the League of Nations (which had already displayed its futility when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931).
Hence sanctions were imposed and Mussolini alienated. With Mussolini on Britain’s side instead of Germany’s in 1938, a better deal might have been obtained at Munich and certainly Hitler would have thought twice about violating that deal only 5 months later when he occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and precipitated World War II. This crisis, at least, has lessons for us today; if you are facing two potential antagonists as was Britain in 1938, it makes sense to mollify the less dangerous one to split him from the greater threat.
In this lesson, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is today’s Mussolini. Unlike China’s Xi Jinping, he is not a Communist – Russia has prospered under his rule despite its thuggishness and corruption, with a 13% flat income tax producing massive small-scale entrepreneurialism. Given that direct military confrontation with China over Taiwan seems likely, swinging Putin’s regime to the Western side before that confrontation occurs ought to have been a prime objective.
Communication and understanding of Putin has been notably absent during his period in power, particularly because of the appalling quality of 21st century U.S. Presidents (Trump being the exception, despite his attempts at improving relations with Putin being thwarted by illegitimate State Department/Deep State action). Throughout Putin’s rule, he has expressed concern about the expansion of NATO, only being met with stale bromides about NATO being a purely defensive alliance – since its 2011 intervention in Libya, a clearly untrue claim.
As for Ukraine, its status was a sore point for Czarist Russia; as Kievan Rus under Prince Oleg (879-912) of the Rurik Dynasty, from which derived all Czars until 1598, it represented the origin of the country, yet its inhabitants were restive under Russian rule. In Putin’s view, the inclusion of Ukraine within NATO (or even its subjugation to the influence of NATO) would represent a direct threat to Russian security. Furthermore, its 1954 borders, set by the Soviet authorities when it was not independent, did not qualify for Westphalian inviolability. Given Putin’s worldview and fears, the 2014 invasion of the Crimea, and the 2022 second invasion (when in his view the terms of the Minsk Agreement of 2015 were not being observed) defy the common simplistic ‘unbridled evil’ interpretation of his motivation.
The violent Western reaction to Putin’s invasion may or may not have been unexpected to him; in any case it has soured relations and driven him into the arms of China. Any peace deal will presumably now have to await a change of regime in Washington. Leftist fantasies about replacing Putin founder on the reality that the Russian Western-friendly liberals poll consistently in the single digits, so that any likely Putin replacement would probably be worse, both for the West and the Russian people. A peace deal satisfactory to Putin or any Russian successor might include only minimal rectification of Ukraine’s borders, but it must certainly include a provision that Ukraine cannot join NATO or the EU unless Russia does so simultaneously. (100 plus Putinist MEPs in the European Parliament would greatly improve it, diluting its insufferable bureaucrat-driven wokehood.)
As for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he is similar to all the “comedians” who have been elected in other Eastern European countries and have subsequently led hard-left regimes. In 20 years, Putin has made Russia much richer; 20 years of the corrupt leftist Zelenskyy regime, even without Russian interference, would leave Ukraine destitute. Hopefully truly free elections will be held in Ukraine, which will produce a leader like Yulia Tymoshenko, with a decent commitment to a free-market, prosperous economy, producing peace and freedom for the long-suffering Ukrainian people.
The foreign policy history of the last 200 years has been full of errors. Most of them have been caused by immature Manichean worldviews: insufficient commitments to communication and understanding with “enemies” as well as “friends.” This needs to change, now.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)