Since the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, European history has been dominated by two themes: the centrality of Germany and the primacy of foreign policy. This is the argument of Brendan Simms’ new book, Europe: the struggle for supremacy 1453 to the present. Simms is a professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University and his decidedly European focus has allowed him to craft a detailed yet expansive account in the style of Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. One afternoon we sat down at Penguin’s offices on the Strand to discuss these issues, as well as their relevance to the current European Union debate.
‘Grand strategy’ is a term associated with your work—it features in Three Victories and a Defeat, for instance. And Europe returns to this theme constantly. How did you become interested in this concept?
I started out as a historian of Germany and my first book was on Prussia facing the Napoleonic challenge in the late 18th and early 19th century. And so I became interested in Prussian grand strategy and the way in which a continental European state in the thick of things had to balance threats from west and east, surrounded on all sides by predators. How do they conceive their role? What sorts of options are open to them? Is there room for manoeuvre? I then developed my thinking on grand strategy in my book on British foreign policy in the 18th century with Three Victories and a Defeat, demonstrating just how much 18th century Britain was involved in and preoccupied with continental Europe at a time when we tend otherwise to think of things in more global terms. So my conception of grand strategy has been fairly continentally focused on Europe and that sets it apart from other more global approaches.
It also seems to set your work apart from historians who aren’t as focused on foreign policy. Eugene Weber, for instance, is more concerned with language and folklore. Does your approach overlook these cultural elements?
The argument in the book is that in most cases, grand strategy and foreign political concerns proceed or drive these other developments. So to take the example of Eugene Weber, as you mentioned, the book that would spring to mind is Turning Peasants into Frenchmen, is it not one of his main contentions that what turns peasants into Frenchmen is the experiences in the army and so on? This is very much what I’m talking about—the development of identity is in a context of enemies, of the other, and that’s quite a common theme in the literature and that’s not an invention of mine. In Weber’s case obviously in the 19th century increasingly the enemy is Germany.
So then how much do you think these grand strategies are constructed in hindsight?
There’s a debate about the very term ‘grand strategy’ and Nick Roger, the preeminent historian of the Royal Navy, shows quite persuasively that the term ‘grand strategy’ is actually quite new in coinage, so I’m aware of that. However, I think it’s true to say that what is by any other word ‘grand strategy’ is in the story from the beginning. And you see this usually in a debate about priorities. So if you’re the Hapsburgs for instance in the 16th and 17th century with a huge perimeter line to defend, is your main enemy the Turks? Is your main enemy the French? Should you be paying more attention to what’s happening in the Holy Roman Empire than what’s happening in the Mediterranean? So in all these cases it’s about options. And I think what’s interesting is to see how these options were explored in the past and just how many of them, and this is again the argument of the book, how many of them were driven by preoccupation with Germany. Sort of an organizing principle, not exclusively of course — but as the focal point.
In the late nineteenth century, you record Bismarck’s desire for strong executive power in order to guarantee external security. However, speaking of Britain, you write that, “Lord Randolph Churchill regretted that ‘capricious’ public and parliamentary opinion made a consistent grand strategy impossible.” Is this a uniquely British problem?
I think it’s a tension that runs through all grand strategies and all collective international efforts of states — this balance between consultation and decision. And I think that Randolph Churchill was actually being too pessimistic and of course he’s speaking from a conservative viewpoint here. The argument for absolutism in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the argument for dictatorship in the modern period, are very much driven by the supposed greater efficiency of monarchical or dictatorial systems in the international sphere. And that is true up to a point — that there are certain things these states can do more quickly, more effectively. But I think the argument the book makes, and it’s a very Whiggish argument, is that in the end, the consultative systems, generally speaking, are stronger. Not invariably because the historical record is a bit ambiguous. So if you look for example at the 18th century, and I outline this in the book, the outcome is open. You’ve got consultative systems which are very strong, a fiscal military state, real power, as in Britain and later the US. But you’ve also got consultative systems in Poland, Venice, Sweden, which are actually on the way out.
The book finishes with a series of questions about the future of Europe. For instance, will Britain “embrace the European destiny which Englishmen have pursued since Henry VIII, Marlborough and Castlereagh if not earlier?” Within the historical perspective of this book, what is Britain’s European destiny?
I’m uncertain about this and the book reflects that uncertainty because on the one hand, and here I’m with the Europhile end of the argument, I think that the history of England has been profoundly influenced by the history of the continent to a much greater extent than any other part of the world. And I realize that’s a controversial statement but I think that’s true. And therefore it’s neither possible nor desirable for Great Britain or England if it comes to that, simply to cut itself off from the continent and to strike out on some kind of global, commercial, blue water identity. And these two postures are not actually incompatible; one of my main arguments is that they run together in many ways. So to that extent I’m on the Europhile side of the argument. However, I also think that the Eurozone needs to find the common political structure to create a common single Eurozone state. Britain obviously will not be part of that, though it should support the process from the outside.
Will this cause the Eurozone to more closely resemble the Holy Roman Empire — a union that is not as powerful as it appears?
The Holy Roman Empire was a structure for the diffusion of power similar to the way that the European Union is in a sense for the diffusion of power, of German power in particular. What Europe has failed to achieve is the Anglo-American style of union which is a union for the concentration and the mobilization of power and that’s what’s missing today. And what’s particularly interesting is that in North America in the late 18th century during the federalist debate on the constitution, the Holy Roman Empire is seen as the model of what one doesn’t want to be. There are very striking passages in the book where I cite Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton. Because they sit down in the late 1780s and they look, they’re Europeans after all, they look at how this question of a political structure has been solved in the past? The Italian, Dutch, Polish, and German answers to this question, which I discuss in the book, are not viable. There is one example of an effective union that the Americans respond to: the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707.
Throughout your book, it seemed that Britain was quite proactive in engaging with Europe because of the need for the Low Countries barrier to protect from invasion. Has the relative increase of British military power allowed Britain to distance itself from Europe in a way that is historically exceptional?
Yes, I think the winding down of the British presence in Germany is historically sort of a new development given the long history beginning in the 17th century and the dispatch of the first British forces even in a freelance way in support of the protestant cause in Germany. I think that what it reflects in terms of current British strategic vulnerabilities, is that there is no threat from across the channel for the first time in many hundreds of years. The end of the cold war brings that about. But it also reflects a long standing view in Britain that in order to deal with problems facing Britain it was necessary to have a coherent presence in central Europe, so for example in the 18th century a view was taken that you needed a strong Holy Roman Emperor to keep the French in check. And I think likewise it would be in Britain’s interest to have a strong Eurozone state able to not only sort out its own problems, which are quite considerable, but also to serve as a partner for things that need to be done globally. We’ve been very hampered in terms of the global western posture because Europe hasn’t pulled its weight. And I think the creation of a single Eurozone state, for all the potential dangers in it, the likely increase in European influence globally will more than make up for the downside.
Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy is published by Allen Lane (£30.00).