Stephen M. Walt

Top 5 parties in world history

So 2012 is coming to an end and you’re busy planning how to ring in 2013. Are you aiming to host a world-historical event? If so, you might want to think about the impact that some past festivities have had on international affairs. And be careful: sometimes a poorly planned party can have all sorts ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia

So 2012 is coming to an end and you’re busy planning how to ring in 2013. Are you aiming to host a world-historical event? If so, you might want to think about the impact that some past festivities have had on international affairs. And be careful: sometimes a poorly planned party can have all sorts of unintended consequences. As both inspiration and public service, therefore, today I provide my own list of Top Five Parties in International History.

#1: The Boston Tea Party. As a loyal American, I gotta start with this one, which helped kick off the War of Independence and free the American colonists from King George III’s cruel yoke. I know, I know: it wasn’t really a party, it was an act of political protest by the Sons of Liberty. It didn’t even get the name "tea party" for decades. But c’mon: do you really think the participants were all sober, and that tossing all that English tea in the water wasn’t fun? And in retrospect, it had far more positive effects than the plutocrat-financed shenanigans of the 21st century namesake (the "tea party movement").

#2: The Congress of Vienna. After the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats and officials from all over Europe convened in Vienna to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve the various issues that had arisen after over two decades of war. Sure, there was a lot of hard-nosed haggling over borders and other arrangements, but historical accounts of the Congress also make it clear that the participants also engaged in months of energetic revelry, much of it of a decidedly lubricious sort. Historians who regard the Congress as a great success might argue that all this frivolity helped; those who believe the Congress left many critical issues unresolved probably think the assembled plenipotentiaries should have spent less time partying and more time on their work. 

#3:  The "2500 Year Anniversary of the Persian Empire." In October 1971, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran presided over a lavish celebration to mark the supposed 2500th anniversary of the "Persian empire." Dozens of world leaders and celebrities assembled at an elaborate tent city in Persopolis, where they dined for over five hours on quail’s eggs with caviar, roast peacock, and a host of other delicacies, served on custom Limoges china and accompanied by some of the world’s most expensive wines. The whole blowout reportedly cost over $100 million, and was condemned by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the "Devil’s Festival." The contrast between the Shah’s pretensions and extravagance and the poverty that many Iranians still endured was all-too apparent, and the ill-conceived party played a small but not inconsequential role in undermining the legitimacy of the Pahlavi regime.

#4:  The Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1520, Henry VIII of England traveled with most of his entire court to France to meet King Francis I. The purpose of the visit was to negotiate a treaty of alliance, but the summit soon degenerated into a testosterone-fueled competition, with each king trying show the other who was wealthiest. Encamped in two nearby villages, the two monarchs put on increasingly ostentatious displays including fireworks, the building of a temporary fountain that dispensed wine and water, elaborate arrangements of silks and gems, and sporting contests. The extravagance nearly bankrupted both monarchs, and the rivalry exacerbated the other obstacles to the alliance and the two leaders ended up enemies instead. The moral: if somebody wants to bring a really expensive bottle of wine to your party tonight, just let them.

#5: Woodstock. The enormous outdoor rock festival at Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York in August 1969, both symbolized the youth movement of the 1960s and is now seen as its apotheosis. It wasn’t the first outdoor rock festival or even the biggest, but it was undoubtedly the most memorable and had the most lasting cultural impact. You don’t hear people talk about the "Lollapalooza Generation," do you?

These five historical parties can provide either inspiration or a cautionary lesson for your revels tonight. My advice: party responsibly, and get ready for 2013. Even if U.S. foreign policy follows the minimalist path I predicted in my last post, the rest of the world will provide us with plenty of things to worry (and blog) about.

Happy New Year!

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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