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The West's Great Folly: Believing Old Empires Had Gone 'Progressive,' Too

By the end of the 19th century, it was commonly held that four European powers possessed great foreign services: the Habsburg Monarchy (known after 1867 as Austria-Hungary or the “Double Monarchy”), the Ottoman Empire, the Holy See, and Russia.

Retrospectively, it appears that there was much truth about that opinion. Presently, we should take notice that these powers — now treated by “progressive” discourse as expired, dusty tales no longer relevant to our modern conflicts — are in fact pivotal instruments in world politics today.

Agreed, we can preclude the Habsburg service, arguably the most prestigious of all four in 1914, which collapsed along with the dynasty in 1918. Pre-WWI, it had failed to prevent the satellization of the Double Monarchy by Hohenzollern Germany. It also failed to disentangle it from the Serbian crisis in 1914, to negotiate a separate peace in 1916-1917, and to mitigate its final dislocation in the wake of the 1918 military defeat.

However, the record of the three other services is quite different.

They helped their respective countries survive WWI and to strive throughout the 20th century. Most importantly, they never changed strategy — important information to know today as we debate foreign policy in a not-so-modern world.


1. Ottoman diplomats were initially as powerless as their Austrian colleagues in front of defeat in 1919: they had to condone the Sèvres Treaty that almost finished their own empire. However, once Mustafa Kemal got rid of a Greek invasion of Anatolia and reshaped Turkey as a nation-state and a republic, they fully resumed their skills. They portrayed the new Turkey as stronger than it actually was, and yet showed willingness to make compromise in spite of its presumed strength.

Their tricks worked out beautifully. In 1923, they enabled them to negotiate the vastly more favorable Lausanne Treaty.

Post-Ottoman Turkish diplomats were even more effective in the ensuing decades. They alternatively managed to keep their country out of WWII and to bring it into NATO during the Cold War. They engaged in the European unification process (as a Council of Europe member and an EU associate) without relinquishing a single bit of national sovereignty.

And, somehow, they were able to insist both on the democratic and secular character of modern Turkey and on its Islamic identity.

Even the current Erdogan administration — arguably the most wayward Turkish administration since the founding of the Republic — has retreated from some major blunders thanks to its diplomats. For example, Erdogan looked to sever its ties with Israel altogether after the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2010. Yet today, a weakened Turkey was still able to turn, again, to the Jewish State for economic cooperation — bilateral trade reached 5.6 billion dollars last year — and strategic depth.

2. Largely through the agency of its nuncios and lesser diplomats, against all odds or logic the Holy See has survived to this day not just as a sovereign entity — the Vatican City enclave in Rome — but even as a world power of sorts.

One may even say, to paraphrase Mirabeau’s famous statement on Prussia — “Other States own armies. Prussia is an army that conquered a State” that while other States have diplomatic services, the Holy See is a diplomatic service that has a State. Indeed, it counts more diplomats than inhabitants (the permanent population of Vatican City is less than 500), and the aggregated surface area of its diplomatic representations abroad is much bigger than its 44-hectare territory.

The Holy See enjoys — yes, in the 21st century — permanent observer status at the UN, and entertains diplomatic relations with almost all countries of Earth, including countries like France and the United States that insist on a strict separation between Church and State.

The only country that still professes to ignore it, China, is holding discreet talks with it time and again.

The Holy See does not just pursue quietist or irenic international policy goals, as it is frequently assumed. It works very hard, in a straight realpolitik manner, to protect Catholicism’s interests wherever this is feasible, including the Church’s material interests (think of its formal recognition of a “State of Palestine” that does not exist, in order to buttress future claims to holy places and properties in Jerusalem and the Holy Land). It exerts as much leverage as it can on Catholic communities or countries with substantial Catholic communities or majorities, either in political matters or on family and marriage issues (think of the large demonstrations in France against same-sex marriage in 2014).

3. However, Russia is the most convincing case regarding the old diplomatic services’ resilience and excellence.

Founded in 1549 by Ivan IV the Terrible as the Ambassadors College (Possolski Prikaz) and reorganized in 1720 by Peter I the Great as a Western-style Foreign Affairs College, the Russian service contributed as effectively as the military to the country’s steady aggrandizement. It did not vanish in 1917, but switched allegiance to the Soviet regime, much as the Ottoman service rallied to Kemal’s Republic, and helped it recover most of the tsars’ lands in just a few years.

And it did not wither in 1991 when the USSR unraveled. Instead, it embarked almost immediately, as the Russian Federation’s service, on again restoring Russia as a Great Power.

What makes the Russian foreign service so efficient?

First: its clarity of purpose.

The document known as The Will of Peter the Great that tersely lists Russia’s goals and tactics in foreign affairs may be a Polish or French forgery, but it is a fact that Russia, understanding its literal character — a very wide country at the junction of Europe and Asia — developed quite early an understanding for geopolitics and long-term strategies. The views quoted or alluded to in the Will — national supremacy, claims to the Byzantine imperial heritage, multilateral ambitions in all parts of the world, a cold perception of power relations — reflect its actual policies.

Second: its professional quality.

Russian diplomats, whether under the tsars or Stalin or Putin, have been well-educated, well-mannered, fluent in foreign languages, and experts in history and international law.

Nothing is more revealing in this respect than the History of Diplomacy, a three-volume summa written and published by a panel of Soviet historians in the 1940s at the height of Stalinist terror and ideological glaciation. Such a rich, no-nonsense essay, it has remained as popular in Western countries as it had in the USSR for many years. (The French translation I own was issued in 1953 by Librairie de Medicis, then a rather conservative publishing house specializing in politics and economics.)

Third: intelligence. The Russian foreign service has always been interlinked with the secret services.

In the 17th century, the foreign service was supplemented by a Secret Affairs College that was answerable to the tsar only. Similar arrangements were repeated in later eras, down to Soviet NKVD and KGB — and, now, to present-day agencies.

The job of the secret services has been to monitor the diplomats’ activities, but also to do everything the diplomats could not do openly: to bribe officials in foreign countries, to recruit spies and informants, to build up contacts among dissenters, and — most importantly — to manipulate the public opinion.

Ironically, the Russians, while autocratic among themselves, have been acutely aware of the power of public opinion abroad, and ready to devote time and resources to win it over. Russian diplomats and secret agents started in the 18th century to bribe, influence, or even launch newspapers in Holland, England, and France. This practice was later extended to more countries and more media — including, over the past fifteen years or so, the internet.

Catherine II paraded as an enlightened despot in order to enlist Western intellectuals, and largely succeeded. As did Stalin in the 20th century.

As does Putin today.

Another joint mission of diplomats and secret service agents has been to gather economic and technological intelligence to use economic issues as a leverage for political interests, be it the export of Russian raw materials or foreign investment in Russia. Eighteenth century Russia was eager to sell England the wood it needed for its navy in order to turn it into a dependent country. Today’s Russia does the same by selling gas to Western Europe, Turkey, and the former Soviet republics.

Conversely, just like late 19th century Russia coupled a French-Russian strategic alliance against Germany with alluring loans that syphoned the French middle-class savings, the late 20th century Soviet Union coupled a French-Russian entente against America with a wide range of contracts for the French industry.

Fourth: Russia’s long-term perspective.

Far-reaching retreats may be condoned for a while — 1812, 1941, 1989-1991 — but stand to be reversed. Schemes may be put aside for years, then resumed. Patronage or friendships, once established, may be left dormant for years, but are never relinquished.

It was sheer incompetence or sheer folly on the part of the Americans and Europeans to assume that Russia would gently agree in 1991 to withdraw to its original 17th century core, to countenance the redrawing of the Balkans by the West only in 1995-1999, or to forsake forever its networks and alliances in the Orient, including the Eastern Christian communities, Khomeinist Iran, and the rivaling twin Baathist brothers of Syria and Iraq.

Russia is now calling bluff, and may pocket a lot — as long as a weak, historically ignorant, Russian-influenced president sits in the White House.