Castlereagh: A Life. BY JOHN BEW. Oxford University Press, 2012, 752 pp. $39.95.
"The past," the novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, "is a foreign country; they do things differently there." There is certainly much that is alien about the world of Robert Stewart, better known as Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822), who helped usher in a new European order as British foreign secretary during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Nowadays, for example, one would not expect two senior politicians from the same party, both cabinet ministers, to fight a duel in the middle of a war, as Castlereagh and then Foreign Secretary George Canning did in 1809. And of course, there were some more fundamental differences: the British government of Castlereagh's day was elected by a narrow, all-male franchise determined by property ownership, and King George III, in his saner moments, was no mere constitutional figurehead but a power in his own right. Outside Great Britain, continental Europe would seem stranger still, with systems ranging from the Napoleonic tyranny in France to absolute monarchies in Austria, Prussia, and Russia. In international politics, wars of aggression and territorial annexation were still the norm.
But there is also much that is familiar about this world. Castlereagh's career played out in a parliamentary setting of intrigue and political maneuvering not dissimilar to those found in Washington and London today. In the international arena, Castlereagh confronted a landscape fractured by diverging national interests and profound ideological cleavages that would be recognizable to any modern diplomat. Given these resemblances, Castlereagh's successful management of competing great-power aspirations continues to resonate, inspiring statesmen such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the subject; the former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, who wrote a book that favorably contrasted Castlereagh's careful diplomacy with the more unilateralist tendencies of his contemporaries and successors; and the United Kingdom's current foreign secretary, William Hague, who wrote a 2005 biography of Castlereagh's boss, Prime Minister William Pitt, the Younger. What draws
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