“Politics is the art of compromise.” Otto von Bismark, 1st Chancellor of Germany
Back in the 19th century, a lot of the details of the world were different. You might well say that how things are today, all over the world, is pretty much because of how things were at the end of the 1800s. A great strategic competition was being played out on a world stage by the European colonial powers. Spain’s empire fell apart while the British and the French checked and countered each other across Africa and the Far East. In the middle of Asia, it was the Russians and the British whose conflicts became known as the “Great Game”.
Meanwhile, the ancient boogeyman of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, was seen as standing on its last leg, and seemingly remarkable unifications were occurring across Europe. The Austro-Hungarians pulled together and claimed the Baltic states left behind by the receding Ottomans, the Italian peninsula joined together into a single nation on its own for the first time in modern history, and the heartland of the german people became unified into a powerhouse of a nation able to rival the resources of the Continent’s other nations.
Eurocentrism and a fetish for monarchy were the word of the day, and little if any thought was spent on the agency of the individuals of a nation when the interests of that nation were being decided. Tyranny abounded, and the makers of policy were largely insulated from the consequences of their political decisions on the people for whom the decisions were made. Bismark saw compromise as an integral part of policy making not least because the positions being negotiated away were not his own.
Arguably, two World Wars and decades of ethnic and religious conflict in Africa and the Middle East are all consequential of Bismarkesque compromises – episodes in which the affected populations had no representation in negotiations, and so decisions were made with far less than complete knowledge of the physical and social terrain at issue. So, the next time someone declares that compromise is the best solution to a political question, remember the consequences of compromise when one side of a negotiation has control of the board and the other side is denied its voice.