Getting to Goldilocks: Napoleon, the Venetian Republic and Balance in Political Risk Analysis

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

Introduction: The Self-Inflicted Haplessness of Venice

The Most Serene Republic of Venice, one of the most consequential states of the European Renaissance, ended the 1,100 years of its existence not with a bang but with a pathetic whimper. At its height and for hundreds of years, the Venetian maritime empire dominated the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean, as well as possessing a central land base in the Veneto on the northern Italian mainland. However, by the time the great Napoleon had fixed his sights on what he rightly called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ and determined that the Venetian pearl would be his, the city-state was but a shadow of its former self, largely because of a simple failure of political risk analysis.

Why was this former great power so utterly defenceless before Napoleon’s hordes? The simple, overriding answer to this question is that the Venetians had learned an important lesson down the centuries—war is often folly and always expensive—while entirely forgetting that they might need to keep other important—and countervailing—truisms about international relations in mind as well.

First amongst these is that having merely carrots (economic power) as an instrument on the global stage only works in a world populated entirely by rabbits; military power is sometimes required too. And whatever else you might say of him, the young Napoleon was hardly a rabbit.

Because of this fundamental misreading of human nature, the Venetian Republic responded with a reckless strategy of disarmament over the centuries that erased its mighty position in the world. By the latter days of the eighteenth century, the city-state was so divorced from the reality of power politics that when threatened by the French, it had absolutely no choice but to surrender.

Political risk analysts often exhibit a similar lack of balance, dooming their assessments. The holy grail of analysis is getting to Goldilocks—making policy assessments that are neither too hard nor too soft, by eschewing extremes and mono-causal answers and actually balancing the numerous important factors determining outcomes.

Venice’s Slow Castration

From the early sixteenth century on, the oligarchs who ran the Republic preferred to avoid the hard economic choices and belt-tightening that could have corrected their dangerous military decline (much like today’s modern European states). But as Venice was still a very rich city, and as its elite’s cosseted life of masked balls and opulence were hard to part with, it was far easier to do nothing about what seemed at the time to be merely a theoretical problem. It was only when Napoleon showed up at Venice’s doorstep that theory became all too real.

And to a point, of course, the Venetians were absolutely right. Often wars explode in the faces of those who engage in them, and almost always they are ruinously expensive. Peace in general is a better alternative for both the health of any state and the welfare of its people. No one is arguing that in general the Venetians were onto something with their peace-first strategy.

The problem was that over the centuries it became a peace-only strategy. For having grasped one essential reality of the world, the Venetian Republic wholly ignored other, darker, but no less important lessons about the nature of human beings and international relations. By 1796, on the eve of Napoleon’s brilliant Italian campaign, the Republic could no longer defend itself. Of its pathetic fleet of thirteen ships of the line, only a handful of even these proved to be seaworthy. The army was in even worse shape, consisting of only a few brigades of Croatian mercenaries.

The fundamental problem was that in policy terms the oligarchs had forgotten about balance in both foreign policy and political risk analysis, not being prepared to pay the steep price that would have been necessary to upgrade the Venetian fleet with the latest technology of eighteenth-century warfare. Through this intellectual failure of balance, Venice had castrated itself long before Napoleon came thundering out of the mountains, sealing its own doom.

Napoleon’s France as a Country on Military Steroids 

In his bedazzled, gilded youth, Napoleon Bonaparte shown like the sun. Beyond Alexander the Great, it is difficult to think of any leader in the history of the world to whom fame and glory came so early, and so overwhelmingly. Supremely competent, decisive, preternaturally driven, eloquent, quick-witted, and far-seeing, Bonaparte was capable of inspiring almost religious devotion in both his marshals and his men.

In 1797, Napoleon could uncannily see the inherent defencelessness of the Venetian Republic, a government that had chosen to simply ignore the basic imperative any state has to defend itself. However, Napoleon was to make a diametrically opposed analytical misjudgement himself.

The Venetians were undoubtedly lotus-eaters, basking in their tranquil apathy, as the forces of the real world slowly and ominously gathered around them. But in worshipping the god Mars, Napoleon was to make an equally disastrous political risk mistake. For behind all his highly impressive domestic reforms was an effort to increasingly militarise French society, to make it fit for purpose to take on the rest of Continental Europe for almost a generation. This imbalanced over-reliance on war was to doom the glorious Bonaparte. In always seeing the need for war, he was as out of kilter as were the Venetians, who never saw the need for it.

For in reality, it was the overly militaristic, self-perpetuating expansionism of Napoleon’s France that led to his greatest strategic setbacks in both Spain and Russia. Both the Spanish and Russian disasters arose out of Napoleon fighting wars of choice, conflicts that a less martial status quo power would have entirely avoided.

Of course, Napoleon paid the ultimate price for his utopian, overly militaristic, unbalanced folly, ironically much as the Venetian oligarchs had done. On May 5, 1821, the great man died in exile on the obscure island of St. Helena, far from the trappings of his once-supreme power, an unwitting victim of having legendarily used the military lever of politics without ever learning that there are other motive forces of history as well.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Balance

Two great powers, the Venetian Republic and its vanquisher, the great Napoleon, were laid waste to when they could not overcome a fundamental political risk analytical error. Commercial Venice forgot along the way that a state’s paramount need is always to defend itself, that there will always be creatures in the foreign policy jungle to be fought off. Evil and aggression in the world cannot be wished away just because it is far more pleasant to attend glittering seaside parties and to produce breath-taking works of art.

Some sort of balance is called for. Over the centuries, Venice’s abdication of responsibility for seeing the world as it is left it entirely at the mercy of the young, covetous Napoleon when he made his way over the Alps. But given the Venetians’ fundamental misreading of the world, it hardly mattered that it was Napoleon who brought the Venetian Republic down. Someone would have.

But Napoleon, in his diametrically opposed way, made the same fundamental error as the Italian oligarchs he so effortlessly conquered. The sword had made Napoleon the most famous man in the world and given him, a minor Corsican aristocrat, first a throne and then the dominant position in Europe.

It is human and understandable that even a man of Bonaparte’s first-rate intellect, having personally experienced how far the military component of power could take both a genius and a country, failed to see that his over-reliance on the military instrument of power was highly skewed, to the exclusion of a more balanced strategy, such as that pursued by Pitt’s England throughout the period. It is understandable, but Napoleon’s sad end makes it clear that his failure of balance was absolutely toxic.

Modern political risk analysts would do well to take note of both the historical examples of Venice and Napoleon. There are many motive forces of history and analysis, and all the major ones must be taken into account altogether if political risk analysis is to get anywhere. To forget the absolute need for getting to Goldilocks—the essential political risk commandment of the imperative of finding analytical balance—is to get every big thing wrong, no matter how right analysts are about the detail. For both analysis and policy require more than one basic insight into how our complicated world works.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.