Poker Lessons From Richelieu: A Portrait of the Statesman as Gamble
By David A. Bell
Armand-Jean du Plessis, better known to history as Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), spent most of his career contending for and then exercising control over a deeply divided, indebted, and dysfunctional superpower. His country’s politics were vicious, and its government paralyzingly complex. In short, if he were dropped into Washington today, he might feel right at home.Freedom’s Secret Recipe: Balancing the State, Law, and Accountability
French historians have long hailed Richelieu as the architect of the absolute monarchy that dominated Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Henry Kissinger, in Diplomacy, dubbed him “the father of the modern European state system.” Even critics, such as Alexandre Dumas, who made him the villain of The Three Musketeers, often cannot help admiring Richelieu’s icy savoir-faire, which is captured in the famous portrait by Philippe de Champaigne that adorns the cover of Jean-Vincent Blanchard’s new biography. As Richelieu intended, it shows a master political player with the ruthlessness necessary to achieve his goals, chief among them raising France to greatness.
Richelieu was indeed a model statesman, but not for the reasons usually given. Despite his long-standing reputation (which Blanchard largely endorses), the cardinal was not really a great institution builder, still less someone bent on making France what Blanchard calls “a modern administrative state.” Nor do Kissinger’s claims about Richelieu inaugurating an international order based on raison d’état hold up. The cardinal was hardly the first European statesman to place national interest above moral or religious imperatives, and the modern European state system, with its power balancing and alliances, did not really take firm shape until the Peace of Westphalia, six years after Richelieu’s death. Richelieu was, however, one of the greatest examples in history of the politician as high-stakes gambler, notable less for what he did than for how he did it.
Richelieu’s qualities as a statesman emerge most sharply when he is compared with other leaders of the period -- particularly his great rival, Spain’s chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, who lacked both the cardinal’s keen foresight and his taste for risk but nonetheless came close to defeating him on many occasions. For this reason, the single best recent treatment of Richelieu remains the British historian J. H. Elliott’s brilliant 1984 study Richelieu and Olivares. Blanchard’s biography is engaging and well written but has a more sprawling and somewhat thinner feel. As a specialist in seventeenth-century literature, Blanchard has trouble situating Richelieu in the broader sweep of European history, particularly when it comes to the complex dynamics of ancien régime administration and diplomacy. Still, he has read the most important primary sources carefully and has a good eye for colorfully illustrative passages, along with a genuine sensitivity to his subject’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Those who know Richelieu only from the movies will find in Blanchard’s pages a very human character who triumphed in a setting far more frightening than anything Hollywood has recently devised.
The tone of Richelieu’s career was set by the savage and unpredictable political culture into which he emerged. The first two kings of France in his lifetime, Henry III and Henry IV, were both assassinated. The next king, Louis XIII, had his chief minister, Concino Concini, shot in the street, after which the man’s naked body was ripped to pieces on the Pont Neuf. (Some reports claimed that members of the frenzied crowd even cooked and ate Concini’s heart.) Several other leading figures of the period ended their days on the executioner’s block, including the unhappy Comte de Chalais, whose headsman bungled the job and ended up frantically chopping away at his screaming victim with a small hatchet.
Richelieu himself was regularly in danger of meeting a similar fate. Chalais had plotted to have him stabbed to death, and another enemy tried to put a bomb under the seat of his carriage. Richelieu was Concini’s protégé, and himself escaped from the angry Parisian crowds only because he had the presence of mind to order his retainers to start shouting, “Vive le roi!” (Long live the king!). Surviving in such a milieu, to say nothing of flourishing, required brilliant timing, courage, an uncanny ability to read and manipulate others, and a willingness to take dramatic risks -- all qualities Richelieu had in abundance.
Richelieu rose to national prominence during a particularly perilous time, the years following the assassination of Henry IV in 1610. The popular monarch’s successor, Louis XIII, was just eight years old when he took the throne and grew into an awkward, insecure youth with a bad stutter, psychologically overwhelmed by his ferociously ambitious mother, Marie de Médicis, who served as his regent. Sensing an opportunity to claw back some power from the monarchy, French nobles staged a series of revolts, and eventually Louis rebelled against his mother and sought to take control of the government in his own right. (One step in this process was the killing of Concini, who had been Marie’s favorite adviser.)
It was Marie who originally saw the potential in Richelieu -- at the start of this period, a relatively minor noble from western France who had joined the clergy merely to secure his family’s rights to the revenues of a bishopric. She quickly brought him into the inner circles of power, placing him in charge of French foreign policy in 1616. In 1618, after war broke out between mother and son, Louis banished Richelieu to Avignon. But the young bishop managed to convince the king of his loyalty and proved instrumental in bringing about a family reconciliation of sorts. Following the 1621 death of Louis’ chief adviser, the Duc de Luynes, Richelieu came to the fore, eventually becoming the king’s most trusted and important councilor. In 1622, the pope agreed to make him a cardinal.
For the next two decades, Richelieu was a crucial player in French and European politics, but with his position resting on his ability to please and manipulate his vain, stubborn, and temperamental royal master -- whom Blanchard nicely describes as “worn out by inner torments, military battles, and furious hunting.” As a Spanish diplomat of the time put it, Richelieu had come “closer to Jupiter, but also to his thunder.” Blanchard might have dwelt somewhat more on this fascinating relationship, in which Richelieu not only flattered the king endlessly but also made sure the monarch was surrounded by attractive young men. Above all, Richelieu became a mentor to Louis, someone able to scold the king for his shortcomings, sometimes even in public.
As Richelieu’s star and influence rose, Marie grew resentful of her former protégé, and a showdown became inevitable. On November 11, 1630, Marie exploded at the cardinal in front of the king, showering him with insults and forcing him to beg for mercy on his knees. Louis, apparently struck dumb by the outburst, left without acknowledging Richelieu, and Marie’s supporters rejoiced that their nemesis the cardinal had fallen. That evening, the king summoned Richelieu to his hunting lodge at Versailles -- for his execution, the cardinal thought, assuming he had finally lost the high-stakes poker game of court politics. Overcoming his urge to flee, Richelieu obeyed the king’s command and discovered that he was in fact being restored to royal favor, in an episode that would become known as the Day of the Dupes, with Marie’s leading allies arrested instead the next morning. By 1642, Louis could write to Richelieu, “I have never loved you so much. We have been together for too long ever to be separated.”
Richelieu’s statecraft involved as much dangerous risk taking as his domestic political career. In 1618, what would become known as the Thirty Years’ War broke out -- Europe’s last great spasm of religious warfare, in which a furious conflict between a series of Protestant states, on one side, and the House of Hapsburg and its Catholic allies, on the other, tore the center of the continent apart. France, a Catholic state itself, nevertheless intervened on the Protestant side, hoping to supplant the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs as the strongest power in Europe.
Richelieu initially felt that France could do no more than subsidize Protestant efforts and engage in strictly limited military campaigns. Ironically, he feared treachery from the Huguenots, France’s own small Protestant minority, who had lingering grievances against the French state and control of several strategic towns, including the Atlantic port of La Rochelle. Realizing that he had to address the Huguenot threat before intervening seriously abroad, in 1627 Richelieu laid siege to La Rochelle and starved the city into submission. (By the end of the operation, even the rats had disappeared, and the starving locals were reduced to eating boiled shoe leather.)
Then, Richelieu made one of his boldest moves. With France exhausted and indebted, he quickly raised another army and sent it on the dangerous route across the Alps into northern Italy, where an unstable political situation offered France the chance to break the Hapsburgs’ extended supply lines. The gamble paid off, and a few months after the fall of La Rochelle, Richelieu and Louis watched French forces storm in triumph across the northern Italian plains.
After its victory in Italy, France continued to encourage and subsidize Protestant powers, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, without committing fully to the broader war. A series of Catholic victories in the early 1630s, however, finally convinced Richelieu to go all in, and in May 1635, he sent a gaudily dressed herald across the border to Spanish-ruled Brussels to issue a formal declaration of war.
At first, the gambit seemed to go terribly wrong. Spanish forces invaded France’s northern provinces in the summer of 1636, capturing several strategic fortresses and coming within a day’s ride of the capital. Panicky crowds flooded the streets of Paris calling for Richelieu’s head. The cardinal fell into a deep despair. Yet François-Joseph le Clerc du Tremblay, the so-called Gray Eminence, who stayed at Richelieu’s side throughout much of his career, managed to rouse him, and recovering his nerve, France’s chief minister walked out onto the Pont Neuf to much the same spot where his predecessor, Concini, had been butchered two decades earlier. Admiring his nerve, the crowd cheered the man it had just been cursing. Meanwhile, the French armies held, then gained a respite when the Spanish broke off their offensive to rebuff an attack from the Dutch. Over the next six years -- the last six years of Richelieu’s life -- France seized large new territories and established itself as a leading power in Europe.
THE CARDINAL’S VIRTUES
Many today might dismiss Richelieu’s brand of leadership as archaic, something with little relevance to the far more ponderous process of modern statecraft, with its armies of bureaucratic functionaries analyzing all policy options in mind-numbing detail. Yet from Munich to the Cuban missile crisis to nuclear proliferation, recent history is replete with instances of international politics resembling nothing so much as a poker game. And was not the 2003 invasion of Iraq very much a gamble, with the Bush administration having its own, not-entirely-un-Richelieu-like power behind the throne, manipulating an inexperienced young leader struggling to emerge from the shadow of his powerful parent? In this sense, the survival skills that politicians develop in their rise to power at home may serve them surprisingly well when they take on responsibility for international affairs, and Richelieu may offer a model of sorts.
As for his historical significance in France’s long-term development, the record is less clear. Richelieu won important victories over his country’s great rivals, Hapsburg Austria and Spain, but he did not consolidate those triumphs. He raised tax revenues manyfold, allowing France to fight effectively in the Thirty Years’ War, but in the process he squeezed the peasantry and provincial elites so brutally that he provoked a series of ruinous revolts that culminated, soon after his death, in outright civil war. And although Richelieu improvised brilliantly, as when he sent out agents called intendants, armed with new powers, to help collect taxes and control the army in the provinces, he did not design permanent new administrative structures.
It would take another monarch and another chief minister -- Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Colbert -- to take the story further in the decades that followed. They were the ones who secured the French state’s modern borders, who cooperated more closely with provincial elites and extracted even greater sums from the country with considerably less strife (in order to wage even more ambitious wars), and who turned Richelieu’s intendants into established arms of the central state. Richelieu, in short, did not create modern France nor make it the leading force in Europe. But his actions paved the way for his successors to do so, which is no small feat.
By Michael Mann
Francis Fukuyama shot to fame with a 1989 essay called "The End of History?" which he expanded into a 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. His thesis was a reworking of the "end of ideology" argument propounded in the 1950s by Daniel Bell and others, with an even more emphatic twist. "What we may be witnessing," Fukuyama declared, "is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." The argument seemed hubristic, a product of the era's American triumphalism.
Two decades later, Fukuyama has revisited the question of political development in another, more sophisticated book, The Origins of Political Order -- the first of a projected two volumes, with the initial one running from prehistory to the French Revolution and its successor planned to take the story into the present and the future. Fukuyama still believes in the virtues of Western liberal democracy but now asks where it came from and how it might be sustained. At 608 pages, the first volume is long and dense, even though written with great fluency, and few are likely to read it cover to cover. But they should, since it is a brilliant book demonstrating great independence of mind and an astonishing breadth of knowledge.
THE SECULAR TRINITY
Fukuyama starts by asking why only a few nations behave like Denmark. That small Scandinavian country, he notes, combines three elements essential to political freedom: an orderly and efficient state, the rule of law, and government accountability to the people. The "miracle of modern politics," he argues, is the balancing of a powerful, effective state with a transparent legal system and representative assemblies. As he demonstrates in a survey of political regimes across history, the combination of all three components in a stable liberal democracy is a rarity, generated by long and winding historical paths and much good fortune.
Fukuyama's emphasis on an orderly and efficient state is notable and represents just one of his deviations from standard liberal theory, with its emphasis on free markets and small government as the recipes for progress and liberty. Fukuyama loves to take on opposing arguments, politely laying them out before declaring that, unfortunately, they bear no relation to reality. Against social contract theory, for example, he writes, "Human beings never existed in a presocial state. The idea that human beings at one time existed as isolated individuals, who interacted either through anarchic violence (Hobbes) or in pacific ignorance of one another (Rousseau), is not correct."
As for that economic favorite, "the tragedy of the commons," in which commonly held property supposedly stifles individuals' drives to improve it, he calls it a myth. There is no evidence anywhere, he says, that an absence of private property rights has been a problem for economic or political development. Nor must the legal protection of property rights be absolute for development to occur; such protections must only be good enough, as they were in early modern Europe or contemporary China. (He might have benefited here from the work of the political scientist Jean Oi and the sociologist Andrew Walder, who usefully write about the contemporary Chinese case by considering property rights as a "bundle," including rights to control property, derive income from it, and transfer it.)
Such forays against utilitarianism make Fukuyama a card-carrying sociologist, and sure enough, the influence of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber (although not Marx) is clear and acknowledged. He does not refer to Karl Polanyi (that will probably come in the second volume), but his text offers emphatic support for Polanyi's notion, taken further by recent economic sociologists, that market economies are not natural but rather always embedded in social structures.
Weber also seems to have inspired Fukuyama's argument that the main enemies of the efficient, orderly state are the patrimonialism, cronyism, and corruption of family, kin, and tribal networks that protect their privileges and exact rents. He calls this "the tyranny of cousins," since it stifles economic and political development, and he devotes much space to examining how various regimes have sought to combat it. China developed competitive examinations for its scholar-gentry bureaucrats to avoid letting jobs go to the kin of power holders. The Abbasid caliphs and the Ottoman Turks used abducted slaves (the Mamluks and the Janissaries, respectively) as officials and soldiers, since the slaves lacked blood ties to any local tribes and could not pass on their offices to their children. And the medieval Catholic Church under Pope Gregory VII introduced celibacy for priests in order to avoid kinship cronyism. Reliance on cousins and tribalism, Fukuyama suggests, remain the default modes of political organization for humans when things go wrong -- as they often do.
If Fukuyama is at his most insightful and original when discussing the need for an effective, orderly state, he is also sharp in stressing the need for the rule of law and accountability to substantial numbers of citizens. Here, he sees precolonial India as a counterexample to early China. China developed a strong state that protected citizens against the tyranny of cousins but left them open to the tyranny of the state itself. The Indian caste system produced a strong civil society that protected subjects from state tyranny but exposed them instead to cousins writ large in the form of castes. A combination of the two countries' traditions, he notes, would have provided a "better form of freedom," for that "emerges when there is a strong state and a strong society, two centers of power that are able to balance and offset each other."
Moving effortlessly from ancient global history to its modern European counterpart, Fukuyama discusses "weak absolutism" in Spain and France, "successful absolutism" in Russia, "failed oligarchy" in Poland, and, finally, "accountable government" in England, which, after 1688, became the first society to establish all three elements of his secular trinity. Other western European countries influenced by the Reformation, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, "also succeeded in putting together the state, rule of law and accountability in a single package by the 19th century."
Thus, he argues, the three elements of modern political order had evolved separately in different premodern civilizations: "China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time." Aware that this sounds a bit like Whig history or British triumphalism, he qualifies the argument by emphasizing the role of contingency. Development, he says, was "complex and context-specific." For example, the decline in importance of extended families in early modern Europe resulted in part from the power of the medieval church. This meant that "an emerging capitalist economy in Italy, England, and the Netherlands in the sixteenth century did not have to overcome the resistance of large corporately organized kinship groups with substantial property to protect, as in India and China."
Religion and ideology play an important part in Fukuyama's story. Where they establish a power base independent of the state, he claims -- as have Hinduism in India, Islam in the Middle East, and Christianity in Europe -- the rule of law develops most. Thus, he rejects reductionist attempts to explain political and social institutions as mere reflections of underlying economic or technological structures: "It is impossible to develop any meaningful theory of political development without treating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and follow distinct development paths." And in his account of the consolidation and expansion of states through the ages, military factors also often play a more important role than economic ones. Indeed, my chief criticism might be that Fukuyama tends to give too little prominence to economic power relations in general. But this is hardly a dramatic failing, since the book manages to cover such an enormous range of subject matter and approaches.
Another concern is that Fukuyama's attempt to ground social structures in sociobiology is unsuccessful; listing supposedly innate attributes of human beings does not help explain their social and political institutions. For example, he points to a putative human propensity for violence and war, citing the work of the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley and the archaeologist Stephen LeBlanc, who have argued that virtually all primitive and ancient societies repeatedly engaged in warfare. But their conclusions have been challenged by other scholars who emphasize the enormous variability of warfare across early societies, the surge in warfare that accompanied the rise of sedentary agricultural societies, and the great variability in war proneness across regions in more modern times.
Thus, Europeans were involved in wars in nearly 75 percent of the years between 1494 and 1975 and never went 25 years without fighting somewhere. In contrast, East Asia witnessed a 300-year period of peace between the 1590s and 1894, broken only by defensive engagements against barbarian incursions and five fairly small two-state wars. During the preceding 200 years, China had been at war only once. Yet in the period from about 750 BC to AD 200, as Fukuyama notes, the Chinese fought at least as many wars as the Europeans later did. The Chinese leopard changed its spots -- as did the European leopard after 1960. The point is that warfare, although extremely important in some social contexts (such as when building up states and empires), is not invariant. It derives not from human nature per se but from certain types of societies and cultures with certain characteristics. Fukuyama himself, in fact, seems to recognize the limitations of sociobiology, since he never actually applies it to any historical context.
In any work of such breadth, there are bound to be some nits to pick. Thus, Fukuyama seems to believe the sizes of armies given in early Chinese sources, which are almost certainly vastly overstated; he writes that Denmark had representative government before 1800, when it still had an absolute monarchy; and so forth. But these occasional slips are trivial compared with the larger feat he has managed to pull off in covering so much diverse material so accessibly.
Fukuyama's method is not to cite an enormous quantity of historical scholarship but rather to rely on prominent scholars in each area. He has chosen these scholars well and is careful to present their positions accurately. It is downright refreshing to read a book of such breathtaking scope that manages to do so little violence to the work of the innumerable specialists whose insights it inevitably relies on. The bottom line is that Fukuyama's basic thesis is persuasive and he reveals good historical and sociological sensitivity throughout. The book is a great intellectual achievement and leaves one hungry for the next installment -- which may be more of a cliffhanger than readers of his earlier work might assume.
Over the last two centuries, Fukuyama writes, liberal democracies have managed to discover a resilient political equilibrium, balancing state power, the rule of law, and accountability to citizens. But he warns that past results are no guarantee of future success. Continued legitimacy for today's democracies will depend on their "being able to maintain an adequate balance between strong state action when necessary and the kinds of individual freedoms that are the basis of . . . democratic legitimacy and that foster private-sector growth." Comments at the start and the end of the first volume show that he is deeply worried by the current political situation in the United States, and his recent article in these pages elaborated on that theme. The future of History might be a bumpy ride after all.