Be careful what you wish for – you might get it!

My reading of world history tells me that the saying, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it!”, can be as true for nations as it is for individuals.

Britain against France

The British comprehensively defeated the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). In US history this is known as the French and Indian War; in Canadian history it is (I believe) known as the Great War for the Empire.

This was a great victory for the British. The French were wiped off the map in North America and in India. But for that very reason it led in a direct line to Britain’s loss of the Thirteen Colonies a few years later.

The battle of the Heights of Abraham, before Quebec (painting by Hervey Smyth, 1734-1811 – Library of the Canadian Department of National Defence)

The victory was so great that it meant that the American colonists had no more reason to fear the French, which until the war had loomed to the north (Canada), the west (in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys), and the southwest (Louisiana). So they could stand up to the British government without the French threat at their backs.

Furthermore, it led to a thirst for revenge on the part of the French. In the war for American Independence, they intervened just at the right moment, so that British naval power – the very thing that had won the Seven Years’ War – was neutralized when it was needed most, to support Lord Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown.

Rome against Carthage

Another example of a great victory leading to its own problems is Rome over Carthage. Such was the scale of this victory that it left Rome as the mistress of the Mediterranean Sea – which did Rome very little good.

It seems that once a nation has achieved overweening power, things start to go wrong for it. In Rome’s case, the wealth that began flowing into her coffers caused a whole raft of problems: growing political instability, social inequality, impoverishment of the majority of Romans while the ruling elite got much richer, the spread of slums in Rome itself, the decline of public morality, expressed in political violence, gang warfare and the undermining of the famed Roman justice system, and eventually, the routine massacring of political opponents, the outbreak of a series of vicious civil wars, and the rise of tyranny.

That Caligula was able to make his horse a consul is due to the fact that the real consuls of the Roman Republic hadn’t done their job right. (A minor problem with this rather good soundbite is that Caligula never did make his consul a horse, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?)

The Roman victory at Zama, before Carthage, one of the decisive battles in the Ancient World (by Cornelius Cort, 1567)


West versus East

A final example is the triumph of the West over the Soviet Union and its satellites at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s. This was as comprehensive victory as there ever was – the Soviet Union simply imploded before our eyes.

Which, of course, is when hubris began to come into play. Those arrogant young men from the World Bank swaggered into the government offices in Moscow and began demanding that the Communist system turn into a Capitalist system – immediately! In so doing they inflicted untold economic misery on the Russian people, heaped humiliation upon humiliation on them,  and paved the way for a resurgence of Russian national resentment of the West. We clutched defeat from the jews of victory.

There are countless other examples of victory leading to – in fact causing – defeat: the success of the European nations in dominating the rest of the world was probably THE major cause of World War I; the utter defeat of Germany in that war, and the humiliations dished out to the German people in the Treaty of Versailles, undoubtedly played a part of the rise of Hitler; and so on. Maybe there’s a universal law in history which says that, unless victory is accompanied by wisdom, defeat will follow as surely as night follows day.

By Peter Britton