With the birthday of my rightful Sovereign and oberste Kriegsheer Kaiser Wilhelm II coming up fast on January 27 — Hoch! — I placed my usual call to His Majesty to offer my felicitations. Somewhat to my surprise, the duty Funker at Zossen said he had been ordered to patch me through to Madrid. Der Reisekaiser must be at it again, I thought, hoping that old tub the Hohenzollern had an easy passage through the Bay of Biscay, which was no sure thing in January.
My surprise was greater when the phone was answered not by our attaché in Madrid but by none other than the Count-Duke of Olivares, the Privado — what we would now call Prime Minister — to King Philip IV of Spain from 1622 to 1643. Those were the years in which Spain, the first true global power, had gone headlong down history’s tube. Was the Kaiser trying to tell me something?
Olivares, it seems, was in on the joke. “Your Allerhchste thought Madrid in my time had more in common with 21st century Washington than Berlin in his day,” he said. “The Kaiser, after all, had no ambition to rule everyone. I did. As the greatest historian of Spain, the Inglés J.H. Elliott, wrote of me, I was heir “to the great imperial tradition, which believed firmly in the rightness, and indeed the inevitability, of Spanish, and specifically Castilian, hegemony over the world.”
“Is our war in Iraq then the equivalent of Spain’s war in the Netherlands?” I asked.
“That parallel is an interesting one,” Olivares replied. “After all, the Enterprise of England was undertaken as a way to attain a decision in the Netherlands. Just as you attacked Iraq because you could not get at Osama, so we sent the Invincible Armada against England because we could not get at the Dutch rebels, especially the Sea Beggars. Compare what your President Bush has said about the War on Terror to what the Jesuit Ribadeneyra said about the Armada:
Every conceivable pretext for a just and holy war is to be found in this campaign. . .This is a defensive, not an offensive, war; . . . one in which we are defending the high reputation of our King and lord, and of our nation; defending, too, the land and property of all the kingdoms of Spain, and simultaneously our peace, tranquility and repose.
Unfortunately, neither our enterprise nor yours met with success.”
“What were the consequences of the Armada’s defeat for Spain?" I asked Olivares.
“It was of course before my time,” he replied, “and two-thirds of our ships did make it home. But let me again quote Señor Elliott if I may:
the psychological consequences of the disaster were shattering for Castile. For a moment the shock was too great to absorb, and it took time for the nation to realize its full implications. But the unthinking optimism generated by the fantastic achievements of the preceding hundred years seems to have vanished almost overnight.
“Why did Spain not reform its military and its overstrained finances and recover from its defeat?" I inquired of the man who knew best.
“We tried,” Olivares replied. “Our reformers, the arbitristas, put forth many good plans. As soon as I became Privado, I pushed for a great reform program with all my considerable energy.”
“We abolished the ruff,” Olivares replied.
“You know, that big starched thing we wore around our necks that made it look as if our heads were on platters.”
"That was it?”
“That was it,” Olivares said ruefully. “The interests at court that lived off the decay were too powerful to overcome. Perhaps you see why your Kaiser thinks there are some similarities between Washington in your time and Madrid in mine.”
“Indeed,” I said. “We recently tried to reform our Army by giving all the soldiers funny hats.”
“There is another parallel, I think,” Olivares added. “Our Kings Philip III and Philip IV were, to be diplomatic about it, not quite in the same class as Charles V or Philip II. Your President Bush reminds me a great deal of Philip III. He is not, I think, the fullest oil jar on the estancia.”
“No,” I said, “but what can we do about it?”
“Were I your Privado I would recommend he be retired to his estate in Mexico, perhaps with the title of Duke of Plaza Toro.”
“That will come in a couple years,” I told Olivares. “But what is the chance his successor will be any better?”
“Was Philip IV really an improvement over Philip III? In the end, a systemic crisis such as I faced then and you face now requires a change of dynasty. That came, eventually, for Spain, but too late.”
“Now, if you will excuse me, I have a desk full of consultas I must read. At least we did not have Powerpoint. But then, I’m not in Hell.” With that, Olivares faded into the ether.
I was happy to find that Kaiser Wilhelm has kept his excellent sense of humor. Just as Olivares tried to prevent Spain from committing suicide, so the Kaiser tried to prevent the suicide of the west. Both failed, and we live among the ruins.
Meanwhile, we too write our arbitrios, and hope.
William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.