Palmerston 1848; Obama 2011


Here's a fascinating historical detour. Britain faced the very same dilemma as America does today with respect to revolutions unfolding in a critical region. In the end, realism prevailed:

The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, was primarily concerned with maintaining the balance of power in Europe.  That had been Britain's chief objective for decades, and all players understood that by weighing in, Britain could tip the  balance.  According to The Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, "Appeals poured in upon him from all sides desperate cries for help from Image_Germania_(painting)distressed potentates, insistent demands for aid from struggling patriots."

While Palmerston "iterated and re-iterated with a frequency that became monotonous his exhortations to the dynastic despots to make timely concessions to national democracy," he rebuffed all pleas for outright intervention for liberal or nationalist causes.

For example, when the Hungarian nationalist leader Louis Kossuth begged for British assistance in the face of Russian intervention to re-impose Austrian rule over Hungary, Palmerston resisted, even though "British public opinion ... began to express itself clearly and loudly on the Hungarian side." 

Palmerston was personally appalled by the crackdown against the revolutionaries, writing privately that he thought the "Austrians are really the greatest brutes that ever called themselves by the undeserved name of civilised men."  In the end, however, he contented himself with diplomacy to help save Kossuth's life, not his Hungarian regime.

Maybe history will vindicate Obama's move, and see it as the moment that the regional revolution was saved from being snuffed out. But what Palmerston showed is that it is possible to be thrilled by and supportive of democratic movements in foreign lands, while remaining strictly uninvolved. Revolutions and rebellions are by their very nature unpredictable, fickle and confounding. It's very hard to see them in context at the time. 1848 was widely seen as a failure - crushed in many countries. And yet a couple of decades later, it was seen as the first earthquake toward a democratic future.

(Cartoon: Ferdinand Schröder on the defeat of the revolutions of 1848/49 in Europe (published in Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, August 1849); Painting: Germania (painting), wall fresco, St. Pauls Church, Frankfurt am Main, designed to cover the organ during the Frankfurt Parliament, 1848-49, by Philipp Veit.)