Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers

The noise and drama surrounding Putin, Russia and the Ukraine obscure crucial foreign policy principles. In “Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers”, Robert Merry takes a closer look at what they might be.

First, avoid promiscuous jingoism of the kind that Salisbury despised—and that suffuses so much American commentary and political discourse today. This kind of talk, particularly coming from national leaders, ultimately undermines any nation’s global authority.

Once embarked upon, this pernicious habit is hard to turn off. Combative political and media constituencies thrive on such melodrama and prudent voices find it ever more difficult to be heard, much less listened to.

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests. A corollary principle is to avoid moralistic posturing, which only breeds national hypocrisy and leads inevitably to geopolitical overextension.

As Merry points out, “any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue.” To do otherwise is to court eventual exhaustion and ridicule. Moralistic posturing is really only a subset of the sort of “promiscuous jingoism” covered in the first point.

Third, never lose sight of Machiavelli’s balance-of-interests concept. When a global power tampers with another major country’s traditional sphere of influence, the result will be a breakdown in the ability of those two countries to deal with each other effectively.

It’s here, of course, where the US and Europe have miscalculated badly. Or, perhaps, not really calculated at all. The Ukraine is a vital strategic interest for Russia, whether we like it or not, and any actions (or indeed comments) should take that reality into account.

Fourth, never lose sight of the fundamental reality that stability is derived through a balance of power, not through hegemony. The former can be maintained through creative diplomacy backed up through a strong military presence; the latter is inherently unstable because it angers and energizes the Lilliputians.

Self-evident, one would have thought, but that ignores the temptations of power. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, America was incomparably more powerful than any potential rival and, perhaps more importantly, saw itself as morally superior, fit to command and control a world in desperate need of both its power and beneficence.

There was much truth in all this; regrettably, whatever sense of prudence and objectivity remained in those halcyon years was swept away by 9/11. Now all of us have to live with the consequences.

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Jim Rose
10 years ago

Murray Rothbard in the 1980 Afghan context quoted Canon Sydney Smith – a great classical liberal in early nineteenth century England who wrote to his warmongering Prime Minister thus:

“For God’s sake, do not drag me into another war!

I am worn down, and worn out, with crusading and defending Europe, and protecting mankind; I must think a little of myself.

I am sorry for the Spaniards – I am sorry for the Greeks – I deplore the fate of the Jews; the people of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny; Baghdad is oppressed, I do not like the present state of the Delta; Tibet is not comfortable. Am I to fight for all these people?

The world is bursting with sin and sorrow. Am I to be champion of the Decalogue, and to be eternally raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy?

We have just done saving Europe, and I am afraid the consequence will be, that we shall cut each other’s throats. No war, dear Lady Grey! – No eloquence; but apathy, selfishness, common sense, arithmetic!”

Jim Rose
10 years ago
Reply to  Ingolf Eide

I love the bar fight analogy for the start of wars. No one can back down.

No-one could back down in 1914. Tom Schelling even said that once a country mobilised for war in 1914, it had no plan at hand on how to stop the mobilisation.

In Schelling view, many wars including World War 1 were products of mutual alarm and unpredictable tests of will.

When people discuss the futility of World War 1, they under rate the role of unintended consequences and the dark side of human rationality in situations involving collective action as explained by David Friedman:

Consider a barroom quarrel that starts with two customers arguing about baseball teams and ends with one dead and the other standing there with a knife in his hand and a dazed expression on his face.

Seen from one standpoint, this is a clear example of irrational and therefore uneconomic behavior; the killer regrets what he has done as soon as he does it, so he obviously cannot have acted to maximize his own welfare.

Seen from another standpoint, it is the working out of a rational commitment to irrational action–the equivalent, on a small scale, of a doomsday machine going off.

Suppose I am strong, fierce, and known to have a short temper with people who do not do what I want.

I benefit from that reputation; people are careful not to do things that offend me.

Actually beating someone up is expensive; he may fight back, and I may get arrested for assault. But if my reputation is bad enough, I may not have to beat anyone up.

To maintain that reputation, I train myself to be short-tempered. I tell myself, and others, that I am a real he-man, and he-men don’t let other people push them around. I gradually expand my definition of “push me around” until it is equivalent to “don’t do what I want.”

We usually describe this as an aggressive personality, but it may make just as much sense to think of it as a deliberate strategy rationally adopted.

Once the strategy is in place, I am no longer free to choose the optimal response in each situation; I have invested too much in my own self-image to be able to back down…

Not backing down once deterrence has failed may be irrational, but putting yourself in a situation where you cannot back down is not.

Most of the time I get my own way; once in a while I have to pay for it.

I have no monopoly on my strategy; there are other short-tempered people in the world. I get into a conversation in a bar.

The other guy fails to show adequate deference to my opinions.

I start pushing. He pushes back. When it is over, one of us is dead.

It is even harder to get out of a war than into one.

The problem is credible assurances that the peace is lasting rather than just a chance for the other side to rebuild and come back to attack from a stronger position. That is why the peace treaty in 1919 totally disarmed Germany and split-up the other Axis powers.

An understudied issue is peace feelers in World War 1 such as by the German chancellor in 1916 and the Reichstag peace resolution on 19 July 1917. Pope Benedict XV tried to mediate with his Peace Note of August 1917.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago
Reply to  Jim Rose

I love the rational irrationality story. Very true, and it goes for many circumstances (basically a tradeoff between the occasions where there is a surplus to be divided and being irrational means you get more, versus the occasions where the surplus gets destroyed, or worse). Sounds like the kind of argument someone probably has written a famous economics paper about.

Jim Rose
10 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

thanks Paul, how can something better off be irrational? looking tough saved you from plenty of earlier fights and being picked on.

with your indulgence, and at the risk of self-promotion, see http://utopiayouarestandinginit.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/trade-is-a-powerful-force-for-peace-in-the-ukraine/

Jim Rose
10 years ago
Reply to  Ingolf Eide

Ingolf, I forget to say thanks.

10 years ago

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests.

If you read Machiavelli, he said the opposite… eventually you get forced to pick a side, so be ready to pick a side early when you can still control the outcome, and make bloody sure you end up on the winning side so you can roll with the winners.

Don’t wait until afterwards, if you do that you get no control over the outcome and effectively you negotiate with someone strong and independent who gives you no respect.

In the case of the Crimea, it’s all over, the outcome is settled. The EU have been caught flat footed and the USA is no longer the World Police. Where we go from here is another question. I find it difficult to believe that Vlad Putin will go barging into any country that is well equipped and willing to defend itself. In the Crimea probably there are enough locals who prefer Russia to the EU that the outcome was never in doubt.

David Walker
10 years ago

You might choose to see the US right now as following the bipartisan policy of recent decades: talk loud but without any intent to reverse the events which have already happened. The loud talk keeps the domestic audience somewhat happy (though if you’re a Democrat, the hawks will still squeak), and signals to the antagonist what you really value.

What did Carter do about the Afghanistan invasion? He condemned it, ordered a grain embargo and an Olympics boycott, and sent carriers to the Persian Gulf, demonstrating to the Russians what the US really cared about. (He also upped support to the Mujahadeen, results of which have been, um … interesting.) What did Reagan do in the Polish government’s Solidarity crack-down? He loudly condemned it and ordered economic sanctions, which clearly lifted morale in the union but whose economic impact is less certain.. What did Reagan do about the Beirut barracks bombing? He pledged to keep a military force in Lebanon – and within a year pulled out every marine in the country. What did George W. Bush do when the Soviets went into Georgia? He had Dick Cheney declare Russia’s invasion “must not go unanswered”, and then let it go unanswered, eloquently displaying the US’s very real non-interest in the fate of South Ossetia.

Obama’s rhetoric seems to me to fall within that tradition. His goals are likely to stave off a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, while making it clear to Putin that Poland and the Gulf states are out of bounds. It doesn’t seem likely to me that he has any intention of going to war with Russia over Ukraine. (There were, of course, plenty of armchair geniuses writing much the same thing in August 1914.) Merry seems to think Obama’s rhetoric is signalling something more, but I’m not sure he’s really made the case.

David Walker
10 years ago
Reply to  Ingolf Eide

It was Merry’s last sentence that made me think he was suggesting Obama was willing to go further than Carter, Regan and Bush. The negative consequences of similar rhetoric from Reagan, Carter and Bush were not terribly substantial, and they may have done some good by warning the various antagonists against going further in the wrong direction. My view is that Obama is right in line with his predecessors, although the game is probably riskier than they think.

The lesson of 1914 is that not that these situations generally end badly, but that they can end catastrophically on the occasions where they do depart from the script.

It’s what Nick Gruen says about trade deficits: They’re not a problem, and still not a problem – and then one day they’re your only problem.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
10 years ago

The bombing of the barracks in Beirut was a real turning point in the perception the islamists had or rather thought they understood about the US.
First Carter , then Reagan helped them and they were emboldened.
Fast forward 30 years and we have the other thread with Thomas Friedman trying to explain what blood and treasure means to the US and why they HAD to go into Iraq.