It’s common to compare the US to Rome and Great Britain, as a kind of empire that may have seen its better days. During the trip while in Vienna I thought perhaps Austria’s decline holds a key lesson.
In 1815 Napoleon had finally been defeated, and Vienna was in the midst of hosting a long conference to determine the fate of Europe after the Napoleonic wars. Austria, ruled by the imperial Hapsburg dynasty, encompassed eleven distinct ethnic groups and vast territory in central Europe. The rulers knew that the threat posed by Napoleon was not just that of a strong military led by a brilliant general, but the ideas of the French revolution.
The French revolution was a rejection of the divine right of Monarchs to rule, an embrace of popular sovereignty (power via the consent of the governed), and dismissal of tradition and custom as crucial to social stability. Under the motto “fraternity, equality and liberty,” the French revolution meant that reason and rational thought should trump religion and tradition. That was a threat to the central fiber of the Austrian regime.
So in Wien (Vienna) leaders from around Europe meant, and Austria’s Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich urged that Europe return to the peaceful thinking of the pre-Napoleonic period, where tradition, custom, religion and the divine right to rule guided sovereignty. It was a very conservative vision – push back the changes demanded by enlightenment thought, and embrace the old order.
They couldn’t really go back to pre-Napoleonic Europe; Napoleon’s reorganization alongside local demands meant that the old Holy Roman Empire could never be restored. Germany would now have 39 statelets instead of 390, a King would be restored in France, Austria would dominate, and British democracy was tolerated because they kept a Monarch and anyway, they were separate from the rest of the continent.
So in 1815, Austria appeared to have come out of the turmoil on top. But rather than recognizing that the French revolution was a product of rather than the cause of the transformation they feared, Austria refused to change. By 1848 growing nationalism inspired revolts across the empire which they could only put down playing ethnic groups against each other.
That same year 18 year old Franz Joseph became Austria’s Emperor as Ferdinand I resigned as part of the plan to end the 1848 uprisings. Austria survived, though small wars weakened it, especially in the 1860s when Italy and Germany unified thanks to victories over Austria. Austria had to give Hungarians improved status in what would become known as the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” to maintain stability. Still, walking around Vienna, the Hofburg, Belvedere, the buildings around the Ring, it’s clear that in the 19th Century the Viennese considered their empire powerful and important. Vienna to this day has an imperial feel.
Yet holding on to tradition and trying to resist change made the empire ever more anachronistic in a increasingly rational and modern world. Austria fell behind more progressive states. It could not let go of a world view that saw a divinely chosen Emperor ruling via tradition and custom.
By 1914 it was clear that Austria’s refusal to embrace change – to try to hold on to an era gone by – had doomed the empire. Their only hope was to take over territory being vacated by an even more obsolete empire, the Ottoman Turks. Russia, an empire also more conservative than Austria, had that same hope. And it was their competition to replace the Ottomans as the major power in the Balkans that ignited World War I – the war that would eliminate the conservative order and give victory to modernism.
Walking by the state opera house, where the live opera is now projected on a big screen TV out front, I wondered how it must have felt in the early 20th Century. The Empire was doomed, yet all must have felt as majestic as ever. Empires fall, but they also wither, almost without notice until they reach the point of no return.
People compare the US to the Roman or British Empires, but I think Austria now is an apt comparison. Globalization, the rise of new powers, the decreasing importance of traditional military power, and the fading of sovereignty are all trends that many Americans wish to resist. They want the world to stay as it was during the “American Century,” with the US leading and dominating the global agenda. But that day has passed. And if we try to hold on to it, America’s fate may be similar to Austria’s. Not utter collapse like Rome, but a loss of power and prestige, taking a less important role on the world stage.
To be sure, the US won’t be dissected like Austria was, but even the sum of all the parts together don’t have anywhere near the world role the empire had in the 19th Century!
Not that I expect us to be engulfed in a world war – that’s a 20th Century way for an empire to end. Rather, the US will find itself eclipsed by a new mode of political and economic power. Rather than confronting the need to change, we’ll turn on each other, blaming people for weakening the US within, finding scapegoats. To avoid Austria’s fate, we need to understand how politics is changing and embrace thinking for a new era.