REVIEWS Edited 3/29/2012
Napoleon and the Art of Diplomacy, How War and Hubris Determined the Rise and Fall of the French Empire, by William R. Nester, Savas Beatie, El Dorado Hills, Calif., 2012, hardcover, 432 pages , $34.95
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras were not only fertile ground for military glory, but also for feats of diplomatic maneuvering. No other period saw so many treaties, agreements and conventions drafted and signed, the majority of which bore the stamp of Napoleon Bonaparte. After the ratification of the Treaty of Mortefontaine, ending French privateering against American ships, on September 30, 1800, American envoy William Van Murray wrote his impression of Bonaparte: “The First Consul was grave, rather thoughtful, occasionally severe—not inflated nor egotistical—very exact in all his motions which show at once an impatient heart and a methodical head....of a most skilful fencing master....He speaks with a frankness so much above fear that you think he has no reserve.” That description stands in telling contrast to that given by Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich to General Etienne Jacque Joseph Alexandre MacDonald 13 years later: “Your Emperor is in every way a lunatic.”
In Napoleon and the Art of Diplomacy, William R. Nester, professor of the Department of Government and Politics at St. John’s University in New York and author of a variety of books, shows that Napoleon owed his rise as much to his skills in diplomacy as to those on the battlefield. Indeed his diplomatic talents can be discerned in his first known letter, written when he was 14, in which he tried to convince his uncle that his brother Joseph was better suited to the priesthood than the army. For Napoleon war and diplomacy were indivisible, a revelation not lost on military scholars such as Karl von Clausewitz.
The author regards Napoleon’s peak moments as a diplomat in the treaties of Campoformido in 1797 and Tilsit in 1807, and the Conference of Dresden in 1812. He ascribes Metternich’s later appraisal to the egopathy inside Emperor Napoleon, which finally pushed him beyond the human limits and finally to fatal hubris. One other reason, however, was that Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who the author calls the devil of diplomacy, was in reality a traitor who often worked at cross purposes with the emperor while accepting money from Russian Tsar Alexander. Other officials also plotted against him, including Joseph Fouché and Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte.
In line with Clausewitz’s description of war as politics by other means, Napoleon and the Art of Diplomacy gives insights into a less well-known but important facet of the emperor’s rise and fall. All scholars of Napoleonic history should find it a worthwhile addition to their libraries.