Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

Conservatives and Geopolitical Change

From the cover of Metternich: Strategist and Visionary (Belknap Press)
Metternich: Strategist and Visionary, by Wolfram Siemann, translated by Daniel Steuer (Belknap Press, 928 pp., $39.95)

‘What is the conservative to do,” Henry Kissinger asked in an essay in 1954, “in a revolutionary situation?” In a stable order, conservatism is in a sense unnecessary, Kissinger wrote, because society’s cohesion makes a revolutionary challenge unthinkable. But once a viable alternative to the prevailing order appears, conservatism’s role becomes at once necessary and difficult — necessary because without it there is nothing to curb the destructive effects of precipitous change; difficult because, in the course of defending what was formerly assumed to be permanent, “the conservative position comes to be dominated by its reactionary — that is, counter-revolutionary — wing” and thus deepens the very social schisms that it is conservatism’s role to prevent.

Kissinger saw two possible answers to this problem, embodied respectively by the 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke and the 19th-century Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich. Burke’s answer to the conservative dilemma was to avoid irremediable schisms by mediating and moderating the forces of change; to fight revolution not with counterrevolution but with a slow rear-guard action that softens its edges, rendering change less destructive to the polity. This, Kissinger said, was historical conservatism — “to fight for conservatism in the name of history, to reject the validity of the revolutionary challenge because of its denial of the temporal aspect of society and the social contract.” Metternich’s answer was different — he did not want to tame revolution but to make it impossible; to govern, as he put it, “so as to avoid a situation in which concessions become necessary.” This was rational conservatism — “to fight for conservatism in the name of reason, to deny the validity of the revolutionary question on epistemological grounds, as contrary to the structure of the universe.”

There was no question whose brand of conservatism Kissinger identified with. It is well known that Kissinger admired Metternich for his urbanity and virtuosity as a statesman. But from a philosophical standpoint, what probably attracted a young Kissinger to Metternich most was the essentially preventive nature of his conservatism. In Metternich’s use of congress diplomacy to prevent great-power war and stave off the threat of revolutionary nationalism, Kissinger saw a model for a post-war America newly encumbered with the dual task of preventing nuclear war and containing the spread of global Communism.

Kissinger’s portrait of Metternich, in his 1954 essay and in a book that same year about the Congress of Vienna, A World Restored, marked a rehabilitation of sorts for the Austrian statesman. It overturned the earlier appraisals of German historians, such as Heinrich von Treitschke and Heinrich von Srbik, who had, in the decades after Metternich’s death, depicted him as a cosmopolitan climber devoid of principle whose posturing on behalf of the supranational Habsburgs had impeded the march of German Kultur. Kissinger’s reconsideration of Metternich the diplomat built on the work of interwar English writers such as Algernon Cecil, for whom Metternich’s “system” of congresses had regained its luster in the aftermath of a devastating world war. But it was Kissinger who would most contribute to the rehabilitation of Metternich the conservative, and his depiction of Metternich as a universalist, rationalist conservative, rather than a particularist, historical conservative in the Burkean mold, stuck.

Sixty-five years later, a new biography of Metternich challenges Kissinger’s portrait. Wolfram Siemann’s Metternich: Strategist and Visionary is the first biography of Metternich in almost a century to draw primarily on archival materials, many of them previously unearthed, rather than on the research of earlier historians. A professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Siemann conducted an exhaustive review of Metternich’s voluminous papers in the Acta Clementina at the Czech National Archives in Prague. The result is a serious reappraisal of Metternich that is a joy to read, thanks in part to the work of a talented translator, Daniel Steuer. Siemann manages to sustain a lively storyline through seven decades of European history and bring to light many details of Metternich’s life that earlier historians could sketch only in fragmentary form: his formative years and relationship with his father and mother; the influence of his German historicist teachers in the waning days of the old Holy Roman Empire; details of his many love affairs, his family life, and the refinement of his skills as a diplomat.

By far the book’s most significant claims are about Metternich’s thought life and the tenets of his political philosophy. Though Siemann does not mention Kissinger’s characterization of Metternich, reading the two side by side reveals strikingly different conclusions about Metternich’s conservatism. Siemann seeks to place the Austrian statesman squarely in the “historical conservative,” or Whiggish, tradition of Burke. This is a bold argument, considering that most other historians to date have classified Metternich as a detached rationalist who (at best) sought a kind of mechanical stability or (at worst, in the eyes of liberal detractors) was a repressive reactionary and administrator of a police state.

To make his case, Siemann relies on archival evidence that either was not available to or was not used by earlier historians. Exhibit A is a first edition of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France that Metternich purchased as a youth on a 1794 trip to London. He apparently even attended sessions of Parliament to watch Burke’s speeches from the visitors’ gallery. (In fairness to Kissinger, these facts were not brought to light until the diary of Metternich’s traveling companion, the Comte de Liedekerke, was published in 1968.)

From Metternich’s notes in the margins of Reflections, Siemann identifies two aspects of Burke’s thinking that especially appealed to the young Austrian. One was the contention that human liberty is meaningless, and indeed potentially dangerous, unless combined with order — or as Burke put it: combined with “public force; the discipline and obedience of armies; the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; morality and religion; the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.” The second was Burke’s lamentation that, with the emergence of an unhinged revolutionary France, “the age of chivalry is gone,” and with it the system of “noble equality” that had “mitigated kings into companions” and that “without force, or opposition, . . . subdued the fierceness of pride and power; . . . obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and [given] a domination vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.”

The first point is not inconsistent with Kissinger’s reading of Metternich, in that it suggests a preoccupation with order, but its emphasis is on an ordered liberty in the Anglo-American tradition distinct from both the Enlightenment Kantian tradition and the license entailed in the French concept of liberté. The second point deals with checks on the power of the monarch in keeping with the English constitution (and Montesquieu). Siemann convincingly argues that such checks would have appealed to Metternich given his upbringing under the “mixed constitution” of the Holy Roman Empire. And they would have been readily applicable to the “composite state” of the Habsburgs, in which the monarch was far from absolute on the Russian or Prussian model and in fact was constrained by obligations to the various provinces and estates.

While Metternich’s initial reactions to Burke must be read in context, as comments on passages that caught the eye of a still intellectually immature young man, Siemann traces the evolution of these and other elements of Burkean thought in Metternich’s writing, policies, and even the management of his personal estate. Metternich’s respect for private property, commitment to free trade, predilection for balance and compromise, and even (surprisingly) distrust of the powers of unchecked bureaucracy all speak to a conservatism rooted in a firm sense of limits that does not fit with the picture of Metternich as a reactionary statist.

Fittingly enough, however, it is in Metternich’s diplomacy that the strongest case can be made for Metternich as a historical conservative. In the Habsburg Monarchy, Metternich saw a defensive edifice built on divided power that allowed the survival of weak polities that otherwise would have been subsumed into larger neighboring empires. Around Austria, he sought to build independent buffer states and wrap the whole in a system of consensual diplomacy aimed at maintaining a stable balance of power and an independent European center.

An example of Metternich’s conservative statecraft in practice can be seen in his approach to the Polish question. On Kissinger’s logic, Metternich’s stance on this issue should not have been any different from that of his Prussian and Russian counterparts, who sought to carve up Poland among the three empires. But like Burke, and in the tradition of his forerunner Kaunitz, Metternich opposed Polish partition, on the grounds that it would remove an ancient state that was an irreplaceable component in the European balance of power.

Another example is Italy. On Kissinger’s reasoning, the particular identities, histories, and constitutions of the various provinces of the Habsburg Monarchy should have carried no particular weight, with Metternich as the rationalist manager of the imperial center. Since, as Kissinger writes, Metternich viewed history as being “of no greater moral validity” than most other social forces, the highly local political customs of these different lands should have been at best meaningless to him; indeed, we should expect Metternich, as a praetorian of absolutism, to have treated them as particularist, and therefore potentially wayward, elements to be suppressed and regularized in the fashion of a centralizing continental statesman.

But that was not the case. In numerous memoranda to the Emperor Francis, Metternich made an impassioned appeal for imperial decentralization (what Catholics would call “subsidiarity”). There is an unremarked similarity between these ideas and Burke’s argument that George III should devolve the rights of taxation and legislation to the American colonies as a means of keeping them within the British Empire (a formula later applied, successfully, to Canada) and his advocacy of granting greater religious liberty to Ireland. On a similar logic, Metternich urged Francis to grant a degree of local rule to the Austrian territories in Italy as part of a wider federalization of the empire that would have made the emperor the hub of four semi-autonomous regions corresponding to “the nationality of the province and the interests that result from their local conditions.” Burkean, indeed.

Convincing as these examples are, however, there are some gaps in Siemann’s analysis. Even after 900 pages, it is not entirely clear what made up Metternich’s moral core. What was it, other than the status quo, that he saw as worth defending? Was there a deeper “good” that his elegant structures were designed to protect, or was it simply stability for stability’s sake? In the cases of Poland and Italy, how much did Metternich’s views have to do with preserving the ancient foundations from which political legitimacy derived, as opposed to merely ensuring the functioning of cogs in a stable balance of power?

Of course, Metternich was operating within a state, Austria, that was the most encircled and geopolitically vulnerable in Europe; he did not have the luxury of attachments to historical constitutionalism afforded by Britain’s island geography. Yet it is noteworthy that even when he had the advantage of a favorable margin of power after Napoleon’s demise, Metternich did not attempt to resurrect the hoary traditions and estates of the Holy Roman Empire, as one suspects a Burke might have done.

Christianity was probably a more important part of Metternich’s worldview than was previously realized, as Siemann shows by relating the emotional reactions that Metternich recorded after encountering a small painting of Christ in Padua and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. Metternich’s essentially tragic view of human nature (reflecting the influence of Kant’s “crooked timber of humanity”) was consistent with the Christian acceptance of mankind’s fallenness. Nevertheless, many of the natural attachments that conservatives see as having the greatest claim to our affections seem missing in him. Metternich showed a good deal of hostility to the layers of civil society that Burke and Tocqueville saw as the essential ballast to the social order and as a check on the power of the state. He did not show much interest in protecting his own caste, the old Bohemian nobility, in the way that Burke guarded the privileges of the Anglo-Irish gentry. And try as Siemann might, the picture he paints of Metternich as a doting father never fully sticks. (Anyone who has been a diplomat while raising young children will struggle to understand how Metternich could spend hours negotiating with other diplomats while his daughter lay dying upstairs.)

If there is a tension between Metternich and Burke that still stands out, even after Siemann’s attempt at a convergence, it is in this question of the moral sources of order. Where Burke saw order as springing upward from the foundations of family and friends, for Metternich order seems to have been channeled downward through the state or international system. Perhaps because he was concerned primarily with restoring a system that had collapsed after years of devastating war, and because he presided over a complex empire in which localism, carried too far, could dismantle the whole edifice, Metternich prioritized stability as an intrinsic rather than merely instrumental good, over the preservation of a domestic social order rooted in precedent and custom. By contrast, because Burke was concerned with preserving long-held English liberties against a still-emerging revolutionary threat, he was concerned primarily with a domestic good. There was also an essential difference in their respective senses of Heimat or homeland: While both had roots outside the imperial center (Metternich coming from the Rhineland and Burke from Ireland), Metternich was, to use David Goodhart’s terms, much more a transnational “anywhere” and Burke a particularist “somewhere.” One can easily imagine Metternich eagerly making the rounds at Davos; Burke, not so much.

A tension between the Metternichian and Burkean dispositions is present in our own time. Writing in the early Cold War era — that is, prior to the 1960s — Kissinger and his contemporaries could largely take for granted the cohesion of Western societies and, like an early Metternich, devote their energies to questions of systemic stability almost as an abstraction. Today that is not possible; the time of upheaval Kissinger wrote about has arrived. Conservatives face a weakening of the domestic order at the same time that the return of great-power competition threatens international order. The first requires a bolstering of the internal cohesion of Western societies riven by atomization, the inroads of radicalism, and the splintering of the political commons into antagonistic blocs; the second requires a bolstering of the external bulwarks against great-power war. Such conditions inevitably produce a recognition of the limits of gradualism among conservatives fed up with years of rearguard compromise who desire a proactive rather than an essentially defensive and recessional policy program.

As in Metternich’s time, the domestic and the international levels are of course intertwined. When the ultimate test of the Metternich “system” came in 1848, it showed that any stability between states that themselves were of uncertain legitimacy in the eyes of their peoples was doomed to end in crisis, however elegant such a system might seem externally. The nationalist revolutions of 1848 saw an out-of-touch elite caught off guard by the strength of popular dissatisfaction that had accumulated beneath the surface of what had seemed to be a stable edifice.

A similar crisis exists today. To sustain an abstract international order built on the principles of reason, at the expense of historically specific sources of order within individual states, is to invite the consequences of 1848. To ignore the benefits of a well-maintained order above the level of the state, centered on alliances, is to flirt with a return of the old chaos of great-power war and pave the way for the loss of both internal and external order. “Order once shattered,” as Kissinger observed, “can be restored only by the experience of chaos.”

The task for our time is to preserve international stability while making a sustainable place for the domestic particularisms without which even the most rational of structures will collapse upon itself for want of popular legitimacy. This will require a more convincing convergence of Metternich and Burke than Siemann’s beautiful book ultimately achieves. But that must, nevertheless, be our aim.

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A. Wess Mitchell — Mr. Mitchell is a principal at the Marathon Initiative and formerly served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. His most recent book is The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire.

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