Over the course of the next few weeks and months, we’ll be reviewing several of Arthur Herman’s excellent historical works — none more ambitious than his four-year old voyage To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. The subtitle encapsulates Herman’s vital objective, which he accomplishes with panache: to transcend the bounds of the ordinary military or naval history and instead to examine, critically and in detail, the British Navy as an integral part of world history during the latter half of the millennium just past.
The excerpt which follows may not do full justice to the engrossing tale which Herman relates. But what it does epitomize is the breadth of Herman’s vision when focusing upon a particular crucial moment in time — crucial both in terms of world history, and also in terms of documenting his thesis — the Congress of Vienna, which made the peace in the aftermath of the great conflict which followed the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon:
“Political scientists like to present Metternich as the great architect of European order after 1815. In fact, Metternich’s system for a ‘Europe restored’ and a Holy Alliance to hold it together lasted barely thirty years. Castlereagh’s version prevented a general war in Europe for a century and has served as the basis of international politics ever since.
“It rested on a basic fact: it was Britain’s navy that had beaten Napoleon and made Britain the most powerful nation on the planet — and a basic principle. It was a principle Castlereagh had absorbed from his dead friend William Pitt, who first enunciated it in a memorandum drawn up back in 1805, when the prime minister first began to consider the face of the future once Napoleon was finally gone, as Pitt knew he one day would be. It was ‘security, not revenge.’ Europe’s war had been with Napoleon, not France. What Europe needed now was peace, based on a new stable international order that would ‘bring the world back to peaceful habits.’ A restored France, not a defeated or humiliated one, should be as much a part of that order as Austria, Prussia, Russia or Britain.
“France would have to return to her pre-revolution borders, and to rule by the Bourbons. But Napoleon would be allowed to return to exile — this time exile at a safe distance on St. Helena in the South Atlantic, with a pair of Royal Navy brigs to keep permanent watch over him — and France would pay no indemnities nor give up any territory as punishment for disrupting the life of Europe for a quarter-century. Castlereagh even insisted on giving back all the colonies the British navy had taken from France (the one exception being Mauritius, to keep watch over the western approaches to the Indian Ocean). All this was part of achieving a lasting peace in Europe, which also meant peace and security for Britain.
“Castlereagh’s second goal was to use the Congress of Vienna to create a true and permanent balance of power within Europe itself. ‘The establishment of a just equilibrium in Europe (is) the first object of my attention,’ he explained. No single power should ever again be allowed to enjoy unchallenged sway over the Continent. The rise of Russia to the east and any future French ambitions in the west was to be counterbalance by strong, independent ‘Great Powers’ in the center, which in 1815 meant Austria and Prussia. Later, it would be adapted to include Germany and Italy. Meantime, Britain’s own security would be safeguarded by a neutral Holland (and after 1830, a neutral Belgium), which no aggressor could ever again use for staging an invasion across the Channel.
“As for Britain, the greatest Great Power of all, she was to remain fundamentally outside Europe. ‘The power of Great Britain to do good,’ Castlereagh wrote in 1813, ‘depends not merely on her resources but her impartiality, and the reconciling character of her influence.’ For Castlereagh believed Britain did have the power to do good. Under the circumstances, Britain could decide to use its unprecedented supremacy to aggrandize its power and dictate terms to its neighbors. Or, alternatively, Britain could use it to umpire the balance of power of Europe and maintain the general peace, while protecting the worldwide bonds of trade and commerce, on which the prosperity of Europe now depended — not to mention Britain itself.
“Just as Britain had fought the last twenty years to defend what it saw as a fundamental moral order, so Castlereagh and his successor, George Canning, wanted to make sure that the future world order embraced the same moral principles. Without perhaps knowing it, they were about to make Britain’s seaborne empire unlike any empire that preceded it . . . “
(continued in following post)