Portraits from Wikipedia
Womanizer, bribe-taker, statesman—the cynically brilliant Talleyrand inspired an equally colorful biographer.
by Benjamin Schwarz
He is one of history’s great survivors— and opportunists. Born into the high aristocracy, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838) was by 34 a worldly, womanizing bishop. With the overthrow of the ancien régime, he adjusted to the new realities and embraced the revolution, rising fast and high in the new order even though it meant his excommunication. He fled the Terror, first to England and then to America. But Citizen Talleyrand soon returned,
ingratiating himself with the Directoire and slithering into the remunerative post of foreign minister. He nicely timed his transfer of allegiance to Napoleon, who bade him to continue his brilliant, subtle conduct of French foreign relations. By 1808, having long since decided that Bonaparte had embarked on a ruinous course, Talleyrand was conniving with the emperor’s enemies Tsar Alexander and Metternich, Austria’s foreign-policy master. In 1814, with the armies that had fought Napoleon across the Continent at the gates of Paris, Talleyrand machinated to restore Bourbon rule. Reinstated as foreign minister (this time serving the dynasty the revolution had overthrown a quarter century earlier), he performed one of the great feats in the annals of dip-lomacy when, at the Congress of Vienna, he played perfectly his country’s exceedingly weak hand, nimbly exploiting the rifts in the coalition that had been ar-rayed against France and gaining for it an equal status among the great powers.
Eight years before his death, Talleyrand schemed to bring the Bourbons’ rivals, the Orleanists, to power. The new regime appointed him ambassador to Great Britain, a country that had expelled him as an agent of the revolution 36 years earlier. To those aghast at such a career, he could very well respond with one of the countless cynical bons mots attributed to him: “Treason is a matter of dates.”
Arguably a turncoat, possibly a degenerate (his last mistress was his niece by marriage and the daughter of a former lover), certainly a shameless flatterer and world-class bribe-taker, Talleyrand was also the most skillful and farsighted diplomat of his age and a man of arresting grace, wit, and style. No wonder that during his American sojourn he developed an intense friendship with that most glamorous, coolly intelligent, and winning of the Founders, Alexander Hamilton (years after his return to France, Talleyrand kept Hamilton’s portrait over his mantelpiece). Like Hamilton, he had a rare rapport with and understanding of women—he counted many of the most intelligent, attractive, and influential of them as his friends or lovers, though one suspects they often adored him despite themselves. A French noblewoman recalled her entirely chaste surrender to his beguilement:
One couldn’t help regretting that there were so many reasons for not thinking well of him, and after listening to him for an hour one was compelled to banish the recollection of everything one had heard against him.
Indeed, to men as well as women, to his intimates, his masters, and his diplomatic opponents, this smooth and delightful aristocrat highlighted the dark side of charm: He was as seductive as he was obviously dangerous.
Talleyrand’s ambiguity extends from his contemporary and personal reputation to his grand historical one. He consistently profited from his renegadism, but was he also following the dictates of France’s interests? Is there, as his (reluctant) admirer Henry Kissinger—a man whose own antennae have always been exquisitely attuned to the winning side—suggested in A World Restored, “a certain consistency in this behaviour, an effort to balance by his changes of side the excess of his contemporaries … a sincere attempt to remain in a position to moderate events”?
No surprise, then, that this protean figure has attracted (and often revolted) historians and biographers. Talleyrand himself wrote multiple volumes of delectable but tendentious (even by the low standards of the genre) Memoirs. Since they were published, 60 years after his death, French writers have regularly condemned—and less regularly elevated—his character and achievements. In 1870, Sainte-Beuve famously and eccentrically devoted his unrivaled literary talents to a lacerating indictment of Talleyrand. (Georges Lacour-Gayet’s biography, completed in the 1930s, is at four volumes the most exhaustive study; Jean Orieux’s mannered one, translated into baroque English in 1974, is probably the most reliable.) Until now, the last important Anglophone book was Talleyrand, an elegant masterpiece published in 1932 by Duff Cooper, the English diplomat, soldier, statesmen, bon viveur, and Francophile. This year, however, two British journalists—David Lawday, the former chief Paris and Washington correspondent for The Economist (and a contributor to this magazine), and Robin Harris, a historian, a Conservative Party official, and the ghostwriter of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs—each published a biography. Harris’s is the more authoritative and better written of the two, but, alas, it has been published only in the U.K. Neither it nor Lawday’s intelligent and breezy book, which has just been published here, can approach Cooper’s achievement, a book still in print. But both, drawing on more recent scholarship, correct a number of Cooper’s errors and misapprehensions.
Why, after a prolonged drought (despite a perpetual interest in war, power, sex, and Parisian salon life), this relative flood of Talleyrand titles? These books betray a nostalgic admiration for a diplomatic style long out of favor, a style encapsulated in Talleyrand’s admonition to his junior diplomats: “Above all, gentlemen, not too much zeal.” With foresight and not inconsiderable courage, Talleyrand opposed Napoleon’s ceaseless and destructive pursuit of la gloire, and instead urged a foreign policy of restraint and moderation. The emperor sought to transcend international politics by crushing his enemies; Talleyrand wanted to use them to help maintain the balance of power. Of course, all Talleyrand’s efforts to modulate Napoleon’s overweening ambition failed, and Talleyrand could be faulted for helping attach France in the first place to a force so inevitably dangerous. (Only after the punitive Peace of Pressburg, at the end of 1805, was Talleyrand convinced that Napoleon’s ambitions were unlimited and perilous. But, as the historian Paul Schroeder argues, “All efforts to find some point in Napoleon’s career at which he turned wrong or went too far are misguided. His whole character and career were fundamentally wrong; he always went too far.”) Nevertheless, Lawday rightly praises Talleyrand’s “epic struggle against Napoleon’s imperial overreach,” and he anachronistically tips his hand by adding, “If only our world’s lone superpower … were to lend him an ear.”
It’s safe to assume that Lawday isn’t limiting his opprobrium to the current administration (after all, the United States has described itself as the sole superpower since the early 1990s), and neither would the archpragmatist Talleyrand. He would have found discomfiting the tenor of much of the last hundred years of American diplomacy—including the Clinton administration’s hubristic proposition that America, “the indispensable nation,” should not conduct its foreign policy as if it were “simply … another great power,” and JFK’s stirring but rather hazardous notion that “to assure the survival and the success of liberty” throughout the globe, the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden.” Adept at adroit maneuvering and tactical fine-tuning on a grand scale rather than at laying out the sort of ambitious doctrines and grandiloquent rhetoric that have largely defined American foreign policy, Talleyrand subscribed to the idea that statecraft’s modest but arduous task is to enable one’s country to survive and prosper in the world as it exists—not to transform international relations and not to further the alleged cause of mankind. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans have zealously embraced the at-once earnest and breathtakingly extravagant foreign-policy style of his “New Diplomacy.” Here’s two cheers for Talleyrand’s long-despised Old Diplomacy—cool, even cynical; flexible, even inconsistent; restrained, even pedestrian.