Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers

The noise and drama surrounding Putin, Russia and the Ukraine obscure crucial foreign policy principles. In “Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers”, Robert Merry takes a closer look at what they might be.

First, avoid promiscuous jingoism of the kind that Salisbury despised—and that suffuses so much American commentary and political discourse today. This kind of talk, particularly coming from national leaders, ultimately undermines any nation’s global authority.

Once embarked upon, this pernicious habit is hard to turn off. Combative political and media constituencies thrive on such melodrama and prudent voices find it ever more difficult to be heard, much less listened to.

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests. A corollary principle is to avoid moralistic posturing, which only breeds national hypocrisy and leads inevitably to geopolitical overextension.

As Merry points out, “any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue.” To do otherwise is to court eventual exhaustion and ridicule. Moralistic posturing is really only a subset of the sort of “promiscuous jingoism” covered in the first point.

Third, never lose sight of Machiavelli’s balance-of-interests concept. When a global power tampers with another major country’s traditional sphere of influence, the result will be a breakdown in the ability of those two countries to deal with each other effectively.

It’s here, of course, where the US and Europe have miscalculated badly. Or, perhaps, not really calculated at all. The Ukraine is a vital strategic interest for Russia, whether we like it or not, and any actions (or indeed comments) should take that reality into account.

Fourth, never lose sight of the fundamental reality that stability is derived through a balance of power, not through hegemony. The former can be maintained through creative diplomacy backed up through a strong military presence; the latter is inherently unstable because it angers and energizes the Lilliputians.

Self-evident, one would have thought, but that ignores the temptations of power. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, America was incomparably more powerful than any potential rival and, perhaps more importantly, saw itself as morally superior, fit to command and control a world in desperate need of both its power and beneficence.

There was much truth in all this; regrettably, whatever sense of prudence and objectivity remained in those halcyon years was swept away by 9/11. Now all of us have to live with the consequences.


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