Thursday, 31 January 2019

British Foreign Policy and Castlereagh

After the defeat of France in 1814 and 1815, Britain played a central role in redrawing the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. 

Congress of Vienna
Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle
Congress at Troppau
Congress at Laibach
Castlereagh committed suicide; Canning became Foreign Secretary
Congress at Verona
Monroe Doctrine
Battle of Navarino; Canning’s death
Palmerston became Foreign Secretary
Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi
Treaty of London
Treaty of Nanking

Castlereagh, Britain’s Foreign Secretary from 1812 until his suicide in 1822 wanted stability and peace in Europe leaving Britain free to pursue its global commercial and imperial interests. The idea of a ‘balance of power’ between the great powers in Europe--Austria, Russia, France, Britain and Prussia--was at the heart of his thinking.  Co-operation between the great powers was enshrined in the idea of regular congresses to resolve areas of dispute.  The problem Castlereagh, and subsequently Canning and Palmerston, Foreign Secretaries between 1822 and 1827 and 1830 and 1841, respectively faced was that the great powers in Europe meant that they were prepared to intervene, diplomatically and militarily in support of their own interests.  This meant that Britain also had to intervene in support of its own European interests.  This was especially the case in the Low Countries (Belgium and Holland), the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) and in the Near East (the Ottoman Empire) where Britain had either commercial or strategic interests.  The continuities in foreign policies between 1815 and 1841 were important but the ways in which those policies operated depended on the contrasting personalities and styles of Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston.

Did Castlereagh secure an effective peace 1814-1822?
Castlereagh was Foreign Secretary from February 1812 until August 1822.  Napoleon’s failure in Russia in 1812, Wellington’s victories in Spain and Portugal and the creation of the Fourth Coalition (Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia) in 1813 brought defeat for France.  Napoleon abdicated in 1814 and the Bourbon monarchy was restored.  The ‘Hundred Days’[1] in 1815 culminating in the final French defeat at Waterloo ended the threat from Napoleon.  The post-war settlement was the result of the Congress of Vienna.[2]

Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia had fought against France to ensure their own survival and independence.  As winners, they expected to strengthen their own positions by acquiring land either in Europe or as colonies.  What they feared was a repeat of French domination of Europe.  This provided the impetus for creating a balance of power between the five great European powers.  For Castlereagh, this meant a settlement in which each of the mainland powers were satisfied and so were unlikely to dispute it in the future.  He believed that, ‘It is not the business of England to collect trophies, but to restore Europe to peaceful habits.’  It was in Britain’s interests to have a peaceful Europe as this secured her defences and to remain free from European commitments leaving the country free to develop its colonial empire and increase its wealth through overseas trade.  Britain’s security may have been the major priority of Castlereagh’s policies but he was also concerned to encourage liberal ideas, something the other great powers viewed nervously.  Economic liberalism through freer trade was seen by the other great powers as a ploy to help Britain win commercial advantage. Political liberalism and the creation of constitutional monarchies were even more suspect and Castlereagh approached them with great care.  He was aware that the other great powers saw great danger in sudden political change.  The French Revolution had clearly shown this.  He was ready to see other countries adopt more liberal constitutions but only where appropriate and in Britain’s interest.  Britain also pressed for the abolition of the slave trade but Castlereagh was only able to obtain vague promises of action by the other powers.[3] 

Britain did not want any territory on the mainland of Europe.  However, it wanted the independence of Belgium, especially the port of Antwerp to protect the British coastline and to guarantee access to European markets.  Britain also wanted to see Spain and Portugal free from French influence.  Castlereagh accepted that Italy should be an area of Austrian influence and that Prussia should be expanded.  They could then guard against Russia aggression.  Canning’s involvement in Spain and Portugal and Palmerston’s concerns about the Low Countries and the Ottoman Empire show the essential continuity of Britain’s European policies. 

The Vienna Settlement brought Britain few territorial gains though their location emphasised Britain’s major interests­. The Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Mauritius were of strategic and commercial importance in relation to India.  Britain’s special interest in the Low Countries (modern day Belgium and the Netherlands) was central to her trade with Europe.  Most British exports entered Europe through the Scheldt estuary.  This was safeguarded by the possession of Heligoland and by Austria’s decision not to take back the old Austrian Netherlands (later Belgium), which was united with the United Provinces (the Netherlands).  As a result, no great power controlled the Low Countries. Malta and the Ionian Islands provided bases in the Mediterranean guarding against the advance of Russia.  The West Indian islands of St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago reinforced Britain’s commercial control over the Caribbean. The centre of Europe was bolstered against aggression from east and west by strengthening the position of Austria in Germany and Italy and by guarding against Russian advance into the Balkans.  In broad terms, Castlereagh had secured the settlement he wanted.
The Congress system.
The territorial settlement, though inevitably a compromise satisfied the great powers.  Russia gained Poland and Finland.  Austria’s influence in Italy and Germany was strengthened.  Prussia, the most successful of the great powers in 1815 doubled in population.  France lost territory in Europe and some colonies, had to pay an indemnity (compensation) or 700 million francs and ensure an army of occupation for between three and five years but was not treated too harshly and the Bourbons were restored.[4]  The main aim of the great powers was European political stability, a balance of power.  The Congress system was premised on this.
Holy and Quadruple Alliances.
By the end of 1815, two further alliances had been signed: the Holy Alliance of Austria, Russia and Prussia established in September and the Quadruple Alliance signed in November   The Holy Alliance was the idea of Tsar Alexander I.   He wanted to establish an alliance of Christian kings who could work together to keep order, peace and friendly relations between the states of Europe. Britain did not sign and Castlereagh described it as a ‘piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’.   The Holy Alliance was a reactionary move reflecting anxieties about all revolutionary movements. It had two important results. It was used to justify intervention by the Great Powers in the affairs of smaller states in the 1820s if a revolutionary change seemed likely. The Congress System became a means for maintaining established order and authority.  It also led to liberalism and nationalism being repressed.  
The Quadruple Alliance was signed by the four victorious great powers.  It was more specific and practical than the rather vague notions of ‘Justice, Christian Charity and Peace’ of the Holy Alliance.  Article VI was drawn up by Castlereagh and was a crucial element in organising the congresses: the four victorious powers ‘have agreed to renew their meetings at fixed periods…for the purpose of consulting on their common interests.’  The vagueness was deliberate.  Castlereagh recognised the advantage of keeping the allies together but anything more specific would have been overruled in Cabinet by colleagues opposed to further involvement on mainland Europe. 
In practice, there was no ‘system’.  The congresses met in different places: Aix-la-Chapelle, Troppau, Laibach and Verona.  There was no permanent staff to support them.  Meetings were held at irregular intervals, in 1818, 1820, 1821 and 1822 with the Congresses in 1820 and 1821 almost merging. The meeting at Aix-la-Chapelle was called to deal with outstanding problems that arose from the treatment of France.  There was no clear reason for calling any of the other three, other than considering revolution.  There were no congresses after 1822, though attempts were made to call them.  Congresses proved unworkable largely because the great powers wanted to pursue their own interests and were no prepared to surrender this except when it was to their advantage to do so.  Normal diplomatic channels proved to be a far more effective way of maintaining the balance of power in Europe.
Britain and the four Congresses.
In 1818, at Aix-La-Chapelle, France was brought back as one of the great powers in the Quintuple Alliance in part to balance what Castlereagh and Metternich[5] saw as the growing power of Russia.  Both Austria and Britain were concerned about Russia expanding further westwards and this ensured that Castlereagh and Metternich worked closely together until 1820.   Tsar Alexander[6] wanted to guarantee existing rulers their thrones and frontiers arguing for regular congresses that could direct the use of troops to restore deposed leaders.  Castlereagh opposed this proposal vigorously and it was, for the moment dropped.  The Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle was the most successful of the four.
The second Congress at Trop­pau in 1820 was concerned with how the balance of power in Europe should be maintained.  It was unclear whether the balance of power created at Vienna in 1815 was to be maintained indefinitely or whether it should be open to limited change.  The Congress was called because the rebellions in Spain, Naples and then Portugal threatened the rulers there.  Castlereagh made his position clear in the State Paper of 5 May 1820:
‘it (the Quadruple Alliance) never was intended as a Union for the government of the world, or the superintendence of the internal affairs of other states.’
Castlereagh was prepared to support change in the balance of power as long as they did not threaten the overall peace of the continent.  Russia, Prussia and Austria took the opposite view and signed the Troppau Protocol committing them to intervene if revolutionary changes in any state threatened other states or international peace. Britain saw its obligations as limited to guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the Vienna Settlement and that, since the Spanish revolution was an internal matter intervention was unjustified.  In practice, British foreign policy in the 1820s and 1830s took a more pragmatic attitude to intervention. 
The Troppau meeting was adjourned to Laibach reassembling in January 1821. Castlereagh’s brother Lord Stewart the British Ambassador in Vienna represented Britain.  Ferdinand of Naples appealed to the Congress for help and, though Britain could not object to the dispatch of an Austrian army in view of Austria’s treaty arrangements with Naples, the British opposed the use of international force. Suppression of the rebellion was, according to Castlereagh, an Italian question and that intervention by the Austrians in their sphere of influence was not an issue as far as British foreign policy was concerned.  This did little to help Castlereagh’s reputation in Britain where he was seen as an arch-reactionary.  The outbreak of a revolt in Wallachia and Moldavia was followed by the Greek revolt.  This had the effect of uniting British and Austrian policy, as both were anxious that the Russians should not profit from the situation the expense of Turkey.  Laibach settled little and a new congress was arranged to meet at Verona in 1822.  The threat to British interests in the Near East obliged Castlereagh to consider attending in person. However, on 12 August 1822, he killed himself throwing British policy into some confusion.  Canning, his successor did not go to Verona and quickly recalled Wellington, who had gone in his place.  He maintained that this ended the Congress System but this overestimated his achieve­ment. Doubts on the part of the Tsar, reinforced by Metternich’s argu­ments, prevented Russia from intervening in Greece. Wellington’s argument against French intervention in Spain was also unsuccessful and the Bourbon army found little difficulty in subduing the country in mid-1823. The Verona Congress maintained the fa├žade of unity but it was increasingly clear that the interests of the great powers had diverged.

[1] The ‘Hundred Days’ was a three-month period in 1815 during which Napoleon escaped from his exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, returned to France, took back power for himself and relaunched the war.  He was defeated at Waterloo in June.  He was exiled again, this time to the island of St. Helena in the southern Atlantic where he died in 1821.
[2] The territorial settlement of the Congress of Vienna consisted of three agreements signed in 1814 and 1815.  The first Treaty of Paris (30 May 1814) was the peace treaty with France after Napoleon’s abdication.  The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna (9 June 1815) contained most of the post-war settlement, the result of negotiations in Vienna between October 1814 and June 1815.  The second Treaty of Paris (20 November 1815) revised the peace terms with France making them slightly harsher after Napoleon’s ‘Hundred Days’.  The Vienna settlement evolved over more than a year.
[3] The abolition of the British slave trade took place in 1807.  Britain paid off other countries that practiced the trade. Spain was given £400,000 in 1820 and Portugal followed Spain’s lead by accepting £300,000.  The Dutch were not paid cash but ended the trade in their colonies in 1815 in return for keeping most of their colonies in the East Indies, such as Java that Britain had captured during the war.
[4] The Bourbons were restored: the Bourbons were the royal family of France.  Louis XVI had been executed in 1793 and in 1814, his brother Louis XVIII was restored.  He died in 1824 and was succeeded by Charles X.  Louis Philippe finally replaced the Bourbons in the Revolution of 1830
[5] Metternich was the Austrian Chancellor and a key player in European diplomacy from 1815 to 1848.
[6] Alexander I, tsar of Russia from 1801 to 1825 took a leading part in the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.  His approach to foreign policy after 1815 was motivated by a belief in Christian brotherhood.