17th Century Spain and The Allure of Idealized History in Grand Strategy
Many readers may be familiar with Paul Kennedy’s classic The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. It is often recommended to those who have an interest in grand strategy. However, readers might be less familiar with a collection of essays edited by Kennedy, Grand Strategies in War and Peace, which, while less comprehensive than Kennedy’s 1987 work, poses a number of interesting questions about how states conceive of their national interests and of effective grand strategy. Out of the book’s 10 essays, J.H. Elliot’s “Managing Decline: Olivares and the Grand Strategy of Imperial Spain” is a particularly interesting perspective on how idealized history may warp the desirability of grand strategic models and creates obstacles for managing decline.
In “Managing Decline,” Elliot outlines the 17th century geopolitical climate facing Spain and Prime Minister Gaspar de Guzman, the count-duke of Olivares. Having made a tentative peace with the Dutch following a largely unsuccessful and costly war aimed at fully reintegrating the rebellious Netherlands, Spain and its political elite felt a great deal of trepidation when it came to making plans for the future of the country. Out of this unease emerged a deluge of writing on issues of decline and prescriptions for restoring Spanish glory. The dialectic of decline generally manifested in two ways. The first argument was essentially a discussion of the seemingly natural historical forces that lead to decline and of how to slow the cyclical decline of the state. The second argument concerned itself with the moral aspects of the decline in Spanish power. The moral arguments were usually framed by a historical narrative of the Roman slide into decadence, corruption, and “effeminacy” leading to that ancient empire’s downfall. The antidotes for the poison that threatened Spain’s greatness, in this second area of analysis, lay in a simple return to the traditional values that ushered the country into its golden age in the first place.
So, according to the 17th century equivalent to policy wonks, if Spain was to maintain its place in a rapidly changing and globalizing world, it must defend the physical limits of its realm from erosion and look to social and political reforms to strengthen the state and its ability to make war, drawing on the notion that reversion to tradition could bring back the rhythm of progress. Unfortunately, progress from Spain’s present position would be costly and predicated on more than piety, and its economic and political woes would exacerbate its inability to effectively confront its foreign policy challenges in the coming years as expenditures grew and revenues shrank.
Olivares came into office in 1621, three years after the beginning of the Thirty Years War, and oversaw a renewal of hostilities with the Dutch in that same year. In a time of great trials, the Olivares regime looked back to, as Elliot writes, the “more remote and glorious past of a reign of Phillip II that was beginning to be idealized with passage of time…Renewal, in other words, could only come with the restoration of old values.”
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