Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Our Kaiser Trump? The parallels between two foreign policy styles

Our Kaiser Trump? The parallels between two foreign policy styles
by Konstantinos Travlos

Lots of work and research commitments have kept away from this blog. But the time is ripe to make a small contribution. The more I watch the system of foreign policy by Donald Trump, the more I see some equivalencies with the style of foreign policy of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. I am not the first to find such similarities (see the following which almost rise to the level of cottage industry:Stop comparing Donald Trump to Hitler – he has more in common with another erratic German leader ; The Emperor vs the Adults: Donald Trump and Wilhelm II ,Germany used to have a leader like Trump. It’s not who you think ; ISSF Policy Series: Is Donald Trump Jimmy Carter, or is he Kaiser Wilhelm II? by Nancy Mitchell ;  Trump’s not the new Hitler... he’s the new Kaiser Bill. by Andrew J. Bacevich, and even CATO waded in with What Trump Has in Common with the Last German Emperor . For a dissenting view see Donald Trump Is No Kaiser Wilhelm ), but I wanted to also give my own view and tie it to the findings of peace science (Since most of the above tend to be done by scholars working in more classical paradigms).

President Trump

There are some parallels in their political style in general. As the summary of the literature on Wilhelm II by Christopher Clark in “Iron Kingdom” shows, he was one of the first modern media politicians. He tried to use the media to cultivate a certain image, though it did not often work out the way he wanted. Like Trump, he was someone who was most decidedly not of the “common” people, by virtue of economic power and social privilege, but who wished to present themselves  as champions of the common people against the “elites”, of whose they were members. In both cases that image was more instrumental than one driven by actual belief. In the case of Wilhelm II it was one of the tools he used against Otto von Bismarck. In the case of Trump, there are probably some more prosaic reasons initially, though know he needs that image as  weapon both against a Republican establishment that might pounce on him if the Midterms go bad for the Trump supporters, and against the “Resistance” that also claims the mantle of representing the “common” people. Finally both administrations have their share of scandals, ranging from the potentially treasonous (the Russian Affair for Trump), to the sordid (the Harden–Eulenburg Affair, and the Hahnke Affair for Wilhelm II). Both craved the media, both craved the acceptance of their “peers”, and both botched those attempts.

In both cases this style of politics transferred to foreign policy. Wilhlem II was a foreign policy actor that above all craved the acceptance of other powers he considered Germany’s “peers”, especially the United Kingdom. He also wanted to present a picture of strength, unilateralism, and well, what can only be termed “machismo”. There have been various explanations offered for this character, ranging from repressed homosexuality, to the social and individual effect of his physical handicap (the classical article on this in the study of international relations is Robert G.L. Waite, 1990, “Leadership Pathologies: The Kaiser and the Furher and the Decisions for War in 1914 and 1939” , a favorite foil for the use of psychoanalysis to explain international relations in many a graduate seminars). At the same time, Wilhelm II was intelligent enough to understand the limits of bravado (some would call it cowardice), or at the very least the institutional framework of foreign policy decision  making in the Kaiserreich was such that his flight to folly were rectified quickly.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

The result of this was a foreign policy characterized by crescendos of bellicose bravado, followed by attempts to mend fences if the bravado has led to threats of military action. This of course created both an objective reality of unreliability in German foreign policy, and a subjective image of German leadership being fickle, cowardly, prone to bombastic threats, but apt to retreat in the face of threats of force. In another name, Germany during a large part of the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II had a reputation of an unreliable state.  Similarly the Trump administration has shown a marked tendency to make bombastic statements of bravado and unilateralism, under the moniker of “America First”. But whenever such statements seem to threaten, what some call, the “hard” power elements of US foreign policy, the administration has been quick to fix fences. It is interesting, and fully compatible with Morgenthau’s expectations according to Political Realism, that both the Wilhelmine and Trumpian unreliability tends to fester in what is called “soft” politics, for example the Paris Climate Accord, but quickly recedes when it touches “hard” politics, the US relation with Saudi Arabia. This seems common sense, but it has very dangerous consequences.

The problem is that states do not always make the separation of “soft” and “hard” politics as easily as scholars of international relations that subscribe to the “Realist” paradigm do. Instead in an information poor environment such as the anarchical international system, where there is uncertainty about the motivations and behavior of other states, states will latch on to any public expression as a key for understanding the policy and behavior of other states. In another name, fickleness and unreliability in “soft” politics will influence how states treat with you in “hard” politics. If bravado is an unavoidable part of the foreign policy style of the leader in question, then he will be unable to fix the reliability image by changes in “soft” politics. That is their “playground”. Thus they will have to compensate by providing a more reliable image in “hard” politics.

The result is an increased probability of using military force to resolve issue of “hard” politics, since such force is considered the strongest message a state can give about intentions in international politics. This in turn increases the probability of military crises and militarized disputes, which in turn increases the probability of war onset. In the case of the Kaiserreich, the need to make up for two decades of foreign policy shenanigans by Wilhelm II, led to the policy that ended with the “blank check” given to Austria-Hungary in 1914.


Is this inevitable? No, not necessarily. Personalities and institutions play an important role in modifying the probabilities. In the case of the Kaiserreich, German foreign policy started becoming more reliable under the chancellorship of Theobald von Bentham-Hollweg (1909-1917). One of the key changes was that Bentham-Hollweg was able to use  the amorphous institutional framework under which German foreign policy was conducted to isolate the Kaiser from decision making (a legacy of the problematic Constitution of the German Empire, itself a legacy of Otto von Bismarck’s attempt to make a personalist system for the conduct of foreign policy). This was largely successful and in the 1910-1914 period, Wilhelm II was largely contained. The problem was that an indirect result was also freeing the German General Staff, especially under Moltke the Younger, to pursue its own foreign policy. The result was a dualism in German decision making, which would have catastrophic consequences in the July crisis of 1914. By then the Kaiser though was just one player among many.

Should we expect something similar in the US case? In many ways containing the President of the USA as a foreign political actor is much easier than the Kaiser of the German Empire. The institutional framework for foreign policy decision making in the US is both more institutionalized and more developed than that of the Kaiserreich. Congress has immense power compared to the Kaiserreich Reichstag. We know from history (during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations) that if Congress wills it, the president’s role in foreign policy can be severely restricted to the formal constitutional duties. But what if Congress is not willing to intervene? This is very likely right now in the US. Beyond the sad fact that over the last 20 years Congress has devolved a lot of its foreign policy power to the executive, US elites and the politically activist population are riven by extreme partisanship, which tends to translated institutionally, when we are not facing divided government, to a weak congress. If this is the case then we do actually face an institutional framework with some similarities to the Kaiserreich.

Steve Bannon. The loser of the internal struggle?

 In this case the internal relationships within the administration, where the president institutionally rules supreme, become paramount. The fighting around the role of Steve Bannon is an indicator that there is an internal struggle among different factions on questions of foreign policy. It might be conceivable that if the presidents foreign policy style  becomes too much of liability, factions within the executive might form to essentially side-line the president for decision making, though institutionally that is harder to do then in the German case. But as in the case of the Kaiserreich such a policy, even if successful might lead to problematic consequences. And whatever happens, the reliability of the US as a foreign policy actor will have been damaged. The attempt to redress this via the policy use of military force, might lead to catastrophic consequences under the current conditions of intensifying unilateralism in the foreign policy of key states in the international system. We shall see.

Further Reading:
Political Science
Michaela Mattes, 2012, Reputation, Symmetry, and Alliance Design, International Organization 66 (4) 

Mark J.C. Crescenzi ,Jacob D. Kathman, Katja B. Kleinberg and Reed M. Wood, 2012, Reliability, Reputation, and Alliance Formation, International Studies Quarterly 56 (2)

Robert Pahre, 1998, Reactions and Reciprocity:Tariffs andTrade Liberalization from 1815 to 1914, Journal of Conflict Resolution 42(4)

Christopher Clark, 2006, IronKingdom

Christopher Clark, 2012, TheSleepwalkers

The Outbreak of theFirst World War, 2014, John A. Vasquez and Jack S. Levy (editors), 

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