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In Henry Kissinger’s first book – A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822, published in 1957 – he explains the conservative worldview that would later shape American policy when he rose to become Secretary of State under President Nixon, and then under President Ford.
The first duty of leaders and diplomats is to avoid disorder and revolution, says Kissinger with reference to the 19th century statesmen who devised the so-called Concert of Europe, an arrangement that largely kept the peace from the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 until the outbreak of the First World War. He says that as the world is not perfectible, because it is run by human beings who can never be perfect, it makes sense to be realistic about what is achievable in foreign policy. In addition, the propensity of mankind to produce mesmerising madmen, who take over countries and like to disrupt order to satisfy their own vanity, means that it is best to be well-armed and robust in response, as a deterrent.
The controversial Kissinger is back in the spotlight, thanks to the publication of Niall Ferguson’s new biography, or the first volume, which concludes at the moment when he is appointed National Security Advisor to Nixon. Ferguson makes the case for viewing Kissinger as a principled figure, rather than as the eternal pragmatist interested solely in the pursuit of power. He was made by his experiences in the US army in Europe in the Second World War and particularly in the denazification programme that he ran after the discovery of the concentration and extermination camps.
Kissinger’s subsequent keen interest in the Austrian Metternich and Irish Castlereagh is not hard to understand. Here were two model diplomatic operators, practical statesmen who devised arrangements whereby Europe’s major military powers could broker agreements in a crisis and do by discussion what might otherwise be done by warfare.
It didn’t last. What does? The gradual disintegration of their system, when nationalist urges surged after the Congress of Berlin in 1878, led ultimately to breakdown and then war in 1914. Happily, after the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, there is no sign that the end of the current dispensation in Europe need be even remotely as violent.
But the 19th century experience should serve as a reminder that the troubled European Union is only the latest set of arrangements devised by successive generations of leaders and officials trying to find a way to make the disparate states and peoples of Europe cooperate rather than fight each other.
You wouldn’t know it to listen to those most supportive of the EU, who tend to talk as though their project is somehow fixed permanently in the firmament, destined to endure because it exists and they deem the alternative unthinkable.
The EU is not magical. It is a political and economic project, constructed by people, many of them motivated by high principle, some of them not. But it has existed in its current form – as a highly integrated project with a strong, overbearing centre – for less than thirty years, which is a mere blip in the grand sweep of European history. History demonstrates time and again that what was done can be undone.
It certainly looks right now as though the EU is coming apart at the seams. The emergency summit of leaders this week was highly significant, not because the package of measures announced to ease the refugee crisis will make much of an impact. What was shocking and troubling was the acrimonious manner in which the leaders fell out with each other. The Hungarians are furious with the Germans over the refugee and economic migrant crisis, and they and others oppose the imposition of quotas imposed by Berlin and Paris.
The decision in the summer of the over-rated German Chancellor Angela Merkel (what are her achievements beyond winning power?) to open up the borders of Europe, signalling to desperate potential migrants that everyone can come, was an error with costly human consequences.
In contrast, the decision of the UK’s Prime Minister to concentrate on providing aid to the Syrians (a lot of it in the UK’s case) refugee camps, in countries such as Jordan, looks sensible. If the EU has an open door, these countries will be emptied of their educated young who will one day be needed for reconstruction when peace returns. David Cameron was castigated for sticking to this position several weeks ago when public feelings were at their height. Now it turns out he was right.
The flailing response to the migrant crisis also makes it clear that the European Union in its current form is not fit for purpose. An empire or a political elite that makes such a mess of two of its core responsibilities – protecting borders, and providing a soundly-based currency – is not much use and highly vulnerable to change. What, exactly, is it good at? Don’t say it made or kept the peace. Nato and America’s commitment to West Germany in the Cold War is what made the peace. The current EU came much later.
There is still (just) a chance that the transition to a new model might be managed efficiently, but what is needed from the EU is a recognition of the extent of the dysfunction. Of course, the UK’s looming renegotiation could provide an opportunity for the creation of a new arrangement, with an inner core of countries pursuing closer union and an outer group with a much, much looser relationship with the centre. This week the French hinted that some treaty change might be possible, although the default position of the EU seems to be that the British are being ridiculous and that the “values” and structures of the EU project are holy writ.
Whether or not the EU’s leaders choose to accept what is happening, the continent of Europe is being remade in front of our eyes by mass migration, war and economics. The situation is highly fluid; the outcome is uncertain; but it need not be disastrous with some decent diplomacy and a little political ingenuity. Send for Metternich and Castlereagh.