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Reviving The Congress Of Vienna

Quite a panel

Columbia’s European Institute is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna. Bwog sent its Matternich correspondent Anna Hotter to report back from the Faculty House about the first day of the conference. 

“The Congress of Vienna looks better after 200 years than it did after 100,” Robert Jervis tells the room when asked to assess its historical and political legacy. He is reminding us of an interwar Europe that viewed its instability, at least in part, as a consequence of the Congress’ failure. The promise of political security was broken after only a century, and the continent was yet again plunged into war. Europe and the rest of the world  have come a long way from the devastation of the 20th century and as Jervis points out, it seems that another century later we are ready to re-contextualise the significance of 1815.

The first day of the conference opened with a panel of historians and political theorists, including our very own Robert Jervis and Isser Woloch. The tenor of the conversation was  dominated by questions of international political memory and institutional legacy. While the Congress’ main nominal purpose was to provide security after the Napoleonic Wars, and a return to conservatism, the panelists’ focus was more on its role in building new institutions within the restoration regimes.

The second panel of the evening dealt with the more concrete “perspectives from Scholars & Practitioners,”  on the 21st century implications of such a transnational congress. It included two professors from Utrecht and Princeton, and Brazilian and Austrian diplomats. Before starting the moderator warned the room: “I hope there are no Americanists in the room since they might find it hard to hear about a congress that is actually working.”

The ensuing discussion was focused on the lessons we can take from Vienna, both in terms of its eventual failures and persisting victories. All panelists seemed in agreement that the Congress’ main strength as a diplomatic event lies in the face-to-face gathering of national leaders. Ambassador Patriota of Brazil pointed out that the physical confrontation made a difference in political relations precisely because it forced them to see what they had in common, as opposed to what divided them.

But how does this lesson translate into the 21st century? Can we resurrect the Vienna Congress in a globalised context? Beatrice de Graaf mentioned the importance of inclusion in global contemporary discourse, especially that of minority powers and smaller states. Also,Wolfgang Petritsch said that the Vienna Congress could no longer be a European, or even a Western affair. The former Austrian UN representative stressed the importance of a truly global perspective that redistributes political power according to de facto power within the international system, much like the Vienna Congress did in the 19th century. The global balance of power has shifted so drastically that it would probably call for a “Congress of Jakarta,” he concluded.

Americanists would have indeed been disappointed by the conference’s first day, which focused almost exclusively on the aftermath within European political history. The professional variety amongst the participants lent the discussion both a sense of intellectual diversity, and occasional incoherence.

Unfortunately, the conference’s concern for diversity didn’t extend beyond the professional realm, as all speakers were white and most of them male. This created an uncomfortable tension between the panels’ calls for a “truly inclusive” and global political discourse, and the seemingly exclusive nature of the discussion itself.

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