Alternative international orders: a modern Holy Alliance for the twenty-first century

The Holy Alliance, a significant aspect of this post-1815 world, might offer a useful model to shape a legitimate and workable international order of the future.
congress of vienna
The Congress of Vienna, c.1815. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.
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The history of the nineteenth century Concert of Europe has been both a cynical and creative force in diplomatic imaginations. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Woodrow Wilson famously denounced its legacy as that of the balance of power, competing alliances, and secret diplomacy. Decades later, however, British statesmen planning for the creation of the United Nations Organisation considered it a model of stability, albeit one with a stark hierarchy. Henry Kissinger, a noted scholar of the post-Napoleonic period, was guided in important ways by what he saw as its great insights into the nature and purpose of statecraft. More recently, senior American officials have entertained the idea of a new concert system for East Asia. 

There is a less discussed but equally significant aspect of this post-1815 order, however. It is a structure long distasteful to modern liberal thought, yet one which, from an intellectual perspective, provides an important study in how more illiberal or autocratic powers can themselves develop ordering systems. This ‘Holy Alliance’, as it was called, represented for Russian, Austrian, and Prussian leaders a way to maintain their domestic dominance, while at the same time encouraging and reinforcing like-minded governments in Europe. This precedent, odious as it may be to individuals in the modern western world, can serve as a useful tool in thinking about the framework and nature of a future international system. 

Discussions of international order, especially concerning its future structures and norms, tend to be indistinct and imprecise. The ambiguity reflects the basic fluidity of the international system, more than a lack of competence on the part of writers and analysts. The distribution of power, broadly defined, exerts influence in different ways, some clear, others byzantine. Herbert Butterfield was partially correct in noting that, ‘an international order is not a thing bestowed upon by nature, but is a matter of refined thought, careful contrivance, and elaborate artifice’. It is certainly not a product of nature, and much of its elaborate architecture results from reflection, imagination, and action. But the idea of concerted contrivance is questionable, given that concepts, once articulated and implemented, often develop into new, unique, and unrecognisable forms. 

One way of ordering our thinking on these subjects is to begin by identifying the models to which we are averse. On this contrarian foundation, one can begin to place the blocks of a workable international order, particularly along political and security lines. Here we might offer a potential alternative vision of international order, as a way of highlighting the important aspects with which statesmen and women in the West will have to deal. Using the first half of the nineteenth century as a guide, it suggests that leaders in Beijing, Moscow, and perhaps other capitals, might one day seek to construct a ‘modern Holy Alliance’, one that attempts to preserve their forms of governance, ensure their security, and attract foreign countries to their side. The speculation here is not intended to be a prediction as much as an exercise in thinking about world order from the perspective of other great powers. Among the key subjects under interrogation here are: the interaction between domestic and foreign systems of governance; and the relationship between ethical principles and political objectives. 

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In the months following the end of the Congress of Vienna in June 1815, two agreements were signed which formed the basis of what became the nineteenth century’s Concert of Europe. The Quadruple Alliance, signed in November 1815 between the United Kingdom, Prussia, Russia, and Austria, is perhaps the more well-known. Though it derived from earlier agreements dealing with the conclusion of the war, its final form contained the clauses laying out the peacetime coalition against France, as well as the agreement between the signatories to meet in conference when disputes arose. This stipulation, appearing as Article 6 in the document, was the very essence of the concert system. By consenting in principle to meet in peripatetic conference in order to resolve differences, the great powers ushered in a new diplomatic dawn to the early post-Napoleonic period.

The other declaration, known as the Holy Alliance, was signed by Russia, Austria, and Prussia nearly two months earlier. Originally introduced by Tsar Alexander of Russia, the declaration called for the signatories to come to the aid of the other in the event that any was subject to internal unrest. The unsettling experience of revolutionary French republicanism over the preceding two decades had instilled in these governments, and most notably in the mind of the Tsar, a suspicion of liberal movements and an outright fear of domestic revolution. When the proposal was put in front of the other statesmen, the views were mixed. Lord Castlereagh famously called it ‘a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’ and worked to prevent the British government from signing (though he recommended to the Prince Regent that he write a personal note of support to the Tsar). Klemens von Metternich of Austria initially said it was a ‘high sounding nothing’, but he also saw advantages to the agreement and with a few suggested phrase changes, gave his consent to the alliance. Unwrapping the religious rhetoric of the document —much of it the result of the input of the Tsar who referenced providence and Christian brotherhood — we arrive at the crux of the agreement. Here, the three powers pledged to ‘remain united by the bonds of a true and indissoluble fraternity, and, considering each other as fellow-countrymen, they will, on all occasions and in all places, lend each other aid and assistance…’

Despite groundbreaking research, some early historians of the Congress of Vienna and the Concert of Europe tended to downplay the significance of the Holy Alliance. Charles Webster wrote that it ‘had no influence on affairs, except to produce in the minds of the peoples the suggestion that the sovereigns were leagued together against them’. Decades later, Henry Kissinger, who gave credit to Metternich for taking advantage of the Tsar’s proposal, wrote that ‘the Tsar had conceived the Holy Alliance as programmatic, as the proclamation of a new era transcending the pettiness of history; Metternich used it to announce the end of a revolutionary period and the re-entry into history’. Kissinger went as far to say that the alliance became the ‘symbol of an era’.

The year 1815, however, did not mark the real commencement of the agreement. Its precepts remained vague and the Quadruple Alliance was seen to be the pillar of the post-war order on the continent. Yet the counter-revolutionary principles of the Holy Alliance remained a nebulous aim for its key signatories. At the Conference of Aix-la-Chappelle in 1818 — a moment which marked, according to the German diplomat Friedrich von Gentz, ‘the last attempt to provide the transparent soul of the Holy Alliance with a body’ — the Tsar pushed for a further guarantee that the great powers would not only recognise and intervene to protect established borders but that they would also intervene to maintain domestic order. Lord Castlereagh was the key delegate to object to these terms, seeing in the Tsar’s suggestion a dangerous move towards state intervention and even, to a greater extent, a step on the path towards a continental government. While the Tsar’s proposal would go no further at this stage, the desire to develop an anti-revolutionary stabilising mechanism would remain.

Early in 1820, a series of domestic revolutions rattled the European order and set in motion events which would further solidify the Holy Alliance. In January, a mutiny of Spanish troops in Las Cabezas declared the restoration of the liberal constitution of 1812, a movement which spread to neighbouring Portugal and even Naples. By the end of the summer, there were new governance systems, ones more liberal than their predecessors, in each of these capitals. The reaction of the great powers in Europe was initially slow, but their fear soon manifested. As Webster has described these months, ‘every monarch felt his position threatened’. Russian statesmen, in particular, pushed for intervention. The co-minister of Foreign Affairs, Ioannis Kapodistrias, invoked the Holy Alliance. Feeling that its own influence in Naples was shaken, Austria called for a meeting of the great powers. Metternich wrote to the Tsar: ‘You must summon all the members of the Alliance and we will discuss not only the revolution in Naples but also revolutions in general and how the Great Powers should tackle them.’

In October 1820, delegations from the great powers met in Troppau, Austria Silesia. Tellingly, Austria, Prussia, and Russia brought their leading ministers, while France and Britain only sent observers. The most notable outcome from the congress was the Protocole Preliminaire, suggested by the Tsar and worked up by Metternich, and through which the signatories gave their consent to both the intervention in Naples, as well as future counter-revolutionary campaigns. While the protocol did not provide concrete commitments as to when and how the so-called ‘holy allies’ would intervene to uphold monarchies (these would instead be decided on a case-by-case basis), the protocol nonetheless marked a significant ideological ordering principle. As Paul Schroeder has written, ‘it laid the foundation for the Holy Alliance doctrine of intervention’ and set off a divide between Russia, Austria, and Prussia on the one hand, and Great Britain on the other. Lord Castlereagh, whose famous state paper of May 1820 had outlined British opposition to interventions of this kind, became more outspoken on what he saw as an ‘odious’ proposal. From here, as Webster once described it, was ‘the beginnings of that great cleavage in European politics which was one of the biggest factors of the nineteenth century’.

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Over 200 years on, and this history can seem not just distant but unrelatable to the present. There are, however, numerous insights from this period, and scholars from Paul Schroeder to, more recently, Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter and Glenda Sluga have produced great studies unpacking its complexities and historical significance. But we might focus on a few key topics and what they say about how we perceive ordering systems in the present day. 

The precedent is first and foremost an example of how domestic concerns might give form to larger structural ordering mechanisms, whether on a regional or global level. The 1815 agreement between Moscow, Vienna, and Berlin was aimed at preserving autocracy through mutual reinforcement; and while not immediately invoked, the system was refined and operationalised to stymie foreign revolutions in 1820 and 1821. Prussia, Austria, and Russia linked their domestic objectives with the defence of international norms, and their interest in preserving monarchy became not just the sinews of their tripartite bond but the structures of a new order. 

In the present day, the obvious candidates for such an alignment — really the states that could form the backbone of a wider autocratic ordering system — are China and Russia. And while the structural differences between 1815 and 2022, to say nothing of the actors involved, are more numerous than the similarities, there is conceptual utility in conjuring up such schemes. Over the last five years, commentators have been divided on the likelihood of long-term Sino-Russian cooperation, much less a fuller alignment or alliance based on political or security interests. Some see Beijing and Moscow’s differences in the Indo-Pacific region, their 2,600-mile border, and their historical enmity as evidence that the two countries are unlikely to sow lasting bonds. Others, though, have spoken of their convergence as a ‘new model of great power relations’, even despite their economic and financial imbalances. Professor Hal Brands has taken a Mackinderian view and called their developing relationship a ‘Eurasian Nightmare’ for the United States and its allies. China’s support for Russian action in Kazakhstan, where a liberal movement was suppressed earlier this year, was a notable example. ‘The United States’ rivals,’ Brands warned in February of this year, ‘are working to create a radically revised global order with an autocratic Eurasia at its core.’ On top of this (and undoubtedly a reason for these stark assessments in Western capitals) are the statements by leaders in Russia and China. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said in March 2021 that relations between the neighbouring powers were the ‘best in history’, while Vladimir Putin, when asked about the prospects of a full alliance, responded that ‘it is possible to imagine anything’.

So, what might a Sino-Russian Holy Alliance look like? The first and most notable characteristic would be its dual emphasis on regional and international stability and historical tradition. The first of these is, on the surface, hard to argue with in principle. Broadly speaking, all societies desire long-term peace both within and between borders. But stability can quickly be taken to dark depths, where leaders can justify a range of activities. During the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, to take one example, Russian forces began operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the guise of a peacekeeping operation. Moscow’s true motivation, however, rests in its aim to secure strategic influence in its near abroad, a traditional interest which had been challenged by, among other events, the 2003 Rose Revolution and NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit. The second point of emphasis, historical tradition, would be a similar vague concept, and one that officials in Beijing or Moscow might use to legitimate everything from irredentist aggression to anti-progressive positions. Leading analysts have already noted, for instance, China’s efforts to claim territory in the South China Sea through appeals to its ‘historic rights’.

This leads us to consider how alternative ordering systems can, and likely will, have ethical or moral justifications. These aspects are the systems that can help it to gain a wider legitimacy among foreign factions, including autocratic elites or societies favouring more illiberal forms of governance. And ethical order is not necessarily beneficent given that ethics can, by definition, be ones that are distasteful, even ‘odious’, to some. To put it another way, future world orders will have both rules and ethical constructions, but the question is whether liberal powers — among them the United States, Japan, Australia, and European powers — will find the international arena agreeable to their domestic political principles. Reflecting on the range of phenomena which exerted themselves on the European continent in the first half of the nineteenth century, Paul Schroeder noted a timeless characteristic of ordering systems:

It was the belief, or rather the unexamined assumption, that an international system and its constituent rules and practices are in themselves not of intrinsic values. Systems and rules, attitudes and assumptions, norms and principles, are only instrumental — artificial, manipulative, replaceable, existing for the particular ends of particular states, leaders, groups, cause, peoples. International regimes come and go; the game of international power politics goes on indefinitely.

Ideas for order can arise from unseen depths; and ones addressing domestic interests can lead, intentionally or not, to larger regional and international ordering concepts. In the case of the nineteenth century Holy Alliance, a religiously inspired Tsar Alexander saw in a reactionary, anti-revolutionary alliance a potential solution to his own domestic concerns. Furthermore, when he proposed this visionary concept to the leaders of Austria and Prussia, the basic idea took on new and diverse forms in the minds of others, particularly Metternich. In this case, the Tsar’s original suggestion was seized by the Austrian foreign minister and fashioned into a more workable conservative order, one which would have a direct influence on the revolutions between 1820 and 1821 and an indirect effect on the failed revolutions of 1848. 

Whether China and Russia would consider such a systematic framework for international order remains an open question. The odds are that any such partnership would not closely resemble the Holy Alliance of the nineteenth century. But this unlikelihood should not prevent us from imagining the structure and nature of alternative orders. It is from these adversarial forms that scholars and officials in the West can order their own ideas as to the shape of legitimate and workable international systems of the future.

Andrew Ehrhardt

Andrew Ehrhardt is an Ernest May Fellow in History & Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

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