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Foreign Policy of Alexander I (1801-25)

By the end of the 18th Century, in respect of foreign affairs, Russia was entering on a new phase of her history. Hitherto she had confined her efforts to territorial expansion in eastern Europe and in Asia, and she had sought foreign alliances merely as temporary expedients to facilitate the attainment of that object. Now she was beginning to consider herself a powerful member of the European family ef nations, and she aspired to exercise a predominant influence in all European questions. This tendency was already shown by Catherine when she created the League of Neutrals as an arm against the naval supremacy of England, and by Paul when he insisted that his peace negotiations with Bonaparte should be regarded as part of a general European pacification, in which he must be consulted.

Alexander's primary focus was not on domestic policy but on foreign affairs, and particularly on Napoleon. Fearing Napoleon's expansionist ambitions and the growth of French power, Alexander joined Britain and Austria against Napoleon. Napoleon defeated the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805 and trounced the Russians at Friedland in 1807. Alexander was forced to sue for peace, and by the Treaty of Tilsit, signed in 1807, he became Napoleon's ally. Russia lost little territory under the treaty, and Alexander made use of his alliance with Napoleon for further expansion. He wrested the Grand Duchy of Finland from Sweden in 1809 and acquired Bessarabia from Turkey in 1812.

Alexander insisted still mote strongly on this claim, and in the convention which he concluded with the First Consul in October 1801 it was agreed that the maintenance of a just equilibrium between Austria and Prussia should be taken as an invariable principle in the plans of both parties, that the integrity of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies should be respected, that the duke of Württemberg should receive in Germany an indemnity proportionate to his losses, that the dominions of the elector of Bavaria should be prestrvrd intact, and that the independence of the Ionian Islands should not be violated. Having obtained these important concession the tsar imagined for a moment that in any further territorial changes he would be consulted and his advice allowed weight, and he seems even to have indulged in the hope thai the affairs of Europe might be directed by himself and his ally.

His illusion was soon dispelled, because the aims and policy of the two potentates were utterly irreconcilable. While the one strove to erect bulwarks against French aggression, the other was preparing the ground for fresh annexations. During 1803-4 the breach between the two rivals widened, because Napoleon became more and more aggressive and unceremonious in Italy and Germany. Before the end of 1803 Alexander had come to perceive the necessity of resisting him energetically in order to save Europe from complete subjection, and in August 1804 be recognized that an armed conflict was inevitable. It broke out in the following year.

After the battles of Austerlitz (December 1805) and Friedland (June 1807), in which the Russians were completely defeated, the two sovereigns had their famous interviews at Tilsit, at which they not only made peace but agreed to divide the world between them, with a sublime indifference to the interests of other states. The grandiose project was at once vaguely outlined in three formal documents, to the intense satisfaction of both parties, and on both sides there was much rejoicing at the conclusion of such an auspicious alliance; but the diplomatic honeymoon was not of long duration. The mutual assurances of unbounded confidence, admiration and sympathy, if there was any genuine sincerity in them, represented merely a transient state of feeling.

Napoleon, who could brook no equal, was nourishing the secret hope that Alexander might be used as a docile subordinate in the realization of his own plans, and Alexander soon came to suspect that he was being duped. His suspicions were intensified by the hostile criticisms of the Tilsit arrangement among his own subjects and by the arbitrary conduct of his ally, who continued his aggressions in reckless fashion as if he were sole master of Europe. The sovereigns of Sardinia, Naples, Portugal tnd Spain were dethroned, the pope was driven from Rome, the Rhine Confederation was extended till France obtained a footing on thé Baltic, the grand-duchy of Warsaw was reorganized and strengthened, the promised evacuation of Prussia was indefinitely postponed, an armistice between Russia and Turkey was negotiated by French diplomacy in such a way that the Russian troops should evacuate the Danubian principalities, which Alexander intended to annex to his empire, and the scheme for breaking up the Ottoman empire and ruining England by the conquest of India, which had been one of the most attractive baits in the Tilsit negotiations, but which had not been formulated in the treaty, was no longer spoken of. At the same time Napoleon threatened openly to crush Austria, and in 1809 he carried out his threat by defeating the Austrian armies at Wagram and elsewhere, and dictating the treaty of Schönbrunn (October 14).

The Russo-French alliance gradually became strained. Napoleon was concerned about Russia's intentions in the strategically vital Bosporus and Dardenelles straits. At the same time, Alexander viewed the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the French-controlled reconstituted Polish state, with suspicion. The requirement of joining France's Continental Blockade against Britain was a serious disruption of Russian commerce, and in 1810 Alexander repudiated the obligation.

Russia now remained the only unconquered power on the continent, and it was evident that the final struggle with her could not be long delayed. It began in 1812 by the advance of the Grande Armie on Moscow, and it ended in 1815 at Waterloo. In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 troops--a force twice as large as the Russian regular army. Napoleon hoped to inflict a major defeat on the Russians and force Alexander to sue for peace. As Napoleon pushed the Russian forces back, however, he became seriously overextended. Obstinate Russian resistance combined with the Russian winter to deal Napoleon a disastrous defeat, from which fewer than 30,000 of his troops returned to their homeland.

During those three years Alexander was the chief antagonist of Napoleon, and it was largely due to his skill and persistency that the allies held together ana freed Europe permanently from the Napoleonic domination. As the French retreated, the Russians pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. When peace was finally concluded, he had obtained that predominant position in European politics which had been the object of his ambition since the commencement of his reign.

After the allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the savior of Europe, and he played a prominent role in the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the same year, under the influence of religious mysticism, Alexander initiated the creation of the Holy Alliance, a loose agreement pledging the rulers of the nations involved -- including most of Europe -- to act according to Christian principles. More pragmatically, in 1814 Russia, Britain, Austria, and Prussia had formed the Quadruple Alliance. The allies created an international system to maintain the territorial status quo and prevent the resurgence of an expansionist France. The Quadruple Alliance, confirmed by a number of international conferences, ensured Russia's influence in Europe.

Alexander now believed firmly that he had been chosen by Providence to secure the happiness of the world in general and of the European nations in particular. In the fulfilment of this supposed mission he was not very successful, because his conception of national happiness - and the means of obtaining it differed widely from that of the peoples whom he wished to benefit. They had fought in order to liberate themselves not only from the yoke of Napoleon but also from the tyranny of their own governments, whereas Alexander expected them to remain submissively under the patriarchal institutions which their native rulers imposed on them. Thus, in spite of his academic sympathy with liberal ideas, he became, together with Metternich, a champion of political stagnation, and co-operated willingly in the reactionary measures against the revolutionary movements in Germany, Italy and Spain.

At the same time, Russia continued its expansion. The Congress of Vienna created the Kingdom of Poland (Russian Poland), to which Alexander granted a constitution. Thus, Alexander I became the constitutional monarch of Poland while remaining the autocratic tsar of Russia. He was also the limited monarch of Finland, which had been annexed in 1809 and awarded autonomous status. In 1813 Russia gained territory in the Baku area of the Caucasus at the expense of Persia. By the early nineteenth century, the empire also was firmly ensconced in Alaska.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:47:58 ZULU