by Daria Platonova
The lecture on Cardinal Richelieu’s Grand Strategy during the Thirty Years’ War took place on 4 December 2019 at the War Studies Department. It was given by Dr Iskander Rehman, a Senior Fellow for International Relations at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The article on which this lecture was based, can be consulted here.
Richelieu’s policies during this phase of the conflict generated resentment at court and in the wider public, as Rehman demonstrates. Historians’ and politicians’ opinions on Richelieu are divided. At the same time, there exists a cohort of Richelieu enthusiasts. German historians compared Richelieu’s prudence and diplomatic dexterity to that of Bismarck. Henry Kissinger has characterised him as a “genius of realist foreign policy based on the balance of power”.
“All too often,” Rehman argued in his closing remarks, “when contemporary security studies students or political scientists draw on history, they tend to do so in a limited and self-serving way, retroactively selecting case studies that seem to confirm parsimonious theories. As a result, vast spans of military history from late Antiquity to the early modern era are often considered less relevant to contemporary concerns and almost uniformly ignored”. In this review, I seek to outline the main arguments made in what was an exceedingly rich lecture packed with facts.
As someone whose knowledge of Richelieu’s period did not extend beyond that conferred by the illustrious likes of Charlie Sheen and Tim Curry, I found the intensity of this lecture a bit of a shock to the system. Dr Iskander Rehman sought to outline the intellectual underpinnings and content of the grand strategy of one of the more complex, polarising and intellectually fascinating figures in the history of Western statecraft: Cardinal Richelieu.
Firstly, Rehman sought to position Richelieu against the background of a country ravaged by decades of civil strife and in continuous decline on the international stage. He argues that, as a child, the chief minister was most probably aware of the decline of the royal authority across the country against the rise of Protestant enclaves, the bloody pogroms against and suppression of the French Huguenots, especially during the Saint Bartholomew Massacre of 1572, and the untimely demise of French kings at the hands of religious fanatics.
He was also most probably aware of Philip II of Spain’s constant interference in the domestic affairs of France. Hence Rehman likens France of the late 16th century to today’s Syria, “a nation crisscrossed by foreign soldiers, mercenaries and proxies and a spectacle of almost unremitting misery and desolation”.
Richelieu was a staunch and ruthless authoritarian statist. Upon the ascension to his position as King Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624, Richelieu’s vision was, according to one of his letters, “first, to ruin the Huguenots and render the king absolute in his state; second, to abase the house of Austria (meaning both the Monarchs of Spain and Austria), and third to discharge the French people of heavy subsidies and taxes”.
Secondly, Rehman roots the intellectual underpinnings of Richelieu’s grand strategy in the ideas prevalent at the time. He shows how the French nobility or “politique,” which surrounded Richelieu, from the medieval times onwards, held strong views of France’s exceptionalism, messianic nationalism, and viewed it as a country predestined for continental leadership. The French king complementarily was viewed as God’s lieutenant on earth. Indeed, Richelieu was so devout to the French monarchy that, as the legend has it, on his deathbed in 1642, he was said to respond to the question of whether he wished to forgive the countless enemies that he had no enemies apart from the enemies of the state.
Such ideas of French exceptionalism were continuously frustrated by the rise and consolidation of Spain, which displaced France as the most formidable military power on the continent by the early 17th century. Therefore, Richelieu’s approach to counter-hegemonic balancing against Spain and the Habsburgs was firmly rooted in a raison d’etat (reason of state). It was also rooted in the French nobility’s view of France’s continental rivals, the Spanish and Viennese Habsburgs, as inferiors.
Rehman shows how the early baroque thinkers on raison d’etat, on whose ideas Richelieu’s vision was built, bypassed the controversial writings of Machiavelli to seek inspiration in the writings of Tacitus and neo-Stoics, with their emphasis on prudence, patriotism, public service, and not the least, the lessons derived from the study of history. Machiavelli’s writings, by contrast, were an affront to the views of Catholic thinkers and seen as examples of atheism and republicanism. He also demonstrates how Richelieu’s vision moved with the times “to increasingly transition from the vision of order structured around precisely delineated hierarchies to one revolving around the idea of balance, flexible, continuously self-adjusting equilibriums”. France was therefore to become both a balance on the scale, that is a key participant in the struggle for hegemony and the holder of said balance.
Rehman shows how during the early phase of the Thirty Years’ War, Richelieu’s foreign policy was undergirded by “the assumption that, first of all, France and its underdeveloped army were not yet ready to engage in direct confrontation with their battle-hardened Spanish counterparts and the weary fractious French political establishment was unlikely to support any drawn-out military effort”.
As a result, France sought to buy time. “A strategy of delay and protraction,” Rehman argues, “was not only required to muster France’s martial strength but also to forge the necessary elite consensus. Provided that France would continue to buy time and bleed the Habsburgs via a League of well-funded and militarily capable proxies, Richelieu was convinced that France’s demographic and economic resources would allow it to eventually gain an upper hand in its protracted competition with Spain”.
Consequently, Richelieu put alliance politics at the heart of his grand strategy. During the period of the guerre covert before 1635 at least, Richelieu worked hard to foster alliance structures with the Italian League (Savoy and Venice), German princes and sponsored campaigns by allied Protestant powers such as Sweden and Denmark that did the most damage to the Habsburg interests. He also sponsored secessionist movements in Portugal and Catalonia as well as “of [those] liberty-starved princes in Germany”.
Above all, Richelieu was aware of the risks of entanglement and the entrapment, that is when a patron suddenly loses the capacity to control its client, which was inherent in the asymmetric alliance structure. In the “Political Testament,” Richelieu warns future statesmen “not to embark voluntarily on the founding of a league created for some difficult objective unless they surely can carry it out alone should their allies desert them”. Indeed, Rehman alludes to “the difficulties familiar to any modern student of security studies, which is the fact that proxies and client states rarely share similar objectives to those of their sponsors and generally the stronger a proxy is the less dependent and politically beholden it is to its patron”. This proved to be true in France’s relations with Sweden, in particular.
Daria is a PhD student at King’s College London. Her research focuses on violence and the unfolding of conflict across several regions in eastern Ukraine, 2013 – 2014. She also leads one of the Causes of War seminars in the War Studies Department. Prior to joining King’s, she worked as a teacher. She graduated with a degree in History from the University of Cambridge in 2011. Her broader interests include European history, war studies, and interdisciplinary methods.