Divide and Conquer: Richelieu's Playbook for the Middle East

Many have likened the Middle East mess to the Thirty Years' War. Cardinal Richelieu might have the solution.

Have American foreign policy elites forgotten how to do strategy? This is no mere academic question; thousands of lives and long-term national interests are at stake. It is time for a wholesale recalibration of the “War on Terror.” Rather than rooting out terrorists ourselves, it is time to embrace the older wisdom of past strategists. It is time to divide and conquer. Few individuals represent a better, if unpleasant, illustration of this principle in action than the famed French Chief Minister Armand Jean du Plessis, the “Red Eminence,” also known as Cardinal Richelieu.

I have previously asserted that the Middle East is currently embroiled in what is very similar to the European Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648. In recent months, many illustrious analysts and practitioners of statecraft have openly made the same analogy, most notably Richard Haas, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Henry Kissinger in his new magnum opus, World Order.

If we take this as a reasonable analogy, what potential lessons can we take from the Thirty Years' War and who might teach them? Could one learn from one of the heroes in Kissinger’s oeuvre, the “Red Eminence” himself, the initial architect of the modern international state system, Cardinal Richelieu?

Cardinal Richelieu might seem an odd choice from which to seek inspiration. This is especially the case for a nation, the United States, that historically perceives itself as more idealistic than other nations and was, in many ways, founded in direct opposition to the religious persecutions of a similar ilk to those seen on a daily basis in the Middle East. However, the Cardinal, perhaps as much as any practicing statesman, offers strategic lessons.

These lessons are of an admittedly darker sort than those with which American policymakers are typically comfortable. After all, Richelieu is almost as well known for being a villain in the works of Alexandre Dumas as he is as a statesman. However, in a new era where none of the typical theories of global power such as unipolarity, bipolarity, and unipolarity explain the current situation, the Cardinal’s lessons may well prove themselves far more useful than recent notions of riding into disparate cultures on a white horse and attempting to save those that do not want to be saved.

According to Kissinger in his book Diplomacy:

Richelieu thwarted the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire was divided among more than 300 sovereigns, each free to conduct an independent foreign policy. Germany failed to become a nation-state; absorbed in petty dynastic quarrels, it turned inward.

The Machiavellian genius of Richelieu was in recognizing the challenge posed to a still emerging France by the surrounding Habsburgs lands, as well as the potentially devastating power of a united Germany, still latent, but eventually realized by Bismarck in 1871. Richelieu prevented France’s various threats from uniting by working and funding a wide array of parties, including the Protestant power of Sweden and its swashbuckling king, Gustavus Adolphus.

As Robert D. Kaplan comments,

Richelieu encompassed in his own person the belief system of Machiavelli and Hobbes -- one stipulating that the state, France in this case, constituted its own principle and morality.

Later Kaplan offers this,

In Richelieu's lifetime the problem was the lack of an international system altogether and the need to create one, hopefully under France's ascendancy. And France as an institutional mechanism was, to a significant degree, Richelieu's creation. Richelieu might have had ice in his veins, but by uniting political power with the birth of modern capitalism he combined raison d'état with raison d'economie.