Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hubris as zeitgeist for dying empires

I've begun reading the views of Niall Ferguson, the latest incarnation of Oswald Spengler of The Decline of the West fame. Today's thoughts examine his view set out in Sinking Globalization, in particular the lack of focus on hubris as cause for decline.

For Ferguson, the causes that led to WWI, which he cites as the zenith of the last globalization attempt, are as follows:

  • Imperial overstretch
  • Great Power rivalry
  • Unstable alliance system
  • Presence of a rogue regime
  • Hostility towards capitalism

While I agree with Mr. Ferguson in the sense that the above are contributing factors, I think there is a more basic aspect that is the primary cause, hubris, or the sense that one can achieve what one cannot. The zeitgeist (spirit of the times) of hubris was as evident prior to (and following in some cases) WWI, as it is today.

Ferguson notes: But it is worth bearing in mind that, despite numerous warnings issued in the early twentieth century about the catastrophic consequences of a war among the European great powers, many people—not least investors, a generally well-informed class—were taken completely by surprise by the outbreak of World War I.

I don't think people were taken surprise by the outbreak of WWI, rather I think the surprise was that they didn't win quickly and that the cost of, for some, "victory" was substantial in terms of both lives and property. Prosperity, as Bastiat argued, is not achieved by breaking windows.

Wars of aggression are started, I believe, because people in charge think they can win. Aggressive strategies are based on the assumption that victory is assured. Donald Rumsfeld's view that we can only lose the war in America, that we can’t lose it in Iraq recalls my post on the ex-Nixonites getting a do-over of Vietnam.

Equally the great powers prior to WWI were also sure they could gain something by going to war. Faith in the techne of war among policy makers was as high then as it is today.

In the event this faith proved to be unfounded. I suspect today's faith will prove equally unfounded. As Richard Haass of the CFR argues, the Iraq War may not be winnable. Hubris drives Imperial overstretch.

As noted above, however, the view that the Iraq War is unwinnable challenges the primary assumption of those who argue for war, i.e. that we can win. Thus the Neo-con lament that the war was not prosecuted vigorously enough. For the Neo-cons who argued us into the war, victory was possible.

But how would one define victory. As I argued in yesterday's post, one measure of victory would be the imposition on Iraq of a big-oil friendly PSA (production sharing agreement) which seeks to unwind the progress of Middle Eastern nationalists in gaining control over their resources. It strikes me as extremely ironic that the US, which became a major player in the ME with its decision in 1950 to split oil export profits at a then unheard of 50/50 ratio may end its dominance in the region by doing the opposite, i.e. imposing a we win-you lose agreement.

As John Marlowe argues in The Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century: This agreement [between Saudi Arabia and Aramco] revolutionized all existing oil agreements in the Gulf. Win-win deals are so much easier to maintain and generate much more pleasant effects than win-lose, as we are likely to discover.

But it is not just the sense among the elite that one's will can be imposed on foreign nations that causes problems, the sense among the elite that one's will can be imposed at home is also a factor. A profound lack of faith in the common man's ability to sense that the narrative of the times is at odds with reality, which usually coexists with the corollary view that the narrative makes the times, rather than the other way around is the driving force here. The top down view dominates the bottom up.

In finance, one foci of Mr. Ferguson's research, this view is particularly pernicious. This view leads some to think the terms of trade are able to be imposed, not discovered by mutual agreement, but in practice this is always temporary, and at great cost. Concentration of power can also become a bubble.

The unwinnable War in Iraq then becomes an object lesson for the unwinnable Wars on domestic labor and to maintain US$ supremacy. Thus my fear that an inability of the US to impose its terms of oil trade on Iraq will lead to a sense that the terms of trade more generally can be adjusted. When you juggle too many balls they often all come crashing down together.

Hubris, as the Greeks tried to warn future generations, is the ultimate cause of both avoidable individual and cultural destruction. Empires are not destroyed from outside, the implode from within, or so I believe. Icarus didn't crash because the sun got hotter, he just flew too high.


STS said...

I don't quite see Fergusson as another Spengler. Isn't he rather more optimistic than old Oswald?

But I agree hubris is the word. I remember the press conference after the Taliban took flight where Cheney appeared and growled cheerfully about how the "naysayers said it couldn't be done." I got a bad feeling at that moment -- a premonition of new and more reckless adventures to come.

Have you read Paul Kennedy? He had the US situation pretty well diagnosed back in the mid 80s.

Dude said...

Yes, I agree, Ferguson is more optimistic than Spengler. His research also assumes different causal factors, among other differences.

The relation I was aiming at (but didn't make explicit) was that both were popular doomsayers.

I've read The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. Thus far his views have proven, on many fronts, prescient.