European Interests and the Law of the Stronger
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

First edition: 1856



Europe wants peace. There is no need to argue this point; it is sufficient to look at what is going on, on the direction of the public opinion, on movements in the financial and industrial spheres, on the way in which current political issues are judged by all social classes with very little exception. As soon as any matter appears on the political horizon, a question arises immediately: will it or its consequences pose a threat to peace? This is a common question – in fact it is the only one. Responses to this question preoccupy minds, move stock markets, curb the enterprises’ ambitions and generally serve as barometers for all interests – not just for public, general and significant ones, but also for private, specific and smallest ones. Apart from this question, all else is treated with indifference: the political side of the issue is left to diplomacy, and the legal one to dreamers and newspapers.

Nobody cares and nobody even asks who will eventually get the Snake Island[1] or who will keep Bolhrad.[2] It does not matter whether it will be Turkey or Russia – what is important is that someone yields and the dispute is resolved… Who cares whether the Danubian Principalities are combined to form a single whole or whether they continue as they are today? Never mind whether Turkey only holds an overlord’s right to a fief or whether it holds a sovereign’s right or whether the Principalities have the right to demand a merger or not; never mind who wants the matter to be resolved one way or the other – what is important that the matter be swiftly adjudicated and cease to be a bone of contention… Who cares if Montenegro’s demands are satisfied or what fate awaits the Slavs who remain under the Ottoman rule? There are no more Slavophiles today just as there are no Philhellenes who would demand that allied troops be evacuated from the Peloponnese. Let French and English ships be anchored in the Port of Piraeus forever[3] if this gives even the slightest change of lasting calm in the East. The independence of the Greek state is a very minor matter from the point of view of European peace…

Moreover, there are no political philanthropists or Negrophiles anymore. The entire American issue is limited to the election of the President of the United States. Never mind who becomes President, Fillmore[4] or Frémont,[5] and never mind whether the slave owners’ party or the party that wishes to abolish slavery triumphs in the New World – what is important that the man be elected whose way of thinking, opinions, and particularly government pose the least difficulties and complications in relationships with the Old World, which is yearning for peace. It would probably be a wonderful thing for mankind if there were no privateers and if America agreed to this humane principle promulgated during the Paris Congress[6] that will abolish legal maritime robbery in the future! But let Americans retain the right to issue letters of marque and reprisal as long as there is no maritime war…

The practical logic of this reasoning cannot be refuted. But we would have to wander through Europe like Diogenes[7] with his lantern to find a single person who takes part in the general social movement and who advocates any political issue for reasons of principle. Former political principles have ceased to be the basis for governing societies but have become tools instead. Having absorbed them, the all-encompassing idea of the state now uses them freely – they have become the means and are no longer the goal. Thus the form that the government takes is completely meaningless. Will there be a constitution in Spain or not? Will it be the 1837 or 1845 constitution or a completely new one that is octroyed – well, who cares? Let O’Donnell[8] or Narváez[9] control the government, this is of no importance as long as Spain complies with the requirements of today’s political system, as long at it joins the others, as long as it does not provoke an armed intervention and does not ultimately become a cause for war… Who cares whether the Prussian king retains his rights to the Canton of Neuchâtel – as long as he retains them without breaking off relations with the Swiss Confederation and without a shock to Europe. And let the King of Naples grant any amnesty or refuse it altogether, let him carry out judicial reforms or make no changes whatsoever – as long as any movements announced or made do not have any effects that could disrupt peace… Ultimately, no one really cares about the right to intervene or the right to non-intervention, but everyone cares about maintaining peace.

In spite of all journalistic debates, the most rigorous reasoning and historical or social evidence; in spite of arguments from treaties or public law theories; in spite of the Grotiuses[10] and Pufendorfs[11] – this is the actual direction of the public opinion with only small exceptions (as stated above). This is a general trend which is manifested everywhere, in part even where the matters are being decided, i.e. in locations where disputes are played out. The turn that things take is almost of no import; it is the final result that is of interest, and only as a factor influencing the general European policy, i.e. the question of peace. Each matter taken individually and all of them taken together are less painful for the public opinion regardless of what happens (assuming they do not affect the peace) than the current crisis in France alone. This is valuable guidance for an impartial observer.

This mindset is a necessary consequence of the form that society has taken today, the road along which it progresses, the trends in accordance with which it develops and the sphere of actions that still remain criminal; it corresponds to the political system that has been produced by the idea of the state. The deeper this system permeates the society, the more it takes over its elements and transforms them in a single general direction, blurring old traditions and differences, introducing cosmopolitan customs and concepts, bending everything in one direction and making it part of a single general movement – the society must necessarily become more indifferent on the one hand and must wish for peace more and more on the other hand. In the current state of the society, this fervent wish has already become a demand; it will soon be a social need; and finally, it would have to become a necessity if rational consequences were to become the destiny of the world and the completion of such calculations were to become the humanity’s task.

However, everyone knows that the most accurate calculations contain errors, the most insightful predictions fail and that reason and experience are not enough when it comes to political developments, since these are ultimately decided from above. The public opinion still remembers well that at the time when the Russian-Turkish dispute began, almost no one suspected war and, moreover, no one wanted it. However, all designs failed and all attempts proved futile. The war broke out and lasted two years against the governments’ will and against the wishes of the European community.

Hence the constant fear of peace being broken accompanies this fervent wish for it to be as permanent as possible. This fear may be more pronounced now than before the eastern war, since the need for peace is immeasurably greater as well. As the need grows, so does demand – this is inevitable both in economics and politics. In this case, the two are strongly intertwined. The political system developed at the Congress of Paris through adopting the principle of solidarity between European states has made it more difficult for war to break out, but the European community has also made progress on the speculative and industrial paths. This progress may have even been too swift and may have gone further than the system allowed or at least further than the system’s ability to supervise it. The public movement towards founding enterprises and engaging in boldest speculation appears to pose considerable difficulties for diplomacy in its ability to handle current affairs. Resulting in unexpected outcomes and crises, it causes constant vacillation and delays even if it does not bind the cabinets’ hands altogether, and everything remains suspended.

Although they are somewhat worrying, these delays and periods of inaction in the midst of constant negotiations, which are necessary for diplomacy as it cannot quite rid itself of the respice finem[12] principle, and which were anyway mandated in the Treaty of Paris as it failed to resolve any issue definitively and finally, are also nearly always welcomed by the public. The public sees each such delay as not only prolonging the peace, but also guaranteeing its maintenance to some extent. It is said that all is not lost that is delayed. However, the public is of the opposite opinion, and political experience suggests that it is right. It instinctively seeks shelter in this system of solidarity, perceiving very accurately that its natural consequence is to hinder the outbreak of war. Each issue, even the slightest and least important, is considered in the light of this system. Such an issue then grows to an enormous size and becomes one of European interest. At this point, the public sees no other solution than to hold a congress: it puts the issue in question before the highest European court. In this, it does not care that this procedure disregards not only nationalities, since these are not even mentioned, but as its result even states disappear, i.e. their essential characteristics such as sovereignty and independence. The public opinion rejoices in the fact that in this way, the whole Europe becomes a single state, which cannot wage war on itself, and therefore we have peace… Going further along this path, the public opinion is diligently and carefully observing all symptoms related to existing alliances – not because it is particularly concerned in their preservation, but because it sees them as means to make war more distant and less probable. It would happily accept other alliances if it only were convinced that they are more favourable to the civilisational trends that, in its opinion, depend on maintaining the peace… In current affairs, the public opinion eagerly seizes on all signs of this political solidarity, paying less attention to whether intervention by multiple powers in the dispute leads to its simplification or rather to a new complication – because it does not care about the dispute itself and its resolution but only asks whether peace will be preserved. And this question is made more sensitive by the fact that the public opinion, having raised every issue to the level of an European interest, understands all too well that in the event of a war over this issue, it would necessarily have the same characteristic: it would be a European war. This is the other side of the coin – this system, like everything else, necessarily has a good and a bad side.

It is obvious that, given such peaceful attitudes, the circular issued by Prince Gorchakov[13] must have made an unpleasant impression on the public. Again, it can be argued: never mind that this circular was only addressed at Russian agents, and it was not, it is maintained, meant to see the light of day, i.e. newspaper columns; however, it is difficult to believe that diplomatic secrets were accidentally exposed in such a timely manner, since the document was published almost at the same time when military demonstration against Naples was considered to be imminent… Never mind that the style of the circular differs from that of ordinary diplomatic notes and is much more frank – this was a decision made at the ministry in Saint Petersburg… Never mind that the reasoning presented in the circular cannot be based on Russian history and on Russia’s earlier and most recent policy; the completely new political direction indicated in this act, even if it agrees with the tradition of Russian autocrats with respect to the independence of the supreme ruler of the state, is completely at odds with the intervention policies pursued by Peter the Great,[14] Catherine II[15] and Emperor Nicholas…[16] Finally, never mind that the circular was sent from Moscow at the very moment when the representatives of the system that assumed political solidarity between the states competed with one another when it came to coronation pomp, at the very moment when they tried to outdo one another in their contributions to inaugurating a new peace with Russia… What is important that this circular sees the application of the right to intervene within the solidarity framework as the triumph of the law of the stronger and denounces it as such, and refers to disposing of the material forces of the state in support of its protest.

Therefore Russia is not going to war over Greece or Naples, and the European public opinion is not afraid of a war with Russia at this moment. The eastern war is not distant enough – 16 January, when Russia accepted the allied powers’ proposals, is still too close. However, the invocation of the law of the stronger, the exercise of which has almost always resulted in war to date; presenting it within the framework of today’s system in the same light as it was before despite all the treaties and congresses, in spite of all civilisational trends and progress; invoking the law of the stronger after the Treaty of Paris, showing it as it was at the end of the past century and at the beginning of the present one – in a different form, under a different name and under different appearances, but without changing its essence, i.e. the stronger coercing the weaker by using force; strongly opposing the principle that European states, even jointly, have the right to impose their will on a single state when it comes to the independence and dignity of sovereign power, and each such dispute must involve these issues – this has necessarily shaken up the political edifice around which hopes for peace gathered. Prince Gorchakov’s circular made it clear that Russia did not consider the “European interest” to be the supreme value in public law, suprema lex esto. in some respects, the Russian Minister reduced the states’ policy to the principles that governed the old policy of nations, transferring the ideas that once applied to nations to supreme leaders of states. This circular makes them the only supreme judges of the state’s interests, and ascribes equal rights granted by God to all of them – the strongest and the weakest alike. Russia believes that this right can only be violated by resorting to the law of the stronger and it is always a violation, irrespective of whether it is perpetrated by a single state or by a tribunal consisting of several states.

Although the idea of the state was transformed into a political system mainly on the basis of the law of the stronger, and it was the case since the Reformation, i.e. since the Peace of Westphalia,[17] as it has been discussed at length here, this law was increasingly falling into disuse in politics, since it was ostensibly incompatible with civilisation. Civilisation, having gained a foothold in public law, prohibits any invocation of this law, condemning it as a monument to barbarism and medieval times. However, when this law still applied, and in fact it was most often and most vigorously exercised in the name of this very civilisation, a need arose to give it another name in political acts, diplomatic notes and treaties, a name that would be more in line with the idea of the state and the new shape that the European community was taking, i.e. more in line with the so-called spirit of the age and progress.

It must be admitted that European journalism did a great favour to diplomacy in this respect. Without going too far back, disregarding the end of the last century and the Napoleonic era when cannons played a greater role than diplomatic notes and newspaper articles, the phrase “state interest rightly understood”, which is now in common use, appeared immediately after the Treaty of Vienna when the system of states became more prominent. Journalists wrote not about “laws”, but rather about “interests”, and rightly so, because as the politics of nations collapsed, the law was usually indeed replaced by interests. However, the “interest rightly understood” was always a cloak that hid the threat that the law of the stronger could be applied. Journalists who advised any foreign state in this manner should have realised that as advice provided without any government backing, theirs had no value, since any minister of foreign affairs necessarily understands interests of the state better than all of them taken together. Initially, they did not notice the importance of the expression they used, but it was convenient, appeared civilised and soon started to appear in government notes.

There, it obviously took on another meaning. It was evidence that “the interest of one or another state is understood differently by another state” – i.e. that “the first country misunderstood its own interests”, and finally that “that state must understand its interests as the other state wishes, wants or requires it to”. Any resistance led to war, which was used to decide who was stronger. The weaker party yielded or “understood its own interests”. In similar disputes, only the law of the stronger applied. In 1833, the Dutch king “did not understand the interests of his state rightly” and thus the French army approached Antwerp. In 1828, Sultan Mahmud[18] “did not understand the interests of Turkey rightly”, and thus Field Marshal Dybich[19] crossed the Balkans and captured Adrianople. Today “self-interest rightly understood” would require the King of Naples to yield and to do what the Western states expect of him… However, this is required of him not only by his “self-interest rightly understood”, but also by “European interest”.

With the increasing gravitation of the states’ political system towards European solidarity, and with the increasing cosmopolitan industrial and speculative aspirations of the general public, this “interest” also became a more general and universal characteristic and finally became the “European interest”. Each issue is now examined from this point of view, since it is considered in line with the political system and social aspirations. If an interest is important, it must necessarily be a European one. As this expression has infiltrated diplomatic notes and this process has progressed so far that it can now be considered the basis of government action and a political principle, then the form in which the law of the stronger manifested itself has changed, but its essence has remained the same. It is no longer the point that the state should “understand its own interests rightly” in any dispute – the point is that it should recognise the contentious issue to be the “European interest”. As soon as the state has recognised it as such, it must accept the demands put to it in the name of this interest because any state’s individual interest must not deviate from the interest of the whole – the interest of the entire Europe. European interest is the manifestation of cosmopolitanism in the state system. So the issue at stake is only “recognition”, i.e. admitting that any issue is a European one; once this has been done, the case is closed as they say.

However, where this cannot be tangibly determined or clearly decided, where different opinions can be expressed on the matter not only by individuals but also by governments; where a request made by one or even several states as necessary for the sake of the European interest may appear not at all necessary for, or even contrary to, that interest to the state in question, then there is a need for a judge or rather for an executor. This is because a decree alone is not enough – one needs to have enforcement and coercion at hand, and thus the law of the stronger will always decide. The Kings of Greece and Naples do not share the point of view that the occupation of the Peloponnese by allied armies and judicial reforms in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies are European interests. However, the Western powers think so and therefore the Franco-English flag is still flying in the Port of Piraeus and it also threatens to appear in the Gulf of Naples.

In recent years, Russia was the state most affected by the ultimate consequences of the principle of “European interests”. She believed that “Turkey’s interest rightly understood” demanded that the protectorate over the Christians subject to the Ottomans be exercised ultimately by her, i.e. by Russia, and be granted to her by way of a treaty. Turkey, on the contrary, considered such a development its undoing. Foreign powers entered the dispute in the name of civilisation and in the name of European interests, of which soon more emerged in the East than the Russian-Turkish dispute had points at the beginning. “Recognition” was demanded from Russia – and when it was not forthcoming, war started.

After the first campaign, at the conferences in Vienna Russia recognised with great difficulty that the independence of Turkey as a state was a European interest. As a result, she had to surrender her exclusive protectorate over the Danubian Principalities which she had already exercised, and also her exclusive protectorate over Christians in Turkey, which she had hoped to obtain. She recognised that the protectorate of all great powers over the Danubian Principalities and over Christian subjects of Turkey were European interests. Nevertheless, the war continued since yet other European interests emerged which Russia refused to acknowledge.

After the second campaign, Russia recognised the neutrality of the Black Sea as a European interest, and consequently agreed to limit its dominion over these waters and to remove its predominant fleet from the Black Sea. It further recognised the freedom of shipping on the Danube as a European interest, thereby ceding part of Bessarabia.

Russia paid for each recognition of the “European interest” with some of her rights previously acquired; it does not matter here how she acquired them but they were guaranteed by treaties; each concession in response to a claim made in the name of this interest necessarily involved some sacrifice to the allied powers. Although the latter acted in a disinterested manner, since they did not do it for themselves but rather for the whole of Europe, and at the Congress of Paris neither the victors nor the conquered were announced and all concessions were presented as voluntary, the basis for the conferences held was still the ultimatum accepted by Russia after two years of bloody, persistent and costly war.

It is therefore not surprising that, having experienced the practical effects of the principle of “European interests” and having learned the law on which they are ultimately based, even within the framework of the solidarity of states, Russia draws her foreign agents’ attention to this aspect of the system in the light of current affairs and presents her point of view with some irritation and extraordinary frankness. A stranger thing (if true), however, is that Russia calls for a new congress because of the Naples issue – unless she hopes to obtain in this manner a favourable resolution of some matters that are now suspended or wishes to take a new stance on the issue of “European interests”. This could be inferred from the circular of 2 September – if it indeed reflects Emperor Alexander’s[20] future political programme.

However unpleasant the Russian announcement must have been to the public opinion by exposing the weaker underbelly of the political system based on the Treaty of Paris (which side used to be neatly hidden under the cloth of civilisation and looked very naturally, as if a human disability were masked by skilfully tailored garments), this impression has always been moderated by the belief that the law of the stronger is less susceptible to resulting in a war where consent from several states is required to declare such a war. Therefore any dispute must remain on a diplomatic footing for a longer time and the system of solidarity guarantees peace to some extent. Only further developments will show how far form can replace essence in political relations under the new system.


[1] Snake Island (Острів Зміїний) island in the Black Sea, located close to the Danube Delta; now part of Ukraine, and previously of Romania, which ceded it to the USSR in 1948.

[2] Bolhrad – city in Ukraine (in the Odessa Oblast), which was founded in 1821 by Bulgarian settlers and belonged to Russia at that time; from 1856 to 1878, it was part of the Principality of Moldavia.

[3] The Port of Piraeus was blocked by the British and French fleets during the Crimean War after King Otto I of Greece had decided to enter the war on the Russian side.

[4] Millard Fillmore (1800–1874) – U.S. politician, Vice President of the United States 1849–1850, President 1850–1853. In 1856, he was the presidential candidate for the Know-Nothing movement and won third place in the popular vote.

[5] John Frémont (1813–1890) – U.S. soldier and traveller, military governor of California (1847) and senator from California (1850–1851), Governor of the Territory of Arizona (1878–1881); he gained fame owing to his pioneering expeditions to America’s western frontier. In 1856, he ran for U.S. presidency but lost the election to James Buchanan. During the Civil War, he fought on the side of the North, although he was often in conflict with his superiors, including with President Abraham Lincoln.

[6] The Congress of Paris (1856) was held to settle the disputes that had led to the Crimean War. It was attended by representatives of France, Turkey, England, Sardinia, Austria and Russia. It culminated in the conclusion of a “peace and friendship” treaty on 30 March; pursuant to the Treaty of Paris, Russia was to cede southern Bessarabia to Moldavia and the city of Kars to Turkey. The Danubian Principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia) were granted to Turkey as protectorates, with guarantees of broad autonomy. The Black Sea was to be closed to warships, while Russia and Turkey were deprived of the rights to maintain any military installations on its coast. Shipping on the Danube was to be free. Russia pledged to demilitarise the Åland Islands.

[7] Diogenes of Sinope (ca. 413 – ca. 323 BC) – Greek philosopher, one of the proponents of Cynic philosophy, a disciple of Antisthenes and teacher of Crates from Thebes, well known for his radicalism and strange behaviour.

[8] Leopoldo O’Donnell (1809–1867) – Spanish general and politician of Irish origin. He was a supporter of Maria Christina’s regency. After General Baldomero Espartero had taken over, he went into exile with her, but later joined Espartero’s government as Minister of War (1854). During the Crimean War, as a result of the blockade of Russia, grain prices increased in Spain, there was a famine in Galicia and the population revolted. At that time, O’Donnell forced Espartero to resign. He was Prime Minister of Spain in 1856, from 1858 to 1863 and from 1864 to 1866.

[9] Ramón María Narváez y Campos (1800–1868) – Spanish soldier and politician, 1st Prince of Valencia, opponent of Baldomero Espartero, seven-time Prime Minister of Spain in the years 1844–1846, 1846, 1847–1849, 1849–1851, 1856–1857, 1864–1865 and 1866–1868.

[10] Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) – Dutch philosopher and lawyer considered the founder of international law, the author of, inter alia, De jure belli ac pacis libri tres (1625); he dealt mainly with issues of natural law and social contract.

[11] Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694) – German historian and jurist, Professor of the universities of Heidelberg and Lund. He was Historiographer Royal of the Swedish King Charles Gustav and later historiographer of Brandenburg. He is considered to be among the founders of international law and the theory of the law of nature, and also a proponent of absolutism. He wrote, inter alia, De iure naturae et gentium libri octo (1672) and Einleitung zu der Historie der vornehmsten Reich und Staaten in Europe (1682–1686).

[12] Latin: consider the end (quidquid agis prudenter agas et respice finem – whatever you do, do it wisely and consider the end).

[13] Alexander Gorchakov (1798–1883) – Russian diplomat and politician. He worked in diplomacy from 1817 and was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1856. During the Crimean War (1853–1856), he thwarted Prussia’s and Austria’s accession to the anti-Russian coalition. During the January Uprising in Poland, he prevented Napoleon III from convening an international conference on the Polish issue. A proponent of Russian-Prussian cooperation. In 1879, he effectively ceased to direct the Ministry and was formally dismissed in 1882.

[14]Peter I Romanov (Peter the Great) (1672–1725) – Tsar of Russia from 1682 (Emperor from 1721), founder of Saint Petersburg (1703), he triumphed – despite initial setbacks – in the Great Northern War against Sweden (1700–1721), as a result of which Russia gained access to the Baltic Sea. Having introduced radical changes to the Russian administration, army and also morals, he is considered the greatest reformer in the history of Russia. He implemented his reforms with extreme ruthlessness.

[15] Catherine II (1729–1796) – a daughter of a German prince from the Anhalt-Zerbst dynasty, wife of Tsar Peter III whom she overthrew to become Empress of Russia (from 1762). She effectively strengthened Russia’s power and her own absolute rule. She was heavily involved in Polish affairs, interfering in both personal and political matters by means of bribery as well as armed intervention. She carried out – in alliance with Austria, but above all with Prussia – three partitions of Poland, eliminating it as an independent state.

[16] Nicholas I Romanov (1796–1855) – Tsar of Russia from 1815, King of Poland 1825–1831 (of the Kingdom of Poland created by the Congress of Vienna). He suppressed the Decembrist Revolt (1825) and the Polish November Uprising (1830–1831). Having defeated the November Uprising, he applied a policy of repression, abolished the constitution of the Kingdom of Poland, introduced the Organic Statute and closed down the universities in Warsaw and Vilnius. In 1846, Russian troops also took part in suppressing the Kraków Uprising; two years later, Nicholas helped the Austrian Emperor fight the Hungarian Revolution. He strengthened Russia’s position in the Balkans, although in the final years of his reign he suffered a major defeat in the Crimean War (1853–1856).

[17] The Peace of Westphalia was concluded on 24 October 1848 and ended the Thirty Years’ War. It concerned political and religious relations within German states and also between France and the Holy Roman Empire as well as between Sweden and the Habsburgs. It was signed in two locations: in Münster (between the Holy Roman Empire and France) and in Osnabrück (between Sweden and the Habsburgs).

[18] Mahmud II (1785–1839) – Turkish sultan from the Ottoman dynasty who ruled Turkey from 1808 to 1839; he reformed the state (e.g. disbanded the Janissary corps), fought the Greek uprising, waged a losing war against Russia and fought against Muhammad Ali of Egypt; he was finally forced to accept Greek independence, the autonomy of Moldavia and Wallachia and the loss of Algeria to France.

[19] Ivan Dybich (1785–1831) – Prince Zabalkansky (the title commemorating his crossing of the Balkans), Russian Field Marshal, participated in wars against Napoleonic France and Turkey, led the army that suppressed the November Uprising.

[20] Alexander II Romanov (1818–1881) – son of Nicholas I, Russian Emperor from 1855, author of reforms that were liberal by Russian standards (e.g. the granting of land to peasants in 1861). He suppressed the January Uprising in Poland and extended Russian borders in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the in Far East. He was assassinated by a member of the Narodnaya Volya organisation Ignacy Hryniewiecki, who was a Pole.

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