“I am sure every Englishman who has a heart in his breast and a feeling of justice in his mind sympathizes with those unfortunate Danes,” Lord Palmerston quipped, to loud cheers in the British Parliament, just as German armies were massing near the Danish border in 1864. Yet Palmerston, the great gusto, ended the same speech saying “we did not think that the Danish cause would be considered as sufficiently British, and as sufficiently bearing on the interests and the security and the honour of England, as to make it justifiable to ask the country to make those exertions which such a war would render necessary.”
Beneath the poetic phrasing was a cold, realist calculation. The British expeditionary forces would be far inferior in numbers in a continental war Germans could easily escalate, resulting in a humiliating defeat or, worse, a bleeding stalemate. Second, the overall balance of power in Europe, as well as British naval hegemony and empire, would remain unchanged regardless of the German conquest and annexation of a Danish province.
You Can’t Be Strong Everywhere
Questions of narrow national interests are again at the forefront, as great power rivalry returns. In light of that, two new books attempt to answer a few key questions. Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson’s Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts deals with a puzzle: How do great powers navigate shifts in relative power and decline of rivals? Put simply, what explains support or predation in a great power’s behavior, towards other declining powers? “Predation does not necessarily mean snuffing out a declining state’s existence as a sovereign actor.”
The United States supported the United Kingdom after World War II, just as Wilhelmine Germany supported Austria-Hungary. Yet the United States also ramped up pressure against the Soviet Union in its dying days, while not going too far to see it collapse or seek vengeance.
Shifrinson cites George Shultz and the American grand strategy under President Reagan that aimed “to keep the Russians well behind us,” yet “not so far behind that they become desperate and dangerous.” This is a resounding archival slap to neoconservative revisionism about the Reagan administration (or the mythical liberal order), which was as strategic—and broadly realist—as any other great power in any time in human history.
The question is important, because “decline carries major security implications,” as alliances are dissolved and reformed, arms races reignited, and great powers gear up for war as a new order looms. Shifrinson comes with a clever concept called “Predation Theory,” and after calculating the variables, he suggests that “the more a declining state can impose significant costs on a rising state in defense of its interests, the less intensely a rising state is likely to pursue a predatory strategy.” Internal strength, not expeditions or allies but a strong military and economy, deters a rival.
Twilight of the Titans: Great Power Decline and Retrenchment, by Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent, is the second explanation of our coming “Titanomachy.” How to stall relative decline is the question facing the United States, after a quarter-century of utopian overreach. If history is any guide, the answer is simple. Of the 16 cases studied, “only two declining powers stuck to the status quo, while only one followed expansionist policies” (to their doom), and the rest all “retrenched” to recuperate.
Retrenchment is not isolation or appeasement. “The underlying logic of retrenchment, therefore, is solvency. States, like firms, tend to go bankrupt when they budget blithely and live beyond their means, but states, unlike firms, can be subject to lethal reprisals,” the authors observe. Retrenchment leads to a variety of measures of husbanding resources. “In politics as in nature, eclipses are spectacularly dark times,” and therefore “expanding or maintaining grand strategic ambitions during decline incurs unsustainable burdens and incites unwinnable fights.”
Consider the comparative grand strategy of Britain and France during a relative decline, facing other rising powers. Boneheaded French assertiveness and post-Bismarckian drubbing led to further volatility and weakness in France, as “territorial grabs in the Mediterranean drove Italy into the arms of Germany.” The frog continued to boil slowly without realizing it, so to speak.
MacDonald and Parent suggests Britain as a better example, citing Admiral Sir John Fisher, “We cannot have everything or be strong everywhere. It is futile to be strong in the subsidiary theatre of war and not overwhelmingly supreme in the decisive theatre.” Regardless of liberal rhetoric, “British policy during this period was not driven by doctrinaire scepticism of an activist foreign policy, but by careful calculation of the balance of power.” Britain turned a rising United States into an ally, and prolonged the empire for another century.
Retrenchment and American Grand Strategy
The question is how much the research will reflect policy and affect the future grand strategy of the United States. There is, for example, a notion among foreign policy types that President Obama, after a quarter-century of liberal utopia, redirected American foreign policy towards a more strategic orientation, but that couldn’t be further from truth.
Obama was of course superficially less interested in interventions, but whether that reticence was due to realpolitik, or because of a cunning understanding of the war-wary American public, is for future historians to judge. However, the march towards trans-national, liberal/progressive institutionalism that undermined any idea of nation-states as the fundamental actors of global politics got turbo-charged under Obama.
Obama’s foreign policy speeches consistently highlighted integration over nation-states, and the need to be bound by international laws and institutions, and to ensure that “if powerful nations like my own accept constraints…binding ourselves to international rules over the long term — enhances our security.” As John Fonte pointed out, the transnational themes were prevalent under a concerted effort to not just curtail American power, but to enhance an equilibrium with a distinct aim of a future, bureaucratic elite-driven global governance.
It might lack the neo-conservative crusading zeal about promotion of human rights, but it was by no means a “realist” policy, either, much less a nationalist or a conservative one. Realpolitik dictates reaching equilibrium through a balance of power, while aspiring to maintain the balance in favor of the hegemon. Realpolitik does not dictate Fenrir agreeing voluntarily to be chained.
President Trump’s instincts are more aligned to a classical sovereigntist, restrained, and conservative foreign policy. This, in turn, is more aligned to a Nixonian realpolitik, as well as traditional Anglo-American grand-strategy. There is a remarkable consistency with regards to alliances, peer and rival great powers, potential hegemonic challengers, and restraint in promoting values. There is also a gloomy skepticism about democracy promotion in certain parts of the world that are, put simply, not societally evolved enough to have a western-imposed way of life, universalist values, and order.
His administration also has been considerably different, with regards to threat perceptions, not just geo-strategic but geo-economic. The national security strategy highlights both of these issues with great power rivals like Russia and China, which are expected. But Trump’s “Divide and Rule” in Europe betrays a certain 19th-century strategic genius, an instinct that is far more Palmerstonian than even what modern American academic realists might want.
To give an example, Trump perhaps understands what a lot of realists fail to perceive: that a budding hegemon in the European Union would be inevitably antagonistic to American interests, not just because it would have enormous trade power, which it won’t be shy to leverage against Washington or use to play a balancing game between the United States and China, but because Europe united as a single powerhouse is unreliable.
A united Europe is traditionally, historically, and culturally hostile to free-trading, maritime great powers. Trump’s opposition to European powers passing the security burden to American taxpayers is also far more mercantile, and rightfully reflects the changes in relative power across the globe. This is, one might optimistically say, a late but needed start of a classic retrenchment strategy.
That is also, in effect, a conservative understanding of history. Trump reflects a traditional Washingtonian disdain for permanent alliance entanglements, and is opposed to military interventions abroad looking for “monsters to destroy.” Classical conservatism believes in restraint, realism, and prudence; consolidating gains, instead of ambitious overreach; and retrenchment and recuperation, instead of imperial collapse.
The behavior in such a scenario is highlighted in McDonald and Parent’s book, whereupon any great power retrenchment begins at home. “First, declining states can reduce spending on the military and foreign affairs. Second, declining powers can use retrenchment to revise force structure. Third, declining powers can use retrenchment to reform institutions,” they note.
When translated to actual policy, this leads to redeploying forces, removing potential flashpoints, and redistributing burdens. While all administrations are limited by realities on the ground, one can observe somewhat thematic and directional similarities between the prescribed strategy and actual current American foreign policy.
Reality and Hope
Both the books are a treasure trove of archival research and historical quotes. They are actual works of scholarship, compared to the pop-historians and poseurs one might encounter blathering on social media and television news. And they are a refreshing change of pace, which will perhaps be promptly ignored by the foreign policy blob.
Mercifully, international structure is more powerful than individual agency. In the anarchic system of international affairs where survival is the utmost consideration of great powers, the retrenchment that partially started with Obama and increased under Trump will probably carry on regardless of who comes to power in D.C.
This means fewer liberal adventurism, less questionable human rights-promotion and nation-building, and a more conservative focus on prioritizing strategic theaters and great power naval buildup. After all, conservative foreign policy realists can also hope.