We should plan for a 21st century Congress of Vienna

As the Austrian Chancellor Nehammer returns from Moscow after a tough meeting with President Putin on 11th April, I was reminded of an article I wrote in February 2016 on “The European Future of the Western Balkans.”. On re-reading the article six years later there are some excerpts that appear to be relevant for understanding the Ukrainian conflict:

“… today’s nationalists and isolationists would do well to learn one clear lesson from the Balkans: the human and financial cost of conflict borne of nationalism lasts for generations and, in keeping with cliché, repeats itself…. “

“In Western Europe, after the Second World War, the aim never to repeat the horrors of war was a driving force towards a more peaceful co-existence.”

“In times of crisis, countries, like organisations and people, turn in on themselves and seek to protect what is deemed dear to them thus often losing a true sense of perspective. Our leaders, politicians, and media commentators would all benefit from understanding the psychology of responding to a crisis.”

“We underestimate the deep cultural and behavioural traits that geographical location leaves in the DNA of people. Borders are man-made impositions. Yet local population tends to seek to get round such dictates. Communities form across rivers as trading posts are established. The exits to mountain passes provide both fortresses and settlements. Conquering armies leave behind Counts and Janissaries. Distant capitals make rival claims. In the past Vienna and Istanbul, and today Brussels and Moscow.”

“Equally if there were an academically agreed map on a linguistic lay down of languages and dialects, it would show that these follow neither topographical features nor current state borders. The borders on a political map are determined by a myriad of identifying factors of which topography and language play their part, but it takes human intervention to create history.”

“Using history to justify contemporary political action is a matter of selecting the bits of history that suit your objectives.”

“A few questions, therefore, are: Does national patrimony confer territorial rights? What role does a date in history play in staking a claim? (Today just think of Kyiv as the cradle of Russian civilisation.) What role does religion play in shaping national identity?”

“drawing a line of homogeneity, for the purpose of governance, is pointless and only possible through what has become known as ethnic cleansing.”

“Worthy declarations by western politicians of the need for peace, agreed by all member states, may make politicians feel that they are doing the right thing, but they are ignored by the fighters on the ground”

“For when wars break out, an international response is to impose and then strengthen sanctions. There are examples where sanctions have worked and those where they have failed. If you put sanctions on poor states, they have an impact, but they do not convince governments to come to the negotiating table with any degree of urgency. States turn in on themselves, become protective, and the population do not rise up against their leaders. Life is a daily struggle and sanctions busting becomes an organised activity with state compliance. In essence, sanctions create criminal states. States endorse, support, and participate in smuggling of oil, cigarettes, food. Organised crime thrives and the State turns a blind eye. This goes on year after year and then, after the West has been forced to use force, or finally a peaceful solution to the political problem is resolved, there is an expectation that a corrupt free government and civil society will emerge like a miracle, not out of the ashes but from a firm foundation of criminal bedrock.”

“Sanctions often make Western politicians feel that they are doing something about a problem and that the politicians, businessmen, or oligarchs are being punished. Yet they continue in power and the people suffer. The political propaganda of the state blames the West for the population’s ills, and there are few mechanisms for an opposition to challenge the perceived wisdom. Sanctions are a two-edged sword and leave a legacy of criminality that it is difficult for new democratic institutions to shake off. When sanctions are lifted, Western institutions then put in place strict conditions for investment which in turn leads to the failure of “Liberal Imperialism”.”

“The propaganda being fed them is their reality.”

“At times of stress, there is a tendency for human beings to become introverted to be closer to where they feel safe, resorting to a single identity. “The incitement to ignore all affiliations and loyalties other than those emanating from one restrictive identity can be deeply delusive and contribute to social tension.””( Amartya Sen Identity and Violence)

“…confused identities shaped by history, language, and geography but ruined by power, falsehood, corruption, money, religion, and nationalism.”

“…We need more than quick fire summits to resolve the complex issues of the day. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 that set out European peace in the post-Napoleonic era took nine months. The Congress of Berlin in 1878 that rebalanced Europe after the Russo–Turkish war took a month. Both Congresses sought to use diplomatic negotiation to balance competing interests in Europe in 19th century. The two World Wars and break-up of Yugoslavia in the 20th century showed that efforts to bring about lasting peace rarely last a generation. Yet Europe (Yugoslavia and Ukraine aside) has survived in peace for 70 years. For this to be achieved, national interests have been sublimated to international ones (while not losing national stereotypes or identities). There are plenty of unresolved issues in Europe from the future of Eurozone governance to non-Eurozone engagement to the future of Ukraine (with or without Crimea), to the future of the Western Balkans and the threat of the escalation of the Syrian conflict to Turkey (ethnic and sectarian). History shows that nothing is set in stone. If Europe is now at a time of diplomatic rebalancing, then the substantial and sustained 19th century model of a Congress could create the dialogue that leads to 100 years of peace in Western Europe, and 50 years of peace for the countries of the Western Balkans. Rather than looking at trouble spots in isolation, today’s power states and groupings as well as individual states, civil society, and business can convene to find sensible, non-violent approaches to a myriad of differences. A Europe of distinct identities but shared values and approaches to good governance offers a better hope of sustained peace than any of the nationalist options. …”

In conclusion Russia and Ukraine are currently preparing for the escalation of the conflict in the Donbas. Neither appears, in public, to be in the mood for compromise but the time will come when a wider ranging negotiation will be required to encompass Eurasian security. The chances of one side or other winning a convincing victory are slim so we should be thinking now about the wider issues that the conflict have brought to light from NATO membership and the European future of Ukraine, and the Western Balkans, but also understanding how the West and East can cohabit successfully.


Article by Anthony Monckton, founder and CEO, VE Insight

Image:  ‘Le Congrès de Vienne’,  Jean Godefroy (1771 – 1839) 

For an initial discussion please email office@ve-insight.com