Essays & Reviews

Is Putin Another Metternich?

Mitchell A. Orenstein, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University, offers the provocative thesis that Vladimir Putin is an aspiring Metternich. At first glance, this seems a rather odd comparison, in temperament and style, certainly.  In foreign policy terms, Metternich would seem to be the consummate conservative, wedded to the idea of a stable European balance of power in which Austria could maximize its waning power; Putin, the foreign policy revolutionary, who seeks to kick over the table in order for Russia to maximize its waning power.

Orenstein argues, however, that, upon closer examination, Putin, like Metternich, is a conservative imperialist who seeks to create a balance or “concert” between the great powers in Europe, while suppressing liberal democratic politics and the aspirations of small nations. Putin’s career, like Metternich’s, has been defined by the trauma of democratic revolution. Some in the West see Putin as a proto-Hitler; Putin sees NATO and the European Union as Metternich saw Napoleon (in the sense of being an heir to the French Revolution): wildly messianic and territorially expansionist, determined to enforce regime change on Russia, as the Western alliance did to the Soviet Union.  Putin aspires to reshape Europe, as Metternich did after the Napoleonic wars, into a balance of power system in which Russia is not only included, but a central player that helps to construct the rules of the game.  This requires the dissolution of NATO (the Euro-Atlantic security partnership), to be replaced by a new security architecture.  According to Orenstein, Putin’s ideal is a Congress Europe in which great powers meet to resolve security issues on the continent – including the borders of the non-viable nations that emerged after the Cold War – while respecting and containing one another’s spheres of influence.  This Congress would presumably involve at its core Germany and France, while excluding the United States. Indeed, these are the powers with whom Putin is engaging directly over the Ukraine crisis.

Whatever one thinks of the argument, it is a good occasion to remind ourselves of some of the best sources on Metternich, the balance of power, the Congress of Vienna, and the European Concert. Perhaps the best general study is that by Edward Vose Gulick, Europe’s Classical Balance of Power: A Case History of the Theory and Practice of One of the Great Concepts of European Statecraft (1955).  Henry Kissinger’s study of Metternich remains an essential standard: A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822 (Boston: Mariner, 1957); see also Paul Schroeder, Metternich’s Diplomacy at Its Zenith (1968) and, for Metternich’s great British counterpart, Charles Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 1812–1822 (1963).  For the Congress of Vienna see Kissinger, above, and Harold Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity: 1812-1822 (originally published in 1945). On the history of the Concert of Europe see Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1848 (1996), and “The 19th- Century International System: Changes in the Structure,” World Politics 39, no. 1 (October 1986).

Schroeder, for instance, argues that the Concert of Europe did not rest on a balance of power at all – the “essential power relations were hegemonic, not balanced, and a hegemonic distribution of power, along with other factors, made the system work.”  The three central powers (France, Austria, and Prussia) were much weaker than the powers on the flanks of the continent, Britain and Russia.  These two flanking powers were hegemonic in their own right.  The Concert of Europe rested on this bipolarity.  All the great powers were united in their support for monarchy and (at times save for Britain) their opposition to revolutionary movements, but Russia and Britain were the two dominant Eurasian powers, in the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Levant, the Balkans, and the Baltic. According to Schroeder, the Concert became the means by which the two “superpowers” of the day imposed order on Europe, sometimes acting in defiance of the views of the other members of the Concert.