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One Hundred Years Apart: Overstretch in World Politics, 1839-1939

Vietnam War protestors
Vietnam War protestors


The word “overstretch” first came to prominence in 1987 when Professor Paul Kennedy (Yale) defined it as the cause of great power decline in his book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. The theme was applied later by Professor Walter McDougall (Pennsylvania) in The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy (2016). It is no coincidence that both used the word “tragedy” in describing the results from overstretch: Kennedy for the decline of countries in history such as Spain, McDougall with regard to the U.S., especially since World War II.

With regard to recent, post-Cold War America, McDougall noted that “Americans bore responsibility to engage in regime change wherever necessary and possible.” The resultant military interventions by the U.S., beginning in 1982 through 2016, produced at least nineteen separate episodes, mostly in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The political symbolism for these cases has been termed “endless wars,” with the exception of Trump, who has withdrawn from most and started none. But that is history.

The Dictionary term to describe “overstretch” is “beyond normal,” a label that begs the question, what is “normal”? Thus, the term remains subjective, i.e., variable and independent. Perhaps the only way to grade “normal” (vs. “abnormal”) is the result obtained. Was the effort worth it and successful or unsuccessful and unnecessary? Was it within the geopolitical and resource limits of the occasion? Did it produce appropriate results, or have we come to regret them? Were the commitments the result of frustration or desperation?


Some situations are obvious. There can be no overstretch between neighbors. Thus, it can be determined that France and Germany, whose wars spanned centuries including both world wars, behaved “normally,” that is they always fought (until recently). Nor was it overstretch for Teddy Roosevelt to take Panama from Colombia and build a canal. On the other hand, the Monroe Doctrine (1823) was a clear overstretch. How could one country declare supervision over an entire hemisphere when it couldn’t even defend its own Capital (the British burned Washington, 1814)?

Fortunately for the hemisphere, the Monroe Doctrine did not result in tragedy, but overstretch, as both Kennedy and McDougall have shown, often does.

In judging the long (25-year) American involvement in Vietnam, would it be appropriate to judge it as “overstretch”?  There are two answers, both the same, the “personal” and the “strategic.” One might ask the families of the 58,000 soldiers who returned in body bags. Or we can judge the result of the U.S. retreat when, several years later, America became the “world’s sole remaining superpower.” Irrespective of Vietnam.

By 1781, the British found that the war in America was another overstretch. They soon granted independence, went on to defeat Napoleon, and became the reigning “superpower” of the time, with colonies all over the world. But not in America.

Yet the full story of British foreign policy, almost completely overlooked, produced an “overstretch” that changed the course of history and resulted in the two greatest human “tragedies” of all-time, World War I and World War II. Ironically, both occasions came with near-identical circumstances and exactly one hundred years apart.


In 1839, Britain, France, and other European countries signed the Treaty of London, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality, without specifics, should Belgium be threatened. In July 1914, the German Foreign Minister, Bethmann-Hollweg, informed Britain that the German Army might invade Belgium and that they should not intervene because of a “mere scrap of paper.” On August 1, the Germans did just that, and, on the fourth, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey issued an ultimatum, giving the German Army twelve hours to leave. Grey did not even wait until midnight but declared war at 11 PM.

A similar situation occurred earlier (1870) when the Germans (Prussia) invaded France, resulting in a French surrender and the emergence of modern Germany. In that case, the two were left alone, and Britain and the rest of the world accepted the result.

By intervening in 1914, Britain also enrolled its full Commonwealth, including Australia, New Zealand, most of Africa, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Malaya, and, on 23 August, Japan (by treaty with England). In 1917, the U.S. joined the Allies, thus guaranteeing what Britain did in the first place: make the German attack a world war.

It would be entertaining to speculate on what “might have happened” otherwise. But this should suffice: could it have been much worse?


Having failed to “appease” Hitler at Munich in 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain “guaranteed” Poland in April 1939, again without specifics. On September 1, Hitler invaded Poland, and, on the third, Chamberlain (the “appeaser”) declared war, just as his predecessor did before. Like Belgium in 1914, Poland fell in a few weeks, but the conflict was now worldwide, and, within two years, again, the U.S. was in for good.

For Hitler, as with Bethmann-Hollweg, the reasoning seemed distant, removed. When he was told of the British declaration, he turned to his Foreign Secretary, von Ribbentrop, and asked pointedly, “now what?”

Now What?

Was Britain “overstretched” in either case? Neither Belgium nor Poland was saved; they both suffered occupation for years thereafter. Nor did Britain even attempt to rescue each, any more than it had either the intention or resources to do so.

For its own sake, the net result of world war saw the final chapter of the British Empire, the rise of totalitarian regimes throughout, the emergence of a bipolar world between the U.S. and USSR, nuclear threats, and the final decline of Europe as the center of the political globe.

World War II took 76 million lives (estimate): that’s 35,000 each day for six years.  Was Belgium or Poland worth it?

Most will probably say “yes.” Today, the U.S. is in turmoil over the death of one man in Minnesota.  Is he worth it? Again, apparently, “yes.” Or, are these cases merely symbolic of greater causes?

But in each case, “overstretch” is equivalent to “exaggeration,” both being the opposite of “normal.”

Or is world politics similar to domestic, like living in an asylum?