Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Frederick William, Ron Paul, Napoleon and Neutrality

I have recently been reading Kagan's "The End of the Old Order" again, and it struck me that the behavior of the central European states, especially Austria and even more Prussia, provide a valuable lesson in foreign policy. Most notably, when I read Frederick William's statement that "nothing short of an invasion of Prussia territory" would cause him to mobilize (during the French occupation of Hannover), it struck me that we could draw interesting parallels between Prussia in the early 1800s and the foreign policy so recently espoused by Ron Paul and his followers. More interesting, though it may be possible for some to argue that such a position allowed Prussia to eventually field its victorious army in 1815, it is more clear that, by espousing such strong neutrality throughout the early Empire period, Prussia allowed France to swallow up considerable portions of Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the low countries, while at the same time drawing into his orbit nations such as Bavaria, which saw no viable opposition (other than Britain) and thus threw in their lot with Napoleon. In short, because Prussia adopted such a strong neutrality, he allowed the French Empire to subjugate most of Europe, severely injure the strongest likely opposition (Russia and especially Austria), and left Prussia, when she finally did oppose him in the Fourth Coalition, in a weaker position than had she joined the Third Coalition, or, even better, joined Russia and Britain (and perhaps Austria) in resisting the invasion of Hannover.

Before going into the specifics of history, allow me to offer a brief summary of my position on the use of the military. I am, despite the strawman claims of some "non-interventionists", not an imperialist, or interested in "nation building". On the other hand, I also do not think the only valid use of the military is the repulse direct violations of our borders. This false opposition, presenting these as the only two options is a perfect example of the excluded middle (see "The Film School Cop Out and the Excluded Middle", "Gardasil and Logical Errors"). I accept a third position, that in general the military exists to protect the borders of the nation, but it also can act to protect the rights of citizens overseas, as well as act preventatively, striking at clear threats even before those threats act against us.  We do not need to wait for an army on our border to cross the line, if it is sitting there with the clear intent to attack, we are justified in going to it.

And it is from that viewpoint that I want to analyze Prussia and Austria between the Second and Third Coalitions, as well as during the War of the Third Coalition. I think such analysis is not only interesting as history, but also shows us many things about the weakness of several current political viewpoints.

Lest someone accuse me of confusing dissimilar events, there is obviously some considerable difference in motive between Ron Paul's isolationism/non-interventionism and the inaction of Frederick William and Francis of Austria. Ron Paul's position is justified primarily in terms of principle, while both of the major Germanic powers acted primarily out of pragmatic motives. Then again, this difference may not be quite as pronounced as some would have it. After all, Ron Paul's ethical position is often bolstered by an attempt to appeal to pragmatism (eg "if we intervene in other nations, it creates hostility toward us"), and, though pragmatism may have ruled the day with Frederick William, he too was motivated by enlightenment ethics, that would not sound too alien to those of Ron Paul. So, while there are clearly some differences, there are also quite a few similarities.

On the other hand, motive is not my real interest here. While Napoleon may, or may not, have been aware of the reasons for Prussian and Austrian inactivity (and many of his negotiating approaches suggest he understood neither particularly well), what matters is not why they acted as they did, or even why others imagined they acted in that way, but what their decision to not act, and to make public their intentions not to act, did to their rivals. That is, how their isolationism changed the course of political events.

It is easiest if we look at several isolated events.

First, there was the renewed war with England. After the end of the War of the Second Coalition, there was a short-lived peace across Europe. However, France and England both had any number of unresolved issues. With French intervention and continued military presence in Italian and Germans states where England recognized no French authority as a pretext, Britain refused to surrender Malta, which France in turn used to justify the occupation of several port cities in the Kingdom of Naples. As this led to a renewal of hostilities, the end result was essentially a return to the conditions prior to the Treaty of Amiens, with England recapturing the colonies so recently returned to France, and a renewed blockade of French maritime traffic.

The neutrality of Austria, and even more Prussia, played a significant role in this renewed warfare, one which shows some of the negative consequences of declarations of neutrality. To begin with, because France felt sure Austria was unwilling to renew the conflict, the actions which initiated the entire affair, French intervention in Switzerland and Italy, was made possible because France had little worry that Austria might intervene.

But that was just the beginning. The greater consequences were to be found in the takeover of Hannover and, later, in the creation of the French Army of England, which would prove to have consequences far beyond the immediate conflict. And then, on a wider scale, the Austrian and Prussian neutrality also had a major impact on Russian actions, leading up to the War of the Third Coalition.

Let us start with Hannover. Prior to taking over Hannover, Prussia and France had agreed upon a "Prussian Neutrality Zone" covering extensive tracts of northern and central Germany. Mainly because Prussia controlled a geographically dispersed empire, including a number of small German states far to the west, Frederick William wanted assurances that these states would not be attacked, and that communication between them would not be interrupted by either war or French occupation. Thus, to ensure Prussian neutrality, Napoleon agreed to the creation of this zone, which included, among other states, the whole of Hannover.

Hannover was an unusual case, though. At the time, the Elector of Hannover was also the King of England. It was the contention of the king, though he was at war with France in his capacity as King of England, he could maintain the neutrality of Hannover. And Prussia unofficially endorsed such a position so long as Hannover itself stayed out of the conflict. France, on the other hand, did not recognize such distinctions, and so, as war was renewed with England, Napoleon sought a way to remove the English influence from Hannover. Initially, he offered the state to Prussia, but Frederick William had ethical objections to such an agreement (see what I meant about it not being entirely pragmatic). At which point Napoleon sought his approval for French occupation of Hannover.

Many of his advisors opposed this, asking him either to send Prussia troops to supplement those of Hannover, in order to defend the sanctity of the Prussian neutrality zone, or, at the very least, to simply occupy Hannover and hold it in trust for the elector to prevent the French from doing so. But, as Frederick William, and many of his more influential advisors were dedicated to maintaining neutrality, and using troops exclusively to remove threats to the territory of Prussia itself, he announced to Napoleon that he would not defend Hannover. In fact, he did a bit more and made explicit that his troops would be used in the limited capacity just described, as well as renegotiating a much smaller neutrality zone with France. In short, though his inaction, he demonstrated quite clearly the neutrality zone was meaningless, as there was no will to use force to enforce its guarantee.

This led to Napoleon's second gain from the neutrality of Prussia and Austria, he established a massive army of 200,000 men or more, permanently stationed along the Channel coast, undergoing regularly training with each other, forming them into a well disciplined, well trained, massive force ready to use at a moment's notice*. Of course, the ostensible purpose of this army was to invade England, and it truly was originally intended for that purpose. However, later, as Russia, and later Austria began to appear as potentially hostile to France, it also gave Napoleon a tremendous strategic advantage. Unlike other states, which would require weeks, even months, to mobilize a force close to the size of his, he could mobilize a massive army in days. As we shall see shortly, this played a significant role in Austria's reluctance to enter the Third Coalition. Nor was this all, as it was with this army, or at least primarily with this army, that Napoleon won the War of the Third Coalition.

After England's renewal of hostilities, and Napoleon's activities in Italy and Egypt, Russia came to become actively opposed to France. At first, Russia's primary interest was in establishing a defensive coalition, a group of nations which could use the threat of armed resistance to Napoleonic expansion to ensure Napoleon did not seize any additional lands. However, Prussia and Austria both showed a reluctance to use force, or even threaten to do so, and Russia was, for a time, considering withdrawing entirely from European politics, leaving the Germanic powers to their fates.  However, with the election of the Pitt government, and the appearance of a more active (and to Russia eyes, more reliable) ally, Russia was willing to once more try to establish a continental alliance to restrain or even depose Napoleon**.

The primary problem with any such agreement was that Russia could not reach France without the cooperation of either Austria or Prussia, her armies were simply too far away. At first, the coalition attempted to woo Prussia, but despite a few early optimistic signs, it became clear that Prussia was dedicated to full neutrality***. Thus, the coalition began to work on persuading Austria. And, in the end, they did manage to convince Austria that remaining neutral would do nothing but give Napoleon time to increase his power before eventually crushing them. But, even after they did so, Austria still remained half-hearted in its dedication to the war, with rather dire consequences.

I suppose, if one were truly dedicated to absolute non-intervention, one could point to the War of the Third Coalition as an argument against intervention. After all, Austria did eventually give up her isolationist position, and as a result was roundly defeated. On the other hand, to do so, one must assume that, after all his meddling in northern Italy and the Rhine principalities, that Napoleon was going to just stop, settle for what power he had, and never again meddle in the affairs of Austria, either in Germany of what remained of her Italian holdings, and that seems far fetched. Austria may have brought down the wrath of Napoleon a little early, but I doubt that Austria would have had to wait long for Napoleon to begin stripping her of some remaining states. So, in the end, intervention brought little harm that would not have come about eventually on its own.

On the other hand, because Napoleon knew he had cowed Austria, and both Prussia and Austria feared war from financial and other concerns, he was free to engage in rearranging his Germany, Italian and Swiss holdings as he wished, free to build up a massive army for the invasion of England, free to seize Hannover, and free to plan future meddling in Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, all without fear that he would receive anything worse than a diplomatic protest from the Germanic powers. Even more than that, by providing no opposition, the neutrality of these two states made the smaller powers, such as Bavaria, far more inclined to outright collaboration or alliance. And, by providing no means for Russia to reach any European battlefields, this neutrality meant that, for quite some time, Russia opposition was largely impotent, and Russia was discouraged from forming any meaningful opposition group.

Then again, I am sure that those who truly believe in isolationism will find reasons that Napoleon would have fallen without any opposition, why it was in the end harmful for Russia and Britain to oppose him. Which is inevitably the problem with any sort of speculative history, one can always imagine a hypothetical outcome more supportive of his position. Still, I think it is pretty clear from the events as they took place, that without the neutrality of several larger nations, Napoleon would have had a much more difficult time extending his power as far as he did.


* In this Napoleon was well served by his wars of conquest as well. In part, Austria and Prussia were avoiding war out of financial concerns. Maintaining a massive military machine cost a lot of money, and neither state had the funds to do so. On the other hand, since Napoleon imposed tribute -- both in men and money -- on those lands he "liberated", such as Switzerland, Italy and the low countries, and could also extort considerable sums from other states that feared his wrath, such as Spain, he could maintain such an army with little or no contribution from the French budget.

** There was a lot of wrangling over what was and was not to be done, what proposals must be offered before acting, what the goal of any coalition might be, what the allies owed one another and so on. In short, the Third Coalition was always a bit of a mess. However, little of that is relevant for my point here, so I will ignore it for the moment.

*** The coalition considered using some number of Russian troops to try to force Prussia into action, and also made plans based on the premise that Prussia might be swayed to join the coalition. In the end, neither case came to pass and Prussia remained neutral, despite violations of the neutrality zone by French troops.



Those curious about my earlier arguments about the same topic can find them in "Rational National Defense", "Last Word on Defense", "The Point of Foreign Policy", "Foreign Policy", "Rights Versus Laws", "Knights and Bandits", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 5, 2012)" and "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 8, 2012)".


  1. Very timely, since some pseudo libertarian just tried to post a Ron Paul video at my site. In the video RP castigates Americans for sacrificing freedom for security (i.e. the Patriot Act), but as you demonstrate in your post, a policy of non-intervention or neutrality for the purpose of avoiding conflict is a gamble that often ends with the loss of security or freedom down the road.

  2. I have always argued against the strong non-interventionist position from the same basic position. If a nation is gobbling up all the other states of the globe, do you have to wait until you are the last nation standing before responding?

    Actually, just thought of something of an analogy. By the Ron Paul argument, I should not worry about burglary or murder until it happens to me, if I try to stop crime against another I will just bring trouble upon myself. (Not a perfect analogy, as nation states and fellow citizens differ in many ways, but as an imperfect analogy it does still have some validity.)

    1. I actually think it’s a pretty good analogy, Andrew. The idea that we must wait until we are attacked to act against nations that are openly hostile and potentially dangerous is pretty foolish. We should not be unnecessarily or unjustifiably aggressive towards other nations but on the other hand we shouldn’t pretend that what happens around the world has no impact or potential impact upon us. Somewhere in between lies the right answer and probably no two people will agree on precisely the same strategy where foreign policy is concerned.

    2. The truly odd part is how similar supposedly absolute libertarian Ron Paul is in his arguments to the most far of the far left (and equally odd how many far lefties his foreign policy position has brought to his cause). The idea that "by fighting in Iraq we are recruiters for al Qaida" was usually the province of the far left, but that is basically Ron Paul's "pragmatic" argument against any military intervention. (And, oddly, in recent times, it seems he falls back on that supposedly pragmatic position a lot more than his "principled" "we don't have the right" argument. It is almost as if he is courting lefties, very peculiar.)

    3. Though listening to Ron Paul reminds me of something I once said about Simon and Garfunkle. After listening to Paul Simon's efforts to rip off the native music of every third world nation in the 1990s it managed to convince me of one thing, Garfunkle had all the talent.

      Similarly, as a fan of "The Case for Gold", Ron Paul's recent behavior is convincing me Lewis Lehrman must have written most of that book.

    4. Yeah, RP has some good moments but then there are those times when he sounds like a screechy, hysterical nutcase.

      >>"...Garfunkle had all the talent."

      It appears that Simon had more commercial success as a solo artist but I think it was a case where the real magic only happened when they worked together.

  3. Yes, to be honest, my comment about Simon and Garfunkle is a bit of a joke, and one at Simon's expense. I was just tired of hearing Paul Simon being praised for stealing music from every 3rd world nation he could find. (And remember this was the era when every pop singer from Simon to Sting to Elvis Costello seemed suddenly to have a small flock of black African backup singers for no apparent reason). So I over-praised Garfunkle to show my dislike for Simon. Sadly, hearing Garfunkle perform on his own on PBS, he didn't have much solo presence either. But at least he was performing alone, no coterie of 3rd world musicians.

  4. LOL! Sadly they're probably both liberals but as a team they were incredibly talented.

  5. That was a dire time for pop music, the tail end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, when everything was a revival or cover, and everyone seemed to be competing on how "ethnic" their backup group could be.

    Actually, today isn't much better, now that I think about it. We have fewer plunderings of third world cultural traditions for meaningless backup vocals, but have a surfeit of revivals, remakes and covers.

    Seems most of my adult life has been defined by a pointless, hollow, talentless nostalgia dominating the popular culture. At least my youth during the 1970s and 1980s did produce some originality in music, film, television and the like. People might mock those eras now, but compared to the endless "revivals" since 1990, I would give my left arm to return to the worst of the 1980s.

  6. I admit, I am a bit of a harsh critic of pop culture. Then again, when it is a worthless as it currently is, to be anything less than harsh is dishonest.

    1. When it comes to music I am like a box-wine drinker at a fancy wine tasting. I’m not a connoisseur; I just like what I like, which is a wide assortment of this and that.

    2. Oh I am terribly eclectic when it comes to music. And I am not exactly a musical genius. My son may be, he already plays piano and guitar and now wants to learn flute. He picks it up easily. (I am pretty much tone deaf and can't sing to save my life, though oddly I can write sheet music that sounds ok if someone else plays it. Not great or inspired, but I can make passable music by concentrating on patterns.) Took a little music theory in college, did well in it and enjoyed it, but never took many courses, so most of my knowledge is made up of stuff I picked up. So when i rant about music (or film or most other things) it is the rant of a self-educated opinionated soul. (I like to think my many years spent trying to write fiction make me a bit more erudite about writing, but who knows? I tend to despise a lot of prize winning writing, so maybe I still come across as a philistine to the literati. Or maybe prize committees just pick bad books for various personal, political and theoretical reasons. I choose to believe the latter.)