The Promised Land Fallacy: Von Tirpitz Disastrously Builds a Navy

The Dangerous Mirage of the Promised Land Fallacy

Distantly related to the losing gambler’s syndrome is the promised land fallacy, the naïve view that one attribute of power or one strategy is sufficient to overcome the complexity of the world and—in silver bullet-like fashion—change the terms of the geopolitical game. In essence, it’s the very human effort to falsely manufacture a game-changing strategy rather than recognising that game-changing events generally happen organically.

Political risk analysts throughout the ages, frustrated by the constraints of living in the world as they have found it, are often highly susceptible to dreaming up analysis designed to liberate them from the shackles of reality. Ruinously, reality always wins.

In the years following the innovative genius of British Prime Minister Lord Robert Salisbury’s foreign policy, Anglo-German relations nevertheless spiralled out of control. No one was more responsible for this than Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, whose wrong-headed promised land strategy to supersede the British navy instead led Germany directly over the cliff into the charnel house of the Great War.

For Wilhelmine Germany, the building of a fleet from scratch to challenge the mighty Royal Navy was meant to be the country’s ticket to its place in the sun. The German political and military elite, frustrated that the world (especially haughty Great Britain) failed to recognise the ascension of Germany to Great Power status, set about rushing the forces of history, rather than merely waiting for their yearly relative gains in global power to become apparent over time. Already possessing the greatest army in the world, the Kaiser became intent on building a threatening navy.

Instead of heralding an era of German dominance, the elite in Berlin unwittingly started a process that led to its doom. The naval race awoke an alarmed London to the coming German threat to its position as the single greatest power in the world (though one in relative decline), a fact that helped directly lead to war and ruinous German defeat. Far from leading to the promised land, this approach puts political risk analysts forever at the mercy of the latest intellectual fad, often leading to simplistic analysis that doesn’t stand up to the realities of a complicated world.

Von Tirpitz Recklessly Challenges British Naval Dominance

 Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz became the living embodiment of the Kaiser’s drive to build a world-class navy, almost from scratch. Born March 19, 1849, pictures of von Tirpitz show a man looking like nothing so much as an enraged walrus, with his long, flowing beard, fierce eyes, and stern countenance.

Yet von Tirpitz was much more than this caricature of a stiff-necked Prussian. For one thing, he knew the English personally and well, spoke the language fluently, and even sent his two daughters to the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies’ College. For another, von Tirpitz rose through the German navy’s ranks largely through his own merits, something unheard of at the time. Tirpitz, for all the Prussian glowering, was essentially a creative, outward-looking, self-made man.

In 1897, von Tirpitz was made head of the powerful Imperial Navy Office, an unassailable bureaucratic perch that allowed him to relentlessly focus on making the German navy a force to be reckoned with; he was to remain central to German naval thinking until 1916. His primary strategic recommendation was that Germany must build as many battleships as possible and challenge British naval hegemony. Initially, von Tirpitz advocated the creation of two squadrons of eight battleships, plus a fleet flagship and two reserves.

Between 1898 and 1912, von Tirpitz managed to get four naval acts through the German Parliament, greatly expanding the size of the country’s High Seas Fleet. Over time, his clearly stated strategic goal became to construct a navy that two-thirds of the size of the dominant British Fleet. In the narrowest of terms, von Tirpitz was successful, in that he took the very meagre German navy he had inherited in the 1890s and transformed it into a world-class force.

The Germans miscalculate

The irony was that, for both von Tirpitz and the Kaiser, the German naval build-up was essentially defensive in nature. They did not wish to overwhelm Britain as a revolutionary power, but merely to be taken seriously by it as a valued guarantor of the status quo. The von Tirpitz strategic plan was to build the world’s second-largest navy after Britain’s, announcing Germany’s arrival on the world stage as an undisputed great power.

In this vision, the naval build-up would get the Germans to the promised land, making the British see sense and accommodate Germany’s rise to great power status. Yet, as so often has proven the case for those whose political risk analysis leads them to adopt the promised land strategy, unintended consequences overwhelmed these initial goals.

In direct reaction to von Tirpitz’s naval programme, Britain (between 1902-1910) embarked on its own massive naval build-up, with the express purpose of safeguarding its naval dominance and seeing off the perceived German strategic threat. As such, von Tirpitz’s build-up, far from cowing Britain into supporting Germany’s overall strategic rise, instead came to be seen as a mortal threat in London.

Conclusion: The promised land strategy and unintended consequences

 The unintended result of the von Tirpitz plan was to leave Germany in the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Its efforts to catch up with the dominant British navy narrowed, but did not eliminate, Britain’s maritime advantage. In an immediate, limited sense, the Germans won the naval arms race by whittling down British dominance. But the cost of this pyrrhic victory was exorbitant.

For the change in strategic circumstances was enough to alarm Britain into fundamentally changing its foreign and strategic policies, but did not alter the overriding fact that in 1914 it still possessed by a long way the most powerful naval force in the world. It was the naval arms race that persuaded Britain to wholly adopt Lord Salisbury’s evolving policy and instead look for allies to deal with what was seen—as the result of the von Tirpitz plan—as an increasingly malevolent German threat.

Unwittingly the promised land fallacy unleashed by von Tirpitz directly led to the closer Anglo-French ties that were to form the basis of the resistance to Germany in World War I. With Britain pressed to withdraw its Mediterranean fleet to its home waters to fend off the impending German naval threat, much closer ties with Paris became an absolute strategic imperative so as to safeguard (through the French navy taking London’s place in the Mediterranean) the Suez Canal, the jugular of the British Empire.

Britain, turning its back decisively on its nineteenth-century post-Napoleonic foreign policy heritage, formally allied itself with European powers France in 1904, and Russia, in 1907. Incredibly, the Germans—in pursuing their promised land strategy to secure in von Tirpitz’s words German ‘political independence’ from England—had instead forced the British into their eternal enemy France’s waiting arms, the worst possible strategic thing Berlin could have done. World War I was not far away.

Published by Princeton University Press, April 17, 2018. 

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, has just been published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is available for order on Amazon.

 

Paul Ryan’s retirement signals Trump’s GOP takeover is complete

In a town where character is often not seen as important, it is striking that even his many Washington foes accept that retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a good man. He could scarcely be less personally like our current President. Ryan has long been animated by a love of family, the outdoors and ideas, making him not likely to be soul mates with the 45th President.

However, there is a final way these two very different men part ways, one that underlines the fact that the GOP under President Trump has abandoned any pretence to its modern Eisenhower Republican roots, and is now a very different nationalist-populist beast indeed.

For Speaker Ryan was the last Eisenhower Republican standing, the worthy heir to Ike, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Herbert Walker Bush. All four were instinctive internationalists, seeing that a dominant America must craft and defend a global order that was largely created by America in its image. This was not done for altruism, but for the profound realist notion that as the great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, every man is a conservative after dinner.

America’s internationalism meant that shared security and prosperity would make many of the other great nations of the earth America’s allies, stakeholders in the efforts to perpetuate a US-dominated order. The remnants of this splendid farsighted foreign policy can still be seen today, as unlike China, the US (despite President Trump’s best efforts) still has global allies such as the UK, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and recently India, committed to perpetuating the present American-inspired system as they have done well out of it. This amounts to a geopolitical treasure beyond rubies, and is partly the result of the enlightened internationalism of Eisenhower Republicans of the past.

Likewise, free trade was seen as the lifeblood flowing through this system, as trade spread prosperity, leading to enhanced global stability. Eisenhower Republicans favoured President Obama’s ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as it meant the US and its allies (and not Beijing) would set the regional trading rules in our new era and that the increased prosperity the TPP would bring over time would bind a more stable and confident rest of Asia into an American-dominated alliance, particularly with a more threatening China next door.

Ryan again confirmed his Eisenhower Republican credentials, early on rather bravely fighting for President Obama to be given Trade Promotion Authority so he could negotiate TPP in the first place. President Trump’s know-nothing rejection of this key policy plank of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ must be seen by Eisenhower Republicans as nothing less than a grave self-inflicted wound for the US.

As for domestic economics, the Speaker was critically in line with Eisenhower’s emphasis that federal balanced budgets were a sign of the overall fiscal health of the nation. While a yearning for tax cuts was a constant theme of his political life, Ryan has also long advocated root and branch entitlement reform, at least partially so America could balance its books. There is no doubt at all that the Speaker fit easily into the Eisenhower Republican fold, with his internationalist, pro-free trade, balanced-budget outlook.

Trump as nemesis for Eisenhower Republicanism

 That is what makes his utter failure and early retirement so galling. While foreign policy was never his strong suit, the Speaker has had only the most tepid response to the current White House taking an axe to the US’s long-established alliance system, the guarantor of the present American-inspired world order. A free trader all his life, Ryan meekly quibbled with the President over his plan to put NAFTA in peril by re-negotiating a wildly successful trade agreement, while noting Canada was not a perfect trade partner (no one is). He was even worse over TPP, throwing his free trading history out the window and cheering on Trump’s lunacy.

The Trump tax reform gave Ryan his cherished tax cuts, but entitlement reform—the crucial other cause to which the Speaker has devoted his public life—is presently as dead as a doornail under this profligate President. And without budget cuts to offset tax cuts, Eisenhower Republicanism’s emphasis on balanced budgets is now very much a thing of the past.

There is no doubt that Paul is an is the worthy heir to the Eisenhower Republicanism that propelled the post-1945 party. But his many disappointments in the face of our current president merely underline that a once-proud internationalist, pro-free trade, pro-balanced budget party has morphed into something very different. The Republican Party has suffered an unfriendly takeover by Donald Trump and is now unilateralist, protectionist, and for profligate spending as far as the eye can see. Fully 86% of registered Republicans currently support Donald Trump.

In a real sense, it matters little whether decent Paul Ryan retires now or not; his party left him long ago. Speaking as an Eisenhower Republican myself, that is a tragedy.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. His latest book is, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, and is available on Amazon.

Getting to Goldilocks: Napoleon, the Venetian Republic and Balance in Political Risk Analysis

Introduction: The Self-Inflicted Haplessness of Venice

 The Most Serene Republic of Venice, one of the most consequential states of the European Renaissance, ended the 1,100 years of its existence not with a bang but with a pathetic whimper. At its height and for hundreds of years, the Venetian maritime empire dominated the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean, as well as possessing a central land base in the Veneto on the northern Italian mainland. However, by the time the great Napoleon had fixed his sights on what he rightly called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ and determined that the Venetian pearl would be his, the city-state was but a shadow of its former self, largely because of a simple failure of political risk analysis.

Why was this former great power so utterly defenceless before Napoleon’s hordes? The simple, overriding answer to this question is that the Venetians had learned an important lesson down the centuries—war is often folly and always expensive—while entirely forgetting that they might need to keep other important—and countervailing—truisms about international relations in mind as well.

First amongst these is that having merely carrots (economic power) as an instrument on the global stage only works in a world populated entirely by rabbits; military power is sometimes required too. And whatever else you might say of him, the young Napoleon was hardly a rabbit.

Because of this fundamental misreading of human nature, the Venetian Republic responded with a reckless strategy of disarmament over the centuries that erased its mighty position in the world. By the latter days of the eighteenth century, the city-state was so divorced from the reality of power politics that when threatened by the French, it had absolutely no choice but to surrender.

Political risk analysts often exhibit a similar lack of balance, dooming their assessments. The holy grail of analysis is getting to Goldilocks—making policy assessments that are neither too hard nor too soft, by eschewing extremes and mono-causal answers and actually balancing the numerous important factors determining outcomes.

Venice’s Slow Castration

 From the early sixteenth century on, the oligarchs who ran the Republic preferred to avoid the hard economic choices and belt-tightening that could have corrected their dangerous military decline (much like today’s modern European states). But as Venice was still a very rich city, and as its elite’s cosseted life of masked balls and opulence were hard to part with, it was far easier to do nothing about what seemed at the time to be merely a theoretical problem. It was only when Napoleon showed up at Venice’s doorstep that theory became all too real.

And to a point, of course, the Venetians were absolutely right. Often wars explode in the faces of those who engage in them, and almost always they are ruinously expensive. Peace in general is a better alternative for both the health of any state and the welfare of its people. No one is arguing that in general the Venetians were onto something with their peace-first strategy.

The problem was that over the centuries it became a peace-only strategy. For having grasped one essential reality of the world, the Venetian Republic wholly ignored other, darker, but no less important lessons about the nature of human beings and international relations. By 1796, on the eve of Napoleon’s brilliant Italian campaign, the Republic could no longer defend itself. Of its pathetic fleet of thirteen ships of the line, only a handful of even these proved to be seaworthy. The army was in even worse shape, consisting of only a few brigades of Croatian mercenaries.

The fundamental problem was that in policy terms the oligarchs had forgotten about balance in both foreign policy and political risk analysis, not being prepared to pay the steep price that would have been necessary to upgrade the Venetian fleet with the latest technology of eighteenth-century warfare. Through this intellectual failure of balance, Venice had castrated itself long before Napoleon came thundering out of the mountains, sealing its own doom.

Napoleon’s France as a Country on Military Steroids

 In his bedazzled, gilded youth, Napoleon Bonaparte shown like the sun. Beyond Alexander the Great, it is difficult to think of any leader in the history of the world to whom fame and glory came so early, and so overwhelmingly. Supremely competent, decisive, preternaturally driven, eloquent, quick-witted, and far-seeing, Bonaparte was capable of inspiring almost religious devotion in both his marshals and his men.

In 1797, Napoleon could uncannily see the inherent defencelessness of the Venetian Republic, a government that had chosen to simply ignore the basic imperative any state has to defend itself. However, Napoleon was to make a diametrically opposed analytical misjudgement himself.

The Venetians were undoubtedly lotus-eaters, basking in their tranquil apathy, as the forces of the real world slowly and ominously gathered around them. But in worshipping the god Mars, Napoleon was to make an equally disastrous political risk mistake. For behind all his highly impressive domestic reforms was an effort to increasingly militarise French society, to make it fit for purpose to take on the rest of Continental Europe for almost a generation. This imbalanced over-reliance on war was to doom the glorious Bonaparte. In always seeing the need for war, he was as out of kilter as were the Venetians, who never saw the need for it.

For in reality, it was the overly militaristic, self-perpetuating expansionism of Napoleon’s France that led to his greatest strategic setbacks in both Spain and Russia. Both the Spanish and Russian disasters arose out of Napoleon fighting wars of choice, conflicts that a less martial status quo power would have entirely avoided.

Of course, Napoleon paid the ultimate price for his utopian, overly militaristic, unbalanced folly, ironically much as the Venetian oligarchs had done. On May 5, 1821, the great man died in exile on the obscure island of St. Helena, far from the trappings of his once-supreme power, an unwitting victim of having legendarily used the military lever of politics without ever learning that there are other motive forces of history as well.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Balance

 Two great powers, the Venetian Republic and its vanquisher, the great Napoleon, were laid waste to when they could not overcome a fundamental political risk analytical error. Commercial Venice forgot along the way that a state’s paramount need is always to defend itself, that there will always be creatures in the foreign policy jungle to be fought off. Evil and aggression in the world cannot be wished away just because it is far more pleasant to attend glittering seaside parties and to produce breath-taking works of art.

Some sort of balance is called for. Over the centuries, Venice’s abdication of responsibility for seeing the world as it is left it entirely at the mercy of the young, covetous Napoleon when he made his way over the Alps. But given the Venetians’ fundamental misreading of the world, it hardly mattered that it was Napoleon who brought the Venetian Republic down. Someone would have.

But Napoleon, in his diametrically opposed way, made the same fundamental error as the Italian oligarchs he so effortlessly conquered. The sword had made Napoleon the most famous man in the world and given him, a minor Corsican aristocrat, first a throne and then the dominant position in Europe.

It is human and understandable that even a man of Bonaparte’s first-rate intellect, having personally experienced how far the military component of power could take both a genius and a country, failed to see that his over-reliance on the military instrument of power was highly skewed, to the exclusion of a more balanced strategy, such as that pursued by Pitt’s England throughout the period. It is understandable, but Napoleon’s sad end makes it clear that his failure of balance was absolutely toxic.

Modern political risk analysts would do well to take note of both the historical examples of Venice and Napoleon. There are many motive forces of history and analysis, and all the major ones must be taken into account altogether if political risk analysis is to get anywhere. To forget the absolute need for getting to Goldilocks—the essential political risk commandment of the imperative of finding analytical balance—is to get every big thing wrong, no matter how right analysts are about the detail. For both analysis and policy require more than one basic insight into how our complicated world works.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, has just been published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is also available for order on Amazon.