Congress System breakdown- England?
Assess the extent to which the policy of England was responsible for the breakdown of the Congress System.
According to the Quadruple Alliance (1815) of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed in the Vienna Settlement, the four powers agreed to hold periodic meetings to discuss matters of common interest and to consider measures that could be “most salutary for the repose and prosperity of the nations and for maintaining the peace of Europe”. So there came the Congress System. In the period between 1818-22, four congresses including the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, Congress of Troppau, Congress of Laibach and Congress of Verona were held. However, the Congress System proved to be a failure and it broke down in 1826. The policy of England was responsible for the breakdown of the System to a certain extent. Nevertheless, other factors such as the mutual suspicions among the powers and the rise of revolts also led to the breakdown of the Congress System. England’s policy was quite important in leading to the breakdown of the Congress System. England’s policy after 1815 was to cooperate in the Concert of Europe without becoming involved in further entangling commitments, to preserve the Continental balance of power, to maintain the maritime supremacy of England as well as to promote and retain markets for English goods and manufacturers in Europe and the New World.
England carried out this policy throughout the Congress System. In the Congress System, she favored the principle of non-intervention to the internal affairs of their states. However, when other big powers took action which would endanger the balance of power, she had to intervene. This created much conflicts between her and the Holy Alliance. There were conflicts between them from the very beginning. In the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), Alexander I proposed an “Alliance Solidaire” suggesting that all European states should mutually guarantee not only each other’s territories and possessions but also the existing form of government. However, it was rejected by Castlereagh who stated that each state must be allowed to rely for its security upon the “justice and wisdom” of its own system. The powers then began to contemplate separate combination among themselves. The Alliance System and the Congress System were doomed from that moment. Later, there were revolts in Spain, Portugal, Naples and Piedmont. Alexander I proposed in the Congress of Troppau taking intervention against the Spanish Revolt. However, Castlereagh once again rejected it by declaring a “State Paper”. No longer, Metternich presented to the Congress a Protocol claiming that any state had succumbed to revolution had to cease to be a member of the Holy Alliance automatically and that other Powers had a duty to coerce the state “back to the bosom of the Alliance”. Britain vigorously opposed it because it could make the Allies “the armed guardians of all thrones”. The Congress was adjourned and the rupture between Britain and the three autocratic powers was widened. The adjourned Congress of Troppau was resumed later at Laibach. Austria and Russia took military intervention to suppress the revolts in Naples and Piedmont. Britain withdrew from the Congress for it was a direct violation to her principle of non-intervention. So the rupture between Britain and the three Eastern Powers was further widened. Later in the Congress of Verona, Russia and Austria supported the despatch of a French expeditionary force to quell revolt in Spain. Britain again protested and later withdrew from the Congress System altogether because Canning who succeeded Castlereagh believed that if Britain was to lead the world along the middle path between despotism and revolution, she must dissociate herself from the Holy Alliance and place herself in the vanguard of the new movement of nationalism and democracy.
Afterwards, there came the question of the Spanish American colonies. Hoping to promote the growing trade between Britain and the former Spanish colonies in South America, Britain openly supported the revolt of the Spanish American colonies, cooperating with the Americans in making the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that any influence by a European power in the American continent would mean unfriendly act against the USA. The serious disagreement between Britain and the other powers made the breakdown of the Congress System inevitable. Therefore, Britain’s policy should be responsible for the breakdown of the Congress System. Owing to her policy, Britain was very uncompromising and she always opposed the policies of the other three powers, causing their relationship become worse and worse. Her final withdrawal from the Congress System prevented the Alliance from acting as a whole, making the eventual dissolution of the Congress System inevitable. Nevertheless, I think that Britain was not the only one who was responsible for the breakdown of the System. Other factors also combined to destroy the whole system. The Conflicts between Britain and the Holy Alliance were the results of the sharp differences between them. Britain was a parliamentary government while Russia, Austria and Prussia were absolute monarchies.
Economically, British economic interest mainly relied on colonial peace since she was a colonial power. But the three autocratic powers’ mainly rested on the territories they controlled and so they were against revolutions. As a result, Britain preferred the principle of non-intervention in order to maintain peace in colonies while Austria, Prussia and Russia favored the Principle of Intervention to safeguard their power of monarchy. These two principles frequently clashed and led to much conflicts which gradually deteriorated the relationship between Britain and the other three Powers. It was the two completely different systems made it difficult for the powers to cooperate. Had there not been such differences, great conflicts which undermined the whole Congress System would not have occurred. Moreover, once there was a common aim among the powers to safeguard themselves from France. Though the differences between Britain and the Holy Alliance existed for a long time, this common aim bind the Powers together and prevented them from conflicts.
However, in the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1818, the occupation of France was ended. The Restored Monarchy of France was no longer a menace to the peace of Europe. France was thus readmitted to the rank of a great power and was admitted into the Quadruple Alliance which became the Quintuple Alliance. As H. Nicolson concluded, “Coalitions begin to disintegrate from the moment that the common danger is removed”. Once the common enemy was removed, the conflict among the Powers became more prominent and finally led to the breakdown of the Congress System. On the other hand, there were no real cooperation in the Congress due to mutual suspicions among the powers. Their suspicions were first shown in the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle. Owing to the fear of the expansion of British naval power, there was objection to the idea that the British would have the right to search ships for slaves in their efforts to enforce the abolition of slave trade. Apart from this, there were also mutual disagreements between Austria, Prussia and Russia though they were said to be in the same camp. In the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, there was joint expedition against pirate. However, due to the fear of Russian expansion, Russia was checked by not allowing her vessels entering the Mediterranean Sea. When the Greek Revolt started in 1821, Alexander I wanted to help the Greeks in order to weaken the Turkish Empire. However, Metternich was determined to prevent the Tsar from supporting the Greeks and to maintain Turkish integrity against Russian aggression. He gained the support of Britain and so the Russian ambition was checked. Later, in 1824, when Alexander I invited the powers to a conference in St. Petersburg to discuss about the Greek Revolt, Russia and Austria clashed again. Russia proposed dividing Greece into three principalities and the Sultan granting autonomy to the Greeks. The other powers were alarmed and there were fear of Russian predominance. Austria would never tolerate strong power as Russia to encroach at the Lower Danube. Moreover, there were fear of France exploiting the issue for a general revision to the 1815 Settlement. Metternich baulked and the collapse of the Congress System was then an obvious fact. From these, we can see that Britain was not the only one who should be blamed. There were not only conflicts between Britain and the other powers but there were also conflicts among the three powers themselves. Moreover, although Britain withdrew from the Congress System at Congress of Verona, the Congress System was not yet extinguished. It was actually the conflicts between Russia and Austria on the Greek Revolt tore the Congress System into pieces.
Furthermore, series circumstances also helped to load to the breakdown of the Congress System. The negligence of liberalism and national identity in small states by the great powers in the Vienna Settlement gave rise to liberalism and nationalism in these small states. The spirit of unrest seethed and in the 1820s, many disturbances and revolts occurred. These revolts such as the Spanish Revolt, Revolts in Naples and Piedmont and the Greek Revolt did have great significances. On one hand, they alarmed the monarchs and consolidated their idea of intervention which clashed with the British idea of non-intervention. For instance, Alexander I was a liberator but later even he was alarmed by the revolts and changed to a reactionary. On the other hand, these revolts led to the summon of the last three Congresses and helped to bring the conflicts among the powers to surface. The Spanish Revolt brought out the conflicts between Britain and the Holy Alliance while the Greek Revolt brought out the conflicts between Russia and Austria and directly led to the breakdown of the Congress System. Events after events worsened the relationship between the powers and accelerated the breakdown of the Congress System.
In conclusion, the policy of England, to a certain extent, had led to the breakdown of the Congress System. However, other factors also worked together to undermine the Congress System.
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