The Peril and Promise of Austro-America
In 2020, Richard Kreitner, a writer for The Nation, published Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union. He argued that America has always been a series of secessions of a kind, as new cities and states sprang up in response to dissatisfaction with the old ones. Kreitner’s book was interpreted as a petition of grievance against the Trump administration: We progressives don’t want to live in Orange Man America.
Once Donald Trump was out of office, the secessionist energy on the left dissipated. The right then picked up the idea. In October 2021, conservative pundit David Reaboi published an essay headlined, “National Divorce Is Expensive, But It’s Worth Every Penny.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a fire-eater if there ever was one, took up the cause, reaping, as she always does, plenty of publicity.
The phrase “national divorce” implies a peaceful process; indeed, sometimes divorces can even be, at least for purposes of public consumption, amicable. On occasion, the divorced couple even continues to live under the same roof—the husband just moves to the basement.
Yes, Americans are plenty polarized, red vs. blue, rural vs. urban, Fox News vs. MSNBC. And yet for all this hostility, we lack a Fort Sumter, that is, an actual outbreak of heavy violence as when the South Carolina militia started shooting on April 12, 1861. Indeed, it seems fair to assert that the United States has all the preconditions for a civil war today except one: the willingness to actually fight for the sake of disunity.
Admittedly, there was that riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, yet that mob violence was notable for its lack of guns and gunfire—at least on the side of the intruders. Whatever one thinks of the overall seriousness of January 6, the attack on the Capitol was not the revolutionary storming of the Bastille or the seizing of the Winter Palace. In the year since, hundreds of the rioters have been arrested without incident, and many have apologized and pleaded guilty—not exactly the stuff of a second civil war.
Still, the Biden administration seems helpless to stop red-state America from going its separate way. The federal government finds itself challenged and blocked by activist Republican governors, most notably Ron DeSantis of Florida. After a long period in which the federal government gained power relative to the states, Red America is now charting its own destiny. Madisonian federalism is on the upswing.
To illustrate, we might consider the federal role in Covid-19 policy. Much of Joe Biden’s victorious presidential campaign was devoted to critiquing Trump’s handling of the epidemic. The Democrats’ 2020 platform linked the epidemic to “systemic racism” and pledged “fundamental reforms” as part of a “comprehensive” approach to ending the epidemic, to be spearheaded, of course, by the left’s beloved feds.
Once in office, President Biden tried to continue that top-down approach. On August 3, explicitly targeting DeSantis, Biden declared, “Get out of the way of the people that are trying to do the right thing.”
Yet by December 27, the president conceded, “There is no federal solution. This gets solved at a state level.” His anti-Covid campaign melted down amidst a combination of over-promising and under-delivering. For instance, for all his big talk, Biden was never willing to take on the open-borders lobby (many of these lobbyists having burrowed into his administration) and insist that all migrants to the U.S. legal and illegal be tested and vaccinated. Such requirements were to be reserved for certain categories of U.S. citizens. Sadly for Biden, the disjunction between the treatment of non-citizens and citizens did not play well in Peoria.
It was a surrender; the feds had lost their mojo. Republican governors sought even more victories. Greg Abbott of Texas declared that Biden’s attempt at vaccination mandates were an improper threat to “Texas sovereignty.” Perhaps somewhere old John C. Calhoun was smiling at the thought of a comeback for his favorite word, nullification.
According to FiveThirtyEight, President Biden’s approval rating is around 42 percent, and his disapproval rating hovers near 52. Interestingly, Biden’s numbers are roughly comparable to Trump’s four years ago. In fact, the two men seem to mirror each other: Just as many Blue Americans were happy to say that Trump was not their president, so today Red Americans regard Biden as a “Brandon.”
The federal government itself is increasingly seen as a Blue Thing. In the view of Red America, it’s an occupying force controlled by the woke. The deep state is now risen, in all its Lovecraftian horror. In response, Republicans in red states have gone about building up their own independent institutions, including new universities and social media platforms. Florida is even setting up a new military unit, because you just never know what will happen.
So now we might ask: Given this divided national mood, what would happen today, if, say, South Carolina were to take a step toward divorce? Here we needn’t cite the full Fort Sumter; instead, suppose that the Palmetto State simply pulled the American flag down from its state capitol. How now would the Biden administration react? How would Republicans react? What would Tucker Carlson say? What would be Trump’s view?
Here’s a prediction. The federal reaction to South Carolina getting out of line would be muted. The near octogenarian commander-in-chief, not much of a speechmaker, would say little, and the closely divided Congress would enact nothing. Yes, of course, many Democrats would say this is a new rebellion, yet other Democrats would say, Good riddance! After all, Democratic concerns about holding their majority in national elections would fade away if they knew that red states were leaving.
In the past, it was different—the feds were tougher. Less than seven decades ago, President Dwight Eisenhower (West Point class of 1915) sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to enforce school desegregation. To Ike, this was no big deal; after all, he had ordered the Screaming Eagles into action before, as when they parachuted into France on D-Day.
The contrast between the 34th president and the 46th president is stark. Ike spent four decades in the military, including during two world wars. By contrast, during the Vietnam War, Biden was in a classroom, or working as a lifeguard, or even playing football. It seems that the asthma that gained him five draft deferments only erupted at certain times. Would Biden (University of Delaware ’65, Syracuse Law ’68) have the same confidence to command the military in a tough domestic mission? Would he really want to test the willingness of the armed forces—at the mid-rank unit level, deeply Fox News-influenced—to carry out an order to muscle, and perhaps kill, Red Americans?
Most likely, Biden would seek some way out, short of confrontation. Bolstering Biden’s instinct to dither and ramble would be congressional oversight, media second-guessing, lawsuits, judicial injunctions, and, of course, environmental impact statements. If South Carolina (or Florida, or any red state) showed even the slightest subtlety in its separatism, the Biden administration would find a way to look the other way. Today’s left, including the persons now shaping strategic thinking at the Pentagon, is more likely to be triggered than to want to pull a trigger.
So for all the talk of kulturkampf, there’s no real prospect of a blitzkrieg. If anything, it would be more like a “sitzkrieg,” with nobody wanting to fight.
If we are divorcing—if we are becoming two nations, Red America and Blue America—and yet aren’t willing to truly fight, what happens? The answer would seem to be that the two halves develop a modus vivendi. After all, it would take a long time, maybe forever, to sort through the property and custody concerns.
Maybe this is the disunited fate of the United States. Maybe we’ll take stock of the U.S. in the 2020s and decide that jaw-jaw is better than war-war. If so, we’ll want to structure our affairs so as to minimize the risk of outright combat. We’ll want to learn from history: Who in the past has made work a duo within an uno?
One example that comes to mind is Switzerland—officially, the Swiss Confederation—which is thoroughly divided by its cantons and yet at the same time united, or least federated. Switzerland has been peaceful and prosperous for nearly two centuries. Not bad.
On the other hand, some will say that Switzerland is too small (population 8.6 million) to make for a worthy comparison to the U.S. (population 332.3 million), and they would have a point. So perhaps we should keep looking.
Another parallel that comes to mind is the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which, around the same time as the U.S. Civil War, reached a peaceful internal settlement that left the state divided and yet still united.
In 1866, after a crisis for the old regime—the Austrian House of Habsburg, having ruled alone for six centuries, lost a brief but decisive war against Prussia—the Hungarians, the largest minority within the Habsburg kingdom, demanded shared political power.
The potential for an 1861-type conflagration was there in the middle of Europe. Both sides had fought plenty in the past. Yet in 1867, Austrians and Hungarians found a new path, one of conciliation, not combat. The result was an Ausgleich, a compromise, in which Austria became Austria-Hungary. Symbolizing this new arrangement was the Doppelmonarchie, or Dual Monarchy. The Hungarians were now theoretically full partners, even if Habsburg dynasts maneuvered to keep both crowns in the family.
For the next half-century, Austria-Hungary was a rich and pleasant enough place. It was at best a partial democracy, and yet under the benign rule of the Habsburgs, its 52 million subjects (in 1914) enjoyed considerable economic freedom and the overall rule of law, combined with varying levels of regional and local autonomy.
Moreover, the Catholic Habsburgs had long been tolerant of minorities. In 1782, an enlightened emperor extended religious freedom to Protestants and Jews. In addition, as recorded by historian John Van der Kiste, when Emperor Franz Joseph (1830–1916) traveled throughout his domain, “he not only visited Protestant and Orthodox churches but attended services in them.” The sovereign even visited synagogues and mosques.
In other words, the Habsburgs were practicing tolerance and pluralism when much of the world was speeding toward intolerance and racism, even genocide. In thinking of the Old Europe of the Habsburgs, we might recall the wisdom of Voltaire, who wrote in 1764, “[With] one religion, despotism might be apprehended; if two only, they would seek to cut each other’s throats; but as there are at least thirty, they live together in peace and happiness.”
Fin de siècle Vienna, the capital of the empire, was a cosmopolis of culture, of Strauss and Klimt and Freud, boasting a prosperous middle class that could afford operettas, museums, and even psychoanalysis. On the more rigorous economic side of things, Ludwig von Mises, born in Galicia (now part of Ukraine), chose to make his home in Vienna, where he gave rise to the Austrian school of economics. Whatever one thinks of libertarianism today, von Mises was doing his best to put forth a humane alternative to the nasty isms that were emerging all around him.
In the meantime, Budapest, the Hungarian capital, was also a boom town, a cultured city of one million, a place of refuge from the pogroms of Russia, boasting the continent’s first underground subway system. In the first half of the 20th century, Hungary was home to five Nobel Laureates.
To be sure, Austria-Hungary was riven by ethnic tensions and the rising nationalism of its constituent parts. The empire had a way of dealing with them. It was a place of myriad Burkean compromises, of little platoons and big platoons, studded with feudal associations, tribal councils, and plenty of local color.
The point is not that Austria-Hungary was paradise, merely that, given the alternatives, it wasn’t so bad. As always in human affairs, the pertinent question comes from realpolitik: compared to what?
In 1914, Austria-Hungary plunged into a disastrous war that was at least something of a war of choice. As we Americans know all too well, plenty of countries have done that, and they often end badly. For the Dual Monarchy, defeat in the Great War spelled the end. The Habsburgs were deposed, and the empire was broken up by the treaties of Saint-Germain and Trianon (beyond Versailles, the French made good use of their old palaces for treaty-signing). The imperial fragments became four new countries, with pieces of Habsburg land being added to four other countries.
Okay, that doesn’t sound so good as a possible guidebook for America. But World War I left every European country worse off; it was a giant lose-lose.
And if we stay with our realpolitik theme—compared to what?—we can observe that the old Habsburg dominions, now on their own, were soon worse off. As Winston Churchill wrote in the first volume of his war memoirs, published in 1948: “There is not one of the peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Hapsburgs to whom gaining their independence has not brought forth the tortures which ancient poets and theologians reserved for the damned.”
The condition of the former Habsburg provinces has improved in recent decades. That improvement is due in part to the European Union—which, as many have noted, as a hodge-podge much resembles the old Habsburg regime.
Just as with the Habsburgs of yore, the mandarins who run the EU today are undemocratic yet tolerant. They cheerfully preside over inequality, yet they also have taken steps to eliminate poverty. They are liberal, perhaps even progressive, but not militant about it—nobody in Brussels is sending troops to coerce Poland over its pro-life abortion laws. In fact, the EU barely has the troops to defend its own borders; in that sense, the EU and Biden’s America have much in common.
Few are flag-wavingly loyal to the EU, but few want to exit. The EU is rich enough such that even Hungary’s conservative leader, Viktor Orbán, vociferous critic that he is, expresses no desire to actually take his country out of the EU. Thus Orbán recalls Ferenc Deák, the Hungarian statesman who engineered the compromise of 1867, which kept Hungary within the greater Austrian ambit.
As we contemplate all this muddled history, we should bear in mind that the issue isn’t what we want in an ideal world, but what we have in this world. Here in Realville, we’ve been dealt a certain set of cards, in which the Habsburgs are, by a cosmic process of historical default, possible role models.
Others have reached the same conclusion. In September 2021, eminent historian Paul Kennedy opined in the Economist, “America is looking rather like the old Habsburg model, possessing large though weary armed forces, stretched across too many regions. And America’s defeat in Afghanistan, leaving military equipment strewn across much of that country, also has a Habsburgian ring to it.”
Put that way, neo-Habsburgianism is a dreary prospect. And yet if that’s the way it is—if things are that bad—we should be realistic enough to play events as they lay. Only then can we make the best of a weak hand.
Let us be true to one another: We are a mongrel society, somewhere between multiethnic and multicultural, and that’s not about to change. We have at least as many internal schisms as external threats, which is good, because our armed forces, lavishly funded as they might be, are not all that impressive. The Iraq War, launched with hubristic high hopes in 2003, was to us what Suez was to the British in 1956, the moment when we realized that we no longer have the right stuff of imperialism.
The first obligation of statecraft is to know one’s time, and the first duty of strategy is to correlate goals and means. Our statespersons and strategists should recognize that today we are in an 1860s-ish crisis, and the solution this time might be Habsburgian, not Lincolnian.
In the current crisis, let’s ask: Does the 46th president have any of the gravitas of the 16th president? Does Biden seem like the sort of man who can bring about a Gettysburg Address–type “new birth of freedom”? Or a Gettysburg-like military victory?
Down the road somewhere, all this might change. Maybe some unifying leader will emerge, or maybe Augustus Caesar Zuckerberg will put our tottering republic to rest and restart us as a mightier empire.
In the meantime, none of the current crop of leaders can expect to unify the country, by word or by sword. In the absence of a triumphant Appomattox, a textual Ausgleich starts to look pretty good.
As we look to the past for signs of inspiration, we might be further inspired by the realization that Austro-Hungary was really just the last act of the long-running Habsburg Show. After Rudolph of Habsburg defeated Ottokar II of Bohemia in 1278, the dynasty ruled a good chunk of territory. From the 16th century to the early 20th century, Austria was one of the leading powers in Europe.
For a long time, the Habsburgs had game, and how did they do that? Many answers come from A. Wess Mitchell’s 2018 volume, The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire. Mitchell is himself a dualistic figure: He was appointed by President Trump to serve as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and at the same time he maintained his blue-state credentials—his book was published by Princeton University Press. The same dualistic canniness graces his tome, which focuses on the Habsburgs while keeping an eye on lessons for the U.S.
Mitchell observes of Habsburg history, “In a century that seems well on track to delivering a scale of geopolitical turmoil that no one could have imagined in the heady days after 1989, the experiences of an empire that weathered centuries of change…seem more relevant than ever.”
What are some of these relevancies? Mitchell explains: “Although geographically contiguous, the territories that made up the Habsburg Monarchy’s geopolitical base were semi-independent polities with little in the way of a common political character.” Gee, sounds familiar.
Out of such internal divisions, Mitchell continues, came military weakness. The Habsburgs had to develop compensatory workarounds; they became skilled at building fortresses and even more skilled at making maps to help them manage their own security.
This was, of course, a defensive posture for the Habsburgs; by contrast, today, American armed forces are still arrayed to be on the offense—or, as the jargon has it, ready for “force projection,” that is, ready to liberate a country at a moment’s notice. Given the Pentagon’s yen for over-the-horizon wargaming, it’s no wonder that we fail at even the bare basics of border security.
Paradoxically, for all our high-flying, world-saving, rhetoric, we’re not fit for a foreign war. Does anyone think that the American people have any enthusiasm for a fight over Taiwan? Or Ukraine? Moreover, does anyone think that Biden could deliver a ringing Rooseveltian declaration of war, rallying the nation? Of course, we might well stumble into a disastrous conflict; that’s what happened, eventually, to the Habsburgs—and it didn’t work out well for them.
The Habsburgs bolstered their weaknesses with alliances. As was said in their heyday, Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (“Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry”). During the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrians were part of no fewer than six coalitions against France. The first five coalitions were defeated, and the Austrians sat out another one that also lost, but the seventh coalition was ultimately victorious. Thus it was Napoleon, not the Emperor Franz II, who died in exile.
Mitchell, ever the realist, concludes his tour of the Habsburg horizon: “Herein is a weary wisdom anchored in the humility that comes from the realization that geopolitical problems can rarely be solved, only managed.” From such wisdom “comes an acceptance that the task of enlightened statecraft in all generations is to build the sturdiest bulwarks that we can against the old chaos of war and geopolitics.”
If we are the new Habsburgs, we face both peril and promise. So here are five lessons that might be gleaned from the old Habsburgs:
First, as we have seen, the internal divisions of the Habsburg dominions cut against their military power. That’s one reason why they never sought out overseas colonies, saving them all the grief and guilt suffered by more aggressive powers. There’s something we could learn: Knock it off on the force projection. Our sword is brittle, so it’s best to use it only sparingly. Defense yes, offense no.
Second, in the absence of hard power, soft power looms large. From Mozart to Haydn to Liszt, the Austro-Hungarians developed much of the world’s high culture—that’s soft power. In 1914, when the same empire tried to project its hard power against Serbia, a nation with a fraction of its population, it was defeated. Thus the lesson: Stick to what you’re good at. The peoples of the world from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan have shown that they don’t want us to invade their countries. Even after beating back our hard power, they are enticed by our soft power; many of those same peoples wish to come here. We certainly don’t have to let them all in, but it’s still flattering to be an object of desire, confident that at minimum they’ll continue to consume our pop culture.
Third, speaking of desire, we can recall that the Austrians were often more effective at making love, not war. In our time, in the same suggestive spirit, we can recall a 2012 book co-authored by Meghan McCain: America, You Sexy Bitch: A Love Letter to Freedom. Our Constitution and our Bill of Rights weren’t written for the sake of l’amour, and yet Aphrodite smiles at the way it has worked out. In the coming struggle against the neo-Maoist puritans in China, our Vegas ways will have the talented and the creative streaming from there to here.
Fourth, we must fear over-centralization—of any kind. The Habsburgs didn’t have an ideology that favored decentralization and subsidiarity, but it was their tradition. As part of their regnal prudentialism, they tolerated and respected lumpy local ways. This live-and-let-live policy didn’t save them, but it kicked the can forward for a few hundred years—which is a kind of saving. We must prevent an over-concentration of power at the top. As Michael Lind wrote recently in American Affairs, “There is increasing evidence that the overstaffed, ever-expanding managerial elite has mutated into a parasitic caste that is destroying its host, the wage-earning national majority.” So there’s a project, Americans: Push back against the bureaucratic and technocratic soul-suckers.
Fifth, as did the Habsburgs, we must recognize the inevitability of internal division. In fact, properly thought through, internal distinctions can be a strength, not a weakness—that’s the genius of federalism, which is, after all, planned compartmentalization. If we allow for that sort of healthy distributism, we can free ourselves from an unhealthy subservience to a central authority. Kevin Roberts, the new president of the Heritage Foundation, made this point when he wrote recently, “The woke Left has seized control of just about every major institution in American life and turned America’s classrooms, boardrooms, and newsrooms into ideological reeducation camps.” So what to do? Roberts’ answer: “In an economy and culture as centralized as ours, conservatives should be looking not just to federalism, but an overdue campaign of decentralization.”
In the years to come, the U.S. is unlikely to stop the further striation of the nation, red against blue. But so what? If the men and women (and others) of Massachusetts don’t want to fight anymore, well, they won’t ever have to; most likely, enough South Carolinians will still wish to serve and protect, so long as we choose our foreign enemies with parsimony. Then the people of Massachusetts can double down on being themselves, advancing everything from the biotech revolution to gender fluidity.
In the meantime, the people of the Palmetto State, and all the other red states, will be happy knowing that folks in the Bay State, and the blue states, will be staying exactly where they are—on the other side, perhaps, of a quasi-divorce divide. This is not a formula for heroic feats, but it might prove to be a formula for dualistic flourishing. As the Habsburgs demonstrated, surviving is winning.