Franz Josef Clinton

Franz Josef Clinton

Mini Teaser: Without realizing it, the United States is taking over the role of the Habsburg Empire in the Balkans, a role that it is ill-equipped to play.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

U.S. policy toward Europe under the current administration has suffered from really only one flaw--but it's a doozy. The problem is that the Clinton administration has yet to have a single serious synoptic thought about the Continent's future and the U.S. role in it. It discussed its reasons for expanding NATO virtually without reference to the future of the European Union, as if the security of so vast and pivotal an area would not be affected by the potentially revolutionary social, economic and political changes afoot there. It dithered but subsequently took the diplomatic and military lead in Bosnia without considering the effect on the evolution of intra-European security arrangements, a far more important post-Cold War question in the longer run than the future of that hapless province. And it did both these things while insisting that neither action would jeopardize America's "partnership" with Russia, a bizarre assertion that some pundits have since defended on the assumption that history's first blush amounts to its mature verdict.

Nor, except as an afterthought, does consideration seem to have been given to the connection between NATO expansion and U.S. intervention in Bosnia--not to speak of the contemplated intervention in Kosovo--except by way of impromptu post hoc rationalization. The two policies were jostled along separately by noisome headlines or the occasion of a presidential trip abroad, and it has been left mostly to speechwriters, journalists and East European diplomats to offer explanations of how they are related.

Actually, these relations become vivid if we view them through that hoariest of concepts in our profession: the balance of power, a notion lately demoted in the academy--along with its parent discipline, geopolitics--to a status roughly similar to that of phrenology.

Consider that for at least three centuries before the current one, the Habsburg Empire was a central pillar in European affairs. The Continent's diplomatic machinations, its wars and its truces are unfathomable without it. Especially in the nineteenth century, from the Napoleonic Wars through the convulsions of 1848 to the disaster of World War I, the Habsburg domain was central, geographically as well as politically, to the diplomatic maneuverings that any student of the origin of the Great War knows by heart: the Dreikaiserbund, the German-Austrian alliance of 1879, the Triple Alliance, the Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty, and so on down through that prologue to disaster, the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Notwithstanding the occasionally destabilizing decisions that came from Vienna, Austria-Hungary kept German and Russian power apart, kept the latter from devouring alone the receding Ottoman domain, and helped balance against Italian, British and French ambitions as well.

Remove such a key pillar, and confusion and insecurity will invariably follow in train--as they do whenever great empires fall. And indeed, with the Habsburg pillar torn down in 1918, the stage was set for the murderous and anxious history that followed. In the interwar period, Britain, France, Germany and Russia vied to fill the vacuum left by the destruction of the Dual Monarchy, a struggle that in 1939 assumed military form and led to Germany's temporary triumph. That success created a fleeting alliance between the United States, Russia, Britain and France. With the German collapse in 1944-45 came the Russian bid to fill the vacuum, a bid frustrated only in part by the United States, which by 1955 had managed to keep Vienna free of Moscow's hand, though not Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava and most of the jewels of the old Habsburg crown. When the Russian grip loosened in 1989, and former Habsburg domains were left free (if wary), the United States found itself taking up the old Habsburg imperial task as though driven by a force of nature rather than conscious deliberation.

In short, one way to look at the last eighty years of European history is to see them as a series of partial, temporary, disputatious and occasionally bloody attempts to find a substitute for Habsburg power. And one way to look at the U.S.-led expansion of NATO and its interventions in the Balkans is to see them together as Washington's presumption of the role of imperial Vienna--though with a preponderance of power more analogous to that of late nineteenth-century London or Berlin. Whatever else William Jefferson Clinton has been called in recent months, we may as well add one further name: Franz Josef Clinton.
Evidence of the Great Substitution abounds--recent events in Rambouillet providing the most recent of it. Who was not struck with a dŽjˆ vu from the age of great power diktats when Jane Perlez told us in the New York Times of February 11 that,

"So far, the arguments . . . of the Kosovo peace conference have not been among the Serbian and ethnic Albanian delegates, who are being kept busy by the negotiators on subjects like a new constitution and elections. The more tricky divisions have been among the hosts--the United States, four European nations and Russia--as they try to resolve their differences on vital issues."

Consult any account of the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which sorted out the consequences of a Russo-Ottoman War under Bismarck's expert guidance, and the essential model of Rambouillet appears.

An even closer approximation to Rambouillet is provided by the protracted attempt from London to clean up the mess of the First and Second Balkan Wars in 1912. While the Turks, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Albanians and Greeks met in St. James' Palace in the rainy December of that year, the ambassadors of Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia and Italy met a few doors away with the British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, to manage the real business at hand. Said Grey, "We made the proceedings as informal as those of a committee of friends. We met in the afternoons, generally about four o'clock, and with a short adjournment to an adjoining room for tea, we continued till six or seven."

Even for that friendly "contact group", it was not easy going: "We shall be six skeletons before our work is done", noted the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, in his journal. But, eventually, it was done: borders were drawn and redrawn as opportunistic battles waxed and waned during much of 1913; money and threats were suitably distributed to the locals; and, not least, an independent Albania was created at Vienna's insistence, in order to keep the vexatious Serbs away from the Aegean, and to diminish their capacity to further roil their neighbors' peace--especially the peace of Austria-Hungary.

Alas, it didn't work, and neither may the efforts of the present contact group--also made up of six, as it happens: five of them the same countries that attended in London in 1912, while the United States replaces Austria-Hungary as the sixth--to solve roughly the same problems that bedeviled its predecessors in 1878 and 1913. Not that another Great War is likely to ensue from a failure, and not that America, or even just NATO, will disintegrate if there is one--and, obviously, not that historical analogies lack limits, though it is worth asking how the Habsburgs managed to contain the explosive potential of such a heterogeneous mŽlange of peoples for so long. What was their formula, and can the United States find a way to match it, lest it come to look less like a global superpower and more like a full-time Mitteleuropean fire brigade?

The Habsburg formula, particularly as it evolved after 1848, consisted of three parts. First and most important was a cluster of supra-national symbols. Second was a willingness to disperse both authority and status within, combined with a fair skill in so doing. Third was the fact that should the first two methods falter, there existed a well-understood willingness to use force to hold things together.

The supra-national symbols consisted chiefly of the person of Emperor Franz Josef himself. While H.G. Wells was not far wrong in describing Habsburg monarchs after Charles V as constituting an "amiable scoundrelism" characterized by "a continuity of thick lips, clumsy chins, and superstition", Franz Josef successfully bridged the years between Metternich and the Great War by the simple tactic of not dying. By the 1870s he had become the object of a deep-seated veneration across all classes of his imperial subjects, and, as Carlton J.H. Hayes once put it, there was "something like awe for the seeming changelessness of the Habsburg monarch in the midst of an otherwise swiftly changing world." Second in the pantheon of supra-national assets was the Church. The Habsburgs were not militant Catholics in the theological sense, only in the social one, their taste for hierarchy being more terrestrial than celestial. Beyond that, the German language, the royal accoutrements of medals, uniforms and corbeilles, and the rumpled sarabande-paced life that characterized the Viennese court rounded out the regime's abstract resources.

As for sharing authority, the German-speakers kept control but learned to bend toward first the Hungarian and then the Slavic elements of the Empire. Even the significant population of Jews, Gypsies and other geographically dispersed minorities did not fare all that badly, this thanks to a certain ramshackle inefficiency that pervaded Austrian administration. Finally, of course, there was a secret police and an army that took its orders in German.

How will Franz Josef Clinton and his successors compare with such a set-up? Well, achieving the requisite level of inefficiency should not be a problem, as the United States prolongs its constabulary role in the region and turns its theater military commanders into de facto proconsuls. Everyone, too, can understand orders given in American English these days. On the other hand, while the U.S. capacity to use force is beyond doubt, its ability to use it purposefully is not. Even more obviously problematic is that the Habsburg Empire was, ultimately, a single political unit whose survival depended on policy success, while American power is merely in, not of, Central and Eastern Europe. So far, too, Washington has not shown much willingness to share real authority--neither the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats nor Hungarians are at Rambouillet--and Washington is certainly not going to produce a leader sixty-eight years in office to embody the state and ensure continuity as Franz Josef once did.

That puts a special premium on whatever supra-national inducements to peace and social tranquility U.S. policy can offer. What are those inducements? They are, simply put, democracy and a heartfelt if imperfectly understood invitation for these former Habsburg lands to become full members of the U.S.-led Western community of nations. Will that be enough? Will lofty ideals and abstract associations trump "blood" and the will to power? If they do, Europe will truly be at a hinge of history. If so, too--if these lands become part of a security community so successful as to make war among and within them as improbable as it now is in the western parts of Europe--it means that the Wilsonian contention will gain a certain vindication, and that realists will owe several and sundry apologies.
And if not, then not. Without doubting either the existence of American "soft power" or the extent of novelty that the future might hold, allow a temperamental realist his skepticism. In any event, sooner or later we shall see.

This is Adam Garfinkle's last quarterly as executive editor of The National Interest.

Essay Types: Essay