For the United States to avoid the fate of France at Sedan, the Trump administration needs clear goals, disciplined policy implementation, an appreciation of US alliances and a much deeper investment in diplomacy.

By David B. Shear, Senior Advisor, McLarty Associates and former US Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs and Alex Pascal, Director, Macro Advisory Partners and former Senior Director at the National Security Council

Exhausted, disoriented and humiliated by his defeat and capture, French Emperor Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussians at Sedan, in northeast France, on 2 September 1870. General Helmuth von Moltke had surrounded the emperor and his forces after a two-month campaign which saw the hapless French driven back from their initial foray across the Rhine in the face of a well-planned and executed Teutonic onslaught. On his deathbed just two years later, the emperor uttered his dying words: ‘We weren’t cowards at Sedan, were we?’

Napoleon III’s defeat counts as one of modern history’s great national catastrophes. The French had been considered Europe’s premier land power through the 1860s, but by 1870 the rising Germans were able to capture Napoleon III, besiege Paris, strip France of Alsace-Lorraine, impose a five-billion-franc indemnity and crown William I emperor of Germany at Versailles. The defeat had profound domestic political consequences for the French: harsh German peace terms fomented an insurrection that culminated in the bloody Paris Commune. Most importantly for Europe, chancellor Otto von Bismarck, by means of this victory, unified Germany, turning his new empire into the most powerful nation on the continent.

Henry Kissinger, in his book Diplomacy, attributes the French loss to a failure of statecraft. The so-called Sphinx of the Tuileries refused to recognise the major challenge to French interests posed by a unified Germany until it was too late. Instead, his dynastic concerns drove the emperor to attempt the restoration of French honour by overthrowing the Concert of Europe, the international arrangement forced on Paris in the wake of Napoleon I’s defeat. With every crisis from the 1850s to the 1860s the emperor called in vain for an international conference that would seal the end of the Concert, and redraw the European map on the basis of national self-determination and French territorial interests.

Italy’s unifier Count Camillo Cavour, who knew Napoleon III well, rooted the emperor’s failure in his character. Describing Napoleon to an English friend, Cavour said:

He has no definite policy … He has a number of political ideas floating in his mind, none of them matured. They would seem to be convictions, founded on instinct. He will not steadily pursue any single idea if a serious obstacle presents itself, but will give way, and take up another … The only principle – if principle it can be called – which connects together these various ideas, is the establishment of his dynasty, and the conviction that the best way to secure it is by feeding the national vanity of the French people.

Does this sound like anyone we know? Napoleon III’s experience as a statesman can inform us of the consequences of getting statecraft and strategy wrong, and the Trump administration should take heed. The White House recently released the National Security Strategy (NSS) and its companion National Defense Strategy. These long-awaited documents fill a gap in White House thinking, given the deficit in foreign and defense policy through which the administration suffered its first year in office.

The NSS has its flaws, chief of which is the stark contrast between the strategy’s substance and administration pronouncements. It nevertheless takes a welcome step in making great power politics – specifically competition with Russia and China – the organising principle of US foreign policy. This clarity is welcome, but as all historians and practitioners know, national strategy is not self-implementing. Effective implementation will require sound statecraft, attention to strategy, an emphasis on diplomacy and unity of effort.

In this regard, what lessons can President Trump learn from Napoleon III’s failures?

1. National catastrophe can happen
Napoleon III appears to have been unable to judge the long-range consequences of his acts. President Trump needs to do better. As American power relative to China declines, for example, the United States’ margin of error shrinks, and catastrophe becomes possible. Disaster could befall America on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait or in the East or South China seas. Avoiding disaster while pursuing US goals aggressively requires the fine calculation of risks. This is a skill that experienced diplomats possess in abundance but which the Trump administration seems to discount. The president needs sound civilian advice to balance the counsel he is getting from a National Security Council staff packed with military personnel. State Department assistant secretaries and foreign-service officers can provide it.

2. A successful foreign policy requires clear objectives and disciplined implementation
Napoleon III wasted his energy on high-visibility adventures around Europe’s periphery, designed to boost his domestic popularity: in the Crimea (1854–56), Italy (1859) and Poland (1864), while alienating potential allies in a likely future showdown with the Germans. ‘Actions geared toward the mood of the moment and unrelated to any overall strategy cannot be sustained indefinitely’, wrote Kissinger. This is a lesson Napoleon III learned too late. The new NSS, though flawed, sets clear priorities, and the president will need to adhere to them.

3. Leadership and allies are essential
Going it alone increases risk in an increasingly multipolar world. Napoleon III estranged Russia by supporting Polish insurrectionaries, Austria by remaining neutral in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and England with his designs on Belgian territory. Clumsy statecraft like this allowed Bismarck to isolate the French diplomatically – so, in July 1870, when the canny Prussian chancellor duped Napoleon III into declaring war, the French had nowhere to turn. The result was Sedan. The United States wields incomparable economic and military power, but it cannot do it alone. The US has the greatest network of allies in world history. But American allies and partners view its deepening partisanship, political gridlock, government shutdowns, obsession with scandal and trade protectionism with growing concern. And they wonder how, over the long term, the United States can continue to be any kind of global leader under such domestic political constraints. Why should allies follow if America does not lead?

4. No amount of military force can compensate for poor diplomacy
Napoleon’s surrender at Sedan, from which France in many respects has never recovered, was years in the making. While the military defeat took only a few months, Napoleon had lost well before the first shot was fired, having been outmaneuvered by Bismarck for years. He was outmaneuvered with strategy and diplomacy. The NSS devotes less than three out of 55 pages to the subjects of diplomacy and statecraft. While we can thank the administration for giving lip service to the importance of diplomacy, its real-world contempt for the Department of State and its proposed 30% cuts to State’s budget belie an approach to statecraft altogether different from that described in the new strategy. If President Trump is going to compete successfully with his Chinese and Russian counterparts, he will need strategy and diplomacy informed by tact and intelligence as much as he will need military hardware.

‘Frivolity is a costly indulgence for a statesman’, according to Kissinger, ‘and its price must eventually be paid’. For Trump to avoid paying that price will take more than dark appeals to his political base, bombastic rhetoric and the naked pursuit of American self-interest. It will require clear goals, disciplined policy implementation, an appreciation of US alliances and a much deeper investment in diplomacy. As France’s collapse under Napoleon III and Germany’s associated rise to pre-eminence show, the stakes could not be higher.

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