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New Makers of Modern Strategy Contributor Spotlight: Dr. Iskander Rehman

What inspired you to contribute to the Makers of Modern Strategy series?

Like most members of the strategic studies community, I was intimately familiar with the two previous iterations of Makers of Modern Strategy.  And like so many generations of scholars, practitioners, and students, I have long admired the intellectual depth and breadth of their content, along with the clarity of their prose. The historical context behind the publishing in 1943 of the first compendium of essays edited by Edward Mead Earle—which featured a number of brilliant emigre historians who had fled Nazi Germany to find safety and opportunity in the United States—is, in and of itself, a fascinating topic of study. So naturally, when Dr. Hal Brands, after having read some of my previously published work on Richelieu and raison d’état, reached out and asked whether I would be interested in contributing a chapter on early modern conceptions of equilibrium to a new, updated edition, I was both thrilled and honored. At the same time, I remained deeply mindful of the weighty responsibility that came with contributing to such a beloved series, and to writing alongside such a distinguished roster of strategic thinkers. From the very get-go, I knew that I wanted to produce something that could, hopefully, stand the test of time, in addition to opening new intellectual vistas for readers less familiar with this tumultuous period in French and European history.

Can you describe some of the key thinkers and historical events that you discuss in your chapter, and what role did they play in shaping the field of strategy?

After a few months of reflection, I decided that I wanted to provide readers with a fresh perspective on early modern Europe's most enduring great power rivalry: that which opposed a bruised and battered French monarchy, still reeling after decades of political turmoil, communal atrocities, and confessional strife, to a seemingly indomitable Habsburg Spain. The period examined in my chapter entitled “Sully, Richelieu, Mazarin: French Strategies of Equilibrium in the Seventeenth Century,” ranges roughly from 1589 to 1659, i.e., from the ascension of Henri IV "the Great" to the French throne to Spain's defeat in the lead-up to the Peace of the Pyrenees. Over the course of that critical seventy-year window, an initially exsanguinated and fissiparous France gradually succeeded in recovering its traditional primacy, and—by combining momentous domestic reforms with masterful diplomacy—permanently sapped the foundations of Spanish power. 

In short, the chapter tells the story of one of Europe’s greatest acts of national resurrection, and it does so through an in-depth analysis of the thought and actions of three legendary figures in the annals of French statecraft: Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully, the flinty Protestant warrior who cumulated a variety of ministerial roles under Henri IV from 1589 to 1610, Armand Jean du Plessis, the ruthless Cardinal-Duke of Richelieu, who served as chief minister under Louis XIII from 1624 to 1642, and, last but not least, the vulpine, Italian-born Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who was France’s chief minister first during the tumultuous regency of Anne of Austria, from 1643 to 1651, and then during the first decade of Louis XIV’s reign, from 1651 to 1661. For purposes of clarity and readability, the chapter primarily refers to each protagonist under their best-known title/appellation, i.e., as “Sully,” “Richelieu” or “Mazarin”.
My intent was to show how these three titans of French statecraft navigated their respective bureaucracies, established productive working relationships with their respective monarchs and/or regents, and then went about formulating, promoting and executing their grand strategies. I was particularly interested in exploring how each minister managed finite resources, adjudicated between competing theaters of operations, and attuned policies of internal and external balancing. Finally, the chapter excavates the knotted intellectual roots  of their visions of foreign policy, and how they labored to reconcile their sense of Gallic exceptionalism and desire for French primacy with their deeply-held, and often remarkably sophisticated, visions of a pan-European balance of power—one which would ideally take the form of a self-adjusting equilibrium. 

"In short, the chapter tells the story of one of Europe’s greatest acts of national resurrection..."

Indeed, these three exceptional individuals—all so different in their temperaments, skill sets, and personal backgrounds—were united in their fierce desire to see a strengthened and consolidated French monarchy prevail over its Habsburg rival; and in their conviction that such a goal could only be achieved through the design of a new collective security architecture buttressed by international law and shared security guarantees. The chapter reveals that there was a striking continuity in their general worldview, aims and ambitions, even if their individual tactics and policies could vary in accordance with their character and the nature of their working relationship with their royal patron. By the time of the signing of the Peace of Pyrenees in 1659, France dominated Europe and was in a position of unparalleled strength. Sully “the fixer” and great centralizer had reknit the sinews of French power; Richelieu, the “strategist”, had perfected its grand strategy against Spain, and Mazarin, the expert “negotiator,” had cemented its diplomatic and military dominance.
And yet even though all three individuals were animated by certain shared intellectual predilections and overarching geopolitical objectives, drastic improvements in France’s international position eventually prompted a hubristic deviation from Paris’ initial, more restrained conception of its arbitral role at the heart of a pacified Europe. With power grew temptation, and some of the very first warning signs of Louis XIV’s voracious “earth-hunger” and hegemonic ambitions can already be discerned in Mazarin’s fluctuant attitude toward alliance management and territorial expansion. In short, nested within this chapter is a time-old cautionary tale—that of an initially prudent and well-conceived foreign policy gradually falling victim to its own success.

Can you describe the research process you went through while writing your chapter, and what was the most challenging aspect of this process?

Although this is a period that I am quite familiar with, having previously worked on both the French wars of religion and Richelieu's grand strategy during the Thirty Years War, I found the sheer scale and scope of the chapter's self-allotted timeframe, which covered three monarchs, two regents, and seven turbulent, drama-filled, decades of French and European history, to be quite challenging—especially when I knew that it all had to be distilled under 10,000 words and rendered accessible to the non-specialist reader. I've long thought that the early seventeenth century is one of the most intellectually enticing for students of European statecraft, whether in terms of its wonderfully rich intellectual and artistic legacy, or because of the momentous, system-shattering nature of its geopolitical developments. And I must confess that this research project only succeeded in further reinforcing my lifelong fascination for late Renaissance and early Baroque-era statecraft. In addition to combing through the expansive secondary literature on French and Spanish statecraft, intellectual history, and warfare during this period, I spent months working off primary and/or archival sources—reading reams of private correspondence, memoirs, and diplomatic dispatches. My work was facilitated by the fact that, having been raised in both France and the United Kingdom, I grew up perfectly bilingual. I can also read Latin and some Italian. What initially seemed daunting soon proved to be exhilarating, and the mass of information I compiled convinced me that I needed to expand the themes explored in this chapter into a full, book-length manuscript. That, in fact, is now my primary research project at the Kissinger Center, and I hope to have a full draft completed within the next six to eight months.

How does your chapter connect with previous volumes in the series, and what are some of the new perspectives and approaches that you bring to the study of strategy?

I initially pondered focusing my chapter on one lone figure. After all, each of the three individuals is immensely fascinating in his own right, and concentrating on, say, just Mazarin or Sully, could have allowed me to inject a greater level of analytical granularity and detail. After a measure of internal deliberation, however, I decided it would be more stimulating and useful to take a broader, high-level approach—one which gave the reader a bird’s eye view of the strong continuities and subtle variations that permeated French grand strategy over an extended timeframe. Moreover, I had always been impressed by how, in previous iterations of Makers of Modern Strategy, contributors had succeeded in elegantly weaving two or three lead thinkers into the general fabric of one chapter. Edward Mead Earle’s chapter on Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List, comes to mind, for instance, as does Douglas Porch’s elegant study of Bugeaud, Gallieni and Lyautey. I therefore decided to adopt a similar approach for my chapter, partially as an homage to those earlier editions of Makers of Modern Strategy, and partially to force myself out of my own intellectual comfort zone. When it came to devising the actual structure, my task was rendered somewhat easier by the fact that each figure comes—more or less—in chronological succession, allowing me to fuse the vividness of individual biographical “vignettes” with the larger, more impersonal, backdrop of a century of war, fanaticism and revolution.

In terms of providing new perspectives and approaches, my humble wish would simply be that future readers, in addition to providing the contents of my chapter independently useful, might find themselves inspired to learn more about this critical, and utterly riveting period in European history.

Strategic Studies and International Relations curricula in the United States remain, in the main, too parochial, and overwhelmingly focused on Anglo-American military and diplomatic history. My hope is that this chapter can help awaken some readers to the wealth of insights to be found in alternative European intellectual and strategic traditions—in addition, of course, to those to be mined across millennia of non-European history. (I would add, in passing, that one of the great strengths of this remarkably well curated new edition of Makers of Modern Strategy is precisely the space it devotes to non-European traditions of thought)

To give but one example—the passage in Sully’s once widely-read memoirs which deals with the concept of a Europe-wide “Grand Design” (grand dessein) really should feature far more prominently in international relations curricula. First of all, because the passage was immensely influential in the history of European political thought, inspiring key thinkers such as the Abbé de Saint Pierre, Rousseau, and Kant. And second, because it is a highly ambitious and stimulating articulation of early modern equilibrist thinking in geopolitics in and of itself. I could provide many other examples of once seminal texts, treatises or memoirs which have now, sadly, fallen into abeyance, and which are in urgent need of rediscovery. Our early modern forebears were not only remarkably sophisticated in their discussions of alliances, diplomacy, and military strategy, they were also enviably eloquent and soulful—and often much stronger writers than our generation of strategic thinkers. Neglecting this remarkable heritage would therefore constitute something of a collective impoverishment—a needless act of intellectual and cultural self-harm.

Can you give us a sneak peek into what readers can expect from your chapter, and what will they learn about the history and evolution of strategy?

Richelieu is, of course, well-known to Anglophone audiences, albeit in his somewhat cartoonish avatar as the mustachio-twirling villain of the Three Musketeers. Sully and Mazarin, on the other hand, are not nearly as familiar outside of France, and I am greatly looking forward to introducing—however briefly—these historical figures, with their vivid personalities, momentous strategic accomplishments, and rich inner lives, to a much wider audience.
Upon reading the chapter, contemporary policymakers and security managers may also be struck by the eeriness of some of the parallels with the challenges they face—particularly as we enter an era characterized by the revival of protracted great power competition, industrial-scale warfare, and unabashed mercantilism. Without wanting to reveal too much, the reader can expect all these aspects of great power competition and statecraft to feature, more or less prominently, in the chapter, in addition to issues such as food security, industrial resiliency, trade tariffs, proxy wars, espionage, foreign political interference, cryptology, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, alliance management and gray zone aggression, and so on and so forth…. If anything, it should demonstrate that—to quote Sully’s great contemporary, Montaigne—when it comes to the historical trajectory of war and diplomacy, “we do not go in a straight line, rather we ramble and turn this way and that. We retrace our steps.” Hence the immense and abiding value of such an intellectually ambitious and historically wide-ranging volume as the New Makers of Modern Strategy, to which I am proud and grateful to have contributed.