A comparison between Bismarck and Trump, though tempting at first blush, would be somewhat exaggerated. The Prussian President was once called by a French politician at the time an “amiable barbarian”, but the Donald can hardly be called amiable . . . As Chancellor of the German Empire, Bismark was given to solving international problems, as he said, “ferro et igne”, “by iron and fire”, and is said to have proclaimed that “Might is right” (or “Might before right”, “Macht geht vor Recht”). But he denied on no less than four occasions that he ever uttered the phrase – which a century and a half later continues to be attributed to him.
Among the many differences between Bismarck and Trump is the fact that Bismarck was not only a cultivated aristocrat whose religious faith was inspired by Spinoza and Hegel (neither of whose works Trump has ever read or probably heard of) but a career politician. He was, however, like POTUS, given to “undiplomatic frankness”. He is remembered as an intelligent, forceful diplomat who refused to admit that he believed in and practised a policy of “Might is right”. Trump not only believes in the principle but has practised it all his life. It’s called bullying, which both in business and in international politics can involve, as we shall see, grand larceny.
Trump is convinced he is right. He is ready to shoot from the hip. He is dedicated to the adage “History is written by the victors” (he would say he has neither time nor respect for losers). His first week in the Oval Office, dedicated to a series of shocking executive orders, identifies him as an impetuous, go-it-alone, loose cannon (Bannon’s cannon ?), ready to apply American might because it is right, presidential might because he is right.
Many have already forgotten a scandalous revelation of his mentality in what TIME magazine has called his “grotesque performance” in his CIA speech the day after his Inauguration : “We should have kept the (Iraqi) oil. But, OK, maybe you’ll have another chance.” This is the U.S. Commander-in-Chief telling his Secret Service that next time it will be “vae victis” and “victoribus spolia”, “woe to the conquered” and “the spoils to the victors” !
In neither of the World Wars did the U.S. have any “territorial ambitions” as did Hitler, beginning with his attack on and occupation of Poland. America entered World War 1 because after initially refusing to join the allies against Germany, it could not ignore or condone the sinking of the “Lusitania”. It entered World War 2 because of Japan’s “infamy” in attacking Pearl Harbor, and launched D-Day on the Normandy beaches to save the free world from Nazism. Its realpolitik was not indifferent to the advantages which its domination of Asia and of Europe would provide for its domination of the world economy. But it never claimed possession of conquered countries nor enriched itself by robbing them of their national treasures (like Goering) as spoils of war. Trump seems ready to return to an earlier tradition . . .
There is, for me, a personal dimension to this discussion. My family motto is “Opima Spolia”. Some have misunderstood this as “Optima Spolia”, “The Best of the Spoils”, when strictly it refers to the conquering general’s right to the armor, arms and other effects that an ancient Roman general stripped from the body of an opposing commander slain in single combat : the most honorable, but not necessarily the best or most valuable of the spoils available to the victor. I am not particularly proud of the mentality of my belligerent ancestors, and it doesn’t matter a damn whether I am or not. It does matter, however, when a President of the United States reveals his readiness to claim as spoils of war the wealth of nations he seems ready to attack (after the remark about Iraq, his Secretary of National Security has, at the time of this writing, just put Iran “on notice” !). He would, of course, find justification for this in the Judeo-Christian tradition, from the ancient Israelites to the Christian crusaders, for whom, clearly, might was right. Jews and Christians were, as Trump clearly is, also convinced of another German phrase : “Gott mit uns”, “God is on our side” . . .