Spain’s Siren Song

17th Century Spain and the Allure of Idealized History in Grand Strategy

Many readers may be familiar with Paul Kennedy’s classic The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. It is often recommended to those who have an interest in grand strategy.  However, readers might be less familiar with a collection of essays edited by Kennedy, Grand Strategies in War and Peace, which, while less comprehensive than Kennedy’s 1987 work, poses a number of interesting questions about how states conceive of their national interests and of effective grand strategy. Out of the book’s 10 essays, J.H. Elliot’s “Managing Decline: Olivares and the Grand Strategy of Imperial Spain” is a particularly interesting perspective on how idealized history may warp the desirability of grand strategic models and creates obstacles for managing decline.

A youthful Olivares in 1624, three years into his time in power, by Diego Velázquez (Public Domain)

In “Managing Decline,” Elliot outlines the 17th century geopolitical climate facing Spain and Prime Minister Gaspar de Guzman, the count-duke of Olivares. Having made a tentative peace with the Dutch following a largely unsuccessful and costly war aimed at fully reintegrating the rebellious Netherlands, Spain and its political elite felt a great deal of trepidation when it came to making plans for the future of the country. Out of this unease emerged a deluge of writing on issues of decline and prescriptions for restoring Spanish glory. The dialectic of decline generally manifested in two ways. The first argument was essentially a discussion of the seemingly natural historical forces that lead to decline and of how to slow the cyclical decline of the state. The second argument concerned itself with the moral aspects of the decline in Spanish power. The moral arguments were usually framed by a historical narrative of the Roman slide into decadence, corruption, and “effeminacy” leading to that ancient empire’s downfall. The antidotes for the poison that threatened Spain’s greatness, in this second area of analysis, lay in a simple return to the traditional values that ushered the country into its golden age in the first place.[1]

So, according to the 17th century equivalent to policy wonks, if Spain was to maintain its place in a rapidly changing and globalizing world, it must defend the physical limits of its realm from erosion and look to social and political reforms to strengthen the state and its ability to make war, drawing on the notion that reversion to tradition could bring back the rhythm of progress. Unfortunately, progress from Spain’s present position would be costly and predicated on more than piety, and its economic and political woes would exacerbate its inability to effectively confront its foreign policy challenges in the coming years as expenditures grew and revenues shrank.

Olivares came into office in 1621,  three years after the beginning of the Thirty Years War, and oversaw a renewal of hostilities with the Dutch in that same year. In a time of great trials, the Olivares regime looked back to, as Elliot writes, the “more remote and glorious past of a reign of Phillip II that was beginning to be idealized with passage of time…Renewal, in other words, could only come with the restoration of old values.”[2]

Instead of making major changes to foreign policy that could refit it to Spanish capabilities, Olivares and the political elite of Spain attempted to modify the current configuration of Spain’s bureaucracy to carry out “Spain’s traditional foreign policy objectives.”[3] Elliot points out, “Indeed, in any clash between the claims of foreign policy and the availability of resources, the predisposition was to assume the international emergency was too great to be shirked, and that somehow or other the resources would be found.”[4] Elliot observes later on in the essay, “What I detect in the count-duke and the more responsible of his colleagues is not so much the arrogance of empire as an almost overwhelming sense of its burdens.”[5] With Elliot adding that, “The Mantuan affair illustrates, I believe, the extreme difficulties of disengagement for an imperial power. The sheer extent of its commitments means that almost everything is perceived as affecting its vital interests. Hence the prevalence of the domino theory in the Madrid of the 1630s.”[6]

According to Elliot, there were not many dissenting voices coming out of the administration during that time, but the author cites a letter that a friend of Olivares wrote to him, just before this friend’s death, as one of the few. In the letter, Olivares’ friend implores him to withdraw from Flanders and Milan and “use the five or six million ducats a year that this would save to improve the defenses of the Iberian Peninsula and the Indies.”[7] Of course, this was never carried out, because, as Elliot explains, “to reduce the level of aspiration and cut the commitments…was to turn one’s back on a glorious past, and ultimately to deny everything for which the monarchy had stood.”[8]

According to the author, this led to a failure to manage decline. Because Olivares and his cohort were so concerned with halting decline by maintaining Spain’s physical and psychological frontiers of empire, no matter the short term costs and the damage that it could do to Spain’s ability to compete in the European system over the long term, they failed to see the opportunities presented in consolidating Spain’s position; not in some form of full disengagement but through moving back to a place from which the Spanish state could comfortably and efficiently reform and project its interests. Instead, Olivares and the administration overstretched Spain in a way that nearly broke the country, and did in fact break his administration, taking with it Spain’s glory days.

Spain’s decline is significant when discussing grand strategy today because it highlights a number of general issues that still affect the modern state’s attempts to formulate macro policies aimed at general goals to shape and control the international environment. One of the most important issues is that, in looking at the big picture, the details that may be more salient to an effective response to challenges can be lost and generally successful historical approaches can appear to be more common sense solutions than they are in reality. In fact, a country’s legacy grand strategies were generally addressing a different set of challenges and working with separate resource endowments. Turning to history for grand strategic models also accentuates and magnifies the worst sunk cost fallacy instincts of political systems. In using an ethos and strategy that generally informed another era’s perspective on the international system, the burdens of that state’s era-specific achievements follow the adoption of its worldview and often, unfortunately, without the sets of circumstances that made that reality seem materially feasible and productive to maintain. Here, the state is using grand strategy as a means to realize its larger goals without fully considering the inputs or the detail from context of the idealized guide. The similarities between the present desired end goal and the idealized guide dominates the conceptualization of policy and thus overstretch becomes almost inevitable.

It would seem that this is missing the point of strategy, where resource constraints play an enormous role in creative thinking. Strategy is supposed to be a means for transforming resources into outcomes. This is where grand strategy is somewhat unique in relation to mediums that seem more time and space constrained (the operational or tactical, for example.) The potential vastness of grand strategy’s time horizon can be particularly conducive to wishful thinking and over optimism when it comes to meeting the demands of the task at hand. It can create grand strategic tunnel vision for states accustomed to planning from a position of power, where the state ignores its developing limitations and refuses to acknowledge the fact that it is facing important tradeoffs. Thus, the incentives for creative strategies that could help manage decline give way to plans for halting decline that are predicated on an unrealistic sense of geopolitical entitlement and rooted in the conditions that underwrote a position of power that is on its way to irrelevance. In Spain, the problem manifested itself through an idealized interpretation of Phillip II’s reign.

"The Baptism of Phillip II" in Valladolid, Spain. Historical ceiling preserved in Palacio de Pimentel. (Public Domain)

This tunnel vision, and the misinterpretation of past grand strategic success, can be seen in Elliot’s discussion of 17th century Spain. It also has the potential to shape the spectrum of analysis that informs American grand strategic thought today. To face the siren songs of historical mythology and American exceptionalism, the U.S. must first find the mast before it tethers itself to it. Some general agreement about where we are and where we want to go is the first step in the right direction towards a grand strategy firmly connected to reality.

Ryan Kuhns is a Research Associate at PAXsims and holds an MA from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His research interests include defense economics, strategy, and the social/political organization of war. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone.

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Header Image: "Odysseus and the Sirens" by Herbert James Draper (Public Domain)


[1] J.H. Elliot, “Managing Decline: Olivares and the Grand Strategy of Imperial Spain” in Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Paul Kennedy. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 90-91.

[2] Ibid., 94.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] Ibid., 96.

[5] Ibid., 97.

[6] Ibid., 100.

[7] Ibid., 100-101.

[8] Ibid., 100-101.