Friday, 1 June 2018

Trump playing Napoleon? It could end in tears

Is it to be war, then?

Not, thank God, the shooting kind. But something almost as damaging. The enlightened Trump seems to have decided that the best way of dealing with the economic problems of the United States is a trade war with his allies. He’s poised to impose tariffs on imports from his two neighbours, Mexico and Canada, and on the world’s biggest trading bloc the European Union, which still includes Britain for now.

Trump: a latter-day Napoleon?
Without quite the genius...
By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading a biography of Napoleon, recommended to me by a French friend because, though written by an Englishman, it provides a superbly balanced view of the man. Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great is well worth reading, whichever side of the Channel your sympathies lie, since its meticulous research and lucid analysis punctures a lot of myths, of Napoleon as either the greatest of leaders or as a tyrannical monster.

As the Napoleonic wars progressed, both sides attempted to use economic weapons against the other. Britain, then undisputed master of the seas, used the Royal Navy to blockade the ports of France and the nations it had occupied, and even went so far as to wage war against the United States to try to enforce its embargo.

Equally, Napoleon tried to impose the Continental System on France and its occupied territories, to keep out all British trade. He was prepared to go so far as to invade Russia to impose respect of the embargo, a move which would lead to the catastrophic retreat from Moscow and ultimately the loss of his throne.

Describing the impact of these two competing trade boycotts, Roberts writes:

The year 1811 saw the start of a continental economic crisis that lasted two years and that also engulfed Britain, which was beset by bad harvests, wage cuts … and food shortages. Mulhouse in eastern France saw two-thirds of its workforce of 60,000 unemployed, and over 20,000 were unemployed in Lyons. Napoleon needed to stimulate economic growth, but his [adoption of eighteenth-century economic views], which rejected the idea of competition and free exchange as positive phenomena, sent him back to attempting to enforce ever more strictly the Continental System, even if it might eventually mean fighting Russia again…

By 1812 Napoleon believed that the Continental System was working, and cited the bankruptcies of various London banks and commercial enterprises to support this…

The system was, indeed, causing considerable harm to Britain’s economy.

Napoleon was not wrong in assuming that Britain was suffering very seriously as a result of his Continental System… Trade declined rapidly… the bad harvests of 1811 and 1812 led to food shortages and inflation, and war expenditure increased budget deficits from £16 million in 1810 to £27 million in 1812. Some 17 per cent of Liverpool’s population was unemployed during the winter of 1811/12, and the militia had to be deployed against potential rioters … across the Midlands and North of England, with ringleaders sentenced to transportation to Australia, or even in some cases death.

The parallels are striking, aren’t they? We can be sure that Trump will be as convinced as Napoleon that his trade measures are working. But the only certain consequence they’ll have is hardship on all sides – the eighteenth-century rejection of ‘the idea of competition and free exchange as positive phenomena’ is a dangerous illusion, a truth that both Trump supporters in the US and Brexiters in Britain would do well to learn.

The big difference is that, though he came badly unstuck at the end, Napoleon was a political genius as well as a military one. Even if we bend over backwards to be generous towards him, its hard to classify Trump as a genius of any kind. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that he has the mental capacity to learn the lessons of Napoleon’s final failure.

Retreat from Moscow
Crushing, immensely costly defeat - not least in lives
Because ultimately, Napoleon’s attempt to impose his system took him to war with Russia, leading to a crushing defeat and his downfall. That Trump suffers the same fate as Napoleon may seem highly desirable. However, Napoleon led an army of 500,000 into Russia and returned with just 50,000. Let’s hope that this isn’t the kind of price we pay for Trump’s failure to learn that adventures with trade weapons are as dangerous as the adventures with firearms he seems so keen to defend in the US.

Especially as the damage done by any such disaster in the twenty-first century is likely to be far greater than even on the retreat from Moscow in the nineteenth.

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