The Komneniad: Diplomacy and Distrust

To explain the breakdown of the international system in the decades following 1730, we must carefully balance two competing models of geostrategic behaviour: The formal realist theory and the more ad-hoc statesman model.

Realist theory holds that states always act to maximise their relative power, thus increasing their security in the anarchic international system; to the extent that one can sum up a model of diplomacy in a slogan, “there is no 911” is the slogan of realists. Realism claims to be both a prescriptive and a descriptive model: That is, it says that states should act to maximise relative power, in order to ensure the security and welfare of their citizens; and it also says that states in fact do act as it says they should. Realism does not concern itself with the internal details of states; its theorists claim show that democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, oligarchic republics, and New Guinean tribes all act according to its prescriptions. Realist theoreticians, therefore, consider states as billiard balls, varying in size, but otherwise indistinguishable.

Realism is, nevertheless, a model: Like Clausewitz’s (*) “True War”, it is a Platonic ideal that, when implemented by fallible humans, can only be approximated, never fully reached. The difference between what we might term “True Geopolitics”, the ideal of the state which always seizes any slightest possible advantage, and “Actual Geopolitics”, war and diplomacy as practised by actual humans who have – perish the thought! – hesitations, moral scruples, public opinions to deal with, a lack of complete ruthlessness, pacifistic ideals, and even in some cases actual piety – this difference, which we may call the friction of realism, can only be explained by some theory outside of realism. Such a theory must pay close attention to the internal details of states, taking indeed a diametrically opposite approach to the black box of realism. Thus we have statesman theory, which attempts to explain the actions of states in terms of what their presidents, dictators, oligarchs, or tribal chiefs were thinking at the time, and – in principle – whether their ulcers or gout had been bothering them that day.

(* This timeline doesn’t, of course, have a Clausewitz per se; but I expect that some similar theorist will arise, and to avoid confusing my readers I follow a translation convention. Similarly, this timeline won’t have a Marx, a Nietszche, or a Schrödinger by those names, but their ideas will be thought by someone, and if I need to refer to them I’ll do so by the OTL names that my readers will recognise.)

The models do, however, interact: For statesmen may, among their many other motives, be moved to act by ideas of realism, whether maintaining the balance of power or straightforwardly seeking power for their country. Indeed, the realist theoretician seeking support for his theory can easily find it in the private letters of many a diplomat or politician. At the same time, it is important not to cherry-pick: History also offers examples of famous statesmen who have expressed, even in private letters, the idea that such-and-such an act might be of great advantage for their country, but would be dishonourable and must therefore be avoided. Still more common are those who held that an act would be advantageous, but that it could not be defended to an un-cynical (or un-realist) public. It is worth noting that even in a dictatorship there are interest groups whose support must be courted, and if powerful men benefit from, say, an alliance with X, they cannot be quickly convinced of the need to betray the alliance and conquer X, no matter how beneficial that would be for the country as a whole. Indeed, it is a characteristic of dictatorships to be run for the benefit of small groups rather than the entire population; intuitively, then, we might almost expect dictatorships to be less realist than democracies, since it should be easier for other states to bribe the relatively small leadership into actions that reduce the dictatorship’s security, while increasing the personal welfare of the elite. But in fact, dictators who are straightforwardly kleptocratic are rare, and so are examples of dictators bribed to betray their country into another’s hands.

In considering the diplomatic developments surrounding the various wars of the middle eighteenth century – what at the time were called the World Wars because almost every civilised state was fighting at one time or another – we need a full appreciation of both models. One can view this period as the struggle of Catalunya for full regional hegemony in the Americas, and the construction of a balancing coalition to stop this attempt; in Europe, one can see Bavaria reaching the status of potential hegemon, and others forming an encircling coalition to reduce its power. This is the realist view. Alternatively, one can see these decades as an object lesson in the importance of trust, not institutional but personal, even between states whose self-interest dictates alliance.

At this point a summary of the major events is needed as a framework for analysis. In brief, then:
Around 1735, economic development in South America advanced to the point where its Iberian rulers felt, first, the need for a different project to absorb their energies, and second, sufficiently strong to complete their centuries-old ambition of full hemispheric hegemony. They accordingly provoked a war with the native confederation that ruled the western seaboard of North America. The piteous cries for help of that state created a coalition of Pacific powers to maintain its independence and, more to the point, prevent Catalunya from gaining access to the resources of an entire continent; it may be added that the Chinese and Roman oligarchies were not shy about asking for trading privileges in the state they were rescuing ostensibly from the sheer goodness of their hearts and an unflinching commitment to the balance of power.

At the same time, tension between Persia and the African alliance that dominated the Indian and Mediterranean seas – a tension compounded of irredentism and aggression on both sides, in that both Persia and the Caliphate could claim to be the traditional rulers of the Levant, though at this time Persia was in actual possession – boiled over into war. The African alliance was joined by Croatia, which – in the name of being the true successor of the Roman Empire, whose old capital of Constantinople it held – sought to add Anatolia to its domains.

This, however, immediately raised concern about the balance of power in Russia, Bavaria, and as far afield as China and New Byzantium. As with the American Confederation, a coalition was formed to rescue Persia from the aggressor; but this Eurasian conflict was complicated by the existence of treaties of friendship and even alliance between several pairs of belligerents on opposite sides. Thus Bavaria, for example, intervening to uphold Persian sovereignty, remained at peace with its neighbour Croatia, while fighting Croatia’s African allies as far south as the Sinai!

However, while this tactic allowed Bavaria to accomplish its goal of saving Persia from annihilation, the long-term effect was to undermine the belief, among the elite of all nations, in the sanctity of treaties. Accusations of bad faith and treaty-breaking flew even thicker than musketry volleys, and in particular the African elites came to distrust those of Russia and Persia, and vice-versa. Consequently, when Bavaria entered the American war in support of Catalunya’s ambitions – partly because Chinese diplomats, with the customary arrogance of the Middle Kingdom, had spoken to their German counterparts in terms of “loyalty to the Dragon Throne” and “the filial duty-to-obey of vassal rulers”, and been unsubtle in making threats of “the Emperor gathering all his loyal vassals to punish those who breach his peace” – it proved nearly impossible to reverse the diplomatic momentum and form a coalition against this potentially hegemonic alliance.

In particular, Persian courtiers proved nearly hysterically resistant to the idea of making common cause with their African enemies, on the grounds that the Black Empires were not to be trusted and would certainly make a separate peace at the first opportunity, and then turn again on Persia. Baghdad also contained a considerable faction who felt that Bavaria had aided them in their time of trouble, and that they owed some gratitude. Although it has been said that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests, this cold maxim is not the whole of the truth as long as decisions are made by men who remember seeing a foreign uniform march to their aid on a stricken field.

Conversely, both African and Croatian oligarchs looked askance at the idea of an alliance with the Czar; Catalunyan diplomats had an easy time of dredging up old grievances and perceived breaches of treaty by Russia. Nor was the common cause of alliance against Bavaria aided by our old friends, the Chinese mandarins, who rarely bothered to hide their contempt for anyone not trained in the Analects. In fairness to the Chinese, they may also have been frustrated by the failure of both the Black Empires and the Russian/Persian bloc to act in their own best interests, but they were also quite unable to shed their cultural assumption that an envoy of the Middle Kingdom did not need to persuade, but could simply order. Indeed in several cases negotiations broke down into harangues and browbeating of dumbfounded African diplomats, who for their part found it hard to believe that a civilised realm could so completely ignore accepted etiquette between sovereign states.

Thus in 1742 a fragile anti-Bavarian coalition collapsed when the Black Empires, citing bad faith on the part of Russia, instead joined Bavaria in attacking the eastern states; meanwhile Catalunya renewed its attacks on the American Confederation, again with Bavarian support. The fact that any state could fight effectively on two fronts, one of which was across an ocean, was widely pointed out as evidence of Bavaria’s near-hegemonic status; but events now had their own irresistible momentum, and by 1748 Croatian troops were occupying much of the Ukraine, while both Czar and Shahanshah issued communiques on the necessity of fighting to the very end, as Rome had once done.

Heads, nevertheless, had now had time to cool, and when a chastened China sent new diplomats to attempt mediation in this Vengeance War, they found the Black Empires ready to listen. Negotiations to save Russia from dismemberment and avoid the destruction of its vast armies – badly needed if any credible resistance against Bavaria was to be built – were hampered, nonetheless, by a long list of “distrust dyads”, traditional hatreds and tensions between the states:

  • Ethiopian elites refused to engage with Russia; and their Kongolese allies went so far as to state that they would not even eat a Russian noble – the ultimate insult in the empire of the Eaters.
  • Persians were paranoid about African attack.
  • Croatians carried a chip against Persia.
  • Visits from Chinese diplomats cheered nobody.
  • The Khanate retained its traditional aspiration to Russian domains in Siberia – and the Russians knew it well.
  • And, of course, everyone hated the Jews.

Against such a backdrop of personal dislikes, vendettas, insults at banquets, misunderstandings of cultural quirks – admittedly, the Kongolese habit of ostentatiously licking the lips while looking someone up and down, although usually intended for a compliment, is somewhat unnerving – it is amazing that anything could be done at all.

Excerpt from Diplomatic history of the World Wars, volume I, 1725-1748,
Andronikos son of Telemakhos,
Beijing University Press, (C) 1910.

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