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Waterloo: The Fall of a Superpower

Thursday 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 18 June 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 twenty years of almost unbroken war, around 3 million combat deaths, and a comparable number of civilian casualties. And after only ten 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 US 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 fifty 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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“But…nostalgia”; and “God…power”)