Joanne Yao
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The 1815 Congress of Vienna and the oldest continuous interstate institution
in The ideal river
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Chapter 3 explores how taming the Rhine as an internal European highway translated into the creation of the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Diplomats at Vienna wished to restore a pre-Napoleonic social order, but they also felt the pull of Enlightenment confidence in civilized European society’s ability to control the Rhine and reform centuries of irrational river politics to secure free trade and economic benefits for all European states. To placate the impulse for both reform and restoration, European diplomats struck an awkward compromise between three existing legal interpretations of the transboundary river: the river as the private property of individual sovereigns; the river as shared commons between states; and the river as international commons open to all. While subsequent narratives suggest the third interpretation won out at the Congress of Vienna, an examination of the contingent politics of the Congress shows that the 1815 Rhine Commission was largely a return to pre-Napoleonic interpretations of the river as private property – but with a liberal twist that reflected imaginaries of the Rhine as a trans-European highway. By establishing the Rhine Commission, the Congress of Vienna affirmed freedom of commerce and created a consultative body to implement rational and sensible regulations to maintain the river as an efficient economic highway.

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The ideal river

How control of nature shaped the international order


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