The American Interest

The President’s Painted Corner

A prudent power will always seek to keep open as many options as possible in its foreign-policy making.  An increasingly rigid system of alliances, coupled with mobilization blueprints and railway timetables, reduced the European powers’ scope for maneuver in the summer of 1914 and contributed to the ensuing catastrophe.  The United States, by contrast, entered the war in 1917 because Woodrow Wilson wanted to do so (rightly or wrongly), not because he had to do so.

A mature power will never allow its promises to foreigners to entail risks of conflict that exceed the benefits of discretion.  Bismarck would have been appalled at the manner in which his inept successors had committed Wilhelmine Germany to upholding and defending the moribund Habsburg Empire, come what may.  The end result was the death of both; but, without that carte blanche from Berlin, Austria could have behaved more responsibly in July 1914, possibly saving Europe from self-destruction.

A sensible power will not allow its weak-er overseas protégés to call the shots.  Algérie Française was not a colony but an integral part of metropolitan France inhabited by millions of non-Arab French citizens who believed that they were owed open-ended protection.  De Gaulle told the pieds-noirs that he “understood” them; then, he promptly cut Algeria off when he decided that...

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