Thinking in (Napoleonic) Times: Historical Warnings for an Era of Great-Power Competition

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It’s July, and war has returned to Europe. Tensions have been high for months after two major powers, engaged in a contest for influence, intervened in a local political crisis. Multiple brokered agreements, breathlessly described in the international press, have collapsed, but at long last the parties appear to be nearing a peaceful resolution. Then the text of a diplomatic telegram, carefully and covertly edited to provoke outrage, leaks publicly. Mass demonstrations erupt as nationalist commentators demand retribution. With protestors gathered outside government offices, the president declares war.

The scenario described is neither the pretext for a futuristic wargame nor the plot of the next political thriller in your Netflix queue. It’s the story of how France and Prussia went to war in 1870 after a brief but intense period of competition, unraveling the concert of Europe, which had maintained a fragile peace among the great powers for over 50 years.



Over the last several years, great-power competition has become a major topic of discussion, prompting policymakers, scholars, and pundits alike to look to the past for lessons to explain the emerging contest between the United States and China. Most have turned to the Cold War, the most recent (and for an older generation of analysts, personally familiar) example of great-power rivalry. But while this history can be instructive, an over-reliance on a single analogy carries its own risks. Just as an examination of the past can deepen our understanding of human and state behavior, too narrow a focus on a dominant metaphor can circumscribe our thinking and trap decision-makers in dangerous patterns.

Considering how a variety of historical powers have faced rising challengers, including those that were eclipsed by their rival or that suffered major military defeats, can aid our understanding of the challenges ahead. Widening our analogical arsenal can refine our understanding of contemporary dynamics and reveal common errors to be avoided. Just as alternative futures analyses allow us to think through the multiple ways in which a situation could unfold, consideration of a diverse set of historical metaphors — some that appear on the surface very similar to the present, and others that strain comparison — encourages us to think through how related events have transpired. Such a discussion of a broader and more distant range of analogies and metaphors can help to test common assumptions and guard against the complacency that accompanies established narratives.

Take, for instance, the history of France’s ill-fated competition with Prussia. If popular analogies to the Cold War suggest that the United States can defeat a rival without resorting to war, Napoleon III’s stumbling response to Prussia’s rise is a reminder of the possibility of a more worrying, but still plausible, alternative future — one in which America’s efforts to contain China and maintain its relative position end in a disastrous conflict rather than a peaceful triumph. The French experience in competing with Prussia can serve as a warning, pointing out enduring challenges that the United States can prepare for and illuminating missteps that the country’s leadership still can avoid.

A Brief History of a Doomed Contest 

For most of the nineteenth century, France reigned as the dominant military power in continental Europe. The Congress of Vienna, convened in the aftermath of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo, had reduced its territory and strengthened its neighbors, but the legend of the French conquest of Europe continued to inspire awe across the continent. While Prussia quarreled with the other Germanic states, France expanded its colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia while enjoying a decades-long economic expansion. Wars against Russia in Crimea and against Austria in Italy provided ample evidence of French forces’ continued skill and ingenuity, reinforcing the legend of French power.

Despite Prussia’s growing economic and military power, French leaders initially viewed their eastern neighbor as a minor menace that could be contained. Then in 1866, Prussian forces routed Austria in a stunning Seven Weeks’ War that announced the kingdom’s arrival as a major actor in European affairs. The possibility of a unified Germany loomed — and with it an attendant decline in French influence. “Jealousy on the one side, suspicion on the other; these became the fixed rule on the frontier of the Rhine,” summarized the historian A. J. P. Taylor.

As tensions increased, France embarked on a diplomatic campaign to highlight the Prussian threat to European stability. Rather than galvanize a coalition against its rival, France’s provocative stance instead alienated potential allies. Austria-Hungary, which was preoccupied with its own competition against Russia, feared being dragged into war with Prussia. Neither did Napoleon III’s belligerent language resonate in Italy, Britain, and Russia, where statesmen wondered whether French, not Prussian, actions were most likely to upset the continental balance. Although the Prussian army was larger, most Europeans still believed in the late 1860s that France could win a war quickly, particularly if it attacked first. In this context, French warnings about the Prussian threat were dismissed as either exaggeration or further evidence of Napoleonic revanchism.

French military reforms produced similarly mixed results. Structural factors like Prussia’s growing population and industrial capacity worked against France, but poor leadership played a role too. Napoleon III struggled to maintain control of a fractious country where both liberals and conservatives agreed only on the emperor’s faults. His efforts to redress flaws in the French army’s organization, training, and supply encountered fierce resistance from a coalition of commercial, agrarian, and industrial elites that, angered by the country’s recent misadventure in Mexico, instead demanded substantial decreases in military expenditures. Napoleon III’s desire for self-preservation and fears that a stronger army might challenge his rule made him an easy target and an ineffective advocate. The result was a series of half-steps rather than the holistic reforms required to modernize and professionalize the French forces.

Then there was the question of how to best invest the army’s resources. French military intellectuals recognized that the industrial revolution was transforming military science, but the tactical and strategic effects of new technologies like the railway, electric telegraph, and breech-loading rifle remained open questions. While Prussian strategists cast a wide net, the French high command placed its faith in a comparatively narrow set of technological innovations like the breech-loading chassepot rifle and mitrailleuse machine gun, which they argued would allow the army to overwhelm the more numerous German forces, and discounted evidence of improvements in Prussian artillery and doctrine. The result was an outsized confidence in France’s advantage that concealed lingering vulnerabilities.

This technological gamble was accompanied by widespread institutional resistance to modernization and reform. After decades of colonial wars, France needed to transform an army that was raised and trained to combat revolutionary insurgents into a professional standing force capable of defeating a sophisticated peer. But French field and general officers resisted pressure to devolve authority to non-commissioned officers, as rifled warfare required, and looked down upon the Prussian system of compulsory service, which allowed it to raise the largest frontline army relative to population of its time. While their competitor emphasized military sciences, the French clung to romantic notions of “courage, dash, and coup d’œeil,” as one military historian later noted, presuming practices suited for expeditionary warfare could work over longer and more intense campaigns as well. Structural inadequacies in French planning, logistics, supply, and training therefore went unaddressed.

Napoleon III’s “Second Empire had always lived on illusion; and it now committed suicide in the illusion that it could somehow destroy Prussia without serious effort,” observed another historian nearly a century later. In spite of continued technological, organizational, and political weaknesses, the French leadership believed that it was in the stronger position and could control the pace of events. Yet Prussia was also eager for a war that would unite the Germanic states — and concluded that it would be better to fight sooner, when Paris was isolated, rather than later, when French reforms might have gained traction.

War, when it arrived, unfolded on Prussian terms. Sensing an opportunity, Prussian statesmen fanned a waning crisis over the Spanish throne and sparked a French declaration of war against Prussia in July 1870. Austria-Hungary, Italy, and other European states refused to lend support, accusing Paris of over-reacting to a minor provocation, while the southern German states, abandoning their internecine quarrels, formed a united front against the foreign aggressor. Forced to fight alone after a delayed and disorganized mobilization, France discovered that Prussian soldiers, leveraging railroads and the telegraph, could coordinate and mobilize quicker and could fire further, faster, and with greater accuracy thanks to overlooked improvements in metallurgy, ballistics, and precision engineering. By the end of August, Prussia had defeated the French forces and captured the emperor. A spontaneous insurgency prolonged the war for another five months, but in the end Paris, starving after a long siege, finally surrendered.

In its desire to punish a competitor, France had instead accelerated its own decline. In a January 1871 ceremony held at Versailles, King Wilhelm I proclaimed the creation of a unified German empire under Prussian domination. The war altered the map of western Europe, handicapped the French industrial base, and, by encouraging German unification under Prussian domination, strengthened a rival that would threaten France’s eastern borders for another 75 years.

Lessons from France’s Missteps 

The limitations of a direct comparison between the challenges that Paris saw in 1866 and those that Washington faces today are obvious. America’s sophisticated military and intelligence apparatus are a far cry from the corrupt, nepotistic, and undisciplined institutions responsible for French planning in the 1860s. The presence of nuclear weapons on both sides encourages caution and restraint, perhaps lowering the odds of the type of reckless decision-making that characterized the French declaration of war. Similarly, the geographic distance between the United States and China, their emphasis on the maritime domain, and the global scale of their ambitions lend a different shade to the contemporary rivalry.

Yet these differences are not reason to disregard this history entirely. The world today is different to the one that Napoleon III experienced 150 years ago, but the challenges he faced — how to enact reform, build coalitions, and modernize institutions — are recurring dilemmas. His blunders are instructive because they offer a reminder of common errors that decision-makers have made throughout history, and force us to reflect anew on what is required to avoid repeating them.

First, this history offers a stark reminder that effective national security reforms require stability at home. Despite the recent increase in political polarization, President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a political system that is relatively in better shape than France’s Second Republic. Maintaining the modernization programs required to sustain America’s qualitative edge will require the administration and Congress to work together to react to a changing environment and to allocate the funds for a coherent and consistent strategy.

Second, investing in emerging technologies is only part of the modernization equation. The French army’s cultural attachment to preexisting notions of expeditionary warfare contributed to an institutional inertia that stymied adaptation and slowed improvements. Today, the U.S. military appears more eager to distance itself from the unsatisfying counter-insurgency campaigns and limited interventions that defined the early 2000s. Still, as American military leaders seek to reorient, resize, and reshape the force for an era of great-power competition, they would be wise to consider how this recent experience has shaped its institutional cultures and to preemptively identify areas of potential friction, resistance, or miscommunication.

Similarly, determining which technologies to invest in should be an iterative process. In hindsight, it is clear that France failed to adapt to the military, technological, and social transformations that swept across Europe during the nineteenth century. Yet French strategists’ pride in the chassepot rifle was not entirely misplaced — in subsequent battles, it would out-perform the Prussian needle gun as expected. The problem was that this narrow improvement was not enough to overcome Prussian advances in artillery, transportation, and other areas — areas that French military intellectuals, focused on the small-arms race, were not monitoring closely. Multiple factors shaped French acquisition decisions, but the mistake points to a larger, uncomfortable truth: the difficulty of predicting the course of systematic transformations as they are unfolding. The speed and scale of the change introduced reasonable uncertainty about the tactical and strategic consequences of emerging technologies, social and economic orders, and ideologies — and provided ample evidence for conflicting forecasts. Exploiting technological advances will require the United States to place its chips across the table, but with flat or declining defense budgets on the horizon it cannot afford to double-down on every bet. As the Department of Defense contemplates ways to improve agility by accelerating its acquisitions process, it might also consider ways to identify missteps early, cut its losses, and redistribute resources as needed.

Fourth, France’s disorganized mobilization and deployment reinforces the importance of ongoing U.S. efforts to prioritize investments in moving forces to and within key theaters. While the Prussian military annually revised its preparations to move armies into battle to account for changes in the army’s size and the railway system, the French lacked a detailed plan to mobilize, equip, and transport the reservists upon which it relied. The United States is likely to be better prepared but the loss of the homeland as a sanctuary and growing concerns about the vulnerability of its installations abroad introduce new challenges. According to a recent RAND report, the country “has entered a new phase of global conflict in which adversaries might seek to delay or disrupt Army installations’ ability to power project, mobilize forces, and conduct other wartime missions.” The French experience suggests that new efforts to address these vulnerabilities and make infrastructure improvements in collaboration with allies abroad are well-placed.

Finally, France’s experience in 1870 also underscores the risk that other nations may not share the same perception of a rival — and illustrates how a great power’s efforts to compete can inadvertently alienate potential partners. As the United States works to expand its partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, it should take seriously the possibility that it could be seen as the provocateur, which could weaken its appeal to potential partners, delegitimize justified warnings, or contribute to misunderstandings.

It is too soon to say whether America’s efforts to manage China’s rise will hew closer to its triumph over the Soviet Union, France’s disastrous confrontation with Prussia, or other as yet unexplored analogies. It is tempting to think that the country, which has defied predictions of decline in the past, will chart a smarter course than its predecessors. Yet in view of the potential risks, it is important to avoid overlearning from past successes and to think carefully about uncomfortable possibilities. The United States should plan for scenarios in which modernizing reforms do not produce the desired effects, adversaries control the pace of events, partner support fails to materialize, and even, in a worst-case scenario, where it could lose the resulting fight.



Alexandra Evans is an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The organization’s Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy supported the writing of this commentary.

Image: Wikicommons (Painting by Wilhelm Camphausen)