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In the author’s own words this is a book about ‘chaps and maps’. More formally. The Chancelleries of Europe is a study of traditional diplomacy at its peak of influence in the nineteenth-century and the first years of the twentieth. At the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 the five Great Powers – Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia – established a system of international intercourse that safeguarded the world from major war for exactly a hundred years. The successive crises that challenged this supranational system – the unification of Italy and Germany, the scramble for colonies in Africa, and for trade concessions in Asia, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of Japan – are well-known. Less attention has been given to the way the system functioned and to changes imposed on its character by the spread of speedier communications. It is these gaps in our understanding of the international politics of the century that the author seeks to fill.
The book therefore studies the clashes of personality between crowned heads of the old empires and between rival statesmen and ambassadors seeking advancement. It compares the growth of personnel and specialist departments in the various foreign ministries, assesses the impact of domestic politics on external affairs, the power of the pressure groups like the (British) China Association and the (Russian) Far Eastern Committee, the proto-spin fed to favoured newspapers and, in contrast, the growing unease of press and public at ‘hidden’ negotiations and the concealment of diplomatic expedients and alliances. But the book also notes changes in the way diplomacy was conducted in the wake of technological inventions such as the semaphore towers of the early years and the electric telegraph and undersea cables of the second half of the century.
Moments of high drama, skullduggery and bathos prove that the reading of diplomatic history is not the dull, dreary drudge many abhorred in their schooldays.
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