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Barack von Metternich

Obama's foreign policy makes him the surprising heir to a certain Austrian prince.

ILLUSTRATION BY EDEL RODRIGUEZ FOR FP
ILLUSTRATION BY EDEL RODRIGUEZ FOR FP

To some, Barack Obama might seem like a modern-day JFK, FDR, or Lincoln. But when it comes to foreign policy, his roots go a little further back: to Prince Klemens von Metternich, foreign minister of the Austrian Empire from 1809 to 1848 and the patron saint of multilateralism. Sure, Obama is a liberal democrat while Metternich’s autocratic tendencies helped spark the revolution of 1848. But Obama’s cosmopolitan approach to diplomacy and his constant invocation of "common interests" when dealing with governments from Caracas to Moscow to Tehran are vintage Metternich. This diplomatic impulse—derived in both cases from a personal taste for legalistic moderation—is admirable, but problematic, and Metternich’s own successes and failures reveal why.

The prince’s greatest triumph was the Concert of Europe, a loose alliance of the leading powers at the time: Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia (and later France). An earlier incarnation of today’s U.N. Security Council, the group held brief congresses whenever a crisis threatened the continent’s stability. Throughout, Metternich’s influence loomed large. He rejected unabashed power politics, endorsed the idea of an international community with collective solutions, and persuaded liberal states such as Britain to cooperate with their autocratic counterparts.

Like his 19th-century predecessor, Obama has had early success in building coalitions, as at the London G-20 summit in April when he encouraged a modern-day Concert to pledge $1.1 trillion toward stabilizing the economic crisis and helping out poorer countries. But sooner or later Metternichian diplomacy disappoints its practitioners—not with what it does, but what it doesn’t do. It’s relatively easy to coordinate actions between countries that already want the same thing, as with the 1803-1815 Napoleonic Wars, when Metternich ultimately cemented an anti-French alliance based on a shared fear of Napoleon. When common goals don’t exist, however, Metternich-style diplomacy can’t create them. Take 1866, when Prussia—unconvinced that it shared the same goals as the rest of Europe—defeated Austria for leadership of the Germanic states. Austria left the ranks of great powers, a victim of its own belief in the tenacity of shared interests.

Today, Obama faces challenges that are no less worrisome. Consider what might happen if the world economy heals quickly. Some countries may decide they no longer need to play nice, and shared interests like the ones that propelled the G-20 negotiations will evaporate. Another problem is subtler but more insidious: Those who follow in the Austrian statesman’s footsteps can inherit a bias for stability and miss out on opportunities for dynamic change. Such myopia prevented an earlier Metternichian, Henry Kissinger, from envisioning the Soviet Union’s collapse. Unless Obama comes up with a foreign policy that goes beyond the Austrian prince’s rigid multilateralism, he too might not end up seeing the world clearly.

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