By Robert Skidelsky
LONDON — The world was a relatively peaceful place during the nineteenth century. Aside from the American Civil War and China’s Taiping Rebellion, there were few prolonged conflicts anywhere between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. This raises a fundamental question: How did Europe largely avoid major wars for 100 years amid what Hedley Bull called “international anarchy”?
The prevailing view is that the Concert of Europe, established in 1815, played a key role in preserving the peace. Although frequently perceived as a mechanism for maintaining the continent’s balance of power, the Concert actually served a normative purpose: preventing war between countries with shared interests and values.
Essentially, the five major European powers — Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia — agreed not to alter their borders without mutual consent. The establishment of spheres of influence, serving as physical buffers between these great powers, was integral to their geopolitical calculations.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Concert of Europe had become a global peacekeeping system, with various colonial powers assigned territories during the partitioning of Africa and East Asia. But while the Concert sought to address the “Eastern Question,” the Crimean War of 1853-56 — which pitted Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia — underscored its limitations.
The Crimean War was triggered by Russia’s demands for improved treatment of Orthodox Christians in Palestine. The escalating conflict prompted the Ottoman Empire to declare war, with Britain and France rallying to the Ottomans’ support.
The British statesman John Bright placed the blame for the war on Britain, arguing that its unconditional support encouraged Ottoman intransigence. “I would either have allowed or compelled Turkey to yield, or would have insisted on her carrying on the war alone,” Bright said.
The British strategy of propping up the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russia’s eastward expansion was mistaken, he thought. Fears of a Russian attempt to conquer India were paranoia. This was a war of choice, he asserted, and thus could not be justified. Instead, Bright championed a policy of “non-intervention,” coupled with unfettered commercial and financial engagement.
In 1876, the Ottoman Empire once again tested the Concert of Europe by massacring thousands of Bulgarian men, women, and children. The Liberal British politician William Gladstone responded with a pamphlet condemning the “Bulgarian horrors” and calling for the forced removal of Turks from Europe. But Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli viewed the atrocities as an annoying distraction from the task of supporting the Ottomans against Russian expansionism.
Following unsuccessful attempts by the major powers to establish a less oppressive regime in the Ottoman-controlled Balkans, Russia invaded Turkey in June 1877, ostensibly to protect the Sultan’s Christian subjects. After overcoming an unexpectedly strong Turkish resistance, Russia forced the Ottomans into a punitive peace which would have greatly expanded the size of Bulgaria as its Orthodox satellite state and brought it significant territorial gains in the Caucasus.
This time, Disraeli refrained from providing the Turks with unconditional support, and Russia conceded that the other great powers had a right to be consulted on any territorial claims. This set the stage for the 1878 Congress of Berlin, hosted by Otto von Bismarck, which resulted in a series of compromises, with Britain receiving Cyprus in exchange for Russian gains. Although the final peace agreement was flawed, it effectively prevented a major European war for the next 36 years.
Ultimately, the nineteenth-century peacekeeping system, maintained by aristocratic elites who knew that large-scale war threatened their status, could not withstand the forces of nationalism and revolution that swept through Europe and much of the world during the early twentieth century. Their proponents sought to replace the coerced peace of empires with a more authentic peace founded on democratic principles and national self-determination.
After the end of World War II, the United Nations Security Council was established with the goal of fostering a durable peace. But it lacked the necessary moral cohesion and legitimacy to replicate the informal nineteenth-century arrangement. In reality, the post-war era’s relative peace was not so much a product of the U.N. system as a result of the balance of terror between the United States and the Soviet Union. When the Cold War ended, the world found itself without a credible peacekeeping mechanism, paving the way for today’s proxy wars.
The successes and failures of the Concert of Europe offer valuable lessons for establishing new peacekeeping norms. One key insight, highlighted by Bright and acknowledged by Disraeli, is that providing unconditional military support to a weaker country threatened by a more powerful adversary leaves little room for compromise.
Another challenge is the increased emphasis on moral and legal issues. Peace initiatives today are often undermined by both real and alleged atrocities and by the nature of the regimes involved. The infusion of moral considerations into international relations complicates efforts to maintain global peace. After all, you cannot negotiate with a regime whose moral legitimacy you deny. Consequently, most wars initiated by Western countries implicitly aim for regime change.
Moreover, the growing reliance on economic sanctions, political boycotts, and the indictment of political leaders for war crimes impedes effective diplomacy. These aggressive tactics blur the lines between peace and war and encourage countries to engage in wars of aggression under the guise of self-defense.
While the “Great Game” of the nineteenth century was marked by British paranoia about Russian expansionism, today’s geopolitical landscape aligns more closely with Cold War-era “domino theory.” In the past, ideologically hostile governments could gain insights into each other’s intentions through diplomatic and familial channels. Nowadays, the role of diplomats is significantly diminished.
Still, the question of whether democracy promotes or hinders the quest for peace remains unanswered. While history does not provide instructions on how to maintain global stability, it can be a source of inspiration. By drawing the right lessons from it, we can strive to recreate the conditions that led to an imperfect but long-lasting peace.
Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University. He is the author of an award-winning biography of “John Maynard Keynes and The Machine Age: An Idea, a History, a Warning (Allen Lane, 2023).” This article was distributed by Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).