The 21st-Century Concert of Vienna

One momentous anniversary has been overlooked – the 200th anniversary of the final defeat of Napoleon in a pan-European war and the subsequent Congress of Vienna. Engaging in what we now call “unofficial consultations,” the idealistic and wise Alexander I, backed by a strong and victorious Russia, and the brilliant diplomats Metternich and Talleyrand managed to create the Concert of Nations.

The year 2015 abounds in anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of the Great Victory and the end of World War II, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent unification of Germany, the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Act and the establishment of the OSCE.

As a result, one momentous anniversary has been overlooked – the 200th anniversary of the final defeat of Napoleon in a pan-European war and the subsequent Congress of Vienna. Engaging in what we now call “unofficial consultations,” the idealistic and wise Alexander I, backed by a strong and victorious Russia, and the brilliant diplomats Metternich and Talleyrand managed to create the Concert of Nations, which secured something close to absolute peace in Europe for several decades and a relatively peaceful order that lasted for the next one hundred years, ushering in the most glorious era in the history of the European continent. But the main achievement of the Congress of Vienna was that the postwar arrangement was relatively fair and did not humiliate France in defeat.

As far as we know, both Tsar Alexander and the two great diplomats were cognizant of their role in history. Perhaps that is why they succeeded. The Concert of Nations worked because of the relative political similarity of the powers that created it: each was either half-feudal or half-capitalist and ruled by strong monarchs or narrow ruling classes whose members shared common values, to use today’s terminology.

There was a kind of second Congress of Vienna 70 years ago – a series of conferences held in San Francisco and Bretton Woods, which established the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other institutions. But they did not form a Concert of Nations. The world was divided in two, and another world war was averted only by the Almighty working through Kurchatov, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Lavrentyev, Sakharov, Teller, Korolyov, and von Braun to give mankind nuclear “swords of Armageddon,” which continue to keep the world safe to this day.

There was nothing like the Congress of Vienna following the Cold War, although the solemn language and commitments of the 1990 Paris Charter had the makings of a historic accord for “eternal peace.” Many experts, including this author, suggested something similar to a Concert of Nations. Instead, the Atlantic half of the former bipolar system opted for a milder version of one of the most shameful chapters in its history, the Treaty of Versailles, which put Germany in an intolerable position after losing the Great War and led to a second world war within a generation. But the Paris Charter was based on an illusion that the parties could rapidly agree on a single socio-political standard. Instead the West rapidly moved towards post-European values, while Russia reverted to traditional European values – sovereignty, a strong state, Christian ethics and morals – that had been eradicated during the Communist period. Some of the divergences in values were hard to foresee. But one could not be ignored: Russia categorically refused to renounce the fundamental values written into its genetic code – a thousand-year quest for sovereignty and security, and the sense of being a great power, which Russia has become accustomed to since Peter the Great.

Today Russia is dismantling this second coming of Versailles, and we can only hope it won’t require a big war.

For the first decade after the Cold War, the illusion of a unipolar world reigned. But then the West began to decline politically, morally and economically. The non-West, on the contrary, was ascendant, and soon what we now call the multipolar world emerged. However, I don’t think multi-polarity will be here for long either. It’s a function of the rejection of the unipolar world (the term itself was coined as its negation) as well as an inability or unwillingness to see the macro-trends at play.

The term “multipolar” conceals another emerging reality – the eclipsing of 500 years of European and later US domination. The slow dissolution of Western global military, economic, ideological and cultural hegemony and the rise of the non-West will likely be the defining feature of this stage in world development.

There are many reasons for these changes, including various kinds of crises in the West. (I won’t enumerate them here – given the political tensions, it might sound like malevolence.)

But the most important change is the rise of the non-West, aided in part by Western-style economic and information globalization. Countries and peoples of the former periphery gained access to new technology, education, and advanced social practices. The technological revolution in transportation has linked markets, while newly emergent countries are able to compete globally and exploit their comparative advantages.

Nuclear weapons made this massive and relatively peaceful realignment of forces possible. Any effort to stop the rise of these new powers militarily would risk self-destruction.

The civilizing role of nuclear weapons is particularly clear today. The West, seeing that it is fighting a losing battle, has taken off the gloves and almost abandoned hypocrisy, as it proceeds to violate almost every moral, legal, and political norm it proclaimed at the height of its prosperity and power.

In light of the bombing of defenseless Yugoslavia, the aggression against Iraq under far-fetched pretexts, the attack on Libya, which had agreed to abandon its nuclear program, and the attempts to topple the undesirable regime in Syria, while backing much grimmer regimes and forces – I ask the reader to image whether China’s rise would have been possible without nuclear weapons or the threat that a large-scale attack on China would escalate and draw in a nuclear superpower, Russia. Instead of enjoying growing prosperity and power, China would be in ruins today. Judging by the wrath inspired in the West by a Russia that now stands up for its interests, Russia would have been finished off while it was still weak had it not been for the heroic efforts of half-starved engineers, scientists and army officers to preserve the country’s nuclear deterrent in the 1990s. At various international discussions, I have repeatedly heard Western colleagues express regret that Putin couldn’t be “taught a lesson” like Milosevic.

The weakening of the West, in what is possibly a historic turning point, can be seen in the semi-withdrawal of the United States from Europe and the Middle East, leaving in its wake crises and conflicts, whether deliberately or semi-consciously (not a single US policy document or serious study advocates a strategy of controlled chaos). Perhaps it hopes to swoop back in with its vast military power or make allies (in Europe) dependent. Or maybe the United States has lost its strategic perspective and feels at a loss in the face of a world that has gone off script.

Another prominent semi-withdrawal by the US in the last 50 years came after the trauma of the Vietnam War. But America made a comeback.

The current withdrawal is likely to be more protracted. Certain allies, particularly in the UK, are desperately urging the United States to return for fear of remaining without its powerful protection. But it is unlikely to do so on the old terms. The world is full of new rising powers that reject US hegemony even though it often helped to maintain relative stability. But the system ceased working after America lost the Soviet Union as a counterweight.

If the decline of the West continues – which is possible, considering the trajectory of change in the correlation of forces – the “international community”, and not just the West which seeks to speak on its behalf, will have to figure out how to control this process and prevent destabilization. Some ten years ago, the pressing issue was how to control the “new rising powers.” The West’s decline may take an entire epoch while passing in a relatively calm manner. I think that Europe will continue to cede ground, while trying to dig in its heels. No one can be certain which direction US policy will veer. Despite all its problems, America is still a robust nation.

This process won’t be easy, as evidenced by the West’s extremely tough and even aggrieved reaction to the Russian policy of stopping the inertia-driven onslaught on its interests, including the attempt to draw Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence and control.

Just as the West’s weakening will be, in all likelihood, a crucial feature of the upcoming epoch, so too will be the continued trend towards renationalizing world politics, possibly even in Europe. This will be accompanied by a resurgence of traditional geopolitics on an almost global scale. (Recall that geopolitics was derided just a few years ago.)

But this will be a different kind of geopolitics. For all the importance of military power, which previously played the key role in geopolitics, economic power is the decisive factor now. This is the result of a new democratization, yet another key trend in world development. The interests of the masses are increasingly influencing the behavior of the ruling elite, even in less democratic countries. And the main demand of the masses is prosperity.

The economization of world politics forms the background for the accelerating trend towards deglobalization or a different kind of globalization. The WTO is at an impasse. We are observing the emergence of a number of regional trade and economic alliances that favor regional development banks over the IMF and the World Bank and national currencies over the dollar and the euro.

The US is trying to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to restrict China’s growth and influence and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to keep the EU in its orbit. Although by most estimates TTIP would not benefit Europe economically, its lobbyists in the Old World are motivated by the fear of America’s withdrawal and being left without US protection at a time when the EU is mired in crisis and Russia is resurgent.

During the Cold War, the US relied on now defunct and almost forgotten military alliances – PATO, CENTO, SEATO, and ANZUS – as the drive belts in the engine of US power. Today it is focusing on “containing” rivals with the help of economic tools.

The West’s decision to use “economic nuclear weapons” – sanctions – against a key world player, Russia, has rapidly accelerated the process of deglobalization. The sanctions showed the doubters how dangerous it was to rely on Western institutions, rules, payment systems, and currencies.

The new countries saw that the old West, the creator of modern globalization, abandoned it when seeing that others began to benefit from it. Therefore they started building their own system of institutions and economic unions. One is clearly emerging in Latin America, which is shedding US hegemony. Another alliance – potentially the most powerful – is being formed in continental Asia. Russia and its friends are in the orbit of this so far unnamed alliance, which for now we’ll call the Community of Greater Eurasia.

This community will grow around the upgraded and expanded Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). A powerful and potentially historic step in this direction was taken in Moscow in May of this year, when the Russian and Chinese leaders adopted a joint statement on working to integrate the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Silk Road Economic Belt, a large-scale Chinese project to facilitate the economic and logistic development of western China and countries farther west. There were attempts to set the two projects on a collision course, but the opposite effect was achieved.

This project will certainly be open to the EU and its member-countries, and it has the potential to boost their flagging economies.

In this context, I think EU-EAEU dialogue is no longer relevant. Our European colleagues are only just now starting to discuss it, and seem to regret having refused to create a common economic and human space with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Perhaps this dialogue should be organized between the EU and some broader alliance, such as a reinforced and expanded SCO.

There are quite a few territorial and other disputes in Greater Eurasia. Lying to the south and the west of this region is the Middle East, which appears doomed to decades of conflict and export of instability. The European security problem is hard to solve as well, at any rate within the framework of the former parameters and institutions. But a problem that appears insoluble in one dimension can sometimes be solved in another one.

A promising solution would be to create a Forum of Eurasian Cooperation, Development and Security – a modern version of the Congress of Vienna – to try and elaborate new rules for the entire Eurasian continent. But this Forum must have a positive agenda. There is no need to attack the old system: European countries can keep their NATO membership, if they so wish. Rather, the Forum should rather aim to create a new system consonant with 21st-century realities.

The new Congress of Vienna may prove successful in the long term for yet another reason. It looks like that the rivalry-torn world is moving towards a new convergence of socio-political models. The market economy, in one form or another, has won out almost everywhere. New illiberal democracies with strong leaders are bolstering the democratic elements in their models. Faced with new challenges, most liberal democracies will have to strengthen authoritarian elements or risk losing out.

What remains unclear is the role that the US will play in the proposed concept for world development. But this is a question to be addressed to US elite, who need to decide what they want. Are they planning to withdraw into semi-isolation, spurned by the world’s desire for independence, leaving ruins in its wake, only to swoop back in later? Do they want to cling to the unipolar moment in world history, which almost no one else wants? Or do they want to become responsible builders of a new, more democratic, equitable, and fair world?

Russia with its globally minded elite, top-notch diplomacy and geographical position can do a lot to help build this world, a new Concert of Nations, for the benefit of itself and its partners.

This article was originally published in Russian on

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.