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How America failed the Waterloo test

How America failed the Waterloo test

Two hundred years ago last Friday, British and allied troops defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Exiled in April 1814 to Elba after his defeat by the Sixth Coalition, by March 1815 Napoleon had escaped and returned to Paris. Much of the army of Louis XVIII, the newly installed King of France, deserted to the emperor.

In Vienna, the great Congress was still in session; a peace not 12 months old was imperilled.

On 16 June 1815, French forces defeated a Prussian army at Ligny. Two days later at Waterloo, Napoleon appeared with the myth of his genius restored.  Arrayed against him were some 68,000 largely inexperienced British and allied troops under the Duke of Wellington, later strengthened by the regrouped Prussians. The field very nearly went to the French, but ultimately victory went to the Allies.

To the British public and cabinet, continuously at war with France for a generation, Waterloo seemingly confirmed what they had always suspected: that the peace of 1814 was too lenient, that France was not a power to be restored but to be punished.

Yet Britain's Viscount Castlereagh above all saw that in a peace based on the pragmatic juxtaposition of opposing forces, a strong France would be essential. 'I (do not) think it a clear case...that France, even within her existing dimensions, may not be found a useful, rather than a dangerous member of the European system', he wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, in August 1815.

As Henry Kissinger argued in A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problems of peace, 1812-22, most remarkable about Waterloo is not that Napoleon almost prevailed nor that he was defeated but that the peace of 1814 held. France would be rehabilitated and integrated into a revived European balance of power: 

In its quest to achieve stability through safety, in its myth of the absence of intrinsic causes for war, a retrospective peace produces a revolutionary situation...It is to the credit of the statesmen who negotiated the settlement of the post-Napoleonic period that they resisted the temptation of a punitive peace.

Implied in Russian rhetoric and actions today is the allegation that the West has repeatedly failed this 'test of Waterloo' since 1989. [fold]

Certainly, by 2002 Russia was neither part of the balance (since none was restored), nor rehabilitated as a partner (since NATO and EU membership were implicitly foreclosed).

Yet a balance – or better, a 'partnership' – seems to have been what, in 1988 and 1989, the leaders of the two rival superpowers originally envisaged as the future of post-Cold War Europe. Indeed, Castlereagh's commitment to a restorative peace recalls US President George HW Bush's strong support, in 1990 and 1991, for the preservation of the Soviet Union as a state. 

In his Last Empire: The final days of the Soviet Union, however, Serhii Plokhii shows not only how thoroughly the KGB coup of August 1991 discredited the USSR as an idea, but how swiftly American triumphalism killed the notion of a balance. By the 1992 presidential election campaign, the Bush-Gorbachev notion of a 'partnership' had been transformed into a US 'victory' over a 'defeated' (and soon to be dissolved) USSR.

The truth is that an analogy between British policy in 1814-15 and America's in 1989-91 is incomplete. The real analogy is between the US in the post-Cold War era and Russia after the defeat of Napoleon. 

As Dominic Lieven demonstrated in Russia Against Napoleon: The battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, between 1812 and 1814 Russia destroyed the basis of French power in Europe. Even if Napoleon had prevailed at Waterloo, his empire couldn't be revived. In competition with with Castlereagh's vision of the restoration of France and a European balance, Tsar Alexander I offered the 'Holy Alliance', a peace built on the imposition of a particular form of government (legitimate monarchy), a preponderance of Russian arms to defend it and a concomitant pledge (apparently sincerely felt) of Christian goodwill to respect the independence of the great powers. 

Like the Tsar's proposal to the great powers in 1815, American presidents since 1991 have offered Russia a deal that Moscow could only accept on good faith: that American intentions are uniquely benevolent and that NATO's overwhelming military preponderance in Europe is a guarantee of safety, not a dangerous imbalance. America's vigorous promotion of democracy in Eastern Europe, seen as essential to a durable peace, is also analogous to 19th century Russia's claims about the Holy Alliance.

The restoration of a European balance after Waterloo was a testament not just to Waterloo or Britain's wealth and geographic invulnerability, but to Castlereagh's vision as a statesman and his skill as a diplomat. The problem in 1991 was that America combined in itself the role of both victors in 1815: that of the offshore balancer (Britain) and that of the dominant military power on the continent (Russia). Castlereagh's vision for peace was available, but the US effectively chose Alexander's.

'Only a shallow historicism', conceded Kissinger, 'would maintain that successful policies are always possible...It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.'

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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