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How a World Order Ends

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A stable world order is a rare thing. When one does arise, it tends to come after a great convulsion that creates both the conditions and the desire for something new. It requires a stable distribution of power and broad acceptance of the rules that govern the conduct of international relations. It also needs skillful statecraft, since an order is made, not born. And no matter how ripe the starting conditions or strong the initial desire, maintaining it demands creative diplomacy, functioning institutions, and effective action to adjust it when circumstances change and buttress it when challenges come.

Eventually, inevitably, even the best-managed order comes to an end. The balance of power underpinning it becomes imbalanced. The institutions supporting it fail to adapt to new conditions. Some countries fall, and others rise, the result of changing capacities, faltering wills, and growing ambitions. Those responsible for upholding the order make mistakes both in what they choose to do and in what they choose not to do.

But if the end of every order is inevitable, the timing and the manner of its ending are not. Nor is what comes in its wake. Orders tend to expire in a prolonged deterioration rather than a sudden collapse. And just as maintaining the order depends on effective statecraft and effective action, good policy and proactive diplomacy can help determine how that deterioration unfolds and what it brings. Yet for that to happen, something else must come first: recognition that the old order is never coming back and that efforts to resurrect it will be in vain. As with any ending, acceptance must come before one can move on.

In the search for parallels to today’s world, scholars and practitioners have looked as far afield as ancient Greece, where the rise of a new power resulted in war between Athens and Sparta, and the period after World War I, when an isolationist United States and much of Europe sat on their hands as Germany and Japan ignored agreements and invaded their neighbors. But the more illuminating parallel to the present is the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century, the most important and successful effort to build and sustain world order until our own time. From 1815 until the outbreak of World War I a century later, the order established at the Congress of Vienna defined many international relationships and set (even if it often failed to enforce) basic rules for international conduct. It provides a model of how to collectively manage security in a multipolar world.

That order’s demise and what followed offer instructive lessons for today—and an urgent warning. Just because an order is in irreversible decline does not mean that chaos or calamity is inevitable. But if the deterioration is managed poorly, catastrophe could well follow.

The global order of the second half of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first grew out of the wreckage of two world wars. The nineteenth-century order followed an earlier international convulsion: the Napoleonic Wars, which, after the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, ravaged Europe for more than a decade. After defeating Napoleon and his armies, the victorious allies—Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom, the great powers of their day—came together in Vienna in 1814 and 1815. At the Congress of Vienna, they set out to ensure that France’s military never again threatened their states and that revolutionary movements never again threatened their monarchies. The victorious powers also made the wise choice to integrate a defeated France, a course very different from the one taken with Germany following World War I and somewhat different from the one chosen with Russia in the wake of the Cold War.

The congress yielded a system known as the Concert of Europe. Although centered in Europe, it constituted the international order of its day given the dominant position of Europe and Europeans in the world. There was a set of shared understandings about relations between states, above all an agreement to rule out invasion of another country or involvement in the internal affairs of another without its permission. A rough military balance dissuaded any state tempted to overthrow the order from trying in the first place (and prevented any state that did try from succeeding). Foreign ministers met (at what came to be called “congresses”) whenever a major issue arose. The concert was conservative in every sense of the word. The Treaty of Vienna had made numerous territorial adjustments and then locked Europe’s borders into place, allowing changes only if all signatories agreed. It also did what it could to back monarchies and encourage others to come to their aid (as France did in Spain in 1823) when they were threatened by popular revolt.

An engraving of the Congress of Vienna, 1814. Jean-Baptiste ISABEY

The concert worked not because there was complete agreement among the great powers on every point but because each state had its own reasons for supporting the overall system. Austria was most concerned with resisting the forces of liberalism, which threatened the ruling monarchy. The United Kingdom was focused on staving off a renewed challenge from France while also guarding against a potential threat from Russia (which meant not weakening France so much that it couldn’t help offset the threat from Russia). But there was enough overlap in interests and consensus on first-order questions that the concert prevented war between the major powers of the day.

The concert technically lasted a century, until the eve of World War I. But it had ceased to play a meaningful role long before then. The revolutionary waves that swept Europe in 1830 and 1848 revealed the limits of what members would do to maintain the existing order within states in the face of public pressure. Then, more consequentially, came the Crimean War. Ostensibly fought over the........

© Foreign Affairs