Thursday, March 18, 2010

Statecraft as Mortal Combat

On December 30, 1800, Emperor Paul of Russia made the following announcement in his court's official newspaper: "His Majesty . . . perceiving that the European powers cannot come to an accommodation, and wishing to put an end to the war which has raged fourteen years*, has conceived the idea of appointing a place to which he will invite the other potentates to engage together with himself in single combat on lists which shall be marked at; for which purpose they shall bring with them, to act as their esquires, umpires, and heralds, their most enlightened ministers and able generals, as Thugut, Pitt, and Bernstorff."

Quoted in Edward Emerson's History of the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1902), p. 79. Emerson views this invitation as evidence that Paul's mind had come unhinged, a conclusion also reached by the emperor's inner circle, whose members assassinated him early the following year. From our perspective in the early twenty-first century, though, the idea of resolving international disputes through "single combat" between state leaders, rather than through bloody wars with millions of casualties, seems rather more sane. I suspect it would have been amusing, at least, to view a joust or duel between Tallyrand and Pitt the Younger.

* Paul was doubtless mashing together the Wars of the First and Second Coalitions (1792-1802) with the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-89.

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