A Peace Congress for the Healing of the Old Continent

By Hans Hedrich

This article is an abridged version of Hans Hedrich: Sieben Schritte zum Frieden – Warum wir in Europa einen neuen ‘Wiener Kongress’ brauchen.[1]

Seven hundred and fifty million inhabitants, ten and a half million square kilometres, a few thousand years of history, ninety languages, fifty countries, one continent: Europe’s diversity is proverbial. Proverbially beautiful, but also proverbially difficult when it comes to living together well and justly in this diversity. When the difficult becomes too difficult and tips over into the terrible, we call it war. Europe and the Europeans have had a few of them. However, they always found their way back to peace, or at least they tried: in 2015, 1995, 1975, 1945, 1815. Perhaps again in 2025? Now we’ve ‘got’ this new war in Europe and despite the historical experience of war we still cannot find the way back to peace. What has happened?

An attempt at historical reconstruction…

Since February 2022, an authoritarian to dictatorial Russia has been bombing its partly democratic yet corruptneighbour Ukraine to rubble without any rights whatsoever and has appropriated parts of its territory in violation of international law after Ukraine, in turn, had allowed itself to be remodelled into a geostrategic bastion against Russia by the USA and Great Britain over a period of years. So, Russia is the aggressor, the West is the, well, instigator and Ukraine is the battlefield. I did not invent this narrative, nor did it come from a speech by Putin, but it reflects the view of a high-ranking German military advisor to NATO. So it is quasi official that in Ukraine it is not the forces of good fighting against evil, but that ‘it’ is much more complex, that ‘it’ is classically about interests and their opposites.

Russia, on the other hand, will apparently not cede by its own the conquered, occupied and annexed territories of Ukraine. Nor, by the way, will Turkey in Cyprus/Syria/Iraq, Israel in Palestine/Syria, Morocco in the Western Sahara or the USA in Cuba. For decades, they have all been trampling on binding international law (ius cogens) and the basic principle of peaceful coexistence in accordance with the UN Charter. Since the UN Security Council only has the power to decide over coercive measures against states that are “delinquent” under international law, and since the question of Ukraine and the world order (unipolar versus multipolar) has led to a confrontational bloc formation in the Security Council among the five veto powers with the USA + the UK + France on the one hand and Russia + China on the other, humanity is stuck in an escalation spiral since 2022 without warning, driven by the supposed guarantors of world peace according to the rules laid down by themselves in 1945. (I know, so far this is average Wikipedia knowledge!)

It’s getting more exciting as soon as one delves into the history of the prohibition of force in the UN Charter (1945), that goes back to the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919) as well as the Briand-Kellogg Pact (1928). Declaratively, the initiators of these treaties were concerned with securing global peace by outlawing war; in reality, these regulations, so necessary and welcome in themselves, were based on an international desire for dominance on the part of the USA, Great Britain and France and, from 1945 on, the Soviet Union, which aimed to control Germany as an economic power in Europe. Hegemony disguised as security policy. Germany, which after 1871 had become too big for the European balance of power, was and still has to be prevented as far as possible from using its resources and means of power „uncensored”, by encircling, fighting it militarily and integrating it economically and financially to the benefit of all. This included and still includes the repeated restriction of economic cooperation between the German industry and the large resource suppliers in the East, like Russia – based on the logic of the ‘Heartland Theory‘ of the British geographer Halford Mackinder in 1904 and last but not least the Euro system with unrestricted account overdrafts by deficit-ridden central banks (‘TARGET balances‘) mainly at the expense of the German Bundesbank. On a continental and global scale, this has resulted to this day in a hierarchical subordination of Germany, continental Europe and the land powers of Asia to the Anglo-Saxon naval powers placed in America, Europe and Australia. That the latter want to maintain their dominant position in the future, even against the new competitor China, while legitimate in principle, is to be expected – but in retrospect of the previous power struggles on the European continent, it’s more than worrying!

Since the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789, the hegemonic struggle in Europe and worldwide has also had a pronounced ideological-theological drive: freedom, democracy, human rights are leading a crusade against oppression, autocracy and contempt for humanity! The problem lies not in striving for these fundamental values and human rights, which have often be won through struggle, but their repeated abuse for conquest as well as the destructive policies of the proclaimers of these noble values. The US-led wars of aggression in the name of ‘regime change’ in the Middle East has antecedents among others in the war-deciding participation of the USA in the First World War under the slogan “Make the world safe for democracy!“, followed by an imposed “peace treaty” in 1919 that caused mischief throughout Europe – a policy that finally goes back to the wars in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars of 1792-1815. Hegemony wrapped in ideology.

Apart from the slogan of the „struggle against the evil” these ideologically loaden military actions against sovereign states did have and still have in common the disregard for the international law of its time as well as the profoundly disruptive effects on society as a whole – e.g. a death balance of the wars of the last 200+ years that is unique in world history! From 1789 onwards inter-state relations made up of such “ingredients” produced an explosive mixture of missionarism, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the enemy, lies, war crimes – after all total war. This came with a ‘need’ to ‘finally’ put the enemy down on his knees, to force upon him ‘unconditional surrender’, in order to subsequently find him guilty at the ‘Court of History’ in the face of the world. This results in the (mass)psychological impossibility of peace negotiations with the ‘mortal enemy’. In order to prevent the defeated and outlawed from taking revenge at some point, war of aggression is subsequently ‘prohibited’ under international law – as happened in 1945 and 1919. However, it is only too well known, that both winners and vanquished have been disregarding the ban on the use of force whenever ‘necessary’.

The twentieth century and the twenty-first century to date probably would have been more peaceful if the turning point of 1919 had been heralded not in the revolutionary spirit of 1789 but in the negotiating tradition of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. Why is that? After the wars and upheavals in the wake of ‘1789’ and ‘Napoleon’, the victorious monarchies gathered at the negotiating table in Vienna in 1814-1815 together with the former adversary France and jointly(!) created a peace order for the continent, restorative in nature, but one that lasted with some exceptions (Crimean War 1853-1856) until 1914 and one that, despite its anti-revolutionary agenda, enabled political and social progress and even a certain degree of national emancipation of the peoples of Europe. This peace order ultimately failed because it could no longer manage in traditional manner the overwhelming dynamics of industrial, colonial, military and nationalist competition from the end of the century onwards.

The ensuing carnage of the ‘Great War’ 1914-1918 was brought to an end by US President Woodrow Wilson’s peace draft, which promised a negotiated and balanced peace order in the famous, yet too little known ‘Fourteen Points‘ – ideologically a mixture of America 1776 (self-determination) + Vienna 1815 (negotiation of state / imperial interests). Unfortuantely, the initiative in the negotiations was seized by France and Britain, who rejected Wilson’s agenda because of their own hegemonic priorities, forcing instead in 1919-1920 an unnegotiated, punitive peace upon Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Hungary, later branded a ‘perversion’ by Wilson himself and a ‘fraud’ by John M. Keynes. In 1919, in view of the ‘Carthaginian peace’ of Versailles, Keynes warned clairvoyantly of an even greater catastrophe in Europe in twenty years’ time! In 1945, after Germany’s predicted rebellion and the perversion of its initially legitimate demands for revision into war of aggression and genocide, the Versailles peace logic was reestablished, while the future-oriented post-war generations saw in pre-modern Europe and its ways not more than a burden of the past to be disposed of – ‘Vienna 1815’included. 

Coincidentally, on the occasion of its bicentenary, ‘Vienna 1815’ experienced a timid revival attempt through the ‘Minsk 2’ Agreements in 2015, after the recently erupted Ukraine crisis simply forced the European actors (with lessons learned?) to negotiate. The crucial UN ban on the use of force may have stood in the way of successful negotiations, since Russia had illegally taken over the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 in violation, among others, of Article 2.4 of the UN Charter. Rewarding an aggressor state through negotiations with territorial gains? No way! That geopolitical turning point led in cascading events to the (re)arming of Ukraine, primarily by the USA and Great Britain, in order to reconquer the occupied territories and to the outbreak of open hostilities in 2022. This again led to the demand of high-ranking Russian foreign politicians in April 2023 that peace with Ukraine be only conceivable with the establishment of a new, multipolar world order.

Should Russia (and China) not back down from this maximum demand – and what could make them do so? – the only alternative to the current ‚armed negotiation‘ of the future world order would be a peaceful, multilaterally negotiated solution. In other words, a kind of ‘New Congress of Vienna’. Or a ‘New Helsinki Final Act‘. Besides that, a congress solution would make annecessary any further frustrating and inconclusive bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. It is not to be expected that Russia will vacate the occupied territories of Ukraine – no matter what the world order will look like in the future. At the same time, a peace treaty implying the forced cessation of state territory (of Ukraine) would not be recognised internationally, as it would contradict binding international law. A purely bilateral treaty would hardly be able to circumvent this obstacle. A pan-European congress, however, would open up this option; with both parties voluntarily entering open-ended negotiations as part of the establishment of a more comprehensive security framework of our continent. The multilateral / pan-European character of the negotiations would consist in the participation of as many interested states in Europe and beyond as possible. This comprehensive format would allow to negotiate besides Russian-Ukrainian issues other contentious bilateral questions.

The already existing norms, institutions and practices of international law constitute the starting point for negotiations, whereby the hitherto conflict-prone relationship between the state and the people as subjects of international law has the chance to be readjusted in favour of the rights of the people. This, in turn, will boost the democratisation, diversification and consolidation of law of the states involved in the process, in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, the Friendly Relations Declaration of 1970, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities of 1992 and the UN Sustainability Agenda of 2015.

Here’s an approximate, seven-step roadmap to peace

1. Signing of a ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia (Feasible under international law; politically feasible under the prospect of a multilateral peace process).

2. Deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in the disputed territories (feasible under international law via a UN Security Council resolution; permanent members would waive their right to veto if there was a prospect of a multilateral peace process. Alternatively, in the event of a veto in the Security Council: “Uniting for Peace” mechanism of the UN General Assembly).

3. Holding a European peace congress – under the auspices of the UN, OSCE, etc. (Possible territorial cessions as a result of the congress only legitimate under international law with the free consent of the conflicting parties; politically feasible under the prospect of a multilateral peace process. Event format similar to the “Helsinki Process” 1973-1975 or the UN Conferences of the Parties / COP on climate change; similar to the Congress system after 1815; subsequent periodic meetings will make adjustments to the treaty framework to reflect new realities).

4. Holding plebiscites on the state affiliation or internal status of the disputed regions in Ukraine – under the supervision of the UN, OSCE, etc. (An essential element for the acceptance of the congress results will be open-ended, informed, free plebiscites on the future of the disputed regions, based on the principle of international law of external and/or internal self-determination. Plebiscites on this issue will entrust the people as a subject of international law with more rights and allow them to make independent decisions on important matters. Majority decisions in favour of secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia are to be expected but not guaranteed).

5. Holding plebiscites in Europe on state affiliation or the internal status of other potentially disputed territories – under the supervision of the UN, OSCE, etc. (Similarly to point 4. Furthermore: A responsible yet undogmatic approach to these hitherto taboo subjects is highly advised. ‘Responsible’ due to the hitherto conflict-prone potential of such decisions; ‘undogmatic’ due to the fact that there have always been border and status changes in Europe, consequently there will be more in the future. Giving up on dogmatic viewpoints to preserve peace can only be beneficial. Majority decisions in some regions – e.g. Russia included(!) – in favour of secession are to be expected, but not guaranteed, especially when the home state of an ethnic group offers it a convincing status upgrade).

6. Reboot of the international system through reform of international legal institutions, norms and practices (Improvements or even a comprehensive reform of the UN towards a democratically legitimised, representative, assertive institution for peace-keeping and self-government of all humankind has been debated since the early years of the UN; a European or even World Peace Conference under UN auspices will accelerate this process. Something similar is conceivable for regional international organisations such as the OSCE. For the philosophical underpinnings of a fundamental reorientation of international law towards democratisation and the creation of a world constitution, see e.gPhilip Allott: ‘The Health of Nations).

7. Practical measures for confidence-building, information and participation of the population in the peace process (In addition to the known measures for citizen participation in political decision-making, there should be mentioned the proposal to organise civil society ‘peace conferences’, which on a small scale anticipate the official peace congress – also as a signal to the political decision-makers that an informed, responsible, emancipated society is taking over the initiative in this crucial issue and no longer accepts to leave this decision to the politicians, civil servants, lobbyists and media manipulators only. The self-healing of Europe begins with the collective self-awareness of Europeans.).

The time horizon of 2025 lends itself to this large-scale undertaking – on the one hand, this being ‘feasible’ from an organising point of view – with first steps in 2023; on the other hand, because 2025 will continue an impressive series of epoch-making peace policy events in Europe and thus develop symbolic traction: 1815 (Vienna), 1945 (San Francisco – UN), 1975 (Helsinki – CSCE), 1995 (Dayton-Bosniacreation of the OSCE), 2015 (Minsk Agreement).

Munich, June 2023
Comments, criticism and compliments welcome at hanshedrich[AT]gmx.de

Citing as: Hedrich, Hans: 2025 – Restarting Europe. A Peace Congress for the Healing of the Old Continent.

The author: Hans Hedrich (1971) is a political scientist, environmental and civil rights activist and stringer for TV reports in multiethnic Transylvania / Romania. 

Bibliography (Hyperlinks)

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[1]    This article is an abridged version of Hans Hedrich: Sieben Schritte zum Frieden – Warum wir in Europa einen neuen ‘Wiener Kongress’ brauchen. With reference to extensive sources of international law, it outlines a seven-step peace plan (roadmap) for Ukraine and other areas with conflict potential in Europe. In addition, he points out in his essay hegemonically and ideologically conditioned weak points of the European and international peace order, makes proposals for reform and makes a plea, with Prof. em. Philip Allott, for international law to break out of its self-inflicted immaturity. For reasons of clarity, this article largely dispenses with footnotes; detailed evidence for statements made here can be found in the extended essay. However, the article provides hyperlinks to selected sources and further reading.