At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson travelled to Paris to meet with leaders of the victorious Allied Powers. After four years of war, Europe was exhausted. The enormous costs of the conflict were widely blamed on Europe’s decrepit, outdated class of ministers, statesmen, and diplomats. The old norms of European diplomacy stood in disrepute.
Wilson’s task, as he saw it, was to found a new order of diplomacy, one to replace the retrograde system whose breakdown led to the Great War. This set him in opposition to defenders of the old order, who believed its principles were still relevant in their time. One such traditionalist was William Massey, the prime minister of New Zealand, who made the mistake of approaching Wilson at the Paris conference and comparing the Allies’ position in 1919 to that of their predecessors at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the same way that the Congress of Vienna had crafted a stable European peace in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Massey told Wilson, the Allies now had a chance to build a lasting peace for the 20th century.
Wilson was outraged. He demanded of Massey and all others present that “even by reference, no odor of Vienna would again be brought into the proceedings” of the Paris summit. For Wilson, the Congress of Vienna embodied everything that was wrong with the old European system of diplomacy: it conjured images of privileged elites in a smoke-filled room, cynically swapping territory with one another to sate their lust for power. Precisely these autocratic vices, Wilson argued, were the root causes of World War I.
Wilson’s antipathy towards the Congress of Vienna was deep-seated. In a 1917 speech to the U.S. Congress he had already declared his desire to “utterly destroy the old order of international politics.” If the mindset of 19th-century diplomacy was to blame for the war, then a durable peace could not be built on the basis of “such covenants of selfishness and compromise as were entered into at the Congress of Vienna.” Wilson envisioned a new international system that transcended the cynical power politics of the old European one, a new system rooted in the universal “principles of peace and justice.”
In order to moralize diplomacy, greed and avarice needed to be punished: Germany had to be penalized in the war’s aftermath. The universal right of national self-determination meant that Austria’s polyglot empire must be broken up into a series of new states—Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland. And Wilson’s commitment to the principle of self-government led him to call for regime change in Germany and Austria. Their old monarchical governments needed to be replaced with new republican ones. These measures, he believed, would banish the vices of the old European diplomacy from modern international relations, paving the way for a new system of nations bound together by their shared cosmopolitan values.
Two decades later, the world was back at war.
The Congress of Vienna has long been tarred by the sort of accusations Wilson leveled against it. Before the ink on the treaties had dried, Sir James Mackintosh, a liberal British MP, was complaining in the House of Commons that rather than liberating Europe from Napoleon’s tyranny the delegates at Vienna had simply replicated his imperial style of politics under a new, more cynical guise. “The Congress of Vienna,” he observed, “seems to have adopted every part of the French system, except that they have transferred the dictatorship of Europe from an individual to a triumvirate.” To Mackintosh, Vienna represented the final death-knell of the 18th century’s liberal principles, consigning Europe to a dark period of reactionary authoritarianism.
In contrast to the noble principles of the Enlightenment—which gave rise to such emancipatory moments as the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789)—the Congress of Vienna is often portrayed as a regressive moment. With the collapse of the French Revolution, the story goes, the principles of liberty and equality gave way to divine-right absolutism. The principle of state sovereignty was discarded, and vindictive, rapacious strong men carved up Europe’s small states and distributed the spoils amongst themselves. Fundamental rights of conscience were violated as the Vienna delegates enacted censorship laws designed to crush all forms of dissent. The enlightened dream of a Europe of free republics gave way to a world of repressive autocrats.
What this conventional story misses, however, is how progressive—indeed, how enlightened—the Congress of Vienna appeared from the perspective of its architects. For over two decades, from the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792 to Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Europe had been mired in unrelenting war. Sparked by the revolutionaries’ fanatical ideology and sustained by Napoleon’s estimations of his own world-historical importance, these were the most destructive wars that Europe had ever witnessed. To the people that lived through them, they appeared not as the fulfillment but as the antithesis of Enlightenment. The French revolutionaries may have claimed to uphold the cause of human rights and cosmopolitan fraternity, but in practice their crusade represented no less than the descent into barbarism. According to its authors, the Congress of Vienna was an attempt to restore the enlightened world of the 18th century that the revolutionaries had nearly destroyed.
And it worked. Amid all the moralizing criticism that has been leveled at the Congress of Vienna it is easy to forget that for an entire century, from 1815 until 1914, the framework devised by the Congress achieved exactly what its drafters intended: it extricated Europe from the cycles of recurrent warfare that marred so much of its earlier history—and which are a too-familiar feature of Woodrow Wilson’s 20th century. By rescuing what was good and true about the Enlightenment from the revolutionaries’ attempts to twist it into a dogmatic ideology, the Congress of Vienna laid the foundations of a stable and largely peaceful 19th century.
Whatever their intentions, the French revolutionaries’ moralizing cosmopolitanism only led to war. The Congress of Vienna is an object lesson in a different kind of cosmopolitanism, one grounded in prudence, statesmanship, and realism. For present-day observers, two centuries on, Vienna reminds us of a vision of Enlightenment that seeks to bring order out of chaos, stability out of anarchy.
To understand the principles that informed the Congress’s proceedings, we have to return to the early years of the French Revolution. Conventional accounts of this period usually pit two intellectual factions against each other—the revolutionaries’ conservative critics versus their enlightened apologists, hardline traditionalists versus the champions of secular reason and the rights of man. But what this story misses is that there was a third party to these early debates, a group of political theorists who from the beginning mounted a critique of the Revolution from within the Enlightenment.
According to them, precisely what was enlightened about the 18th century was that Europe had freed itself from the religious and ideological warfare of earlier eras. With the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, Catholics and Protestants had agreed to live peaceably alongside each other, inaugurating a new era in European history. In the years since, states had gradually begun to see themselves as the members of a common European federation. By the mid-18th century, it was common for political theorists to see Europe as a “republic of states,” a corporate whole whose interests transcended the particular concerns of its individual members.
Usually associated with the Swiss political theorist Emer de Vattel, this approach to international relations emphasized the need for a balance of power among Europe’s large states. Vattel had argued that if the Westphalian system could be brought into equilibrium, individual states would be deterred from embarking on expansionist wars for empire (since no state would be powerful enough to do so successfully) and powerful states would have incentives to protect their weaker neighbors (since all states would benefit from the maintenance of the status quo). By checking power with power, Vattel’s theory provided a realistic, hard-nosed plan for how statesmen could realize the Enlightenment’s moral vision of a cosmopolitan peace.
In the years before the Revolution, many political observers believed that Europe was moving in the direction Vattel had recommended. An emerging balance of power between Britain, France, Russia, and the German states of central Europe had begun to reduce tensions on the continent. This had civilized interstate relations, reduced incidents of violent war, and led to increased trade. This pacification process was not yet complete, of course, and the 18th century saw its share of violence. Nevertheless, the sense that European relations were improving exercised a strong influence on pre-revolutionary thought.
From this perspective, the French Revolution represented a shocking reemergence of precisely the sort of dogmatic, missionary ideology that the Westphalian system was supposed to have overcome. Writing in 1793, the Prussian philosopher Friedrich von Gentz—a fixture of the Berlin Enlightenment, a student of Kant, and some years later Metternich’s chief advisor at the Congress of Vienna—warned that the revolutionaries were planning to foist a terrible form of religious tyranny onto Europe:
The despotic synod of Paris, upheld internally by its inquisitorial courts and externally by its thousands of willing missionaries, has denounced each and every departure from its maxims as heresy and anathema, with an intolerance not witnessed since the doctrine of papal infallibility. … Rather than careful systems of government, slowly infused with wisdom and experience, liberté and egalité have now taken up the sceptre of the world, and … all religion, science, and art … have been banished into the night of an eternal oblivion.
Gentz’s claim was that the Revolution, not its critics, represented the real threat to moral progress.
As the Revolution militarized in the early 1790s, its critics grew warned that the spread of its animating ideology would subvert the international system, dragging Europe into the anarchy and lawlessness of a new Dark Age. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796), Edmund Burke claimed that the presence of a revolutionary French state in the heart of Europe was incompatible with the survival of the Westphalian system. If, as the revolutionaries claimed, all non-republican governments were unjust, then all the states in Europe would have to be toppled. This was a recipe for eternal war.
Napoleon’s consolidation of power in 1804 and his expansionary wars of the 1800s and early 1810s gave credence to Burke’s claims. Like the revolutionaries who preceded him, Napoleon did not want simply to adjust the European balance of power, he wanted to abolish it. He envisioned a Europe pacified by the benign hegemony of France. Only if Europe was brought under the control of a single, benevolent superpower, his supporters claimed, could the continent finally be liberated from the old power politics and refashioned into a cosmopolitan world of liberal states.
Napoleon’s expansionist ambitions convinced Europe’s leaders that if the promise of Vattel’s earlier vision of Enlightenment were to be preserved, France would have to be defeated. This was the rationale upon which Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia waged war against Napoleon throughout the 1800s and 1810s—not to conquer France but to reassert a balanced status quo. For much of their campaign this possibility seemed a dim one, as Napoleon conquered increasingly broad swaths of the continent. By 1812, he controlled Europe from Gibraltar to Warsaw, Copenhagen to Naples. Only Russia and Britain stood against him.
With the failed French invasion of Russia in 1812, however, the prospect of a post-Napoleonic Europe reemerged as a real possibility. Over the next three years, as coalition armies waged a concerted campaign to defeat him, their leaders began meeting in a series of periodic talks to discuss the future shape of Europe. Prussia was represented by its king, Friedrich Wilhelm III; Russia by Tsar Alexander; Britain by its foreign minister, Lord Castlereagh; and Austria, by its chancellor, Klemens von Metternich. Most of these men, it is true, were monarchists who saw republicanism as a highly destabilizing form of government—not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, perhaps, from recent French experimentation. But it is unfair to malign them as reactionaries intent on bringing back some kind of despotic ancien régime. All of these negotiators saw the central role of government as preserving an impartial rule of law—as opposed to the arbitrary rule of a despot—and they all agreed that a wide spectrum of liberties was important for maintaining a healthy political society. 
After Napoleon surrendered in April 1814 he was exiled to Elba and the leaders of the victorious anti-French coalition met in Vienna to finalize their negotiations. Their talks lasted over the next 12 months, a period that encompassed Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his dramatic but ultimately futile attempt to resurrect the French Empire. The final treaties were signed in early June 1815, a few days before Napoleon was decisively defeated at Waterloo.
The goals of the Congress, as its leaders explained from the outset, were explicitly cosmopolitan. By applying Vattel’s balance-of-power thinking, they aimed to construct a durable post-revolutionary peace, a system that served not only their own interests but that would stabilize Europe. The centerpiece of the system that emerged was the so-called “general guarantee,” a promise between each of the major postwar powers—Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, and France—to protect one another from threats to their stability. Any attack on a member state, whether from domestic revolutionaries or a rogue state, would meet a concerted military response from all the rest. This guarantee was designed as a form of deterrence, preemptively dissuading would-be Jacobins or would-be Napoleons from trying to subvert the international order.
The general guarantee would only have binding force, however, if all of Europe’s major states stood on equal footing, such that no one state was strong enough to break its pledge and attempt to gain continental hegemony. What was necessary, these leaders recognized, was a Europe in which each state, acting alone, was too weak to be tempted into aggression but in which the whole system, acting in concert, was strong enough to ward off destabilizing threats.
In practice, this principle had two major implications. First, it meant that the Bourbons needed to be restored to the French throne. As late as 1812 Metternich was opposed to this, thinking that a restoration of monarchy would be too destabilizing for a now thoroughly republican French society. But as it became clear that a republican France would be too weak to suppress domestic rebellions—and so would be unable to uphold its end of the general guarantee—his skepticism was overruled. (For the French, the decision to restore the monarchy entailed a vital legal concession that their delegate to the Congress, Talleyrand, exploited to great effect. If the Bourbons were the legitimate kings of France, the revolutionary regimes of 1789 to 1814 had to be seen as usurpers, and the post-revolutionary government could not be held responsible for their crimes. At the Congress, therefore, France was treated not as an enemy to be humbled but as yet another victim of the Revolution’s devastation. It had to return to its 1789 borders, but did not face stern financial or territorial reparations.)
Second, the Congress had to decide the fate of the various “protectorates” that Napoleon had set up in the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. Here context was crucial. In some cases it was possible to restore an approximation the status quo ante. The geographical and economic advantages of Spain and the Netherlands, for instance, suggested that they would be viable as independent states. In the case of Poland, by contrast, it seemed imprudent to leave a small, vulnerable state in the crosshairs of the continent’s great powers. A new Polish state, they feared, would almost certainly end in failure and a power vacuum. The only way to avert future conflict in the region was to partition it between Prussia, Austria, and Russia.
The question of Germany was the most sensitive. Before the Revolution, the German-speaking areas of central Europe had been a diverse collection of city-states, territories, and provinces bound together in a common legal system called the Holy Roman Empire. In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the empire, establishing a new, pro-French confederation and dissolving many of the small German states in the process. None of the delegates at Vienna were interested in resurrecting the Holy Roman Empire, but it was clear that leaving Germany divided into a number of small states would leave a vacuum in the heart of Europe, tempting predatory states to exploit German vulnerability. Yet to unify Germany into a single nation-state, as Germany’s left-wing nationalists demanded, would be to create an economic and military juggernaut that would upset the postwar balance in central Europe. A compromise plan therefore won out, which established a new confederation that encompassed most of Germany’s small states, along with parts of Prussia and Austria. This federation was constructed to be strong enough to deter attacks from France or Russia but too weak to wage war outside its own territories.
By wading through these difficult individual cases, the statesmen of the Congress of Vienna hoped to create a European system that could withstand challenges without descending into total war. Over the coming decades, a series of shocks to the international system—the student nationalist movements of 1819, the socialist revolutions of 1830 and 1848—put their efforts to the test. But as a result of the general guarantee, Europe’s statesmen were able to overcome the dangers. The result was the most peaceful century in modern European history. The 19th-century Europe witnessed a period of steady economic growth, an outpouring of art, literature, and philosophy, and a gradual, orderly expansion of civil liberties across the continent. It was only once this system broke down in the July Crisis of 1914—after German and Italian unification and after insurgent nationalist passions had eroded the principle of the general guarantee—that the world the Vienna statesmen built came to an end.
The Congress of Vienna reminds us that not one but two traditions of cosmopolitan thought trace their roots back to the 18th-century Enlightenment. One is a moralizing, militant worldview that seeks peace by toppling despotic regimes in the name of liberty. It supposes that a new world order, underwritten by an enlightened hegemon, can be crafted in the wake of these conquests. This was the dream of the French revolutionaries, of Napoleon, of Woodrow Wilson. And to a large extent, it remains the dream of today’s foreign-policy establishment in Washington. In the past few decades America has “liberated,” in Napoleon’s sense of the term, countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. Whether through the hard power of military force (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) or the soft power of moral cajoling and economic pressure (Egypt, Syria, Ukraine), our hope has been that regime change will produce stable liberal democracies and lead to peace. But as the litany of failed states in our wake suggests, this approach tends to undermine the very order it seeks to moralize.
The second legacy of Enlightenment, the one witnessed in 1815, is more promising. It recognizes that if peace depends on order and order on stability, then the moralizing power of a hegemon will not of itself lead to a peaceful world. The central insight that animated the Congress of Vienna is that order, like liberty, is fragile. It is contingent on political institutions and social norms and cultural prejudices and a hundred other variables that, if undermined, lead to chaos. Order is easy to break, yet hard to build. But if peace depends on it, then a politics grounded in prudence, caution, and realism is necessary. To live through the traumatic experience of state failure—as all of the Congress’s authors did, and as many in the Middle East and North Africa do today—is to recognize that, in comparison to the anarchy and chaos of a civil war, order is an enlightened principle too.
Jonathan Green is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge.