150 Years of Modern Romanian Diplomacy (1862 – 2012)

Diplomacy and Foreign Policy between 1859 and 1918

The emergence of the modern Romanian nation state after the union of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in 1859 required a policy fostering the interests of the new state on an external plane. Although formally, from the angle of international law, the United Principalities remained under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, political elites in Bucharest pursued full emancipation. The role of international circumstances was understood and so was the need to shape the Romanian position accordingly.

As a matter of fact, the 1856 Peace Congress of Paris, which ended the Crimean War, had clearly indicated how important the attitude of the big European powers was. The union of the Principalities had become a European question, resolved eventually owing to the support provided by one of those powers. France had proposed union under a foreign prince belonging to a European ruling family not only in order to enhance its own influence at the mouths of the Danube, but also because its main rival at the moment, the Habsburg Empire, had to cope with internal pressure from the Hungarian nation, which not even after the failure of the 1848 revolution had given up its designs for an independent Hungary within the historical borders. Emperor Napoleon III hoped to obtain, with the help of the Romanians, a pressure point behind his rival, especially as the Romanians could be of use in case of a future Hungarian revolution. During the reign of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, a quite hazy plan got shape – which did not materialize, however – for carrying across the Carpathians a batch of weapons, bought for French money and which the Romanians had the mission to transport from the Danubian ports to Transylvania and hand over to the Hungarians. Prussia, in its turn interested in seeing a weaker Austria, as it vied with Austria over the German space, therefore Prussia, too, supported the Union. The German empire would be achieved, not long after that moment, in 1871, around Prussia and the House of Hohenzollern, and not around Austria and the House of Habsburg. Piedmont, the nucleus of the future Italian state, sided with the Romanians not so much because of a shared ideal, as because its indispensable ally, France, had asked it to.

The powers that opposed the idea of the Romanians’ union included fierce opponents. Austria had realized what the intentions of France were, and the Ottoman Empire rightly feared that the Romanians could set a dangerous precedent for the Balkan regions. Even united, the Principalities remained under Ottoman suzerainty, a matter on which the favourable powers had clearly pronounced and therefore the question of independence was not raised – nor could it be raised – in 1856, for the mere reason that the respective state entity did not exist yet. Very interesting was the case of Britain, which served an external political lesson to the Romanian generation of the 1848 revolution. In the beginning, British diplomacy fashioned its attitude after that of its war ally, France. At the moment when, failing all else, the Ottoman Empire guaranteed the neutrality of the Straits, Britain changed its mind and opposed the union. As Europe’s no. 1 naval power, Britain wanted to control the world’s maritime axes, including the Mediterranean axis (Gibraltar-Malta-Cyprus). The weakening of the Ottoman Empire in face of the Russian Empire, which wanted to drive the crescent out of Europe, jeopardized the strategic interests of Britain as a big power. That is why those interests prevailed and Britain opposed, in the end, the union of the Principalities. Russia, defeated in the war, had no freedom of action in Paris but would take its revenge two decades later, at the Congress of Berlin.

The Paris Convention of 7/19 August 1858 set the terms for organizing the United Principalities, and in January 1859 the double election of Alexandru Ioan Cuza opened up new avenues.  The measures taken under the patronage of the ruling prince also included organizing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1862, Apostol Arsache being the first Foreign Minister. While representatives were sent to Paris and Constantinople to obtain recognition of the double election of Cuza, the Ministry was being organized under the official designation of the Department of Foreign Affairs (Departamentul Trebilor Straine), which comprised the following sections: Chancellery, Consular Affairs, Political, Litigation Department, Official Publications.

The rise of the institution aimed at regulating the young state’s external ties spurred the efforts to obtain political emancipation and the international status of a sovereign state for Romania. Adding to that was the bringing of Carol I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to the throne of the United Principalities, after Cuza’s dethronement in February 1866. The Romanian political elite was implementing one of the decisions of the ad-hoc assemblies in Bucharest and Iasi: bringing to the throne a foreign prince from one of Europe’s ruling families. Under those circumstances, gaining state independence became a priority of the Romanian society, and Romanian politicians – both the liberals and the conservatives, alongside Prince Carol l –  were seeking means to demonstrate the will of the Romanians to the European powers, while waiting for a favourable international moment to obtain independence, the same as in 1858.

In this respect, there are several episodes, from quite a long series, that mark the road to full independence:

  • The Constitution of 1866 mentioned Romania as the official name, without any reference to Ottoman suzerainty, although under the 1858 Paris Convention, the name was “the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia;”
  • The emergence of a diplomatic corps made up, at least in the beginning, of personalities whose personal and family contacts in the European diplomatic and political environment could help foster the Romanians’ goals. The higher echelons of the Romanian diplomacy included the likes of Ion Ghica, Petre P. Carp, Mihail Kogălniceanu, George Ştirbei, Vasile Boerescu or Petre Mavrogheni, although there is no overlooking the lower ranks without which a bureaucratic machinery could not exist;
  • The organization, already under Alexandru Ioan Cuza, of  modern, well trained and equipped armed forces;
  • Romania’s participation in the Universal Expositions of 1867 in Paris and 1873 in Vienna. According to international rules, Romania should have had stands in the pavilion of the Ottoman Empire. But given Carol’s insistent efforts, and diplomatic support from France and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, despite the Ottomans’ protests, Romania had a distinct pavilion, decorated with the national insignia;
  • The signing of the 1875 Trade Convention with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which provided  for tax-free exchanges for a period of ten years. Economically, the convention had disastrous effects on the Romanian economy, since Austrian and Hungarian goods made their way to the market at low prices and suffocated local production. Politically, however, the gain was significant and corresponded to the time’s priorities, Romania being treated as an equal dialogue partner, as recorded in an international document. It was only after independence and international security guarantees had been obtained that the Convention was no longer extended when it expired;
  • The signing of a Romanian-Russian military convention in April 1877, shortly before the flaring up of the Russo-Turkish war, in which Romania, too, participated.

All these signs of the will for political emancipation from Ottoman suzerainty were insufficient if the project was to materialize. The wish to obtain independence, attested to by the initiatives mentioned above, was not enough. The Romanians needed propitious international circumstances, the same as back in 1859.

A favourable juncture occurred in 1877 when a new Russo-Turkish war broke out because the Russian Empire wanted to deal its old rival a decisive blow and drive it away from Europe, while also taking its revenge for the categorical defeat in the Crimean War. But, defeated at the beginning of the campaign on the Balkans front, because of some strategy mistakes, and running the risk to see its army chased across the Danube, Russia asked for the participation of the Romanian army, headed by Prince Carol.

The allies emerged victorious and the Congress of Berlin ratified, on 1/13 July 1878, the Peace Treaty that recognized Romania’s independence (articles 43, 44 and 45). Recognition was conditioned, however, on altering article 7 of the Constitution regarding the granting of citizenship, on accepting certain exchanges of territories (Dobrogea for the south of Bessarabia,  annexed by Russia) and on redemption of the shares of the German company that had built the railways in Romania. Internationally, independence was confirmed right away by the Ottoman Empire and by Austria-Hungary, plus the Russian Empire and Italy. By 1880 the other big powers would also confirm (France, Britain and Germany) and so would other smaller European states. Consequently, Romania proclaimed itself a kingdom on 14/26 March 1881, and the ruling prince assumed the title of Carol I, King of all Romanians.

Likewise, under a law passed by Parliament, Romania’s diplomatic representations were raised to the rank of legations, with representation, economic and legal powers. There were ten such representations, in the capitals of Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, Italy, Britain and Serbia. And there was also a diplomatic agency in Sofia. The diplomatic staff included envoys extraordinary and ministers plenipotentiary, legation secretaries and attachés.

As far as its foreign policy is concerned, Romania was facing a stringent problem. Although independent, the kingdom was in a delicate situation because of the absence of security guarantees to protect its status and territorial integrity. The more so as the attitude of the Russian Empire, the former ally during the Balkan War, had become unfriendly, even inimical, right after the end of hostilities.  Tsar Alexander II’s threats that the Romanian army would be disarmed and the categorical refusal of the King Carol I increased the tensions. As the collective guarantee of the great powers – a regime instituted under the the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856 – had been removed when the Berlin Peace Treaty had been adopted, Romania felt abandoned at the mercy of Russia, with which it had a territorial dispute. This situation determined strong anti-Russian feelings both with the political elite and the Royal House and at a broader social level. The Russian danger was one of the major themes of Romanian foreign policy actions, at least until 1914, and the attempt to counter the Russian threat determined Romania to get closer to Austria-Hungary and Germany. Austria-Hungary and Romania had common interests at a European level or, rather, they had a common enemy, Russia, and the length of the border between the three states could play an important role in the scenarios of a possible armed conflict, considered both in Bucharest and in Vienna. Moreover, Romania’s orientation to Germany was due not to the fact that King Carol I belonged to the Hohenzollern family (an important thing otherwise) but rather to the fact that at that moment, after France had been crushed at Sedan and Emperor Napoleon III had abdicated, Germany remained the top power on the Continent. Britain’s foreign policy, the “splendid isolation” that meant non-involvement in a system of treaties on the continent yet close observation of the European policy, accounted for Romania having just one choice when it came to its foreign policy. Therefore, on 30 October 1883, Romania signed a defensive alliance treaty with Austria-Hungary, which Germany joined the very same day.

That treaty was renewed after the initial 10-year term but remained secret until the First World War. The one to have imposed that aspect was the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, first of all in order to spare the sensitivities of the Russian Empire, which would have felt threatened learning that its neighbour, Romania, with which it had a tense relationship, had the advantage of such a powerful ally. Threatened, obviously, not by Romania, but by its allies, i.e. Germany and Austria-Hungary. Such a threat could only be counteracted by an alliance between Russia and Germany’s main adversary at that moment, France, a question that was inconceivable for Germany’s foreign policy, focused as it was on keeping France in isolation so as to prevent it from taking revenge after the defeat of 1870. Such secret negotiations and treaties characterized Bismarck’s policy that Emperor Wilhelm I, too, backed.

That is why the foreign policy of Romania after 1883 and until the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, was built on the principles drafted and agreed upon with the European partners in the Triple Alliance. But, in order better to understand how the Romanian foreign policy evolved, one needs to consider another two elements:

  • The way the foreign policy decision-making group came into being. The fact that the Treaty of alliance with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary plus Italy) was not made known by the king and was not known to most politicians in Bucharest shows that actually that group was very small, comprising first of all King Carol I, then the ministers of foreign affairs and the presidents of the Council of Ministers. The latter were only informed when the king considered the holders of the respective portfolios as safe from his point of view, as in the case of Ion C. Bratianu, Dimitrie A. Sturdza, Petre P. Carp or Lascar Catargiu. Diplomatic documents preserved in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, published today in the monumental three-series of Romanian Diplomatic Documents attest to the prevailing role King Carol I played in the conduct of the Romanian foreign policy.
  • The existence of a major political project consistently pursued by the Romanian society, i.e. achievement of the nation state in its maximum form, by bringing to the kingdom the historical provinces inhabited mostly by Romanians. The political elite adopted pragmatic viewpoints that materialized in political decisions, as had happened in 1883. The outbreak of the war in 1914 made it necessary to reassess the situation and find new means to secure the above-mentioned project. The more so as, after 1867, as the Austrian-Hungarian dualism was achieved , the nations in the Eastern part of the empire, Romanians included, had to cope with an increasingly aggressive policy of forced Hungarianization promoted by the governments in Budapest. Moreover, early in the 20th century, there were indications of a rapprochement, timid at first, between the Russian Empire and Romania. The guarantees offered by Britain and France in connection with agreement on Transylvania’s union with Romania proved to be decisive and eventually prompted Romania’s entry into the war by the side of the Entente and not of the Triple Alliance.

The foreign policy, conducted by a professional  diplomatic corps, according to the Western model, provided the political means decision-makers in Bucharest needed in order to put into practice and support the general interests of Romanian society.