Mittwoch, 8. Februar 2012

On History and Strategic Thought

After having slammed Brzezinski pretty hard for a serious lack of strategic thinking and intellectual rigour, I do feel compelled to give an example of what sound historical and strategic thinking should look like. Historical thought is, after all, an indispensable prerequisite for strategic thought, even though it is largely underestimated. Consider for a moment this:

No government which is vicious in principle and corrupt in practice can hope, particularly in the atmosphere of military defeat, to retain the allegiance of those who do not share in the benefits of its dishonesty.”

Despite its beautiful prose, it is hard to tell to which country and which crisis it applies. But to a certain extent the question would miss the point. Sound historical thought has always been primarily concerned with learning about the underlying structures in time (Reinhart Koselleck, my favourite German historian, always wanted to draft a historical theory of time. He never had the time to do it, which I am guessing, must be some kind of historical joke. But his first attempts can be found here and here). The quoted sentence has first been written in 1923 by Harold J. Laski (and is now available here). Laski was describing Tsarist Russia and explaining why it had to give way to the Soviet Union. Yet, what he has penned here can be applied to virtually all states at all times. Some thirty or forty years ago, Reinhart Koselleck published a book in which he followed the introduction a new general rural law in Prussia (its a 700 pages volume and was in fact the first book I've read when I began to study modern history). Though he was studying a very limited period in Prussian history, from the angle of a very specific subject—rural law—he was still making a more general point. Namely, that every state is constantly situated between reform and revolution and that in fact reform is the minimum of change necessary to avoid a revolution. The consequences are, of course, enormous and the conclusion can still be applied today and with far better and more convincing results than any IR-theory. Iran, for instance, is structurally incapable of reform, a revolution will inevitably be the result. The most fascinating part of Karl Marx's introduction to the Communist Manifesto is still his description of an unfolding global economy, an apt and particularly terse summary of globalisation, still outranking a Stiglitz, Zakaria or the lame attempts of a Paul Krugman. Laski, by the way, was doing what every historian is educated to be doing his whole life, the essence of historical thought: comparing.

I make these points for a single reason. Understanding the underlying forces of history, getting a glimpse of the longue durée is a prerequisite for strategic thought. It allows for the certainty that Iran's regime will eventually fail and allows the policymaker to formulate a strategy that will not trigger (there is no need for that), but accelerate the process. It'll motivate a dialogue on the sources of historical change that can and should be taken into account by anyone trying to formulate grand strategy. It will also help avoid the bizarre generalisations a Brzezinski makes. I finish this post with yet another Laski quote on fascist Italy and communist Russia:

Yet, save in intensity, there has been no difference in the method pursued by the two men; and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the different reception of their effort is the outcome of their antithetic attitudes to property. Yet the danger implicit in each philosophy is a similar one.”

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