Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Lesson from History: Everyone Hates a Winner (unless they need him)

Early on in my independent study of history I noticed a trend in global power politics that I thought would be of concern for America’s future. What seemed to happen time and time again was that when a single nation would emerge indisputably victorious from a great conflict, most of the enemy and neutral nations would turn on this power while allies would remain neutral at the commencement of the next great conflict. Though it was only 1995 and we were in the middle of the halcyon days of the mid 90’s this indicated trouble ahead for America when she would inevitably be called back to fight (sorry, at the time I didn’t know what email was much less have a blog so I can’t reference this).

This trend is most notable in the wars of the European balance of power era starting around 1700. Prior to that, and in the first decades of the 19th and 20th Centuries, there was a single power in Europe so great that all the wars were focused on restraining this power (Spain first, then France, and lastly Germany). These wars (e.g. Nine Years War then War of the Spanish Succession, Wars of the various Coalitions, and World War I and II) were mostly repeats of the last war as far as alliances go.

With the War of the Spanish Succession and the introduction of a rough balance of power in Europe this changed. The war itself was fought by Britain, Holland, Austria, and various German and Italian states against France and Spain. This is the first war which left no one dominating power against which the rest of Europe could align. It was also the first war that left only a single true victor. When the war ended in 1714, Austria gained Spain’s possessions in Italy and the Mediterranean while the other belligerents received nothing for their trouble. This laid the groundwork for the resentment which would build and engulf Austria in 26 years.

Except for France, who fought a war against Austria in the 1730's, the other European powers waited like vultures for the day when Maria Theresa succeeded her father to the Hapsburg throne in Vienna. That day finally came in 1740 and they didn’t waste any time in taking advantage of the opportunity to grab some land. France, Bavaria, Saxony, Poland, and most importantly Prussia started the War of the Austrian Succession with dreams of partitioning the Austrian Empire. Only Britain, worried as always about maintaining the European balance of power supported Austria. However, Britain did so only with subsidies, colonial action, and threats. In the end, after 8 costly years of war, again only one power would see any gain. This time it was Prussia and its upstart king Frederick II who added the rich Austrian province of Silesia to his realm.

Frederick the Great was no fool and understood his fait after being the sole victor in 1748. As he expected, by 1756 Austria had formed an alliance with France, Russia, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire. As before these powers planned to partition the rising Prussian state amongst themselves. Also like before Britain (along with Hannover) was Prussia’s sole ally after the Diplomatic Revolution. This time though they did field an army of British and German soldiers who fought against France in western Germany. Following the new tradition, there was a single winner after the Seven Years War, Great Britain. While all of the other belligerents gained nothing for their efforts, Britain annexed much of the French overseas empire following the war.

The lopsided British victory of 1763 was the straw that broke the camels back for most of Europe. Perfidious Albion hiding on her island behind the Royal Navy had always avoided the deprivations of war. The other Maritime states of Europe especially bided their time. Their moment came a scant 12 years later when the American Revolution broke out and threatened Britain’s grip on her most productive colony. Though it was understandable that France and to a lesser extent Spain would take such an opportunity, even the Dutch who had been protected by Britain for a century joined in. Prussia, the country that owed Britain the most and could do the most to draw off French resources, indirectly supported the colonists. Most of the rest of Europe would join the League of Armed Neutrality which limited Britain’s ability to fight in the colonies via economic means. Except for the loss of the American colonies, Britain would actually win against every belligerent and further expand her empire.

This is the last of the balance of power wars since shortly after the American Revolution came the French Revolution and a 23 year series of wars to restrain France. The mid 19th Century “diplomatic wars” do not fit as well within this framework since they were much more limited. To an extent it could be said that though every power except France benefited in 1815, Russia was one of the biggest benefactors. When she tried to gain further territory, the British, French, Sardinians, and Turks fought to prevent it in the Crimean War of 1854-56. After Prussia’s string of three triumphal victories over Hannover, Austria, and France Bismarck knew Europe would focus on Germany and it of course did. Again though, Germany quickly grew so great in power that it was no longer balance of power but stopping a country with the power to dominate Europe by itself. This required 2 world wars and the intervention of the United States to accomplish.

World War II ended with 5 countries claiming victory and major gains for two of them. This developed into a 50 year balance of power conflict that of course ended in 1990. At the conclusion of the Cold War there was but one victor, the United States. Russia was humiliated and driven back to the borders she held in the 1600’s. Japan and Europe both fell into the economic doldrums and saw their non-military based diplomacy shorn of its value. China gained little from the end of the Cold War. A Russian adversary and American ally flipped to an American adversary and Russian ally. It doesn’t take much brainpower to realize which was the better deal. Smaller countries all over the world lost the economic life support they had grown accustomed to during the Cold War Superpower courtship. Only America saw her position in the world irrefutably improved.

This I believed would be the core of the resentment for which we would have to watch out in the coming years (that is today). We have seen it manifest itself in many ways over the years. The obvious desire by Europe and others that the Euro destroy the dollar based trading system and they hope damage the US economy. The growing efforts by countries like China, Russia, France, Iran, and Brazil to replace our influence in their regions with their own. The UN and other transnational groups (like Kyoto) renewed attempts to redistribute our diplomatic, economic, and military power in the hopes of leveling the playing field for weaker countries. I think also that this has also shown itself in the difficulties we are having rousing the world to face down Islamic extremism. Except for our Anglo brethren and Japan, most of our allies today are those who need us to protect them from Russia, China, or the Islamists. This is much like Britain needed Austria and then Prussia to help fight France regardless of their sole victory.

The resentment in these challenges is palpable. As mentioned in a previous post, most people who oppose us only seem upset that we aren’t doing what they want or helping them directly. We could be spending a hundred billion dollars a year in Mexico Mexicans gripe, implementing the US economy devastating Kyoto Protocols Europeans grumble, overthrowing the Ayatollahs Iranians complain, lining the pockets of Kofi Annan and other UN staffers and friends the UN protests, or building fire stations in New York Democrats charge, etc. Nevertheless, the clear goal of all this is to drop us down a peg and allow others to divide up our power and influence. It is nothing new or exceptional and should not be surprising. It is however dishonorable, distressing, and for many countries counterproductive. Such is human nature, as it has always been, and as it will always be. Though we should hope for better out of humanity, we cannot expect and plan for anything else.


  1. Maybe History repeats itself because most politicians are poor history students.

  2. I wouldn't only blame politicians for that though you won't see me defending them so I'll say that I think it's human nature that predisposes us to repeat history. Not learning from history is one half of human nature. The other half is simply desiring the same things and having the same emotions that people have had since the dawn of time.

    Obviously this means that it's impossible to not repeat history. However, it does mean that people who do know history can better navigate and understand current events. Thanks for the comment.