Luttwak on Napoleon, China and Trump

Back in 2014, more than two years before Trump’s elevation to the presidency, Edward Luttwak summed up his thoughts on grand strategy in application to the Napoleonic wars:

In retrospect​ the fight against Napoleon seems to have engendered a new strategic method… The French might call it the Anglo-Saxon encirclement strategy. Its essential aim was to avoid direct combat with a formidable enemy, or at least to limit engagement to a minimum. Instead of confronting one vast army with another… the Anglo-Saxon approach was to take on the big beast by assembling as many neighbourhood dogs and cats as possible, with a few squirrels and mice thrown in. With the obvious exception of the Western Front in the First World War, that is how the two world wars were fought… and that is how the Soviet Union was resisted after 1945, with what eventually became the North Atlantic Alliance.

Napoleon’s ultimate failure was at the level of grand strategy – which I’m certain had been noted long before Luttwak was born, although I can’t tell by whom, or when exactly – so even winning, or at least not losing, at Waterloo would not have saved him from defeat unless he had somehow managed to take apart the European coalition opposing him. For all his military talents, he had no allies, or perhaps it would be fair to say he had been better at losing than winning them.

NATO, according to Luttwak, resembles the anti-Napoleon coalition in being a “ragtag of member states large and small”:

Like the challenge to British diplomacy in the struggle against Napoleon, the great challenge to which American diplomacy successfully rose was to keep the alliance going by tending to the various political needs of its member governments, even those of countries as small as Luxembourg, whose rulers sat on all committees as equals, even though they could never field more than a single battalion of troops.

The British approach also saved countless British lives, in contrast to the enormous loss of life that France suffered during the Napoleonic wars and WWI. Even in WWI, Britain’s military casualties (excluding the dominions) were about half those of France.

The Crimean war was another example of a great power getting isolated and consequently defeated: Russia found itself in conflict with all of Europe – except Greece – and had to accept a humiliating peace. (In that war, by the way, France lost more than three times as many men as Britain.) However, as soon as Russia regained a European ally – Prussia – it was able to reverse what it saw as the most damaging articles of the Paris treaty.

When Portugal decided to go to war to keep its African colonies and East Timor, Salazar declared his government and country would be acting “proudly alone.” He put it well – “Orgulhosamente sós!” – but it was a SOS signal. Less than ten years later, it was all over: both the authoritarian regime in Lisbon and Portugal’s rule in the colonies.

And now…

Now it is the turn of the Chinese, whose strength is still modest yet growing too rapidly for comfort, and who are inevitably provoking the emergence of a coalition against them; the members range in magnitude from India and Japan down to the Sultanate of Brunei, in addition of course to the US… China cannot therefore overcome its inferiority to the American-led coalition by converting its economic strength into aircraft carriers and such, any more than Napoleon could have overcome strategic encirclement by winning one more battle.

If memory serves me right, Edward Luttwak was generally supportive of Donald Trump, at least in the first two years of his presidency. Luttwak definitely approved the direction of Trump’s anti-Chinese thrust. However, it appears that Trump has done more to weaken that emerging anti-Chinese coalition than to strengthen it. Luttwak is hoping, if I understand him well, that Xi’s ignorance of the world affairs would weaken China’s global standing. That would be a good thing, no doubt, but it still would not make Trump’s weakening of US-led alliances irrelevant or harmless.


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