Globalist Analysis

Why America Is Like Imperial Spain (Part II)

What lessons can Imperial Spain's travails in the Netherlands teach the United States about Afghanistan?

Read Part I here.


  • The logistical mirror across the centuries is a striking resemblance. When Henri IV cut the Spanish Road in 1616, it was Spain's strategic wake up call. Ours awaits us.
  • Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan today, Spain barreled into societies actually inhabiting a kind of precarious equipoise.
  • Spain's logistics problem supplying their Army of Flanders is the mirror of our tenuous road link to NATO's Army of Afghanistan.
  • Dutch Calvinists "had to choose between abject surrender to the king's terms and outright rejection of his authority." Are we so different with our Taliban?
  • Just to seize now-tarnished glory, the Spanish nation was exhausting the precious riches of its world-girdling economy. It was their $3 trillion war.

Editor’s Note: For lessons one through four, read Part I.

5. No big battles, no decision on the battlefield.

What did this 16th century war look like? As today, there were very few big battles, maybe five in 80 years. The fighting was all true grit: “Man-to-man, hand-to-hand.” Advantage was with those who held the strong places. The heretics used every contour of hostile terrain to bog down the Spanish Army of Flanders.

Every fight was about securing “the population” — if you were Spanish — or rescuing your own — if you were Dutch Taliban. Strategy became about who controlled the places where the people were. The echoes of our master plan for Marjah (what our other Duke of Alba called a “bleeding ulcer”) ring clear.

But El Rey d’Espana — Spain’s POTUS — did not give up his nation-building program. He even made peace with France just to concentrate on killing terrorists. He fired both his most ruthless general and his most understanding capitán. Yet helpless to win, Phillip II passed from the scene.

A new, “suitably pious” yet weak king was crowned with great hopes. But he was not keen on the sound of trumpets. Without his own voice to speak, others spoke for him. There was a grand strategic vacancy at the top: The commander-in-chief was dead.

The most entrepreneurial general of the new 17th century, Ambrogio Spinola, filled the power vacuum. He was a general as much at ease in politics and funding as he was in battle. The world empire had been fighting terrorist heretics going on 60 years. The seven northern provinces were now a Dutch people and state. The Long War was lost. Yet Spinola, like Petraeus, promised to deliver.

With logistical, political and financial pressures closing in, Spinola staked out symbolic contests — glorious battles — that Spain could win. In practical terms, he felt such victories would give Spain the best bargaining position possible with a Dutch Republic they could not defeat. But such “victories” also launched “second-order effects” to renew Spain’s reputation at home and abroad.

Here Spinola too is akin to Petraeus, as both recognize true political genius in war is about shaping both narrative and its essential spin. Spain’s strategy, like ours, is all about saving face.

6. Tankers on the Khyber.

There was now another wrinkle, a logistics nightmare that was quickly becoming Spain’s main strategic vulnerability. The war theater was far away, and there were only two ways to get to the terrorists: By sea from Spain, or by land from Spain’s holdings in Italy, up around the periphery of France through Spanish holdings at last to Luxembourg. This is the fabled Spanish Road.

Spain’s logistics problem supplying their Army of Flanders is the mirror of our tenuous road link to NATO’s Army of Afghanistan, snaking up through Pakistan through mountains like the Jura and Alps, exposed every step of the way to interdiction.

Moreover, if we have free air rights now into Central Asian bases, like the sea route for Spain threading the hostile English and Dutch, we are at the mercy of Russia’s patient forbearance. The logistical mirror across the centuries is a striking resemblance. When Henri IV cut the Spanish Road in 1616, it was Spain’s strategic wake up call. Ours awaits us.

Are we not already there? Like Henri IV coaxing Savoy to cut the Spanish Road, do we not detect a whiff of Chinese encouragement of Pakistan’s shutdown of the American Road? Are we not as fundamentally exposed as Imperial Spain?

7. Pass up compromise — but embrace bankruptcy.

In 1576, there was in Brussels and Madrid much talk of compromise after so many years of fighting insurgent identity. But the commander-in-chief would have none of it. In the Cologne peace talks in 1579, Dutch Calvinists “had to choose between abject surrender to the king’s terms and outright rejection of his authority.” Are we so different with our Taliban?

Yet just to seize now-tarnished glory, the Spanish nation was exhausting the precious riches of its world-girdling economy. The state itself faced bankruptcy. It was their $3 trillion war.

8. Nation-building and whole of government = partition.

But by sticking it out, the Spanish at least pulled out half a win: They locked in the cultural division of the Netherlands that still stands today. Dutch: Calvinist. Walloons and Luxembourgers: Catholic.

Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan today, Spain barreled into — even as it sought to reshape — societies actually inhabiting a kind of precarious equipoise. So for places that had somehow managed to balance more local identities with loose national identity, Spain drove in and blew this balance up. We too have managed in ten years to blow apart ancient equipoise — in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When we rapaciously depart, leaving shattered identities behind, their distorted new worlds will be our unwitting creation. Spain really knew how to do Long War. Spain would keep working its magic on Walloon and Luxembourg society (their final war prize) for another four generations after the Surrender of Breda.

George W. Bush in 2003 declared the imminent transformation of the Muslim world. But do we have the 80-year grit of the Spanish to see our democratic nation-building through to the end?

9. In the end, it’s all about saving face.

But let us not forget what lies behind the strategy of finish. For over a century, the sacred identity of Spain itself became invested in battle — victorious battle — like that old Roman motto: Eternal Victory. Put simply, Spain loved to fight: They thrilled to the drumbeat of the Tercio, the ringing of sword and pike, the acrid smell of black powder. So do we.

After the Cold War’s quiet last days, we have again taken up musket and pike. To American soldiers and their passionate partisans, war always ratifies national identity. Battle is all about who we are.

In the 1620s, Spanish identity desperately craved victory. Here Spinola delivered in 1624. He wrung-out in siege the Surrender of Breda, the sacred torch of Dutch resistance. Moreover, the Spanish knew how to make that moment iconic. The country’s greatest painter of the 17th century, Diego Velazquez, was on call.

Spanish Eternal Victory was enshrined for the ages no matter what happened in the Netherlands. Just like our Iraqi surge. Just like our iron dream of Afghanistan. We crave the immortal spin of a mythic, incontrovertible canvas of victory, however fictive. However much a lie. All we need is our own Velazquez.

10. Staying the course of ruin.

The United States is not the Spanish Empire, but it is like it in three major ways:

Like Spain, our American empire is self-declared.

Empires are swept up in the conviction of their perpetual grandeur. The very identity of a nation is thus transfigured as it passionately invests its soul in the symbols and rituals of greatness — especially greatness expressed through the genuflections of others.

How others respect imperial authority becomes the prime directive of all policy. “The national interest” is increasingly about maintaining reputation and honor — at all costs — for without honor there is no grandeur, and without grandeur the nation fails its own identity.

Empires will do whatever it takes to keep pride of place.

By 1617, Spanish leaders knew what lay ahead: imperial bankruptcy and the loss of those very banners and standards of reputation for which they fought and bled. Yet there are always other courtiers in the palace corridors who whisper, “If Spain fails to stand up for her rights in Brussels, she will prove unable to stand up for them in Milan, Naples, and Vienna.” So goes the original domino theory, in diplomatic Spanish.

But in American English, do not our own mainstream media whisper urgently of a United States beset by a surging China and India (and others) — crying out for us to prove that we are still number one?

Empires will persevere — even if it means going against their own interests.

Spain went at it in the Netherlands for 80 years: From year-to-year, a course no argument could stay. Hence American imperial court circles persevere one day at a time, for as long as they can — even if that means staying in Iraq and Afghanistan forever.

In 1628, the weak king’s chief minister — Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel Ribera y Velasco de Tovar, Count-Duke of Olivares and Duke of San Lúcar la Mayor — came up with a magnanimous solution. He declared that it was only a question of “reducing the Dutch to friendship with us” — just the offer we pretend to make to the Taliban. So Spain stayed the course of ruin.

Similarly, we Americans are already in talks with Taliban (and in desperation, perhaps even imposters). The bigger news is we are already deep into our own siege of Breda in a place called Kandahar — which we will ritualistically reduce, and celebrate. If only we might find our own Velazquez!

So we still march to the slash of rotors
Like the sound of distant trumpets.

Author’s Note: This meditation was inspired by Arturo Pervez-Reverte’s novel El Sol de Breda (The Sun Over Breda), which speaks to such enduring things.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.

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About Michael Vlahos

Michael Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs.

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