A recent issue of the German historical magazine Geo Epoche interviewed Christopher Clark, author of the definitive diplomatic history of the events leading to World War I, The Sleepwalkers. In the interview, Dr. Clark said, “The world in which we now live is becoming ever more like that of 1914.”
Well, no and yes. We do not have two unequal power blocks—the Entente had three Great Powers; the Central Powers only one, Germany, plus a has-been and a wannabe, Austria-Hungary and ever-treacherous Italy—eyeing each other with apprehension. We do not live in a world where, thanks to the advantage conveyed by early mobilization, everyone’s military has a hair trigger. We do not have a major player whose strategic objective requires a war among the Great Powers, as France’s objective of retaking Alsace and Lorraine did then.
Yet there are parallels, too. We do see, in many countries including our own, foreign-policy establishments detached from reality and infected with hubris. We have tense situations similar to the one in the Balkans in 1914, including China’s claim to Japan’s Senkaku islands and, if Washington and the European Union are completely stupid in their reactions, Russia’s recovery of parts of Ukraine.
The greatest and most worrying parallel is that today as in 1914 key policy-making elites are thinking and acting within an outdated paradigm. Then, the obsolete paradigm was dynastic competition, especially that between the Houses of Hapsburg and Romanov; the new paradigm was set by the mortal threat posed to all Christian, conservative monarchies by the notion of popular sovereignty and Jacobinical definitions of human rights. By fighting each other instead of uniting against the left, three dynasties doomed themselves and possibly us as well. Western culture’s last chance of survival may have been a victory by the Central Powers in World War I.
Today, the obsolete paradigm is competition between states. It is for such competition that our foreign policies and armed services, and those of almost all other countries, are shaped. The new paradigm is the contest between the state system and the non-state forces of Fourth Generation war, forces that (often with America’s short-sighted help) are destroying one state after another and thriving in the resulting stateless chaos. Just as Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and Romanovs did themselves in by clinging to an outdated paradigm, so the state system is doing now.
But there is another ’14 parallel, and it is one that offers conservatives hope. The parallel is to 1814, when conservatism won and, for a century, partially maintained a victory over the poisons unleashed by the French Revolution.
In 1814, the Sixth Coalition, whose core was Russia, Prussia, and Austria, militarily defeated Napoleon, forced him to abdicate, and restored legitimate government to France in the form of Louis XVIII. It then gathered for the Congress of Vienna, which authored not a brutal, punitive diktat like the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, but a peace that welcomed a restored France back into the Concert of Europe. The principal men behind that prudent Peace of Paris (First and Second, the latter following Napoleon’s return and defeat at Waterloo) were an archconservative, Prince Metternich, and a Burkean Whig, the British Foreign Minister Lord Castlereagh. Their conservative achievement prevented general war in Europe for 99 years.
Another conservative triumph came in 1815 but was a consequence of the gathering of Europe’s most important sovereigns at the Congress of Vienna. An initiative of Tsar Alexander I of Russia, it was called the Holy Alliance. While some other powers initially adhered and then fell away, its core was those three pillars of conservatism, Prussia, Russia, and Austria.
It was then and remains today fashionable to dismiss the Holy Alliance as poppycock. In his book The Congress of Vienna the British diplomat Harold Nicholson wrote that “The Holy Alliance was not at first taken very seriously by any of those who adhered to it … Castlereagh deemed it a ‘piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’ … Even Metternich … called it a ‘loud-sounding nothing’.”
But this view is fundamentally wrong. What the Holy Alliance represented was precisely the kind of adjustment to a new paradigm at which conservatives had too often failed. Russia, Prussia, and Austria grasped that the French Revolution had redefined the threat as democracy and Jacobinism and that they had to unite against it if conservative Christian monarchies were to survive.
Nicholson understands the Holy Alliance’s importance, and is clear about its purpose, which he opposes:
He [Tsar Alexander] had recently been reading a book by Francois Baader which advocated that the only cure for the evils of the French Revolution was a close identity between politics and religion … Progressive opinion throughout Europe was from the outset alive to the potential dangers of the Holy Alliance … For against what or whom could these potentates be allying themselves unless it were against the liberal movement and the spirit of the age?
So they were indeed. Had they remained so, had the Dreikaiserbund been in place in 1914, there would have been no war. The 20th century would not have been a time of catastrophe for most of what conservatives hold dear. A permanent alliance of Russia, Austria, and Prussia (later the German Empire) would probably have enabled all three monarchies to survive still, in our own time, strong and faithful bulwarks against Jacobinism and all its works.
1814 shows that when conservatives adjust in time to a new paradigm, we can win. 1914 demonstrates what happens when we fail to make that adjustment—or, having made it, fall back into old ways. Today’s expanding crisis of the state system faces us with another paradigm shift, the greatest since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Will we respond as we did in 1814, or in 1914?
William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.