History Doesn’t Repeat, But it is Rhyming Like Crazy.

As we daily explore the consequences of discombobulation diplomacy—of which an important subset is what Ed Luce has exquisitely labeled “diplotainment”—we plumb ever deeper levels of concern for America’s future, for Pax Americana, and for the liberal order in general. China, we hear regularly is playing ‘the long game.’ The United States does not seem at all in that game.

Contrasting transactional impulse-driven diplotainment to the long game draws us to lessons history might offer. Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. The consequences can be grim.

Jay Cost offers a splendid review of the friendship turned feud between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison over the political soul of a new country. Our current divisions, like those at the start of the Republic are “manifestations of public frustration over the sense that the government is dominated not by the people but by “special interests.” Yet what often makes those interests “special” is their relationship to public goods essential to national strength. This is the paradox that drove Hamilton and Madison apart more than two centuries ago, and it continues to bedevil us today.”

Ed Luce looks further back, insightfully and grimly comparing U.S. politics today to Nero’s Rome as it begins its mutation from Republic to Empire. Trump is taking care of the circuses, Luce warns, but how long will the bread last? At some point, Trump’s trade rhetoric must start to jeopardize growth.

In the spirit that history does indeed rhyme, I find perhaps history’s most valuable warning for us—and the long game—is a more recent story.

I am thoroughly enjoying the task of reading Henry Kissinger’s 1994 classic Diplomacy. I stumbled into a reverse déjà vu in 19th century Europe as Bismarck perfects the Realpolitik long game to create a new, dominating Great Power. It is an eery parallel to today. With full credit to Prof. Kissinger (specifically Chapter 5), let me retell his story.

With the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and 25 years of near constant war across the continent, the Great Powers of Europe formed the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The “Congress” was to be a vehicle for discussions to resolve disputes among the Europe states. It was a carefully designed web of relationships based on respect for sovereign states and suppressing disruptive liberalizing (i.e., democratic) efforts that would disturb the equilibrium. Through “congresses and careful diplomacy,” especially the efforts of the brilliant Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich and like-minded statesmen in England, France and Russia, war in Europe was avoided for four decades. Sadly, the carefully constructed system that brought peace for the first half of the 19th century succumbed to new ambitious, competing personalities.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III—nephew of the great general defeated at Waterloo– was voted into the French presidency in 1848. Erratic, ambitious and with an overly grand sense of himself, he successfully overturned the constitutional prohibition on his re-election and proclaimed the Second French Empire. An empire needs an emperor and in 1852 he dutifully appointed himself to the job.

Bonaparte III was called the “Sphinx of Tulieres” because he was believed by his supporters to be hatching vast and brilliant designs, the nature of which would be unclear to anyone else until they unfolded. Many were baffled, but his nemesis, Otto von Bismarck, was neither impressed, nor fooled. Bonaparte’s “intelligence,” he noted, “is overrated at the expense of his sentimentality.”

Pained deeply by the snubs of European royalty—not being of a true royal bloodline—Bonaparte III’s exclusion became a ‘worm that ate at the heart of Emperor Napoleon.’ That worm, his desperate need for approval among his French supporters, and his deep animosity of the Austrian-Hungarian empire drove his foreign policy. His overarching goal was to abrogate the territorial boundaries defined in 1815 that had kept the peace for decades. As Kissinger puts it:

The erratic nature of his policy was therefore a reflection of his personal ambivalence. Distrust of his ‘brother’ monarchs Napoleon was driven to dependence on public opinion and his policy fluctuated with his assessment of what he needed to sustain his popularity. In 1857, the ubiquitous Baron Hüber [Austrian ambassador to Paris] wrote to the Austrian Emperor:

In his [Napoleon’s] eyes foreign policy is only an instrument he uses to secure his rule in France; to legitimize his throne, to found his dynasty. …[H]e would not shrink from any means, from any combination which suited itself to make him popular at home.

In this process, Napoleon made himself the prisoner of crises he had himself engineered, because he lacked the inner compass to keep him on course.”

Like our current diplotainment, Bonaparte III would manufacture crises “only to recoil before its ultimate consequences.” He had his famous uncle’s ambition, but “lacked his nerve, genius, or for that matter, his raw power.”

British Prime Minister Henry Palmerston summed up Bonaparte’s statesmanship by saying that “…ideas proliferated in his head like rabbits in a hutch.” “The trouble was,” Kissinger assesses, “that these ideas did not relate to an overriding concept.” As the Metternich system crumbled, Bonaparte III had two strategic but contradictory options. He pursued both. In the end his energetic efforts “were largely idiosyncratic and driven by his mercurial nature.”

Kissinger lays out the dark consequences

“Having brought European diplomacy to a state of flux under the banner of national self-determination, Napoleon now found himself alone, when out of the turmoil he had done so much to cause, a new German nation materialized to spell the end of French primacy in Europe.”

Bonaparte III launched into a war which if successful would create a foe that could block his expansionist ambitions. If it failed would bring humiliation to him and France. Hüber captures it nicely, again:

“We could scarcely comprehend this man [Napoleon], having reached the pinnacle of honor, unless he was mad, or afflicted with the madness of gamblers, seriously could consider, having no understandable motive, joining in another adventure.”

Kissinger concludes ominously, for France then and America today:

“Napoleon conducted his foreign policy in the style of modern political leaders who measure their success by the reaction of the television evening news. Like them Napoleon made himself a prisoner of the purely tactical, focusing on short-term objectives and immediate result, seeking to impress the public by magnifying the pressures he has set out to create. In the process, he confused foreign policy with the moves of the conjuror.”

Bonaparte’s nemesis, Bismarck, was not at all confused and played Bonaparte brilliantly. After antagonizing Russia, Bonaparte III offered neutrality to Prussia as he encouraged a war between Prussia and Austria. But, expecting Austria to prevail, then offered alliance to them. The loose and fiercely independent German states were held apart by the Congress of Vienna and Metternich’s strategic diplomacy. Bonaparte’s feckless efforts created for Bismarck the overwhelming external threat needed to pull the contrary members of the confederation together under Prussia leadership in defense of the attack by a hapless and declining Austria. The rising military and industrial power of the German Confederation now fell under the control of the militaristic Prussia, which in turn was firmly under the ambitious, hand of Bismarck. Germany became a dominant, ambitious new Great Power—the Second Reich— set on using its growing industrial and military powers to realize its continental ambitions. World Wars I and II followed.

History becomes alarming prologue if we replace “Napoleon Bonaparte III” with “Trump” and “Bismarck” with “Xi Jinping.” It will be up to future historians to reveal how this game plays out. Meanwhile, we, and our children, must live its consequences. Bismarck—ambitious, strategic, focused, persistent, and ruthless—trumped the erratic, impulsive, popularity-driven, transactional Bonaparte III. He re-define the power structure of Europe. Kissinger concludes his chapter with a crystal clear warning:

“Napoleon’s tragedy was that his ambitions surpassed his capacities. Bismarck’s tragedy was that his capacities exceeded his society’s ability to absorb them. The legacy Napoleon left France was strategic paralysis; the legacy Bismarck left German was unassimilable greatness.”

Germany’s nationalism “unleavened by democracy” turned increasingly chauvinistic and militant. Raw power became the currency of the realm.

The same is happening now on a global scale. U.S. trade policy seems to be trying to harness Bismarck but is channeling Bonaparte III. China will soon enough be 25% larger than the United States and the dominant trading partner for virtually every nation on earth. The existential destructiveness of modern weaponry means that economic power is the most important form of power. China is no stranger to clear and effective application of it. To handle a rising China, the United States and China need Metternichs. We elected a Bonaparte III. China selected a Bismarck. It is certain that we are galloping headlong into rough waters. History does not offer grounds for much optimism.

Robert A. Rogowsky is Professor and Program Co-chair of the Masters in International Trade & Economic Diplomacy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA and Adjunct Professor of Trade & Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s Masters School of Foreign Service.
These essays are the opinions strictly of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or any officials of the Institute.

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