A New Holy Alliance?

LONDON -- The recent meeting in the Vatican of the “Custodian of The Holy Places,” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and Pope Benedict XVI was a seminal event, particularly as it comes at a time when radical Muslims are decrying the role of “crusaders” in Middle East politics. It was also the clearest sign yet of a rising “Holy Alliance” among the world’s conservative leaders. For the key audience for this meeting of Muslim king and Roman Catholic Pontiff was not their followers, but another conservative leader, President George W. Bush.

The first “Holy Alliance” was a creation of Austria’s Prince Metternich following the Napoleonic wars. It was an attempt to preserve the peace (and the security of the relatively weak Austrian Empire) through a coalition of victors upholding shared values.

Metternich’s “Holy Alliance” was the one original political idea to emerge from Napoleon’s defeat. Behind its exalted name lay an innovation of great diplomatic significance: the introduction of an element of calculated moral restraint into international relations. The vested interests that the Alliance members – Austria, Prussia, and Russia – had in the survival of their domestic institutions led each to seek to avoid conflicts that, in the past, they would have pursued as a matter of course.

Metternich’s system worked through much of the nineteenth century, because it protected a genuine balance of power between countries that shared common values. But what “common values” do King, Pope, and American President share?