By Robert D. Kaplan
"Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann (The old Jew, he is the man)." So said German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck about British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, in reference to who was the center of gravity at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. Indeed, Bismarck's admiration for Disraeli was considerable, and Disraeli held Bismarck in equal regard. They each prided themselves as being realists who held in contempt their fellow statesmen burdened with humanitarian concerns; that meant in each man's case an emotion bordering on hatred for Disraeli's sanctimonious political nemesis, British Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone.
Indeed, the rivalry that went on for years in the late 19th century between Disraeli, the heartless geopolitician of Jewish extraction, and Gladstone, the pious Christian moralist — and that in turn helped lead to Disraeli's alliance with Bismarck — mainly had to do with the so-called "Eastern Question." The Eastern Question dominated geopolitics for much of the time in the decades prior to World War I, and the Congress of Berlin was called by Bismarck in part to deal with it.
The Eastern Question strikes at the heart of present-day debates over humanitarian intervention in the Balkans, Libya and Syria.
Simply put, the Eastern Question was about how to respond to the slow-motion demise of the Ottoman Empire, whose territory included not only much of the Near East but much of Southeastern Europe besides. In its decrepitude, the Sultanate combined, in the words of one of Disraeli's biographers, Robert Blake, "the spiritual authority of the popes" with "the moral outlook of the more deplorable Roman emperors." Ottoman cruelty was "tempered only by incompetence." And, as Blake in his 1966 biography of Disraeli recounts, Turkish rule was particularly brutal for the Empire's Christian Orthodox subjects in the areas of modern-day Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia.
The problem for Great Britain, though, was that an Ottoman imperial collapse, as satisfying as it might be in purely moral terms, would unleash a Russian czarist sphere of influence extending throughout the Balkans and perhaps to the Mediterranean, uniting the southern Christian Slavs of Serbia and Bulgaria with their big Slavic brother in St. Petersburg. Moreover, because Britain considered Russia the chief threat in Central Asia to the sanctity of British India, any extension of Russian influence, even in the Balkans, was seen as detrimental. Thus, from the realist and geopolitical perspective, Turkey had to be propped up as long as possible. As for France, its defeat by Prussia in 1870 put it temporarily out of the game. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary, itself fragile and afraid of its own Slav minorities, was content to watch the drama between Britain, Turkey and Russia play out from the sidelines.
If this were all, the picture would be clear. But it isn't. Disraeli's realism was not entirely realistic, and Gladstone's humanitarianism was not absent of realism. For if the Turks knew that Disraeli would always defend them, no matter what they did, he would have little leverage over them, which was close to being the case. Moreover, Gladstone would later be proven right in assuming that the Slavic Christian nations of the Balkans, once liberated, would eventually be a more effective safeguard against Russian expansion than a rapidly decaying Ottoman Empire. Once independent, the need of these new states for Russia would be less obvious.
The debate came to a dramatic head with the September 1876 publication of Gladstone's pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. The pamphlet was a reaction to the rape, torture and hacking to death of many thousands of Bulgarian Orthodox Christians by Turkish irregulars a few months earlier, an atrocity that Disraeli — responding to the news reports of what had happened — dismissed as simply exaggerated. Gladstone was not amused. "Let the Turks carry away their abuses in the only possible way, namely by carrying off themselves." They should, he went on, "clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned…There is not a criminal in any European gaol, there is not a cannibal in the South Sea Islands whose indignation would not arise and overboil at the recital of that which has been done." Such rhetoric from the leading member of the opposition resulted in the sale of 200,000 copies of the pamphlet within a month — an astounding number for the time. Gladstone's broadside ranks as one of the great political and philosophical polemics of modern history.
For Disraeli, both a cynic and a romantic, foreign policy was about naked national interests or it was nothing; for Gladstone, the arch-moralist, foreign policy was a humanitarian crusade or it was nothing. Sound familiar? Today's foreign policy community is often divided along similar lines.
Both Disraeli's and Gladstone's friends and enemies fed on each other, with the most personal of attacks common fare. One faction hated the Turks, the other the Russians. Disraeli's frustration was legion, for he knew that the Bulgarian atrocities were providing an opportunity for the Russians to invade the Balkans under the guise of a humanitarian gesture, but in truth for a geopolitical motive — which is exactly what the Russians did the following year, igniting a war with complex implications for the whole Near East.
The conclusion of the Russo-Turkish War, among other things, led to a Russian-dominated Greater Bulgaria, which Great Britain could not abide: thus the principal reason for Bismarck calling the Congress of Berlin. The results of the Congress were mixed, but still positive enough for Disraeli. By revising the borders and sovereignty of the erstwhile Greater Bulgaria along with some other concessions, he bought more breathing room for the Turks, whose empire would limp along for another 40 years until the end of the cataclysm of World War I.
But was propping up Turkey really necessary to safeguard India? And didn't the anti-Russian attitude that Bulgaria adopted within a decade in any case disprove Disraeli's analysis? These are the questions his biographer Blake asks. But there is a larger, more important question. The fact that Disraeli felt British foreign policy had to override the reality of the atrocities and continue with its pro-Turkish theme is understandable. The foreign policy of any great power is often tragic because interests of state periodically clash with interests of a higher, universal morality. But the fact that Disraeli was not bothered by it is less understandable. By apparently seeing the atrocities primarily as an inopportune nuisance, he did not see his resulting decisions as tragic at all. That was a personal failing. Because states, especially great powers, battle for influence in a geographic setting, foreign policy is amoral, official pronouncements made to the media notwithstanding. That will never change. But the finest statesmen are aware of their own moral failings, nevertheless. And it makes them better statesmen for it.
The tension herein between morality and amorality is explored in Princeton Professor Gary J. Bass' Freedom Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (2008). Bass' argument is that humanitarianism has a long pedigree in modern history, and thus it is safe to say that the kinds of titanic philosophical battles fought between Disraeli and Gladstone will continue far into the future. The Middle East still has not found a satisfactory answer to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. And when humanitarian concerns contradict the legitimate interests of state, there are few easy answers. The Eastern Question remains with us still, a critical reference point for discussions of humanitarianism and geopolitics.