‘Will America look back on history and learn from Napoleon’s mistakes?’

President Barack Obama’s address to the Australian Parliament on the 17th November, during his whirlwind 27 hour stop over to our shores, highlighted that America’s focus has now turned to the Asia Pacific in order to advance security, prosperity, universal human rights and democracy throughout the region.[1] The President stated in his address to parliament that for deliberate and strategic decisions, “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this [pacific] region and its future…” [2] However, I would like to propose that this ‘new’ focus is as much for America’s own invested interests, goals, and security as a means to continue the notion that they are the dominant superpower of this period. Furthermore, it also allows America to keep a close eye on other countries like China and North Korea –the former of which has the potential to become the next super power in the 21st  century which is being acknowledged by some commentators as the ‘Asian Century’. North Korea poses a security risk with its possession of nuclear arms, Obama was explicitly clear in his address that “the transfer of nuclear materials or material by North Korea to states or non-entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and … [its] allies” and that North Korea would be held fully accountable for its actions – thus implying that America would react to such actions with military force and / or action. [3]  This willingness to use military force under the guise of advancing an altruistic agenda is not a new notion. America is not the first nation to enter another region by touting an agenda much like the ideals of the French Revolution ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ with their thinly veiled cover of entering the Asia Pacific Region for the promotion of universal human right and democracy.

A similar scenario occurred in 1806 with Napoleon and his conquests, which ostensibly had the purpose of establishing ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ in the territories that were acquired and controlled by France throughout the Napoleonic wars. The reality, however, was different. As the territories that were captured by the ‘Grande Armee’ soon (as a result of Napoleon’s social and economic policies like his civil code and continental system) became little more than puppet states, controlled by authoritarian meritocracies, ultimately serving to build resentment towards the regime rather than fostering an acceptance of its legitimacy. This was the case with Napoleon’s occupation in Prussia. Napoleon and his troops claimed they were providing liberty and establishing peace in the territories they occupied.[4] However, their conquests brought tyranny to these countries especially in Prussia from which they extracted substantial taxes, induced political and civil repression and made territorial changes for strategic reasons that were conducive only to the aims of the French empire.[5]

Napoleon made it his priority to reduce Prussia from its former glory by conquering and then sub-dividing its territory in a way that suited the strategic aims of France.[6] Karen Hagemann, a historian, emphasizes the consequences of Prussian’s defeat and the imposition of the civil code, which she claims resulted in the loss of half their territory and population, an imposed payment of 140 million francs, the loss of cardinal military bases and restrictions placed on their army size.[7] These restrictions upon Prussian by the Napoleonic civil code were to ensure that they would be unable to unite and pose as a threat towards Napoleon and his endeavours.[8] Napoleon manipulated Prussia and other European territories through the Napoleonic Civil Code, which was ostensibly a mechanism for providing liberty from authoritarian governments, but in reality a means for undermining the authority of traditional European monarchs and for securing territory, men and supplies for war.[9] This exploitation was further supplemented by the imposition of the Continental System, which required all European states to cease their trade with Britain – inevitably inhibiting the growth of the European economy.[10]

The Prussian populace regarded that the civil code tarnished Napoleon’s regime in Prussia and they soon came to view him as an oppressor rather than a benevolent liberator.[11] Ultimately, the use of force that was required to exercise peaceful initiatives, such as the civil code, only had the effect of creating resentment, which in turn simply led to the re-commencement of hostilities between France and Prussia. Historians Andreas Dorpalen and Karen Hagemann emphasize the detrimental affects the civil code and continental system created that developed an anti-French sentiment, which acted as a nationalizing tool for the East German territories with the assistance of propaganda campaigns.[12] Nationalism in regards to Prussia and the Germanic territories has been determined as a means to attain liberation from Napoleon’s tyranny.[13]  As a result of this Martyn Lyons, a French historian, argues that Napoleon provided an unwitting support for the development of Nationalism in the Germanic territories.

Although the situations and outcomes between France, Prussia and America and the Pacific Region are sure to be different, they still offer similar parallels to examine.  Much like Napoleon making strategic decisions that benefited the aims of the French empire, so to is Obama making such decisions for the benefit of America – both under the guise of liberal altruistic pursuits. What Obama and America need to be careful of is not to make the same or similar mistakes made by Napoleon and his heavy handed-ness and inability to properly respond and gage local reactions and movements. However, it is quite possible that Obama has already evaded this mistake as he asserts in his address to parliament “that the ultimate source of power and legitimacy [is] – the will of the people.” [14]

The question is – Whose people?


[1] Barack Obama, “Address to the Australian Parliament,” Canberra. 17 November 2011.

[2] Ibid., “Address to the Australian Parliament.”

[3] Ibid., “Address to the Australian Parliament.”

[4] Paul Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (New York: Clarendon Press, 1994), p.380.

[5] Ibid., p.380, Martin Kitchen, A History of Modern Germany, 1800-2000  (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 10.

[6] Ibid., p.380.

[7] Karen Hagemann, “Occupation, Mobilization, and Politics: The Anti-Napoleonic Wars in Prussian Experience, Memory, and Historiography.” Central European History 39.4 (2006): p.588.

[8] Geoffrey Ellis, Napoleon (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997), p.84.

[9] Paul Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (New York: Clarendon Press, 1994), p.377, Koppel S. Pinson, Modern Germany its History and Civilisation (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1954), p.29.

[10] Andreas Dorpalen, “The Struggle against Napoleon: The East German View.” The Journal of Modern History 41.4 (1969): p.491.

[11] Ibid., p.349

[12] Karen Hagemann, “Occupation, Mobilization, and Politics: The Anti-Napoleonic Wars in Prussian Experience, Memory, and Historiography.” Central European History 39.4 (2006): p.594-595, Andreas Dorpalen, “The Struggle against Napoleon: The East German View.” The Journal of Modern History 41.4 (1969): p.491.

[13] Alexander Grab, Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 108.

[14] Barack Obama, “Address to the Australian Parliament,” Canberra. 17 November 2011.

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One comment on “‘Will America look back on history and learn from Napoleon’s mistakes?’

  1. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Hi Kezia,
    If anything, the Americans have learnt something from the French Revolution – they speak of “universal” human rights whereas the French spoke of the state. The “Declaration of the Rights of Man” from 1789 features numerous qualifiers which allow for an elite group to take charge, such as “social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” The Americans appear to use no such qualifiers and so they allow themselves even less room to rationalise their excesses. In a sense, learning from the French makes them look more dishonest. The political situation of the Asia Pacific region today and central Europe in Napoleon’s day is very different. Nationalism developed from more feudal tendencies back then, hence the Germans developing nationalism in opposition to Napoleon. Today we live in a sort of post-nationalism, where the governments try to maintain a national identity in the face of cultural imperialism. The Asia Pacific countries have already developed post-colonial nationalisms, even if their people display American cultural influences. Despite this, there may come a point at which the Asian countries decide to resist the cultural and political pressure of the US. Whose people? Those whom the American government thinks they control and those whom they actually control.
    Any thoughts?
    Alfred

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