From Tolstoy to Trump

LONDON – One of Leo Tolstoy’s preoccupations was the nature and limits of power. What was it that made France so formidable an enemy, particularly of Russia? This question was at the heart of his greatest novel, War and Peace – so much so that Tolstoy sometimes argued that his book was not a novel at all, but an inquiry into the philosophy of history.

On the limits of power, Tolstoy might have thought a bit more about what Britain’s World War II-era Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery later called the first law of warfare. “Do not march on Moscow.” Winter was a more formidable agent of reality than even the German generals who helped the Russians in their successful defense against Napoleon (a lesson of which Hitler, fortunately, took no notice).

As for the nature of power, Tolstoy was neither an economic historian nor a demographer. When War and Peace was published in 1869, on the other side of the Bering Strait stood the United States, which had purchased Alaska from Russia only two years earlier for about two cents an acre.

America was just beginning to emerge as a world power during the surge of globalization in the last third of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the opening up of the American West. With just 4-5% of the world’s population, America has accounted for 20-30% of world output ever since the early days of steam-ships, railways lines, and the building of Chicago.