Many see the First World War as the end of the Prussian monarchy, or the birth of Communist Russia, but overlook the eclipse of one of the world’s greatest empires, that of the Ottomans. Since the defeat of Christian Byzantium at the sack of Constantinople, Europe’s south-eastern flank would be dominated by the world of Islam. This reality – born in the middle-ages – would persist until 1918. The First World War marked the end of an age and the beginning of another in many respects, but perhaps the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is the most drastic example of this historic watershed.
While Europe was trapped in centuries of dark ages, the world of Islam had been culturally and technologically ahead. Muslim cities in the medieval period possessed advanced infrastructure and architecture, the accomplishments of their universities and libraries meant they were the world’s best in many areas of science and industry. Once North Africa and much of the Middle East had belonged to the Romans, but by the Medieval period these lands had fallen to the Caliphate. Byzantium was the Medieval continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire had been overrun by barbarian hordes, its title reused by the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish King Charlemagne. To medieval Europe, the Muslim threat was embodied by the Ottoman Turks, a reality which continued into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, and indeed until the Great War. The Turks were the face of Islam from the defeat of the Byzantines at Battle of Manzikert in 1071 until 1918; only recently have the Arabs been recognised as the head of Muslim civilization.
Constantinople had at one point been the greatest city in Europe. It had been the capital of Byzantium, which had remained a Christian entity since the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine ruled from its seat. But the city fell to the Turks in 1453. If this caused anxiety for the Christian monarchs of eastern and southern Europe, the next century would cause considerably more.
Following Turkish conquest of Damascus in 1516 and their subsequent advances on Egypt and Arabia, the janissary armies of the Ottomans turned on Hungary, which had become the great eastern christian bastion after the fall of Constantinople. Following the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Hungary was overrun. The Ottoman Empire was now at its height, and covered more territory than that of Rome. One could hardly blame scholars at the time for concluding that the future would belong to the Islamic world, and much of the continent would inevitably belong to the Sultan. This inclination nearly became reality when the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1529, and when they did so again in 1683.
The capitulation of the Ottomans: a drawn-out affair
Yet the Ottoman Empire would inevitably falter and collapse. Its armies and navies, however formidable, were overextended – needing to maintain frontiers in Central Europe, the Crimean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Near East where the Ottomans were challenged by the Persians. This geographic challenge of the area is one I explore further in The Geopolitical Realities of Eurasia. Its challenges were not insurmountable, but as a single entity the Ottoman Empire was overly centralised. Whereas European division was in many ways the continent’s strength, as competing states would challenge one-another to explore and expand, one foolish Sultan could do more damage to the Ottoman Empire that any lone European monarch or pope could ever hope to accomplish. From 1566 on, there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession, sealing the empire’s doom.
It was the slow retreat of the Turks that caused the European powers to look towards the Balkans and consider who would benefit from the Turkish collapse. It was this power struggle, known as the ‘Eastern Question,’ that among other things motivated a Habsburg Archduke to parade himself and his nation’s power in Sarajevo, whose death in turn triggered the Great War that would divide the lands that still remained under Turkish control.
The First World War severed the Arab provinces from the sultan’s grip. Ironically, early twentieth-century Arabian warfare was remarkably similar to that of fourteenth-century Europe, allowing the medieval-military historian Thomas Edward Lawrence to exploit the Arabic advantages. Of course, this legendary figure did not engineer the Arabic revolt on his own, his own account of the events in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was admitted to be part myth. Furthermore, the Arabs would not get what they had fought for, as the ever imperialist states of Britain and France would divide the Middle East between themselves. This, after-all, was inadvertently why the whole war had begun.
Lawrence’s companion, Prince Feisal, spoke to the delegation in the Paris Peace Conference while Lawrence translated. They must have looked an odd pair, especially the Englishman who had donned the white robes and gold sashing normally reserved for a senior sheik. Feisal said that the Arabs wanted self-determination, and while he was prepared to exempt Lebanon and Palestine from this demand, the rest of the Arab world should be given independence as the British and French had promised. When the French reminded Lawrence that their forces had fought in Syria during the crusades, Lawrence replied: “Yes, but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.” Against the wishes of Lawrence and the Arabs, Britain was also determined to get a piece of the Middle East. Forced to prevent the non-colonial aspirations of the American President Woodrow Wilson by co-operating, the two imperial rivals came to a quick compromise; Britain would get Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, while France would get Syria and Lebanon. The Arabian Peninsula did not concern the imperial powers much, probably because all those ‘miles of sand’ were not of much value at the time.
The British motives were clear. For long they had supported the Ottoman Empire to keep the eastern end of the Mediterranean safe for their shipping, but now they needed an alternate hold in the area. This motivation highlights the geopolitical value of the area. Where once the Muslims had dominated the Silk Road which provided medieval Europe with eastern riches, now the British needed to protect its trade route to India. Of course, the Industrial Revolution had created new interests in the area’s oil, but the old geopolitical motives persisted as well.
Constantinople was promised to the Russian Czar at one point in the war, but the concessions made by the Bolsheviks cancelled that agreement. While the once-great Ottoman Empire was divided, Constantinople would remain in the hands of its owners since 1453. It was occupied by the allied powers (unofficially at first), but this would not survive the determination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Remarking at the presence of allied warships in Constantinople’s harbour, he proclaimed: “As they have come, so they shall go.”
A modern Turkey would rise from the ashes
As a young officer in the Turkish military, Atatürk oversaw Austria’s annexation of Bosnia, and Bulgaria secession from Turkish influence. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 result in the Ottomans loss of Albania and Macedonia, and Libya had been lost to the Italians. By 1914, the European portion of the Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched far into Hungary, was almost wholly gone – all that remained was an enclave in Thrace. Throughout the Great War, Atatürk remained the only undefeated Ottoman general. His reputation was made at Gallipoli, the same battle where many allied reputations were destroyed. In his eyes Turkey was defeated not by greater armies, but by greater civilization. Henceforth, he would ensure Turkey would adopt European-style culture and politics. Indeed, Turkey remains a secular state to this day.
Atatürk sent Inonu Ismet, a trusted general, to the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate. He was instructed to achieve an independent Turkey, and as a good soldier he intended to achieve just this by any means. Turkey’s new borders included almost all the Turkish speaking territories of their former Ottoman Empire, but the fact was the empire had ended and a new very different state had been birthed. It was truly the end of an age.
Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia. New York: Random House, 2013.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2002.
The classic example of a preventive strike is the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen. Since this battle was used as a precedent for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it only seems right to compare the two preventive attacks. A US or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would also be a preventive strike. Granted, it is difficult to compare events that occurred across over 200 years, the world’s international norms are indeed almost incomparable. Despite this some broad lessons can be drawn.
First a note on definitions. A pre-emptive strike occurs when a state fears real foreign aggression, and thus attacks to gain the advantage in an impeding conflict. A preventative strike occurs when a state fears another state may change the balance of power against itself, and attacks to counter this.
The failure of appeasement is often falsely used to justify preventive attacks
Since the 1939 Munich agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany, ‘appeasement’ has been labelled as a bad strategy. If only the allies had pre-emptively attacked Hitler, the devastation of World War 2 would have been prevented. Often this example is cited as a reason to attack preventivey to prevent radical states from acting aggressively. This argument is flawed because it does not argue for a preventive attack, but rather a pre-emptive attack, since it was clear Nazi Germany was preparing for war. Furthermore it does not even cite a pre-emptive attack working, but rather the lack of a pre-emptive attack failing. A more accurate example of a preventive attack being used with success occurred during the Napoleonic wars: Copenhagen 1807.
Battle of Copenhagen 1807: Brutal but effective
Never was Napoleon Bonaparte able to muster enough ships to rival the British Royal Navy on the high seas. He was thus never able to directly threaten the British mainland. He instead attempted to starve Great Britain of European trade by imposing the continental system wherein the continental European states were forbid to trade with England. Both the Peninsular War which resulted in what would soon be coined as the ‘Spanish ulcer’ and Napoleon’s disastrous Russia-campaign were caused by Napoleon attempting to impose this trade-regime. Thus these developments were caused by Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy.
Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy – and thus his inability to impose the continental system – was in turn at least partially caused by a preventive strike by England. In June of 1807 Napoleon had crushed Russian forces at Friedland. In July he had made peace with Czar Alexander I of Russia at Tilsit. This treaty created the Duchy of Warsaw, a new state allied to Napoleonic France. Previously, the newly formed Confederation of the Rhine had also joined forces with Napoleon after the Battle of Austerlitz. The Baltic was quickly becoming a French controlled lake, and a significant battle-fleet based in Copenhagen was at risk of falling into French hands. To prevent this from happening, in August of 1807 British troops led by Sir Arthur Wellesley landed and surrounded the city, while the British Navy set to bombard the capital from sea. When the Danish commander, General Ernst Peymann, refused to surrender the city and subsequently the Danish fleet, the bombardment began. On September 7, 1807, the Danish fleet was surrendered to England.
The modern view of pre-emptive and preventive war
Today both pre-emptive and preventive attacks are considered aggression, and both are considered illegal by international law unless approved of by the United Nations Security Council. Despite this preventive attacks still occur, from the Six Days War in 1967 (which actually can be considered both preventive and pre-emptive) to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Furthermore, the Battle of Copenhagen has been criticized heavily, being called one of the first terror attacks on civilian population in warfare. 2,000 civilians were killed causing US President Thomas Jefferson to memorably brand the British action as being “signalized by the total extinction of national morality.” Although there is little doubt the bombardment of Copenhagen was brutal, it is fallacy to hold military actions of the early-1800s to today’s moral standards. What must be remembered is that the Battle of Copenhagen was successful in preventing Napoleon from mustering a significant fleet, and thus Britain was never rivalled on the high seas. As such this preventive strike was thus used as a precedent for other preventive strikes, from the British bombardment of the French fleet at the Algerian coast at Mers el-Kebir in 1940 (to ensure the French fleet would not fall into Hitler’s hands) to the United States invading Iraq in 2003.
Iraq 2003: Going too far
If a preventive war is to ever be justified in the modern world, it must neutralize a legitimate threat, and must limit cost and loss of life. The United States launched a preventive attack in 2003 against Iraq. In the wake of September 11, the United States believed invading Iraq would tip the balance of power in its favour and against Islamic terrorism. But, as I argue in The Utility of the War on Terror the invasion of Iraq worked against the Bush administration’s interests because it did not understand the nature of Islamic terrorism.
Perhaps Iraq can be seen as a pre-emptive attack because the Bush administration believed attacking Iraq would be an effective way to maintain US security (despite being mistaken) and it believed Iraq possessed WMD (as I argue in The Weapons Weren’t There – The Intelligence Failure that was Iraq). I believe it is preventive because it did not fear an immediate Iraqi attack, but rather Iraq’s influence. It thus attempted to make Iraq an example to states and networks that worked to threaten American security in the wake of 9/11.
Lessons from Copenhagen and Iraq applied to Iran
Despite Iraq, preventive war comes with its proponents. I can see the value of a surgical airstrike of Iran’s nuclear facilities should all other tactics of prevention fail. Doing so would be less dangerous than allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East (I explore this further in A New Strategy on Iran). Thus we must examine the recent and classic history of preventive war. When comparing Copenhagen’s legacy with that of Iraq, three broad lessons can be drawn. These lessons can be loosely applied to Iran.
First, the goal is not to defeat and occupy the enemy state itself, the goal is to prevent it from causing a threat. This is a lesson that seems to have been forgotten by the Bush administration when it attacked Iraq in 2003. English forces did not work to occupy Denmark in 1807, they simply nullified the threat the Danish fleet posed. To truly prevent Saddam from harbouring and/or using WMD in 2003 (the stated goal of the invasion) the Bush Administration should have targeted individual sites and facilities. Instead it embarked on a long and costly occupation of Iraq. Granted, the true political goal of the Bush administration was to make an example of Saddam to enemies of the United States – one can only wonder if there was a less heavy-handed way of accomplishing this. Concerning Iran, America and/or Israel must surgically destroy nuclear sites and facilities with as little loss of civilian life as possible. Only by targeting the specific threat can the political goal of the preventive attack be achieved.
Second, the goal of a preventive attack must be clear and easily achievable. The invasion of Iraq occurred in the wake of 9/11 and was thus used loosely meant to combat foreign Islamic terrorism. The Bush administration believed by invading Iraq it could intimidate other international actors by displaying the fact that America was prepared to use force first. Changing the willingness of international jihadist networks to prevent a terrorist attack through the invasion of a unrelated state is not clearly achievable. As such the attack failed. In 1807 it was clear Napoleonic France could use the Danish Navy to its advantage, and it was clear capturing the fleet would prevent this from occurring. As such the attack succeeded. Concerning Iran the goal is clear, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It is also easily achievable, by destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities . Whether Iran decides to continue developing nuclear weapons after this setback is an unrelated matter. Napoleon could have decided to invest in ship-building after 1807’s setback, but decided not to. Like Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, Iran may give up after such a setback.
Third, a pre-emptive strike must always be used as a last resort. To avoid being branded an aggressor all other options must first be explored. In 1807 the British first requested that the Danish fleet be willingly surrendered. One wonders if the Bush administration could have implemented a more long-term strategy.
A final reminder
One thing not learned from Copenhagen but integral for Iran’s success is the precision of the attack. The world is not like it was in 1807, and the death of civilians is exponentially more undesirable. The United States and/or Israel must be extremely careful when limiting the the death of innocents. In fact any collateral damage would work against the United States and Israel by turning the Iranian population against foreign influence.
Davies, Peter. Copenhagen’s Second Battle Remembered, The Times. London: 2007.
Markham, David J and Cameron Reilly. Napoleon 101 Podcast.
Record, Jeffrey. Wanting War. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2010.
Simms, Brendan. “Castlereagh’s Catechism,” Foreign Affairs vol. 92 no. 2 March/April 2013.
Taming American Power, Stephen M. Walt, 2005.
Anyone who glances at the Eurasian map and concludes that the countries that make up the continent came about due to the decisions of men or women is sadly mistaken. Although government actions are indeed at times a factor, the overriding force that forms nations, states, and empires in this region is geography. Anyone studying Eurasian politics should be aware of these geopolitical realities.
On Eurasia’s western end (Europe) there exists a collection of countries, while its eastern end is dominated by a single state: China. Eurasia’s northern swathe is controlled exclusively by Russia, while its south is divided amongst a number of countries. These are the realities of the Eurasian map; they do not come about because of mere chance, but are caused by geography. I will examine these realities.
Europe consists of a multitude of states while China consists of one
Looking at the Eurasian map, does it not appear peculiar that while the West consists of so many states that none dominate the region, the East is clearly dominated by a single state? This phenomenon has existed throughout history. Since 221 BC, China has been a single unified nation. China has occasionally disintegrated during ‘warring states’ periods, but generally a single dynasty has always maintained control of the area. This fact is due to geography. Meanwhile in Europe, no single state has ever dominated the entire continent – at one point Rome may have come close, but this remains the exception. The continent resisted the aspirations of Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler. This fact is again due to geography.
Europe has a highly indented coastline. It has five large peninsulas, all of which evolved independent people, languages, and subsequent governments. These peninsulas are Norway/Sweden, Denmark, Portugal/Spain, Italy, and Greece. Europe also has two major islands, Britain and Ireland. Europe is further carved up by a series of mountain ranges, the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians, and the Norwegian Border Mountains. Finally Europe’s two major rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, serve as borders to further divide the continent. The division of Europe by geography served to develop a multitude of ethnic groups, governments, and states. Such is Europe’s division that its nations have historically been in a state of near-constant war, be it between the Athenians and the Spartans, or between the Prussians, Habsburgs, and Ottomans, or between the British, French, Germans, and Russians. Today Europe’s peoples bicker over economics and are less unified than many would have us believe.
China, on the other hand, has a much smoother coastline. Only the Korean peninsula and the peninsula of South-East Asia are sufficiently separated to allow for the formation of separate nations. China’s two largest islands, Taiwan and Hainan, are each less than half the size of Ireland. Japan is the only island to be large enough to form a separate state. China’s only mountain range (the Himalayas) separates it from India rather than separating its people. China’s heartland is bound together by two long navigable rivers, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. North and South China are bound together by a relatively easy connection between these two rivers that was later linked by the Grand Canal. Europe’s two major rivers are much smaller, and connect much less of the continent, and thus do not serve as the unifiers that China’s rivers do. What appears as peculiar at first is really quite simply a result of geography.
The Northern swathe will always be dominated by a single aggressive nation
The Russia political elite have historically always believed they must defend Russia from influence and invasion by securing its frontiers. This foreign policy paradigm is traceable to the thirteenth century, when Russia was smashed by the Mongols who rampaged across Eurasia, and was denied access to the European Renaissance. Russia was thus branded with bitter feelings of inferiority and insecurity. To maintain its security, Russia must conquer as much territory as it can. Kaplan argues throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Kremlin attempts to bring Eastern European countries back into its sphere of influence, and why it invaded Georgia in 2008. My article The Wiley Bear – Russian Motives for the Nord Stream Pipeline analyses this phenomenon in relation to pipeline politics.
Only analysing Russia’s paradigm today ignores the fact that throughout history any nation that controls Eurasia’s North acts in this way. Just as the Mongols devastated medieval Europe, the Huns sacked Rome, and the Scythians raided from the east before that. The Great Wall of China was built to defend against steppe raiders. Each of these nations aggressively secured their frontiers in a similar manner to that of Russia in the last century. This fact is caused entirely by geography. From the Hungarian plain, through Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and Central Asia to Manchuria of the Far East lays the Central Asian steppe, the world’s vastest grassland. It was called “the great grass road” by Russian scholar W. Bruce Lincoln. Any peoples who reside on this steppe are inevitably insecure, because they have no natural defenses such as mountains or forest. They must conquer or be conquered. After the High Middle Ages, Russia became the single nation to dominate this region, but this region has always been dominated by a single nation, be it the Mongols, the Huns, or the Scythians, and this fact is due to geography.
The Middle East and Southern Asia: again a multitude of states
Because of geography a single state dominates Eurasia’s north. It is also because of geography that Eurasia’s south is divided. Like in Europe, no single nation has dominated this region. Although the Persian Empire of 500 BC, Alexander the Great, and the Ottoman Empire have each come extremely close, these remain exceptions to the rule.
Geography defines the Middle East’s borders. The borders of Iran are defined by the Iranian plateau while the borders of Turkey are defined by the Anatolian land bridge. The Arabian Peninsula is dominated by Saudi Arabia. Yemen exists at this peninsula’s south because this area is characterised by mountains and a network of oases.
India too is defined by geography. It is a peninsula framed by the Arabian Sea on its west, and the Bay of Bengal on its east. The mountainous Burmese jungles separate it from the nations of South-East Asia, while the Himalayas separate it from Tibet. But geography has also left India vulnerable to attack from the northeast. India is bordered by the Persian-Afghan plateau, which consists of a gradual incline rather than a divisive mountain range. India is thus dangerously close to the Central Asian steppe. It is from here that India has faced invading Greeks, Persians, and Mongols. The British Empire felt most vulnerable at this frontier during the Great Game, and it is here that India faces its rival Pakistan today. I outlined this last fact when I argued India is ‘cursed by geography’ in my article The Era of the Eagle – American Hegemony is Here to Stay. But while India is indeed defined by geography, it is also divided by it. India does not have the same unifying rivers that China does. Its multitude of river systems (be it the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Tungabhadra, Godavari etc.) only divide the region. Its weak borders mean other nations such as Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh exist on the Indian subcontinent. These non-unifying factors mean historically India has been made up of many polities, and more recently a Hindu-Muslim drama has occurred.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.