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  • Jonathan Pearl

Crisis Negotiation Stories #3 – The Congress of Vienna


The 1815 Congress of Vienna was a meeting of ambassadors of European states chaired by the Austrian uber-statesman Metternich, and held from November 1814 to June 1815.

The objective was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars which had raged almost continuously for the previous 20 years. The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries but to rebalance the powers, and maintain the peace.

The immediate background was Napoleon’s defeat and France’s surrender in May 1814. Negotiations continued despite the outbreak of fighting triggered by Napoleon’s dramatic return from exile and his One Hundred Day Rule from March to July 1815. The Congress's "final act" was signed nine days before his final defeat by Wellington’s troops at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. [Mediators should get used to working while a battle is raging outside the room.]

The Congress has been criticized for suppressing emerging national and liberal movements and benefiting traditional monarchies. But that wasn’t the focus of those attending. [Mediators – your job is not to solve all the ills of the world. Concentrate on the dispute in front of you.] Others praise it for having created relatively stability and peaceful conditions in most of Europe, for 99 years - until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.


In a technical sense, the "Congress of Vienna" was not properly a congress: it never me in plenary session. Most of the discussions were informal sessions among the representatives of the Four Great Powers (Austria, Britain, France, Russia, and sometimes Prussia) with limited or no participation by other delegates. On the other hand, the Congress was the first occasion in history where, on a continental scale, national representatives came together face-to-face to formulate treaties instead of relying mostly on messages sent between the several capitals. In fact, the assembly of so many of Europe’s ‘great and good’, and hundreds of hangers-on, created quite the party atmosphere. [Mediators: the value of the principals meeting face-to-face cannot be underestimated IMHO – many U.S. Mediators may disagree. But please, not too much partying!]


Multiple Parties: Multiple Agendas


More than 200 states and princely houses were represented at the Congress. Plus, there were representatives of cities, corporations, religious organizations, and special interest groups – for instance a delegation representing German publishers, demanding a copyright law and freedom of the press. [Mediators: Too many people in the room definitely complicates any settlement, but at the same time – best to have ALL relevant parties at the table.]


Early arguments over protocol


Initially, the representatives of the Four Great Powers hoped to exclude the French from serious participation in the negotiations, but France’s Talleyrand skilfully managed to insert himself into "her inner councils" in the first weeks of negotiations. He allied himself to a Committee of Eight lesser powers (including Spain, Sweden, and Portugal) to control the negotiations. Once Talleyrand was able to use this committee to make himself a part of the inner negotiations, he then left it, once again abandoning his allies.


The major Allies' indecision on how to conduct their affairs without provoking a united protest from the lesser powers led to the calling of a preliminary conference on protocol in 30 September 1814. [Mediators: agreeing the protocol is an essential part of the process and gets parties used to making concessions, and taking control of their destiny.]


The Final Deal & Why Peace in Europe lasted for 99 years

First - all parties, including defeated France, were part of the negotiations. While this did not make everyone happy, it ensured that nobody was totally unhappy and involved convoluted horse-trading. [Mediations often end with no party feeling wholly satisfied, but none feeling wholly unsatisfied.] For example, Sweden lost Finland to Russia, but gained Norway from Denmark. Denmark, in turn, gained Swedish Pomerania and the Duchy of Lauenburg from Hanover; it gave the first to Prussia and kept the second. In compensation Hanover was given East Frisia from Prussia. [Mediators need all relevant decision makers in the room.]

Second – the treaties limited the level of punishment imposed on the losing parties. France lost the territory acquired by Napoleon but kept its pre-war boundaries; it was more often than not treated by the other powers as a fellow victim of Napoleon. Countries that sided with France, like Saxony were allowed to retain their independence, despite calls to the contrary. Unlike the aftermath of World War I, no attempts were made to abolish entire countries or change their internal political arrangements. All this contributed to enormous stability. The only unfortunate thing was that, because of all the horse-trading at the conference, an independent Poland was not reestablished. [Mediations end in voluntary settlements. If they are overly punitive the chances are that the settlement will not last.]

Some historians argue that the Congress of Vienna was the first genuine attempt to create an international order based upon consensus rather than conflict. The French Revolution had created enough fear amongst nation states that they were to accept an unprecedented degree of international cooperation.

The Congress of Vienna was the first of a series of international meetings that came to be known as the Concert of Europe, which was an attempt to forge a peaceful balance of power. It served as a model for later organisations such as the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945.

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