Returning to the Lansdowne Doctrine

Editor’s Note: This is part of Law & Liberty‘s series of Faultline Essays, in which we publish different perspectives on a given topic, allowing authors an opportunity to read and respond to each other’s work before publishing them together.

Is it prudent to take advantage and humiliate an insecure great power wounded by her own folly? Wisdom from a century ago suggests otherwise.  

A week from the publication of his remarkable letter calling for realism, restraint, and a negotiated settlement between European great powers in the third year of the Great War, Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s chief adviser on European Politics, found Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, in a “pacific state of mind” lamenting the “folly and madness” of British leaders. Lansdowne was a conservative shaped in the mould of Metternich and Castlereagh. He favoured equilibrium and a concert between great powers and supported a hierarchical social order over revolutionary homogenisation, egalitarianism, and anarchy. One of the last hereditary aristocrats in high office, he worked for both liberal and conservative governments and was one of the last Tory realist grandees from that now lost and underappreciated school of Canning, Salisbury, and Curzon. As great power conquest and territorial war returned to Europe this spring, Lansdowne is increasingly relevant.

Then, as now, anyone arguing for a negotiated settlement and great power equilibrium was called a pacifist, isolationist, and appeaser by ideologues and by the media. Then as now, only a handful had the detached foresight to understand that an imposed peace on a great power wounded by her own folly resulting in global anarchy is categorically worse and unethical than either a settled equilibrium or localised tyranny. A handful of great powers in a balance against one another is far more favourable a world to navigate than expanding and mutating alliances, which increase the risk of war.

The direction of European history changed (or returned to a cyclical norm, depending on which philosophical framework one subscribes to) in the last five months. Russia is bogged down in a quagmire of her own making, reliving her historically revanchist pattern of misadventure abroad due to a toxic combination of a sense of betrayal, victimhood, and autocratic rule at home. Euro-Atlantic powers are divided. Germany, Austria, and Hungary, the core of central Europe, favour a mercantilist status-quo. France favours a strategic status-quo too, but is also interested in enhancing European autonomy, under—preferably unsaid—a French military preponderance with diminished European dependence on the Anglo-Americans. Both arch-conservative Poland and the hyper-liberal Baltic states are determined about humiliating Russia, although with the guns firmly placed on Anglo-American shoulders. Anglos, and to some extent the Americans want to see Russia permanently crippled, bleeding from her self-inflicted wounds.

All of those instincts are logical to a degree. Whether they are advisable and prudent for American grand strategy is a different question. Let us categorically analyse the two important political developments that resulted from this war: the further expansion of NATO and the proxy war to bleed Russia. Consider that Finland and Sweden are now determined to shed their neutrality, which they prudentially avoided for decades in the case of Finland and centuries for Sweden. Finland’s neutrality was due to political expedience, an imposed peace which they are planning to ditch at an opportune moment. It is a decision made out of visible Russian weakness, regardless of the rhetorical justification.

The same goes for Sweden, which enjoys the advantage of having the Baltic states and Finland as territorial buffers. The Swedish decision is even more interesting, considering that Sweden chose this particular moment to reject neutrality, a stance they continued even during the Second World War, and Cold War, where they were critical of Western capitalism, just as much as they opposed the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.

What explains this development? Surely not a sudden bout of moral clarity. Nor is it a strategic need, given that Russia isn’t the USSR, with its sorry performance in Ukraine. If at all, realism as a foreign policy theory has been proven correctly repeatedly, ever since the invasion started. Realism dictates that Russia is a third-rate regional power—a nuisance to her neighbourhood and insecure due to a historically inflated threat perception of a hostile alliance architecture in its neighbourhood. Russia is prone to lashing out and is best left alone with a satiated equilibrium, even when she is incapable of being a hegemonic threat in Europe.

Finland and Sweden joining NATO however points to something else. Both of those countries want to free-ride on the American security umbrella and American taxpayers. They understand that NATO is now an institution to spread liberalism, not defend nation-states. And they know exactly how to sell it by inflating the Russian threat. It demonstrates that the defenders of NATO expansion understand the changed character of NATO from a fundamentally narrow and small defensive alliance to a smiley-badge version of a crusading elite-driven transnational liberalism. A further expansion of NATO will not lead to any burden sharing or shedding—it has never been thus historically—but will result in further American investment of blood and treasure all the while being lectured by hectoring and sanctimonious protectorates dependant on American power. Consider, the Swedish demands for added US naval power in the Baltics at a time when Russian naval power is torched in the Black Sea, or the recent Swedish (and European) criticism of US Supreme Court decisions on abortion. The tail now wags the dog.

Threats form where there is a combination of will and capability. Russia, at the time of writing, was still struggling to pacify the east of Ukraine. It has little hope of conquering Kiev or posing a real threat to central Europe. To imagine that Russian tanks will rumble through Belgian or Polish meadows, or the decrepit Russian navy will threaten the English Channel and the Atlantic is quite simply ludicrous. There is no Russian challenge to the broader European order and stability that cannot be balanced by rich European powers, if they so choose. Britain, France, and Germany are on their own or combined more than capable of financially and militarily balancing Russia, without an extended NATO or American umbrella. The reason European muscle atrophied, or that Europe freerides on the American taxpayers, is simply because America is there to break the glass in case of a fire. To expand NATO currently therefore is a historical mistake incentivising the same instincts and structural forces that led to the toxic combination of European sanctimony and free-riding, especially at a time when burden-shifting and refocus towards the Pacific should be the objective of every American administration.

Lansdowne would have argued for a new concert with a neutral buffer between Russia and Europe and would have been horrified at the suggestions of escalation, alliance expansion, regime change, or humiliation of a great power rival.

Likewise, the continuous ideological push to extend the proxy war is also strategically imprudent. Russia is without doubt a paranoid great power and the Russian invasion was a long-term self-inflicted wound from which Moscow is unlikely to recover anytime soon. However, continuing a conflict does Ukraine no good, as neither Ukraine nor Russia is capable of winning the war, and no Western cavalry is waiting over the hills. Ukrainian neutrality is existential to Russia, but peripheral to Western (and American) geographic interests. The “escalation dominance” advantage will always be with Moscow, and no amount of military aid or economic coercion, short of a declaration of an all-out great power war will deter or repel Moscow, due to the asymmetry of interests and differing threat perceptions. The attempt by a section of academia and policy advisers to start a war with Russia under the euphemistic guise of No-Fly Zones or naval blockades are simply that, as average westerners and especially Americans are obviously not interested in an apocalyptic war. The Russian economy is stretched thin, its armed forces are tied down. Ukraine’s character as an independent state capable of running without aid is permanently gone, its population devastated, its youth permanently damaged for generations.

At the risk of simplifying, the current proponents of an expanded NATO and renewed American engagement in Europe usually put forth three points. One, that West needs unity, and NATO is a Western alliance of defence and liberal democracy. Two, NATO is the reason liberal democratic order survived in Europe, and without America this order will collapse. Three, Russia is a mindless imperial expansionist power, and neutrality of buffer states would not guarantee survival from Russian aggression. None of those contentions survive empirical scrutiny.

Regardless of the ahistorical understanding of NATO’s purpose as an alliance, under no circumstances can an alliance which had Salazar’s Portugal, or currently consists of Turkey, be called either liberal, or democratic, or “Western.” American muscle has been the bulwark of peace in Western Europe, but it also atrophied European muscle post-Cold War, as well as aided the rise of China at the cost of American overstretch. Consider the decline in size of the German army from 1989 to now, as American blood and treasure defended their expanded frontiers further to the east. Finally, Russia’s incrementally aggressive reaction during the phases of NATO enlargement suggest that geography plays a role in their strategic calculation and threat perception, and that Ukraine and Georgia were special red-lines for Russia, compared to, say, Montenegro. Neutrality as a grand strategy served Austria, Sweden, and Finland well, even at a time when Russia was far more powerful.

One wonders if Ukrainians often look back and think of the path not taken: an Austrian-style constitutional neutrality that would have placed Ukraine equidistant from NATO and Russia, and could have averted war. American taxpayers are footing the bill of the proxy war at the cost of their own border, while facing crippling inflation. American public opinion is increasingly war-weary and a harsh winter looms over Europe. A desperate Russia could lead to either an escalation of the war theatre or intensity, either attacking neutral theatres outside NATO and Ukraine (such as Moldova) or escalating human rights abuses to an intolerable level in order to pacify the areas already conquered, thereby creating the conditions for a “security dilemma” where NATO would be compelled to intervene and increase the risk of a nuclear war.

Philip Alexius de László’s 1920 painting of 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, Lansdowne, Simon Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Earl of Kerry. Bowood House, Wiltshire, England. (Roy Fox Fine Art Photography / de Laszlo Foundation)

Lansdowne foresaw something similar in his days, an adversarial and ever-expanding alliance structure, diminishing neutral space and buffers, and increasing fanaticism and lack of realism on both sides. He understood that a world without a great power concert is increasingly egalitarian, with all the idealistic impulses that come with it, and thereby structurally unbalanced, unstable, and revolutionary. Stable great powers to him were far better partners for peace. In 1917, he outlined four principles towards a concert and peace: no total war or destruction of a great power that leads to a collapse of her internal order, no forcible regime change or “imposing a government other than her own choice,” no trade embargo that will permanently cripple or paralyse a great power and sow seeds of revolution and anarchy, and a renewed concert that establishes ground rules for navigation of the sea and free trade.

“We are not going to lose this war but its prolongation will spell ruin to the civilised world,” Lansdowne wrote, arguing that no one should seek the annihilation of Germany, or forced regime change, or denial of her place among the great trading communities. It is difficult to translate historical frameworks into policy, but one can imagine that Lansdowne would have argued for a new concert with a neutral buffer between Russia and Europe and would have been horrified at the suggestions of escalation, alliance expansion, regime change, or humiliation of a great power rival, and imposed peace with a potential for further revanchism. Unfortunately, Lansdowne failed, where Castlereagh and Metternich succeeded. The resultant arrangement was to the satisfaction of no one and sowed the seeds for the most catastrophic war in human history.

In a world of emerging functional multipolarity where hegemony will be structurally unsustainable, not unlike the one of Lansdowne’s, it might be prudent to heed his advice and aspire for a renewed stable equilibrium and peace among the great powers. It’s not ideal; nothing is in life. But the alternative is too horrific to contemplate.