It is hardly surprising that the Settlement was dominated by the Great Powers for it was they who, at great cost, had defeated Napoleon and only they who had the strength to bring the turmoil that he had created to an end. So the most delicate negotiations and the key decisions took place, outside the formal sessions of the Conference, between the statesmen representing the victorious powers. The scheming of Talleyrand won France a place in the inner discussions but the representatives of the lesser nations were kept away from the decision-making.
The Settlement is often studied through a survey of Great Power representatives, motives, tactics and rewards. At the end of this essay it will be argued that this situation does not necessarily mean that principles had no part to play in shaping the settlement of Europe. A lot may depend on how one defines a principle.
The territorial arrangements arrived at offer a clear indication of the significant part played by Great Power politics. The Tsar Alexander pursued the traditional Russian policy of expansion westwards in order to provide deeper defences for the heart of his kingdom, securing both Finland and Poland for his pains. Hardenberg of Prussia had great ambitions to obtain all of Saxony…
What the Great powers wanted in the way of territory they appeared to get unless they ran up against the counter interests of one of their peers and compromise and compensation were, after a generation of war, inevitable. British territorial gains though outside Europe, in …, have a similar ring of ensuring the reward of the powers for their efforts.
Outside the immediate territorial gains of the Great Powers there is more room for debate on what constituted the dominating themes of the Settlement. The aggregation of hundreds of small German states into the 39 of the German Confederation was arguably a commendable attempt to provide political stability in Central Europe. More cynically it was convenient for the Great Powers of Prussia and Austria because it left the region open to either of them to dominate in the future without provoking an immediate crisis between them as the Saxon issue had done.
Contrasting arguments can also be developed in regard to the arrangements for Italy, where it has been suggested above that Austrian territorial gains was a sop to its great power ambitions. They could however be defended as providing both political stability and defence against future French attacks for the region. The restoration of Habsburg and Bourbon rulers to the lesser Italian states could be seen in the same light.
Play has been made of the notion, for it is scarcely a principle, that one intention of the Allies was to create a buffer-zone around France in order to prevent aggression by it in future. Certainly one of the aims of the Powers at Vienna, and this could well be seen as a principle, was to restore stability and peace to Europe. The “buffer states”, the combined Netherlands, Austrian Italy, the Prussian Rhineland were a part of this strategy which can be seen as a matter of principle but which was also in the interests of the European Powers.
Similar arguments can be made relevant to other arrangements arrived at during the Settlement. The Quadruple Alliance was self-consciously a great power arrangement whereby they would meet to settle future disputes at an early stage, no doubt largely to maintain a status quo that was very much in their own interest. And yet the idea of Great Powers meeting to avert conflict has a principled, modern ring to it. The same could be said for the Tsar’s Holy Alliance, only the principles were more vague and the self-interest more difficult to conceal. Britain’s refusal to join was certainly more a matter of convenience than of principle. Though some may have liked to have claimed the contrary.
In all this it is difficult to argue that the Balance of Power in Europe was ever raised as a matter of principle or ever systematically pursued . No-one wanted over-powerful neighbours but this was self-interest; not principle.
The best example of principles not being totally forgotten rests upon Britain’s persistent campaign to have the slave-trade declared illegal by the participants at the Settlement. That, and the later efforts at naval enforcement, are the other side of the coin to Britain’s substantial colonial gains.
In 1815 the great political ideas, or principles, for the future were those born in the previous revolutions and wars – that is liberalism and nationalism. At Vienna these were conveniently forgotten, ignored or suppressed. The suggestion that suppression was cynically and deliberately carried out on a large scale by the statesmen of the Great Powers gives to these new political forces an identity and a strength which in 1815 they did not possess. The statesmen, with Metternich pre-eminent amongst them, it can be argued, sought the restoration of older principles through the restoration of legitimate rulers to their possession and to protection of the interests of their subjects.
Inevitably then, the Great Powers dominated the settlement and used to reward themselves for their efforts against Napoleon. This does not mean that their settlement was unprincipled, in the sense of being totally cynical, or that it was without any basis in principle even if that was only the search for stability, by the attempted restoration of the political arrangements which had characterized the 18th century.