Thursday, December 24, 2009

Greatest Foreign Policy Gifts

Earlier today I linked Stephen Walt's article, "The Greatest Gifts: A Christmas Post," in which he picks "ten of the 'greatest gifts' in modern foreign policy." I thought I'd put up a list of my own, although given my historical background, not all of these are "modern" foreign policy. In no particular order:

1. Sobieski Breaks the Siege of Vienna.  In 1683, Polish king John Sobieski led a multi-national force, spearheaded by Poland's elite cavalry, that broke the Ottoman Empire's siege of Vienna. Sobieski then returned home, without any particular compensation or advantage. It was probably the last gasp of glory for the once powerful Polish state. 89 years later, Austria, whose capital had been saved, participated in the first partition of Poland.

2. The Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.  At the beginning of 1772, Frederick the Great's Prussia was beaten down by an enemy coalition, with Russian forces approaching Berlin. All appeared lost, but the death of Russian Empress Elizabeth brought Peter III, an admirer of Frederick, to power. Peter withdrew Russian troops and pulled out of the war, giving up Russian gains without compensation.

3. Lend-Lease.  Although called loans and lease, lend-lease's scale, scope, and lack of repayment by most make it one of the greatest gifts ever. The list of supplies given to the Soviet Union from the U.S. alone is staggering, and too long to reproduce here. Just a few examples: 15 million pairs of boots, 14,795 aircraft, 375,883 trucks, and 51,537 jeeps. It is difficult to envision the course of World War 2 in the east without lend-lease.

4. Operation Citadel.  Before July 1943, the situation on the German-Russian front had stabilized, allowing Germany to build up a strong armored reserve. But in July the Germans launched a major offensive against the Kursk salient, the exact place the Soviets wanted them to attack -- a salient in the lines that they had spent months fortifying and preparing. The German assault broke against the immensely strong in-depth defenses of the Red Army, erasing the irreplaceable German armored reserve, and putting Hitler on the strategic defensive in the east for the rest of the war.

5. The Will of King Attalus III. In 133 BC, Attalus, King of Pergamum, a rich country located in what is today western Turkey, died without heirs. In his will, he left his entire kingdom to the Roman Republic. Without fighting a war, or spending any money, Rome acquired a major new, wealthy province.

6. The Rebuilding of Japan. After overrunning much of the Japanese Empire, destroying its fleet, devastating its merchant marine, reducing its cities to rubble, and bringing it to its knees in surrender, the U.S. not only gave Japan a lasting democratic constitutional system, it undertook the long-term military protection of its former enemy, and helped rebuild it as an economic power to rival America.

7. Independence for India. In 1947 the British peacefully relinquished their hold on India, giving up one of the greatest imperial possessions in history without an armed struggle, and allowing the emergence of multiple independent nations.  

8. Portugal, Genoa, Venice and England Reject Christopher Columbus.Before he turned to Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, Columbus approached these other states with his plans for a western route to the orient, but was turned down. Their rejection was an amazing gift to Spain, which would claim the new world empire that might have been theirs.

9. The Death of Ogedei Khan.  By 1240 all Russian lands had been overrun by the disciplined armies of the Mongols, one of the greatest conquering forces in history. The Mongols advanced into Eastern Europe crushing larger European armies at Liegnitz and Sajo River in 1241, and moving toward Vienna. But on the death of Ogedei, the Mongols abandoned their invasion of Europe to return home and choose a successor to the Great Khan, possibly sparing large sections of Europe the Mongol rule endured by Russia. 

10. The Spanish Inheritance.  In 1700, Charles II of Spain, the last member of the Spanish Hapsburg royal family, died without direct heirs. In his will he left the Spanish throne, and with it the vast Spanish empire, to the grandson of Louis XIV of France, Philip of Anjou, who would become Philip V of Spain. This will, possibly the most valuable inheritance gift of all time, touched off the world war known as the War of the Spanish Succession. 


  1. Fascinating list. This history junkie is intrigued enough to investigate further!

  2. Thanks. There are probably some good ones that I missed, and Walt had a couple that I would have picked, such as the Marshall Plan, but these were the ones that came to mind first.