For centuries statesmen who have had to make difficult choices have been attacked by well-meaning intellectuals who never wielded real-world bureaucratic power and who therefore treat morality as an inflexible absolute. Such intellectuals often confuse eloquence with substance, not comprehending that the true measure of a diplomat is not style but common sense, as well as the efficiency by which he or she pursues the country's national interest. For liberal democracies operate in a world where there is no ultimate arbiter, and thus their geopolitical advantage — in addition to their survival — constitutes the highest morality.
Perhaps no statesman in early modern and modern history has been so necessary for the prosperity and survival of a liberal democracy and yet so despised and humiliated by the literary elite of the day as Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who was the pivotal figure for Britain's victory in the Napoleonic Wars and the advantageous peace settlement that followed. Castlereagh was to early 19th century Britain what Winston Churchill was to mid-20th century Britain. But unlike Churchill, who was generally lionized, Castlereagh was regularly savaged in poems and essays by contemporary literary greats such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Hazlitt. It was such unrelenting psychological punishment that was likely a contributor to his suicide in 1822 at age 53.
At last, in 2012, there was a vast, meticulous and comprehensive biography published that turns the tables on Castlereagh's critics and rescues his name from calumny. Castlereagh: A Life, by John Bew of Cambridge and King's College London, is a fat, heavy book that should sit on the table of every diplomat who has ever had to make difficult choices and has suffered media abuse for it. For diplomats are the true heroes of geopolitics, not strategists or generals. Strategists and generals are supposed to think amorally and are, therefore, less abused for doing so. But diplomats operate in a climate of compromise, politesse and idealism, whereas Castlereagh's brand of realism has always been less well regarded. Bew sets the tone by stating that while "maligned" as a "tyrant" and "reactionary," there was probably no man in England who better understood European politics than Castlereagh — as well as Britain's own interest in restoring the continental balance of power.
Castlereagh's formative and determining political experience was his visit to France during the French Revolution at the impressionable age of 22. As Bew explains it, despite the idealistic and utopian claims of the Jacobins and to an extent the more moderate Girondists, the young man saw how "[r]egional dynamics, religion, class and self-interest would play a much more important part than philosophical speculation." Castlereagh rightly foresaw that once the novelty of liberty wore off, the real test of the revolution would only begin. For a 22-year-old of privileged background to be able to think so critically, abstractly and unsentimentally about a shockingly violent political spectacle is relatively rare, and is indicative of Castlereagh's early emotional maturity. Such maturity, combined with the vivid, firsthand experience of anarchy, would mark Castlereagh from the beginning as both seasoned and cold blooded, the attributes of the greatest of diplomats. Castlereagh would forever be in search of grossly imperfect solutions and half-measures that, nevertheless, admitted no horrors. For horrors were not abstractions to him, due to his youthful sojourn in France.
In the eyes of idealists and intellectuals right up into the 21st century, Castlereagh's original sin was his so-called betrayal of his native Ireland to British interests. Bew, as it happens, spends the entire first part of this book on Ireland. He shows how it was the lofty goals of Ireland's freedom fighters — lacking in clarity, as they were — that tempered Castlereagh's enthusiasm for Irish independence because of his fear that Ireland could turn into a place similar to revolutionary France. Castlereagh genuinely believed that a prosperous and stable Ireland could best be obtained by sacrificing some aspects of its independence in return for the stabilizing guarantee of British suzerainty. Castlereagh feared, secondarily, that an independent Ireland could become an outright and anarchic satellite state of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Bew writes: "It was the prospect of Robespierrean politics being brought to Irish soil that concerned [Castlereagh] more than anything else," especially given that some of the Irish patriots "had spent time justifying Robespierre's Terror." Because the idealist strain in Castlereagh led him to support Catholic emancipation, while the realist strain led him to oppose complete Irish independence, he was someone caught in the middle — a place familiar to honorable men.
Castlereagh was clairvoyant in backing the Duke of Wellington's Peninsular campaign against Napoleon when much hope seemed lost: It was to a large degree Castlereagh's political backing of Wellington back home in London that allowed the latter to achieve victory on the fields of Iberia. Castlereagh's opposition to Napoleon also was far-seeing at a time when many in Parliament thought Napoleon's forces were about to conquer Russia. But as soon as the Russians repulsed Napoleon, Castlereagh proved as much an opponent of Russian hegemony as he had been of French hegemony. His morality lay in balance and moderation. Otherwise he was consistently amoral — the only diplomatic approach for the attainment of the greater good. For the public, to which he was a servant, demanded stability and the least amount of sacrifice, especially after a dozen years of war.
It was the diplomacy of Castlereagh, Austria's Prince Klemens von Metternich and, to a lesser extent, France's Prince de Talleyrand, that fashioned a Continental peace following the defeat of Napoleon that kept Europe relatively free of large-scale violence for decades. There was nothing idealistic about this settlement, restoring as it did the Bourbon dynasty in France, and so the intellectuals gave Castlereagh no praise for his efforts. Yet it was this peace that helped ease the path for Britain to emerge as the dominant world power before the end of the 19th century. Indeed, few labored as hard for their country and suffered as much vitriol as Castlereagh. Bew talks of his reserve, stoicism and sagacity in the face of never-ending personal attacks. (Lord Byron famously called him a "cold-blooded … placid miscreant.")
In what may be some of the finest words written about the relationship between those in the arts and those in government, Bew, responding to early 19th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's remarks about Castlereagh's intellectual "inferiority," has this to say:
If men of government were indeed conscious of such inferiority, it might be said that men of letters in this era — and in other eras — were equally intoxicated by their own sense of superiority. The demands of office during the Napoleonic Wars were unprecedented and the ministers faced practical and moral dilemmas for which there was no literary or intellectual formula. As one French admirer of Castlereagh asked, in considering the criticism of Byron and Shelley, "Was England to be allowed to perish to please the poets?"
In our own day, the moral drumbeat of the media is relentless, even as diplomats must turn to deal making as an alternative to war. And while the danger of appeasement always lurks, the greater danger is to always retreat from imperfect half-measures in pursuit of some morally perfect solution. It was Castlereagh's emotional genius — a matter more of temperament than of intellect — to be an architect for a diplomatic arrangement that kept the guns silent in Europe for decades.