Disraeli's Secret

Disraeli's Secret

Mini Teaser: Benjamin Disraeli was an exotic character even in his own time, but his career shows the secret that guaranteed him success and fame: He knew what he wanted.

by Author(s): Harvey Sicherman

It is easy enough to be critical of the Congress of Berlin. Much of
it merely ratified decisions already made. Imperial interests
overrode the local peoples. There was a surfeit of vanity, arrogance
and ignorance. It did not solve the Eastern Question, but only
delayed its reckoning. Many have read back the blunders of 1914 into
the settlement of 1878, while forgetting that blunders are made by
blunderers. Those who stumbled into the Great War were a very
different cast from those who avoided a great war at Berlin. When all
was said and done, the handiwork of the Congress put off such a
conflict for more than thirty years.

Disraeli had managed his part without committing a single English
musketeer. Ennobled as Lord Beaconsfield, he closed the chapter in
August 1878 with a notable description of the Balkans to the House of
Lords:

No language can describe adequately the condition of that portion of the Balkan Peninsula--Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina. No words can describe the political intrigue, the constant rivalries, a total absence of all public spirit, a hatred of all races, animosities of rival religions, absence of any controlling power. Nothing short of 50,000 of Europe's best troops would produce anything like order in those parts.

How strikingly similar to the Balkans of the 1990s, right down to the number of soldiers deployed by NATO. But Washington has not been so fortunate or skillful as that London of so long ago. American troops are in the region, and some of them, at least, will be there for a long time.

There was a final and curious footnote to the Bismarck-Disraeli relationship, one that bore directly on Disraeli's aim to sink the Dreikaiserbund. It took a year to accomplish the always difficult task of keeping the Russians to their word, but by August 1879 they were out of the Balkans. A month later the German Ambassador, Count Munster, came to Disraeli's country home (Hughenden) for dinner. There, on September 26, they discussed what Disraeli described later as Bismarck's proposal for an Anglo-German-Austrian alliance. Historians differ over whether this was a German proposal, or, as the Count reported to Bismarck, a British one. Munster apparently asked Disraeli what England would do if Germany and Russia went to war over the Balkan settlement, and Disraeli answered, "We will in that case keep France quiet." To which Bismarck said to Munster: "Is that all?" (In 1914, of course, that would have been more than enough!)

This conversation may simply have been an adjunct to Bismarck's negotiations with Austria-Hungary, which resulted in a military alliance announced on October 7. Bismarck understood that Disraeli's policy at the Congress of Berlin had indeed splintered the Dreikaiserbund, and Bismarck's recreation of a Zweikaiserbund was a form of protection against the Czar, who had been complaining ominously about the German propensity to side with the British on the international commissions set up to carry out the Congress of Berlin's "peace with honor." Going to London might have been part of Bismarck's tactic to bring the always reluctant Viennese to a conclusion. In any event, it seems highly unlikely that Disraeli would have fallen in with a permanent plan to isolate the French.

This story, of course, had another significance. It reflects the fact that England and Disraeli in particular were being taken seriously in Europe. But Disraeli's satisfaction with his achievements was short-lived. Britain was soon involved in distant wars to punish Afghanistan and subdue the Zulus, both campaigns begun by imperial officials disinclined to inform London of their plans. A sour economy completed Disraeli's undoing. In the general election of 1880, the Tories were badly defeated by Gladstone's Liberals, and Gladstone lost no time in repudiating his predecessor's politics. Disraeli (now Lord Beaconsfield) watched helplessly from the House of Lords where, as he put it, "I am dead; dead but in the Elyssian fields."

Before long, the Russians, sensing Britain's retirement from continental engagement, browbeat the Sultan into forbidding the passage of warships into the Black Sea. The Sultan, in turn, never carried out the reforms promised to the Western powers. It was Gladstone, the anti-imperialist and little Englander, who occupied Egypt in 1882. In Europe, freed of Disraeli, Bismarck went back to his imperial knitting. The Dreikaiserbund never entirely recovered, but England ceased to matter much in continental calculations until Lord Salisbury reasserted British power in the 1890s. Disraeli himself was spared all of this, dying peacefully at home on April 19, 1881, already a legend.

Constancy of Purpose

HISTORICAL comparison between our time and Disraeli's requires a leap of the imagination. The differences are stark: Disraeli's world was Eurocentric, ours arguably centered on America. The United States is far more powerful relative to other powers than was Britain at its imperial zenith. And instead of having to manage a shifting balance of power, America counts on NATO and Japan as the linchpins of stable alliances west and east.

Still, let us take a leap. Might not Russia and China form a kind of Zweikaiserbund, their objective to diminish American influence in their respective spheres? If and when the United States decides to act against Iraq or, better yet, Iran, could we find our European allies, Bismarck-like, proposing an international conference to avoid a conflict? One smiles, of course, to imagine Bush as Disraeli, Putin and Jiang Zemin as the Czar and Franz Josef, and Javier Solana (or Blair or Chirac or Schroder) as (gasp) Bismarck, not to speak of Saddam or Ayatollah Khamenei as the Sultan Abdul Hamid. Yet, as Marx observed, history may repeat itself as farce.

Even if it doesn't, Disraeli's story still offers obvious and immediate lessons for American statesmen grappling with the aftermath of September 11. Our public opinion, no less than Victorian England's, is volatile and morally aroused; we sympathize with the oppressed, and we suspect foreign autocracies. Americans expect their leaders nonetheless to heed the national interest, to avoid dead ends, and nor to spill blood, especially American blood, without good cause. We like to lead coalitions but not to be bound by them. And when the crisis abroad subsides, we want our president to deal with fires at home.

At the dawn of the democratic age, Disraeli dealt successfully with all of these challenges save the last. He advised others that "the secret of success is constancy of purpose", and this was his secret, too. His purpose was to disrupt the Dreikaiserbund before it harmed England's security, and he used the Eastern Question to do so despite a ferocious demand for a wrong-headed humanitarian intervention. And he was willing to pay the price, losing a vital political ally in the process. Peace in the Balkans for thirty years was a humane by-product of his single-minded pursuit of Britain's national interest.

For Disraeli, power was either applied to purpose or it was not power at all. He knew how to create an international coalition around a common objective, and how not to lose his way in the warmth of its company. The summits of Disraeli's day, no less than his private conversations, were meals well cooked before they were served. Last and surely not least, Disraeli understood with a novelist's imagination how dreams and color could be used to arrest public attention and train it upon essential issues.

Since September 11, Washington has rediscovered some of these virtues. When George W Bush proclaimed that "we have found our mission", he and his administration had also found a Disraelian purpose. But will the President be constant? Can he work without as well as with the floating coalition fighting the war against terrorism? Can he keep the American people -- and the Congress -- attentive to his objectives? Across the divide of history, we can imagine Disraeli's thin smile fixed upon us. He would have understood.

Harvey Sicherman is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He advised Secretaries of State Haig, Shultz and Baker.

Essay Types: Essay