Since the time of Sun-Tzu, the brilliant Chinese strategist, people have tried to use controlled violence and the threat of violence to win their goals. Sun-Tzu in his famous quotation, “You must win the battle before any soldier steps on to the battlefield” encapsulates this strategy. It is a wonderful idea but it takes enormous delicacy and ability to make it work.
The modern (relatively) exemplar of this strategy was Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Prussia and eventually unified Germany. Clever and timely use of force with a clear set of goals ended in a unified Germany. This new German empire crushed France in the Franco-Prussian War that ended the reign of France’s Napoleon III. His use of force combined with brilliant tactical and long term strategic vision kept Europe at peace for almost 40 years.
He constantly out maneuvered every one else in the European theater. He seemed to have an instinctive feel for the wildness of war and handled it with a deft touch that few individuals ever matched. His loyalty to his king Wilhelm I was absolute. The return feeling was mutual.
This changed when Wilhelm II took over after his father’s death. (His father,Friederick III, was the son of Wilhelm I and was king for only 99 days). Wilhelm II was not as smart as Bismarck and had a shorter strategic vision (like modern stock analysts; about 90 days). He and Bismarck clashed often and finally in 1890 he left office with bad feelings on both sides.
Wilhelm’s new advisors were clearly not as brilliant or careful as Bismarck. We all know the outcome to this; the start of one of the most horrific wars in history. It all came about because of petty jealousy, short term thinking and lack of long term strategic vision. At his last meeting with Wilhelm in 1897 Bismarck told Wilhelm that his policies would lead to the ending of the monarchy and the reduction of Germany in 20 years. I’m sure that Wilhelm scoffed at this. I wonder how he felt 20 years later when he was forced to abdicate.
The problem with violence as a tool of diplomacy is that it takes a master to handle it. Violence is hard to handle. It overcomes reason and the strategic goal becomes remote. Only winning becomes important. It can be worse when you win because you start believing that force is the only tool to establish your will. Without long term strategic perspective it can fall apart in your hand. What I mean by this is with a long term perspective and an end goal in mind (remember, what is your desired outcome?) one understands the balance between the tools you have at your disposal to get to your goal. With a short term perspective time seems to shrink on you. Thus you tend for the tool that will accomplish your goal quickly. Usually this is violence and it can really back fire on your longer term prospects. Remember Germany dominated the First World War until the Americans came into it in 1917. But the long term cost to their population and their political capital was a bankrupt nation and a societal bitterness.
Violence by its nature is non-linear. Thus in an unrestricted field of use it cannot be controlled. Bismarck understood this and worked to limit its field of application. He always was very clear about his end game and almost always reached it. He never relied on generals to set policy and was probably one of the smartest people who lived in 19th century Europe.
This illustrates the requirement of defining your desired outcome. With this clear and always first place in your mind you can choose the path and the combination of tools for accomplishment of the goal. The tool of violence is addictive and tends to stir up the passions. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts passion is a lousy way to implement your plans.