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.