Gwynne Dyer: The Battle of Waterloo and the fall of a superpower

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      Thursday (June 18) is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and in the course of the day you are almost bound to hear or read somebody claiming that it “changed history”. It was a very big battle, after all, and it would be a century before Europe saw war on that scale again.

      But did the events of June 18, 1815 “change history”? Probably not.

      The really decisive battle was fought a year and a half before that near Leipzig in Germany: the “Battle of the Nations”. Three times more men were involved in that battle than fought at Waterloo. There were many more battles before the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian armies entered Paris and Napoleon finally abdicated as Emperor of the French in the spring of 1814, but he never won another battle.

      Napoleon was given a mini-kingdom on the island of Elba, off the Italian coast, to keep himself busy. The victors began to put Europe back together after 20 years of almost unbroken war, around three million combat deaths, and a comparable number of civilian casualties.

      And after only 10 months, Napoleon escaped from Elba and went back to France for another try.

      But it was really already over. The British (the paymasters of the coalition), the Austrians, the Prussians, and the Russians were all still mobilised, and their armies started closing in on France. In the Hundred Days, Napoleon managed to lure many men who had fought for him in past wars back into his new army, but it was pure nostalgia.

      He moved fast, hoping to defeat the British army in what is now Belgium before the other allies arrived to reinforce it, and he almost succeeded. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, said that the battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” In the end, late in the afternoon, the Prussian (German) army showed up and turned the tide.

      But if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo, he would have been defeated a little later.

      “God is on the side of the heaviest battalions,” said Voltaire, and Napoleon agreed, just substituting “the best artillery” to demonstrate that his military knowledge was fully up to date. But his political knowledge was woefully deficient: God is actually on the side of the biggest economies, especially if they know how to turn their wealth into military power.

      Britain had already overtaken France as Europe’s biggest economy (and in those days, that meant the world’s biggest economy). The industrial revolution in Britain was already into its second generation, while France had barely entered the first. Even in sheer numbers of people, a low birth rate meant that France would fall behind Russia, then behind Germany, and eventually even behind Britain in population.

      So even if Napoleon could go on winning battles, he couldn’t win the war. In the end he couldn’t even win the battles. He was running out of soldiers, and his enemies had spent a generation at war learning (very expensively) to fight battles just as well as he did. 

      Waterloo only confirmed what everybody with eyes could see already: France was finished as Europe’s superpower.

      Then Britain got a century at the top (and after 500 years of Anglo-French wars, it never had to fight France again). The United States is now about 75 years into its term as the reigning superpower—and you are probably assuming that I am now going to speculate who gets the crown next. Wrong on two counts.

      First of all, it’s a thorny crown, and nobody in their right mind would want it. The relevant statistic (which hides in plain sight) is that the more powerful a country is, the more wars it fights and the more people it loses. More power doesn’t give you greater security; it just gets you into more trouble.

      Secondly, about half the time there is no undisputed top dog. That was the situation for the century 1600-1700, when Spain was in visible decline but France was not yet ready to assume the mantle of sole superpower. It was equally true in 1945-1990, when nuclear weapons (the great equaliser) meant that the United States and the Soviet Union were co-equal superpowers even though the U.S. economy was far bigger than the Soviet one.

      And now, with the American superpower allegedly in decline, there is obsessive speculation about when China will step in and take over the role—or might it turn out to be India instead? As though it were still the early 19th century, when France was going down and Britain was taking over. It isn’t.

      Military power doesn’t deliver the goods any more. The United States has lost almost every war and mini-war it has fought in the past 50 years (except Grenada and Panama), even though it accounts for around half of the planet’s spending on defence. In the present global strategic environment, decisive victories are about as rare as unicorns.

      This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing. Victory is a much over-rated concept.



      Pat Crowe

      Jun 15, 2015 at 10:52am

      I have come to believe humans are creatures of conflict.
      Like the religious gene imparted to many of us this, war/kill/take, DNA seems to have been far too common in the male aspect of our species right from the get go. Have we evolved that much from our warring pre history ancestors? Shouldn't we have with all of this enlightened evolution by now?
      All bow down and pray to the thermonuclear weapon. Our saviour. Our God!
      Remember now, God likes a good clean fight! Don't make him come down here.


      Jun 15, 2015 at 12:39pm

      "Have we evolved that much from our warring pre history ancestors?"

      Our rate of violent death has gone down by many order of magnitude over the course of civilization. However our ability to get news about violent death from away has been rising at about the same rate.


      Jun 15, 2015 at 1:28pm

      DYER: "It was equally true in 1945-1990, when nuclear weapons meant that the US and the USSR were co-equal superpowers even though the U.S. economy was far bigger."

      Even then, the American nuclear arsenal dwarfed the USSR, for half that period.

      DYER: " now, with the American superpower in decline, there is obsessive speculation about when China will step in and take over the role..."

      Eric Margolis writes about The China Dream,’ by Professor General Liu Mingfu, a leading Chinese military thinker and commentator who speaks with the voice of China’s military. The “China Dream” thesis has been actively taken up by China’s leadership. According to Prof. General Liu, the days of America’s world domination, or hegemony, as he terms it, are just about over:

      "By 2030, China will be the world’s largest economy in absolute terms (today it rivals the US in purchasing power parity), regaining the geopolitical primacy it formerly enjoyed until the 1500’s when it was the world’s leading economic power.

      The US must find a way to accommodate China’s growing power, a point also made for many years by this writer. A policy of containment is not likely to work unless India becomes a principal participant.

      America, according to the undiplomatic Liu, is a paranoid giant, afraid of the outside world and addicted to the need for enemies abroad. “Americans feel lost without any enemy.” Washington’s occupation and despoliation of so many countries, notably in the Muslim world, generates endless enemies and a war psychosis. America, he claims, is a half-democracy: democratic at home but promoting dictatorships abroad.

      Liu depicts the 1950 Korean War as a major victory for China because it showed that an Asian nation could fight off the world’s greatest military power. He claims that the US did not invade North Vietnam out of fear of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army after its bloody experience in Korea.

      Will Washington back off and allow China to be the master of Asia? It seems highly doubtful. But unless some kind of modus vivendi is found, a military confrontation is likely to follow, one that the US might very well loose. China would be fighting virtually at home or just off its coast. The US, by contrast, would fight thousands of miles across the Pacific from its distant bases. "


      Jun 15, 2015 at 2:08pm

      Gwynne's philosophical musings on the significance of the Battle of Waterloo seem to me rather blase'. It's a pity Napoleon lost this battle, by tactical miscalculations, against the reactionary powers of Europe. The Congress of Vienna, presided over by aristocrats, reinstated the old decadent monarchies of Europe and set the reformist Republican movement back a hundred years until the end of the first world war. Under Republican France we may have had a European Union like today or like the empire of Charlemagne. Instead they got 150 years of national rivalry and strife. All empires die, it's only a matter of time; they even have some beneficial effects while they last.
      The Realist School of International conflict would take exception to Gwynne's thesis. "More power doesn’t give you greater security; it just gets you into more trouble." The Realist school claims in an anarchic international order the best way to remain safe is to be the biggest and strongest militarily. It's worked for the Americans so far, they have called the shots in the post war age and have profited handsomely in the bargain. They are now busy trying to contain and weaken Russia and China as they rise to challenge American hegemony. In the real world the position of "top dog" is preferable but you often have to fight for it and afterward, fight just to maintain your spot. It's not my vision of an ideal world but we can still try for a better one.


      Jun 15, 2015 at 9:09pm

      @ doconnor
      "Our rate of violent death has gone down by many order of magnitude over the course of civilization. However our ability to get news about violent death from away has been rising at about the same rate."

      Perhaps this isn't a coincidence.

      I remember a road safety advocate saying that people generally drive in ways that maintain a particular perceived level of risk. This means that attempts to make the driving environment safer (for example by widening road lanes) result in drivers feeling more secure, to which they respond by increasing driving speeds until they have reached their desired level of perceived risk again.

      Perhaps there is a similar mechanism at work here, and there's a level of international conflict that we feel comfortable with. More information about the violence being done would result in a higher perceived level of conflict which might therefore lead to a reduced amount of support for aggression at the state level. Conversely, less coverage of the grisly results of military action might increase support for 'robust' foreign policy actions.

      Just an idea, but an eminently testable one.

      NOT in History books.....

      Jun 16, 2015 at 10:23am

      The World changer was not Waterloo itself.....but what came out of it- the inside (he got it faster) information NathanielRothschild received on Napoleon's defeat- he dumped (through proxies and his own direct Traders) British Treasuries fooling everyone into thinking England everyone else followed suit- with Treasuries value headed for close to zero......than just before the market closed- Rothschild snapped up every British Treasury Bond he could- and gained control of England through its Banking.

      The World has never been the same since- Banksters Rule- what we have in the world now- is what happens when these people DO have control.


      Jun 16, 2015 at 5:33pm

      If war is an extension of politics, which is an extension of economics -- maybe we should lead with the economics.

      In the olde days superpowers acquired colonies by military occupation, we should try luring failed states into willing colonization instead.


      Ernest Payne.

      Jun 26, 2015 at 7:31am

      True. But what would wargamers and re-enactors do without the battle. BTW the best book on the subject (that I have read) is by the author of the Sharpe stories. As for the modern american army? You can't convince americans that their military is that incompetent.

      peter aardvark

      Aug 18, 2015 at 4:13pm

      one of the Sharpe episodes, was in fact almost exactly the fight for the Hougomont farm, a key fight in the battle of Waterloo.