POINT OF VIEW - That Holy Alliance wasn't that bad after all…

The Yalta accords no longer hold water, so maybe a pact like the Holy Alliance could rebuild stability and security.

Our generation, which was fortunate enough to have been born in the last decade when Italian history was still imbued with the myth of the country’s Risorgimento (the movement that led to Italian unification), has gradually witnessed the collapse of all the intellectual and political bastions patiently drip-fed to us from our early school days. Over time, and in comparison to subsequent political systems, the Austro-Hungarian Empire today stands as a model of good bureaucratic practices while in the wake of his famous march, Joseph Radetzky is now considered an excellent general, who could win decisive battles even in his eighties.

And the Holy Alliance (the coalition of the monarchist powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia) once reviled as a reactionary tool hell bent on stopping change at all cost… well, where the Holy Alliance is concerned things are as simple as they seem, particularly if we consider how our current historic times very much resembles, in terms of instability, the circumstances the Holy Alliance faced back then. 

The history of mankind is marked by periods of relative stability in which change is gradual and development progresses at a seemingly predictable pace. In more turbulent times, however, everything seems to happen at breakneck speed and can be very difficult to foresee.

In such circumstances, change is no longer managed or manageable. It unfolds at an anarchic pace and what held true up until the day before is questioned in all its parameters. The players involved change as do their relationships. Earlier figureheads disappear overnight, unexpectedly replaced by new ones. The rules that seemed perfectly actionable yesterday suddenly prove inadequate in new scenarios. Even values become obsolete and have to be replaced, or at least recalibrated.

In moments like these there is always a risk of being sucked into a vortex of instability that is bound to bring with it much tears and bloodshed, only to peter out in time from exhaustion. Fearing the imminence of this danger, there is a strong temptation to come up with a recipe that might curtail and restrain at least the most dangerous aspects of a turbulent upheaval, restoring order where chaos might otherwise take hold. The fact that this order may need to be enforced by might is of little consequence at the time. People love stability above all else and believe their own safety depends upon it.

In these circumstances, a great deal can be sacrificed, even long-standing principles if the situation calls for it.

The Holy Alliance, which came after the Napoleonic era, was the product of such a process. This coalition of the era’s major powers took stock of the risk of instability emerging from the new ideas that were coursing through the hearts and minds of young intellectuals throughout Europe and worked – united and with no holds barred – to promptly quash all hotbeds that in its view were to be considered threatening. The Alliance was cemented around three main tenets: a clear vision of what it intended to achieve; the necessary power to dissuade that went hand in hand with the determination to repress should deterrence fail; and lastly, a shared desire to take action. Was the alliance a success?

Undoubtedly, seeing as it thwarted the emergence of nationstates until 1948 and thus gave the new ideas time to take root and consolidate until they were mature enough to form the backbone of the new order.

In a less formal manner and in different circumstances, but with the same effectiveness, the spirit of the Congress of Vienna and the Holy Alliance subsequently filtered on down to the Congress of Berlin in 1878 that established the colonial spheres of influence of European powers in all areas of the world where disputes were likely to arise.

Any subsequent repressive measures were entrusted to the so-called Concert of Civil Powers, which with time and experience ultimately developed a standard action procedure that was never set in stone but was nevertheless very effective, based as it was on the gunboat diplomacy wielded by the Councils of Ambassadors and Admirals.

Finally, in relatively recent times, the Yalta Conference agreements ratified the division of the world into two spheres, assigning the task of overseeing the integrity of each sphere to two superpowers. An assignment that both the USSR and the US performed for 45 years with absolute and impeccable resoluteness, often appearing to act more like partners than rivals in the process. This situation led to untold suffering, particularly for those enclosed in the ‘Communist eternity’. Conversely, this actually protected us at a time when the nuclear solution was still very much on the cards for both sides.

Nowadays, one cannot help noticing how the yearning and need for a new Holy Alliance is growing rapidly. An alliance that might protect us against the rapidly encroaching chaos and give us time enough to understand which way the world is headed. For such an alliance to be effective, it must comply with the conditions that make these kinds of efforts possible. That is, a strategic vision, the necessary power and the readiness to use said power if need be.

Can these conditions be met in a world where the US has become a rather reluctant guardian, Russia tends to be blacklisted from one month to the next and China systematically seems to take a back seat when its influence would seem to be most needed? The EU as it stands can offer little solace, seeing as it has yet to learn to fly in the rarefied atmosphere of international policy and security, whereas the credibility of the United Nations has never been so low. So the answer is most likely no, and it is thus hard to envisage a world order with anyone powerful enough to act as guarantor.

Yet here we all are, increasingly yearning for a new version of the Holy Alliance, which wasn't such a bad idea after all, as our fifth grade teachers used to tell us! 

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