There is nothing worse for the reputation of a major historical figure than to be reduced to the status of a cartoon villain. That is the fate to which the memory of Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), has often been consigned. Instead of simply rehabilitating his subject, John Bew’s generally sympathetic Castlereagh aims to understand his thinking and motives more completely than previous studies have done.

Challenging the caricature drawn by the likes of Byron and Shelley, Bew carefully reconstructs Castlereagh’s private and public lives through extensive investigation of his personal correspondence, as well as that of his relatives and colleagues. Bew treats Castlereagh’s statesmanship as a unified whole, rather than reducing it to his role in shaping Britain’s foreign policy in the last decade of his career. Above all, this new biography tries to explain how Castlereagh came to form his distinctive view of world affairs.

Castlereagh began his political career with excellent credentials as an Irish “patriot.” Raised as a Presbyterian and influenced by the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, Castlereagh pursued a course as a moderate reformer in Ireland’s own parliament, before being elected to the British House of Commons in 1794. Bew does an excellent job of demonstrating how Castlereagh’s Irish background had an enduring impact on his ideas. As Bew concludes, “Ireland was the crucible of his political thought.”

The rebellion of 1798—the rising of the United Irishmen against British rule—convinced Castlereagh that the status quo was unsustainable and led him to support Ireland’s full integration into the United Kingdom over the strenuous objections of his former political allies. As a facilitator of the 1801 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish parliament, Castlereagh became a hate-figure among Irish nationalists. That was the beginning of his alienation from the people of his native country.

Meanwhile, Castlereagh’s support for Catholic rights, which he maintained throughout his career, earned him the distrust of many in the Anglican establishment, including George III himself. Despite being a genuine supporter of Catholic emancipation, he fell short of seeing it enacted into law because of continued resistance in Parliament and was viewed as a sell-out on this issue as well.

In many respects, Castlereagh’s record on Irish issues presaged later periods of his career in which he was a lonely moderate caught between ultra-conservatives and radicals. A case in point is his reaction to the French Revolution, which was hostile but not nearly as polemical as that of Edmund Burke; or his position on end of the slave trade, which was a gradualist one that repeatedly put him at odds with the abolitionist William Wilberforce. Whenever faced with two starkly opposed positions, Castlereagh’s instinct was to avoid both and find a compromise.

The major theme of Castlereagh’s career was his support for a foreign policy guided by the British national interest, a principle that caused him to be a stalwart supporter of war against France before and after Napoleon’s rise to power but that also led him to abjure postwar policies that would leave France too weak and Russia too strong in Europe. After the Congress of Vienna, Castlereagh was wary of anything that would open the door to a Russian military presence in Western Europe—including the universal pretensions of the Holy Alliance, the czar’s coalition with fellow monarchist powers Austria and Prussia—but he also aimed to keep Russia as a member of the European system to prevent it from disturbing the peace. He saw Britain’s role in Europe as both mediator and balancer, and he hoped to maintain equilibrium among the great powers so that none would pose the threat to stability that France had posed in the two decades before the congress.

When he had perceived British interests to be threatened by French hegemony in Europe, Castlereagh had been reliably hawkish—he routinely supported enormous expenditures for war and worked to increase greatly the size of the British army. He was instrumental in Wellington’s rise to command and unfailingly backed him in all of his military campaigns. Restoring the balance of power and ending Napoleon’s threat to France’s neighbors were Castlereagh’s foreign-policy priorities. As a partner with Austria’s Prince Metternich, he would be co-architect of the congress system created at Vienna in 1814-15. To his credit, the alliance system that he helped to usher in and to sustain during its early years preserved general peace in Europe for decades after his suicide in 1822.

But after Vienna he was unwilling to commit Britain to new conflicts for the purpose of propping up or restoring local rulers. Because of his desire to keep the postwar system from falling apart, he didn’t oppose the other powers when they acted to suppress revolutions, but he had no enthusiasm for the Holy Alliance—which he called “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense”—and he understood that the British public had no interest in supporting the eastern monarchies in this way. His policy toward the interventions of other governments was by his own admission “passive,” but he also laid out strictures against entangling Britain in the internal conflicts of other states. Only when there was a major threat to European security and the balance of power would he countenance renewed hostilities.

Many of Castlereagh’s critics at times adopted even stricter non-interventionist positions than he did, and there was broad public consensus that Britain shouldn’t involve itself in new European conflicts. One of his Whig opponents, Sir James Mackintosh, argued for a non-interventionist policy that also ruled out humanitarian justifications for intervention, in reaction to Austria’s use of reports about rebel atrocities to justify military action in Naples. This position reflected the fear that Britain’s allies through the Troppau Protocol of 1820 were creating a dangerous precedent for endless interference in the affairs of other states.

Mackintosh’s argument works just as well as a refutation of today’s liberal-interventionist appeals for military action in support of foreign insurgents. Remarkable as it may seem, at the time the Whigs were defenders of the inviolability of state sovereignty against the meddling of European conservatives. Castlereagh, as ever, was stuck with the unenviable task of supporting a European system that made these interventions possible while working to keep Britain out of them.

On many occasions Castlereagh expressed his aversion to empty rhetoric in the conduct of foreign policy. During a debate over British aid for Spanish rebels in 1816, he said: “If we begin to assume a dictatorial function towards other powers, we should become an object of deserved hatred. The mind of man could not devise a mode of interference more calculated utterly to ruin the unfortunate persons on whose behalf it was intended.” He saw little value in public moralizing if it were not going to be followed by concrete action. As he said to critics of Britain’s response to the Austrian suppression of Naples, “He should deem it most pusillanimous conduct on our part, if, after interfering on a question of this nature, we limited our interference to the mere delivery of a scroll of paper, and did not follow it up with some more effectual measures.” Nothing would have seemed more useless to him than merely “speaking out” in support of a rebellion.

As foreign secretary, Castlereagh was unwilling to involve Britain in Restoration-era military campaigns, but after two decades of war against France he was even more unsympathetic to uprisings against established governments than he had been earlier in his career. Bew criticizes his subject for short-term, unimaginative thinking in this case—one of the few times when Bew strongly takes Castlereagh to task for his shortcomings—but in light of Castlereagh’s experience it would have been extraordinary for him to have adopted any other view of liberal revolutions in Europe. Even when it came to the Greek War for Independence, for which he felt more sympathy, he could not endorse Russian support for the Greek cause, and he invoked the same principles of stability and order that had defined the postwar allies’ settlement as his justification. He also feared that the Greek revolt would provide Russia with a pretext for expanding its influence to the detriment of the balance of power in Europe—and therefore to the detriment of British interests.

March/April 2013The principle of nonintervention that Castlereagh outlined in his State Paper of May 5, 1820 reflected his thinking at that point in the postwar period. It rejected the option of supporting the re-establishment of monarchical governments in Spain and Portugal and reaffirmed that Britain’s interest was in collective European peace and security. As the paper put it, Britain did not belong to an alliance “intended as an Union for the Government of the World, or for the superintendence of the internal affairs of other States.” Having prevailed over Napoleon, Britain under Castlereagh’s guidance was not bent on an ideological project of restoration, and it had nothing at stake in internal political conflicts elsewhere in Europe.

Castlereagh was not opposed to intervention in all instances, but as a pragmatic realist he was able to distinguish between foreign conflicts that imperiled British interests and those that did not. Though Bew makes no argument for using Castlereagh’s record as a template for responding to today’s foreign-policy problems, his book nonetheless provides a case for Castlereagh’s continued relevance as a guide to prudent statesmanship in world affairs.

Daniel Larison blogs at www.theamericanconservative.com/larison.