Book Excerpt: 11 Strategic Lessons From A New Study Of The Habsburg Empire

The Long March
Joseph II of Habsburg Lorraine and sisters
Josef Hauzinger/Wikimedia COmmons

Can we learn anything from the Habsburg Monarchy? A few broad principles of Habsburg strategic statecraft stand out as potentially relevant in any era.


  1. You can’t be strong everywhere. An overriding lesson from Habsburg strategic history is that a Great Power is unlikely to be able to sustainably match the strength of all its enemies on all its frontiers at all times. Awareness of this limitation, and attempts to cope with its various implications, forms a red thread through the annals of Austrian grand strategy, from Eugene’s dictum that “two wars cannot be waged with one army,” to Daun’s observation that it is impossible to “be everywhere at once and anticipate the enemy.”1 The temptation to try to be strong everywhere is often great since states naturally seek security against all threats, however numerous.
  2. Avoid war when possible. War is bad for any state—in Archduke Charles’s words, “The greatest evil that can happen to a state or nation.”2 But it is especially dangerous for an interstitial power, for two reasons. First, it drains resources that are already stretched by the need to maintain numerous frontiers. Second, it sets in motion interaction dynamics—what Clausewitz called “friction”—that are inherently more complex for the surrounded state because of the number of threats. In both cases, the risk for an interstitial empire can be measured in time. The longer a war lasts, the greater the financial burden taken onto the state and the greater the likelihood that other enemies will use your diversion as an opportunity to attack.
  3. Delay engagement until the terms are favorable to you. Since war cannot always be avoided, the state should strive to avoid specifically those wars that are likely to occur on terms unfavorable to itself in order, as Joseph II put it, to ensure that “our great-grandchildren can defend themselves with dignity.”
  4. "Turn off” secondary problems first. Delay can run counter to perceived political imperatives but can be helpful if it is used to gain an advantage for the main struggle. One of the most consistent traits of Habsburg strategic behavior was the effort to sequence contests, which often meant proactively addressing lesser threats in order to have a freer hand for dealing effectively with the main challenge.
  5. Complexity is harder to manage during a conflict than before it. Interaction dynamics are by definition more intense for a surrounded power. Even in peacetime, it must exist in a state of complexity; once a war begins, this complexity increases dramatically. A move by one rival creates openings for others to exploit. It matters little whether this occurs by design or opportunity; for the interstitial state, the effect is the same: spiraling and increasingly uncontrollable “friction,” in numerous places simultaneously, beyond the defender’s ability to anticipate or manage, much less control.
  6. If possible, force the enemy to fight on their territory rather than yours. While Austria’s wars tended to be defensive in nature, Habsburg strategy frequently sought to deflect the brunt of offensive war by forcing the enemy to fight on or near their own territory. This is valuable for any state to achieve in war but especially so for one confronting multiple rivals because it shifts the burden of fighting to the main aggressor, lessens the likelihood of an attack on other frontiers, and buys the defender time to mobilize for the struggle. Twenty-first-century technologies both ease and complicate the goal of preclusion. They allow armies to cross great distances quickly and threaten a rival in their home territory, but by the same token, expose the defender to rapid threats from afar. Nevertheless, conventional wars continue to be fought for territory, and the spaces nearest the point of conflict bear the brunt of the human and economic costs. For this reason, the same basic methods used by the Habsburgs—forward infrastructure and frontier alliances—remain assets to be husbanded in today’s landscape for the utility they offer in power projection.
  7. Maintain smaller states between yourself and your main rivals. As time management tools, forts and allies have limitations. Walls are static and, at best, detain an opponent for a short period. Allies are fickle and may change sides from one war to the next. What provides the greatest aid in coping with multidirectional threats is physical space—territory around the frontiers that impose distance between oneself and a rival.
  8. Prioritize regions that give long-term economic or strategic benefit. In a multifront war, Great Powers must choose what to prioritize and what to deprioritize. To some extent, the enemy makes this decision, since the greatest threat will usually receive the greatest attention. But to the degree that an option exists, it is prudent to prioritize places that are likely to bring the greatest benefit to the state in long-term strategic competition. Habsburg diplomacy frequently put the most resource-rich regions at the top of the list for receiving military attention, even if it came at the expense of the ostensible “main” war theater and thus lengthened the war.
  9. Use local solutions for local problems. An interstitial power needs to be able to manage multiple threat vectors, each with its own intermediate spaces, strategic imperatives, and local actors. Yet trying to do so through the extension of formal empire runs the risk of accumulating costs in administration beyond the empire’s ability to sustain. The most effective solution is for the states that inhabit these spaces to provide the bulk of security voluntarily, at minimal outside prompting or expense.
  10. Appease a rival to buy time, not to outsource a problem. Appeasement was a frequent tool of Habsburg statecraft. The Austrians often placated enemies that were either too strong to conquer or with whom a fight at a particular moment would have detracted from the task to concentrate elsewhere. Doing so aided in time management by offering a means of demilitarizing a given theater for a definable period of time and allowing for a concentration of resources to strike the crucial blow in another theater.
  11. Beware of enemies using internal divisions against you. Foreign and domestic policies were inextricably intertwined for the Habsburg Monarchy. Even in the era before nationalism, the presence of a large and politically recalcitrant Hungarian nobility created opportunities for rivals to exploit in geopolitical competition.

Excerpted, from The Grand Strategy of the Hapsburg Empire, by A. Wess Mitchell.  Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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