Writing for UnHerd, Karin von Hippel, director general of the Royal United Services Institute, suggested that President Trump’s disruptive management style has resulted in a leadership vacuum on the world stage – a vacuum that is being filled by “nefarious elements”.
Dr Hippel’s thesis is difficult to gainsay, though perhaps the chemical attack at Douma, and a new National Security Adviser (John Bolton), may change the physics in the short-term. In truth, however, Trump’s predecessor had already begun surrendering the leadership. In Syria, President Obama drew a red line, then stood by and watched Assad cross it, letting the Middle East return to Soviet-era proxy war. In Libya, he did little, leaving the campaign to unseat Gaddafi to a small coalition of the European willing; and in North Korea he satisfied himself with process rather than results.
Might there be more to the current weakness of the US (notwithstanding Trump’s recent DPRK démarche) than the result of the flaws in sequential presidential leadership? Is it a symptom of a more general waning of US power? We know about the ends of empires. But is there any real precedent for the decline and fall of a great power whose strength was not largely derived from its imperial assets?
Deutschland Uber Alles
The pre-1914 Imperial German Reich was not an empire in the sense of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires. It was not a multi-ethnic patchwork. Bavarians and Pomeranians, for example, had neither religion, culture nor history in common; but they shared a sense of the Germanic.
Pre-war Germany had overseas colonies, but they were not economically very significant. German wealth derived from a strong agricultural base (although cheap grain imports in the 19th century forced the government into protectionism), rapidly expanding chemical and heavy industries, and increasing world trade1.
By 1914, huge sums were being poured into warship building, and into the army, which, with universal adult male conscription and extended reservist liability, was a further tax on men. In 1914, the only sign that Germany was on the verge of collapse was its grandiloquent Kaiser, a man of no demonstrable intellect or experience in thrall to sycophantic and exploitative generals.
Although the origins of the First World War continue to fill the bookshelves with contradictory theories, there are certain inescapable facts about August 1914: Germany declared war on Russia, not the other way round; Germany then declared war on France; and Belgium did not invade Germany. The Kaiserliche Reich was not on a course of internal disintegration; it chose to self-destruct. Austria-Hungary chose likewise, but in Vienna’s case, the war hastened the collapse of the already disintegrating multi-ethnic empire. Neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary in 1914 is remotely comparable to the United States today.
What if we were to venture further back?
“Waves of Goths” (1066 And All That)
According to Edmond Gibbon2, the Roman Empire succumbed to a wave of barbarian invasions because of the moral collapse of its citizenry, or of what he called civic virtue (the cultivation of standards and habits of personal living that were of benefit to the community rather than solely to self). In other words, decadence. They preferred to outsource their first duty – defending the empire – to mercenaries, who grew so large in number as to take over the empire.
This reading of history has been challenged by some modern scholarship, but it has the ring of an instinctive truth about it: if a nation prefers to spend its wealth to the detriment of the security of the state, there will be people ready to take advantage.
Gibbon also saw the Praetorian Guard as the primary catalyst of the empire’s initial decay and eventual collapse. Augustus had formed the Praetorians into a true private army – the army of the emperor, rather than of the empire – but after his death they themselves became the powerbrokers.
The SS in Nazi Germany were formed in the same mold; so were Saddam’s Republican Guard; likewise in Soviet Russia the KGB (and, likely as not, the KGB’s successor, the FSB). The Praetorian Guard was not above imperial assassination, and in the end it backed who would pay it the most. Soldiers, like most people, like money. In dictatorships they principally line their own pockets with it, while in democracies they want it spent on weaponry and infrastructure. Either way, if the spending gets out of balance with the other needs of the state, trouble follows.
So far, the United States has not shown signs of terminal decadence or of Praetorianism, although in January 1961, in his farewell speech to the Nation, President Eisenhower warned of “the military–industrial complex”, an informal alliance between a nation’s military and the arms industry in bidding for government funding – a vested interest influencing public policy.
The use of force over a period either strengthens a great power – materially, in that it reduces the power of an adversary, or morally in that success brings allies (or both) – or else it saps its vitality. The Vietnam War weakened the discipline and effectiveness of US forces for a generation, and scared Washington for too long out of “foreign ventures” (witness the protracted turmoil of the Balkans post-1991). While some argued for refocusing on the true purpose of US forces, however – defence of the Republic – others who desired to recover the US reputation of arms were keen to flex power abroad. Were, indeed, looking for a fight.
If there is one thing a great power must do to preserve its power, it is to acknowledge that it does not always need to exercise it. Indeed, it must acknowledge that treating every attack as an existential challenge to its power, and, therefore, that there must be prodigious retaliation, will sap both its hard power and its moral authority.
The Trent Affair in the first year of the US Civil War demonstrated one president’s (Lincoln) grasp of this at least. In November 1861, the Union frigate San Jacinto seized from the (neutral) British ship Trent two Confederate commissioners on their way to beg the support of England and France for the cause of the South. The seizure aroused indignant public protest in Britain, and the government sent an ultimatum demanding an American apology and the release of the two commissioners.
As war threatened, the British radical statesman John Bright (1811-1889) wrote to Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, arguing for the US to stay its hand:
“I am looking alone to your great country, the hope of freedom and humanity, and I implore you not on any feeling that nothing can be conceded, and that England is arrogant and seeking a quarrel, to play the game of every enemy of your country. Nations in great crises and difficulties have done that which in their prosperous and powerful hour they would not have done, and they have done it without humiliation or disgrace. You may disappoint your enemies by the moderation and reasonableness of your conduct, and every honest and good man in England will applaud your wisdom. Put all the fire-eaters in the wrong, and Europe will admire the sagacity of your government3“
Although time and circumstance make any comparison between the Trent Affair and the attack on the Twin Towers, in 2001, seem perhaps grotesque, the moral sense in Bright’s letter is nevertheless powerful. Indeed, it seemed to find an echo in President George W Bush’s address to Congress the week after the attack:
“Americans are asking, ‘How will we fight and win this war?’ We will direct every resource at our command – every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war – to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network.
“Now, this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat. Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest…”
It was all the more extraordinary therefore that after this masterly exposition of strategy, the US should fall prey to great power hubris and mount a full-blown – and botched – invasion of Iraq.
The Audit of War: The Illusion & Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, Correlli Barnett (1986)
The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World, Immanuel Wallerstein (2003)