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Arguably, the greatest geopolitical earthquake in European history was the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648. In proportion to Europe's population at the time, the war's death toll surpassed the 50 million of World War II. As Yale's Charles Hill writes, the determination to avoid its repetition led to a consensus about the concept of balance of power: No longer would balance of power be a mere philosophical belief, but a practical necessity. It was at this point that the ideal of the "great statesman," armed with Machiavellian instincts, gained respect.

Hill's discussion of the Thirty Years' War appears in his 2010 book, "Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order," which I discussed in a previous column. In that piece I wrote about Hill's survey of ancient Greek literature; here I write about his survey of late medieval and early modern literature. To wit, the never-ending warfare across Europe produced the first great German novel, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's "Adventures of Simplicissimus." "Being immersed in Grimmelshausen's pages is like finding oneself within the deranged chaos of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch," Hill writes. Horrific torture, violence, greed, misery and themeless mayhem are commonplace. No one has any control over his or her destiny -- the very definition of anarchy. This is a situation that must be corrected by whatever means.

What emerged from the horror of the Thirty Years' War was a yearning for international law on one hand and a Europe of coherent states on the other -- some form of territorial organization which would replace the hundreds of small political units, overlaid by various degrees of imperial power, that had made the Continent so prone to cataclysm. Hugo de Groot, also called Grotius, published "The Law of War and Peace" in 1625 as a response to the interminable fighting. As Hill says, it was recognized as "the first treatise of international law," albeit a rambling and digressive one. Grotius wanted even such a thing as war to be waged under civilized rules. But that would only be possible if the warring parties were legitimate states with institutional safeguards. Because such states would share a rough equality under law, an international system could then be imagined that could, in turn, mitigate the sort of chaos that plagued the Europe of Grotius' lifetime.

The "international community" with which Grotius has become associated, Hill observes, stands in opposition to the brutal, survival-of-the-fittest world often associated with Machiavelli and Hobbes. But not completely, I would argue. Hobbes, like Grotius, was an idealist after a fashion. He saw the state, the Leviathan as he called it, as a solution to the anarchy typified by the Thirty Years' War. Both Hobbes and Machiavelli, again, like Grotius, were symbols of order over chaos. Machiavelli did in fact believe in the greater good, only he frequently sanctioned cruel means to achieve it. All three men were groping toward a modern world of enlightened, secular self-interest that would replace a medieval one governed by religious perfectionism.

This leads us, in Hill's telling by way of literature, to France's Cardinal Richelieu, "the archetypally amoral international gamesman of balance-of-power politics." Richelieu was frail, remote, ruthless and fabulously intimidating not because of his position as Louis XIII's grand strategist, but because of the force of his own beliefs. Richelieu encompassed in his own person the belief system of Machiavelli and Hobbes -- one stipulating that the state, France in this case, constituted its own principle and morality. Now this may be hard to take given the crimes committed within memory by the modern state: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia and Mao's China, to be specific. But all this was three centuries into the future. In Richelieu's lifetime the problem was the lack of an international system altogether and the need to create one, hopefully under France's ascendancy. And France as an institutional mechanism was, to a significant degree, Richelieu's creation. Richelieu might have had ice in his veins, but by uniting political power with the birth of modern capitalism he combined raison d'état with raison d'economie.

Cardinal Richelieu obviously was Roman Catholic, but in the Thirty Years' War he aligned Catholic France -- the House of Bourbon -- with the Protestant north of Europe against the Catholic Habsburg south. The fact that the Habsburgs were fellow Catholics meant less to him than the fact that they threatened France from becoming the leading power on the Continent. Cynical and power-hungry he might have been, but Richelieu was among the first of the moderns who did not descend to tribalistic religious instincts. Richelieu and later Bismarck were associated, respectively, with Catholic and Lutheran pietism, which combine personal piety with a healthy suspicion of religious theology.

But Richelieu can only be defended up to a point. As Hill writes, Richelieu's balance-of-power strategy, once freed from religious and ideological concerns, became the first tool of statecraft. "By using it, Richelieu prolonged the war and its horrors," though in the process he destroyed the Holy Roman Empire and enabled France's rise to "paramount power." Talleyrand, the brilliant and cynical Napoleonic era French diplomat who was himself among the "best-hated men of his age," according to a biographer, worshipped at Richelieu's tomb at the Sorbonne.

Men like Richelieu are dependent upon the success of their outcomes. If the outcomes bear fruit, they will be respected by history though not necessarily liked. But if they fail, their reputations are simply doomed because there will have been no saving grace in their intentions.

Richelieu lacked universalist ideals, it is true. And thus he can be smugly denounced from the vantage point of the 21st century West, which has the luxury to focus on such ideals. But Richelieu, like most leaders, should be judged by the values and contingencies of his own time and not by ours. And the highest values of his time were about creating a political structure to replace the anarchy that had led to the Thirty Years' War. Writing of Friedrich Schiller's interpretation of Habsburg commander Albrecht von Wallenstein, Hill notes that "grand ideals" can be served by "immoral acts of statecraft." To wit, it may be provocative to listen to the vulgar language of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on White House tapes, but the two men, in my opinion, should be judged by the truth of their geopolitical conceptions and their determined ability to carry them out.

Hill's selection of literature is a sure guide to such haunting dilemmas of the kind that we will never stop arguing about. For we only think that the news is full of novelty, when in fact it rarely is.