Napoleon, Kutuzov, and the changing international order

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy challenged the idea that ‘great men’ change the world. In reality, he claimed, the underlying forces of history determine the outcome. Some people, however, try to resist these forces. They inevitably come a cropper. By contrast, others recognise which way things are going and let these processes determine what they should do, or not do. It’s these people who succeed. In War and Peace, Napoleon is an example of the former; Marshal Kutuzov an example of the latter. Kutuzov doesn’t so much do anything as lets happen what is going to happen anyway. It’s this which makes him a great leader.

Tolstoy tended to overdo things, and most people wouldn’t accept his theory of history in its entirety. But there’s an element of truth in what he said, if you take it not as a reason for fatalism but as an argument for riding with the wave rather than against it. If you look at the world of economics, for instance, companies which resist change, or who respond to it by using monopoly power or political influence to close down competition, end up failing. By contrast, companies which correctly identify future trends and put themselves at the head of them, end up thriving (until such time as they themselves grow old, become inflexible monopolists, and are brought down by the next generation of newcomers, a process Karl Marx failed to anticipate when predicting that monopolization was a one-way process). In short, success is a matter of perspective; the key is viewing change not as a threat but as an opportunity.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that most international affairs analysts look at the world. An example is the annual forecast ‘Russia and the World’, produced by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. Each year, following its publication, the Czech journal New Perspectives produces a special edition devoted to responses to the IMEMO forecast. I covered the replies to the 2018 forecast on this blog a while ago. Now the responses to the 2019 forecast are out, including one written by my good self. You can find them here. I don’t have room to discuss them all, but I will touch upon a few which relate to the discussion of change above.

In my own article, I note how the IMEMO forecast paints a very gloomy picture of international affairs, speaking of ‘the crisis of the international system’, ‘the dismantling of the global order’, ‘the erosion of the established post-war and Cold War system’, ‘an unstable world’, and so on. In line with what I’ve written elsewhere, I cast doubt on whether everything is really as bad as IMEMO makes it out to be. Russia’s main challenge, I argue, ‘is not a global order facing potential collapse … Rather, Russia’s primary problem is internal – a political, social, and economic system which seems to have hit a wall,’ particularly in terms of delivering rapid economic growth.

In another response, Australian academic Cai Wilkinson takes a different approach. Rather than debate whether IMEMO’s analysis is correct, Wilkinson uses it to examine the mentality of the people of who made it – i.e. she uses the forecast as a tool for understanding the forecasters. What the IMEMO forecast reveals, she says, is the ‘avowedly Realist worldview’ of the Russian foreign policy community as well its ‘aversion to the uncertain.’ The forecast is underpinned by a ‘distinctly fatalistic air’ and is accompanied by an obsession with stability. Wilkinson criticises this attitude, quoting technology forecaster Paul Saffo as saying that, ‘uncertainty is a friend, for its bedfellow is opportunity.’ She continues:

In uncertain times, a Realist and fatalistic worldview that prioritises stability risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, blinding policy-makers and forecasters alike to the truth that, as Alexander Wendt famously put it, ‘anarchy is what states make of it.’

I’m fairly sure that the politics of Higher School of Economics professor Glenn Diesen are very different from Wilkinson’s, but in his response to the IMEMO forecast he makes a rather similar point. ‘While the report focuses on the threats from this disorderly transition to a multipolar international distribution of power, the opportunities from moving towards a less Western-centric order tend to be neglected,’ he writes. I tend to agree. As the balance of global power shifts, there will inevitably be disruption, but there will also be immense opportunities. It would do everyone some good if they focused on the positive.

The failure to do so is not a purely Russian phenomenon. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attended a couple of meetings here in Ottawa at which colleagues and (serving and retired) public servants discussed the changing international order and the implications for Canadian foreign policy. The discussions almost exactly mirrored the conclusions of the IMEMO forecast – the prevailing view was that world is going to the dogs. The language was all about ‘challenges’ and ‘threats’. I kept my mouth shut until right at the end of the last meeting, at which point I finally complained to all and sundry that I’d heard nothing but negativity, and that among all the talk of ‘threats’ I’d not once heard anybody talk about the opportunities which the changing international order offers us. And there are many – growing markets for our products in the developing world, just for starters.

The negativity has important effects. When international change is viewed solely in terms of challenge and threat, the policy response is to try and stop the change. But as Canute pointed out to his advisers, you can’t hold back the tide. It’s pointless trying, for instance, to contain China. You can’t do it. Power is shifting in the world. It’s inevitable. Instead of worrying about the change, we need to think about how to exploit it for our own benefit. Do we want to fight the tide of history, or do we want to ride the waves? Do we want to be Napoleon or do we want to be Kutuzov? Our future depends on our response.

16 thoughts on “Napoleon, Kutuzov, and the changing international order”

  1. Hmm. Is there an example of a superpower – superpower, not a peripheral empire, like Russia under Alexander I – that managed to ride the waves? The pharaohs, the Persians, the Rome, the Mongols, the Brits, anything?

    They just fall apart, don’t they? Their structure (‘institutions’) evolves to serve this particular purpose. I don’t think it can organically devolve from that point, without collapsing first.


  2. Eh, I don’t think there’s a danger of Russia trying to stop the change. *A* change is something Russia wants after all. Just not *any* change.

    If anything, what is most likely going on is that Russia is going everything to dampen the immediate bad effects if the change, as opportunities are more long-term than downsides. And then, the Russia-Africa summit not long ago is, I think, precisely the example of grabbing the potential opportunity.


  3. Napoleon was a defender of status quo, while Kutuzov was a reformer, really? I’d say it was exactly the opposite, and status quo won.


  4. The gravest risk is that the main beneficiary of the global order, as presently structured, will decide to conspire to wage aggressive war in order to preserve her advantages, like she did in the ’90s to cement them in Europe, then in Iraq ’03, then Libya ’11, and now Ukraine & Syria, Venezuela, Hong Kong, & Bolivia.

    It is likely that the gloomy prognosticators at IMEMO have this risk in mind, and are at a loss as to how to reassure/restrain/deter her.


  5. Actually, having participated in quite a few of these “world over the next few decades” things, I would say that they almost always tend to pessimism. I don’t quite know why although to be optimistic would be thought to be simple-minded or naive by many: gloom seems, somehow, more thoughtful. But they are mostly laundry lists of disasters which (maybe this is the reason) require more resources, more money and promotions all round.


  6. Link to the site hosting this particular collection of articles welcomes hungry for knowledge visitors with the pic of bare-chested Putin.


    №1 in the list of contributors to this collection of supposedly serious collection of deep, thoughtful analytical contributions to the wellspring of the universal knowledge is a certain fantasy and sci-fi author (and also a Western govs employed propacondom) Marc Galeotti.


    Professor, you have a stellar knowledge of the Russian language. Do you know the meaning of the expressions “в одном поле срать не сяду” and “зашквар”?


  7. If I ever knew the meaning of “come up a cropper” I forgot.

    In reality, he claimed, the underlying forces of history determine the outcome. Some people, however, try to resist these forces. They inevitably come up a cropper

    sounds similiar to millenbia old wisdom:

    “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”
    ― Confucius

    An oak and a reed were arguing about their strength. When a strong wind came up, the reed avoided being uprooted by bending and leaning with the gusts of wind. But the oak stood firm and was torn up by the roots.
    ― Aesop

    The question remains, when do you have to stop bending and resist.


    1. “Reality is not what you want it to be, it is what it is, you must learn to bend with it or you will live a lie”


      The Tao is full of such wisdoms also of course!

      Presumably one becomes upright when the wind ceases or changes direction. I suppose one has the option to stop being a reed and to become a rod of iron but then we are becoming resistant and inflexible again.
      There is generally an unwillingness to accept the failure of neoliberalist monetary policies, to lose oneself in austerities, money printing, cheap debt and general financial adventurism. The little growth we have is financed almost exclusively by debt, for every $1 of growth we are spending almost $5 in debt. This resistance to the inevitable is not going to end well for any of us.


      1. The Tao is full of such wisdoms also of course!

        Touché! As juvenile and/or young adult I was a fan of Lao-tse and the Tao te Ching, while admittedly slightly suspicious of Confucius, maybe for the wrong reason.

        Thus my feeling was I remembered the theme from Lao-tse not from Confucius. But Confucius was easier to find on the Web.

        With Tolstoy’s Kutuzov from War and Peace:
        “newborn – we are tender and weak
        in death – we are rigid and stiff

        living plants are supple and yielding
        dead branches are dry and brittle

        so the hard and unyielding belong to death
        and the soft and pliant belong to life

        an inflexible army does not triumph
        an unbending tree breaks in the wind

        thus the rigid and inflexible will surely fail
        while the soft and flowing will prevail

        Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu – chapter 76″


  8. It’s not the change as such that the Russians don’t like or fear. On the contrary, they welcome and promote it.
    It’s the superpower of “indispensable” people gone mad (and the whole West, for that matter) what concerns them, for they fear it’d do something entirely insane before collapsing.


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