What Napoleon and Bismarck Teach Us About Preventive War

September 18, 2004 • Commentary

The decision to go to war is the most fateful one political leaders ever make. At what point does one decide non‐​military measures for resolving a dispute are exhausted, and that further delay in initiating hostilities is too dangerous? Winston Churchill, who led Britain in its finest hour, understood this tension. “Those who are prone…to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign Power, have not always been right,” he warned in his history of the Second World War. “These are the tormenting dilemmas upon which mankind has throughout its history been so frequently impaled.”

The dilemma is illustrated by the different approach to preventive war adopted by Napoleon and Bismarck. By 1811, Napoleon had decided to initiate war with Russia, having been convinced by reports that Tsar Alexander I was preparing to attack France. His former ambassador to Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, was dismayed. “The Emperor repeated all the fantastic stories which, to please him, were fabricated in Danzig, in the Duchy of Warsaw, and even in the north of Germany — stories the accuracy of which had been disproved time and again,” he recounted in his memoirs. But Napoleon, convinced of easy victory, could not be dissuaded.

Initially, the war justified Napoleon’s confidence. He crushed the Russian army in the battle of Borodino, and his army proceeded to occupy Moscow. The tsar, however, did not surrender. Worse, the Russian people did not respond to Napoleon’s promise of liberation but instead resisted the foreign occupation; the people of Moscow even burned their own city. With the specter of disaster looming over him, Napoleon ordered a retreat. As his army disintegrated, his allies deserted him, and ultimately he was forced to surrender and submit to exile.

Bismarck’s approach to preventive war was far different. In his memoirs Bismarck addresses “the question whether it was desirable, as regards a war which we should probably have to face sooner or later, to bring it on anticipado before the adversary could improve his preparations,” and concludes that “even victorious wars cannot be justified unless they are forced upon one.” Perhaps most important, he stressed the uncertain outcome of the processes wars set in motion, writing that “one cannot see the cards of Providence far enough ahead to anticipate historical developments according to one’s own calculations.”

Unlike Napoleon, Bismarck did not lose a war, and he left Germany far stronger than how he found it. But Providence had a destiny that confounded Bismarck’s legacy.

First, Bismarck’s victories caused a reevaluation of policy by Germany’s neighbors, notably Britain. “The balance of power has been entirely destroyed,” Benjamin Disraeli warned parliament in 1871, “and the country which suffers most, and feels the effects of this great change most, is England.”

Second, the French, although defeated, never reconciled themselves to their loss. “In the hearts of many of the French,” wrote historian Emile Bourgeois, “there endured the pertinacious hope of revenge.”

Finally, the ease of the victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870–71 and Germany’s enhanced power led Bismarck’s successors to feelings of overconfidence — even megalomania. After Bismarck’s death, Kaiser Wilhelm II reveled in the power that was now at his exclusive disposal. “The Crown sends its rays ‘by the Grace of God’ into Palace and hut, and — pardon me if I say so — Europe and the world listen to hear, ‘what does the German Emperor say or think,’ ” he wrote to his mother. “There is only one real Emperor in the world and that is the German.”

This constellation of forces, which Bismarck had unintentionally set in motion, ultimately led Germany — and the world — to catastrophe. When a terrorist murdered the Austrian Archduke in 1914, Germany supported Vienna’s ultimatum to Serbia, which was designed to deprive terrorists like the assassin of a territory in which they could operate. Neither Vienna nor Berlin could imagine the disaster that would ensue after they wagered the cards of Providence.

The Bush administration’s doctrine of preemption is based on the assumption that American power is irresistible. That assumption is now being challenged, just as it has been challenged when it was asserted by other great powers throughout history. Like Napoleon, the Bush administration launched a preventive war and now finds itself confronting a hostile population resisting occupation. Allies are defecting as casualties mount. Victory appears increasingly uncertain.

Yet even if the U.S. ultimately prevails in Iraq, the aura of invincible American power has been shattered. The unexpected difficulties encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the stress on American military forces, undermines the threat to use those forces again, which is the very basis of our superpower status. “U.S. rulers are often liable to overestimate their own strength, and underestimate the challenges and problems they face,” China’s People’s Daily noted last May. “They can be described as ‘the higher they climb, the harder they fall.’ ”

Ironically, a war that was supposed to cement America’s military superiority is now being viewed as an example of American weakness. It is an outcome the proponents of preemption never envisioned. They wagered the cards of Providence, but Providence is not being as obliging as they had hoped.

It rarely is.

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