The Concert of Autocracies: A Potemkin Village

CSPS Fellow Will Nelson compares the Holy Alliance of the 19th century to the contemporary Russia-China strategic axis.


Change. We are all experiencing it. Sanctions are flying, missiles rocketing, and in the past few weeks, tragic amounts of ink, words, and blood have been spilled attempting to make sense of the insensible—the first full-scale, ground invasion by a European great power since World War II.

While much commentary has been focused—rightfully so—on the ongoing dynamics of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, little attention has been paid to the surrounding geostrategic context. In this essay, I will explore the growing Russia-China strategic axis by examining a similar time period in European history—the creation of the Holy Alliance in the 19th century. I will argue that, contrary to popular commentary, this partnership is unlikely to last due to inherent, conflicting strategic interests, and thus is not a cause for long-term Western concern. First, I will start with a brief overview of what happened so long ago.

The Holy Alliance

The year was 1815. Europe lay devastated, riven by almost twenty years of continuous warfare. France, formerly one the most powerful countries on the Continent, was broken, defeated. Napoleon, and his dreams of Empire, had left nothing but death, poverty, and destruction in his wake.

The great powers of Europe, fearing another conflagration, gathered together in what became known as the Concert of Europe, a loose consensus centered around preserving the existing territorial status quo in Europe. However, some of the most conservative great powers at the time felt this was not enough—they still feared the cry for liberté, égalité, and fraternité (the war-cry of the French Revolutionary armies) that had coursed throughout their countries.

These absolutist monarchies—chiefly Prussia, Russia, and Austria—formed a separate grouping of great powers called the Holy Alliance, whose goal was to intervene wherever previously stable monarchies were threatened by the rising tide of liberal democracy—a trend that came to its climax in the Revolutions of 1848.

While this grouping did have some notable successes—such as when Austria invaded Italy in 1820 to put down a revolution in Naples—the ideological currents that had brought Russia, Prussia, and Austria together were eventually overcome by geopolitics. In essence, Prussia, Austria, and Russia had always been an awkward pairing. All three, located in roughly the same geographical area, engaged in intense strategic competition. Russia, having suffered repeated invasions from the West, sought security by expanding in Eastern Europe. Prussia and Austria, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the then-moribund Holy Roman Empire, sparred over which country should take up the mantle of German leadership. Given these dynamics, it is remarkable that the Holy League lasted for as long as it did.

Sino-Russian Cooperation

How then, might this dynamic apply to 21st-century geopolitics? As Harvard political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky noted in their best-selling 2018 book How Democracies Die, though Western liberal democracy expanded dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been under assault in recent years. Monarchism, in its new guise of authoritarianism, is on the rise once again.

This idea—the central concept of blind submission to authority—is most present in both Russia and China today. Whether the paternalistic authoritarianism of the Communist Party of China (CCP) or Russia’s toxic combination of pan-Slavic nationalism and Orthodox Christianity, both regimes have found solidarity in their mutual desire to break free the constraints imposed upon them by the global spread of Western liberal norms.

While this partnership is frightening, it is a bond of convenience, not a marriage of steadfast friends. Similar to the Holy Alliance, China and Russia right now see a temporary opening, a chance to push back on Western norms like human rights that they would much rather do without. However, their strategic interests are too dissimilar to allow this pairing to hold together for long.

Future Prospects of Cooperation

China’s ambitions are global—it wants to replace the U.S. as the world’s number one economy, and have its culture, military, and society be heard and respected around the world. In contrast, Russia emphasizes pan-Slavic nationalism and appeals to Orthodox Christianity. While this may take them far in Eastern Europe, it is a poor cousin to the global appeal of communism that the Soviet Union benefited from. Thus, while China and Russia may have joined together temporarily, Russia’s interests are by nature far more regional, and revisionist—something that will eventually put them in direct conflict with China given the difference between the two in the scope of their ambitions.

China, as a country bent on replacing the U.S. as the world’s global hegemon, will have to come up with a replacement for the set of rules that the U.S embodies. Whatever this ideology ends up being, non-interference and respect for territorial sovereignty will be key—this is the only way China can extend its influence around the world. However, Russia is clearly set on redrawing the map of Eurasia in its favor—the only way it can do this is with brutal military force.

While China might be going along with the invasion of Ukraine for now, it will at some point have to choose between its temporary partnership with Russia, or its long-term goal to replace the U.S. and its desire to be seen as a responsible global power—it cannot have both.

Similarly, while both Prussia and Austria were drawn together in their mutual desire to push back against the spread of democracy, their inability to agree on who should be the leading state of Germany inevitably split them apart. Thus, while China and Russia’s newfound partnership is worrying for now, it is a temporary agreement that will eventually dissipate due to irreconcilable strategic interests, and is therefore not a cause for long-term strategic concern for U.S. analysts and policymakers.

Will Nelson is an International Security M.A. student at George Mason University. He works as the Administrative Coordinator for the Anti-Illicit Trade Institute at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center with Dr. Louise Shelley and David M. Luna and is a research assistant with the State Department’s Regional China Office, focusing on Chinese Digital Silk Road activities in Southeast Asia. A 2017 graduate of the College of William & Mary with a B.A. in International Relations and minor in economics, his research focuses on intelligence and strategic analysis with an emphasis on the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific and the political structure of authoritarian states. He has lived and worked in China, Japan, Thailand, Spain and Azerbaijan and speaks fluent Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and intermediate French.

Photo can be found here.