Getting to Goldilocks: Napoleon, the Venetian Republic and Balance in Political Risk Analysis

by Dr. John C. Hulsman
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Introduction: The Self-Inflicted Haplessness of Venice

The Most Serene Republic of Venice, one of the most consequential states of the European Renaissance, ended the 1,100 years of its existence not with a bang but with a pathetic whimper. At its height and for hundreds of years, the Venetian maritime empire dominated the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean, as well as possessing a central land base in the Veneto on the northern Italian mainland. However, by the time the great Napoleon had fixed his sights on what he rightly called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ and determined that the Venetian pearl would be his, the city-state was but a shadow of its former self, largely because of a simple failure of political risk analysis.

Why was this former great power so utterly defenceless before Napoleon’s hordes? The simple, overriding answer to this question is that the Venetians had learned an important lesson down the centuries—war is often folly and always expensive—while entirely forgetting that they might need to keep other important—and countervailing—truisms about international relations in mind as well.

First amongst these is that having merely carrots (economic power) as an instrument on the global stage only works in a world populated entirely by rabbits; military power is sometimes required too. And whatever else you might say of him, the young Napoleon was hardly a rabbit.

Because of this fundamental misreading of human nature, the Venetian Republic responded with a reckless strategy of disarmament over the centuries that erased its mighty position in the world. By the latter days of the eighteenth century, the city-state was so divorced from the reality of power politics that when threatened by the French, it had absolutely no choice but to surrender.

Political risk analysts often exhibit a similar lack of balance, dooming their assessments. The holy grail of analysis is getting to Goldilocks—making policy assessments that are neither too hard nor too soft, by eschewing extremes and mono-causal answers and actually balancing the numerous important factors determining outcomes.

Venice’s Slow Castration

From the early sixteenth century on, the oligarchs who ran the Republic preferred to avoid the hard economic choices and belt-tightening that could have corrected their dangerous military decline (much like today’s modern European states). But as Venice was still a very rich city, and as its elite’s cosseted life of masked balls and opulence were hard to part with, it was far easier to do nothing about what seemed at the time to be merely a theoretical problem. It was only when Napoleon showed up at Venice’s doorstep that theory became all too real.

And to a point, of course, the Venetians were absolutely right. Often wars explode in the faces of those who engage in them, and almost always they are ruinously expensive. Peace in general is a better alternative for both the health of any state and the welfare of its people. No one is arguing that in general the Venetians were onto something with their peace-first strategy.

The problem was that over the centuries it became a peace-only strategy. For having grasped one essential reality of the world, the Venetian Republic wholly ignored other, darker, but no less important lessons about the nature of human beings and international relations. By 1796, on the eve of Napoleon’s brilliant Italian campaign, the Republic could no longer defend itself. Of its pathetic fleet of thirteen ships of the line, only a handful of even these proved to be seaworthy. The army was in even worse shape, consisting of only a few brigades of Croatian mercenaries.

The fundamental problem was that in policy terms the oligarchs had forgotten about balance in both foreign policy and political risk analysis, not being prepared to pay the steep price that would have been necessary to upgrade the Venetian fleet with the latest technology of eighteenth-century warfare. Through this intellectual failure of balance, Venice had castrated itself long before Napoleon came thundering out of the mountains, sealing its own doom.

Napoleon’s France as a Country on Military Steroids 

In his bedazzled, gilded youth, Napoleon Bonaparte shown like the sun. Beyond Alexander the Great, it is difficult to think of any leader in the history of the world to whom fame and glory came so early, and so overwhelmingly. Supremely competent, decisive, preternaturally driven, eloquent, quick-witted, and far-seeing, Bonaparte was capable of inspiring almost religious devotion in both his marshals and his men.

In 1797, Napoleon could uncannily see the inherent defencelessness of the Venetian Republic, a government that had chosen to simply ignore the basic imperative any state has to defend itself. However, Napoleon was to make a diametrically opposed analytical misjudgement himself.

The Venetians were undoubtedly lotus-eaters, basking in their tranquil apathy, as the forces of the real world slowly and ominously gathered around them. But in worshipping the god Mars, Napoleon was to make an equally disastrous political risk mistake. For behind all his highly impressive domestic reforms was an effort to increasingly militarise French society, to make it fit for purpose to take on the rest of Continental Europe for almost a generation. This imbalanced over-reliance on war was to doom the glorious Bonaparte. In always seeing the need for war, he was as out of kilter as were the Venetians, who never saw the need for it.

For in reality, it was the overly militaristic, self-perpetuating expansionism of Napoleon’s France that led to his greatest strategic setbacks in both Spain and Russia. Both the Spanish and Russian disasters arose out of Napoleon fighting wars of choice, conflicts that a less martial status quo power would have entirely avoided.

Of course, Napoleon paid the ultimate price for his utopian, overly militaristic, unbalanced folly, ironically much as the Venetian oligarchs had done. On May 5, 1821, the great man died in exile on the obscure island of St. Helena, far from the trappings of his once-supreme power, an unwitting victim of having legendarily used the military lever of politics without ever learning that there are other motive forces of history as well.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Balance

Two great powers, the Venetian Republic and its vanquisher, the great Napoleon, were laid waste to when they could not overcome a fundamental political risk analytical error. Commercial Venice forgot along the way that a state’s paramount need is always to defend itself, that there will always be creatures in the foreign policy jungle to be fought off. Evil and aggression in the world cannot be wished away just because it is far more pleasant to attend glittering seaside parties and to produce breath-taking works of art.

Some sort of balance is called for. Over the centuries, Venice’s abdication of responsibility for seeing the world as it is left it entirely at the mercy of the young, covetous Napoleon when he made his way over the Alps. But given the Venetians’ fundamental misreading of the world, it hardly mattered that it was Napoleon who brought the Venetian Republic down. Someone would have.

But Napoleon, in his diametrically opposed way, made the same fundamental error as the Italian oligarchs he so effortlessly conquered. The sword had made Napoleon the most famous man in the world and given him, a minor Corsican aristocrat, first a throne and then the dominant position in Europe.

It is human and understandable that even a man of Bonaparte’s first-rate intellect, having personally experienced how far the military component of power could take both a genius and a country, failed to see that his over-reliance on the military instrument of power was highly skewed, to the exclusion of a more balanced strategy, such as that pursued by Pitt’s England throughout the period. It is understandable, but Napoleon’s sad end makes it clear that his failure of balance was absolutely toxic.

Modern political risk analysts would do well to take note of both the historical examples of Venice and Napoleon. There are many motive forces of history and analysis, and all the major ones must be taken into account altogether if political risk analysis is to get anywhere. To forget the absolute need for getting to Goldilocks—the essential political risk commandment of the imperative of finding analytical balance—is to get every big thing wrong, no matter how right analysts are about the detail. For both analysis and policy require more than one basic insight into how our complicated world works.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Harold Macmillan and the Butterfly Effect in Political Risk Analysis

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Mastering Real World Bolts from the Blue

Political risk analysis is only as good as the unplanned for, real world events that it rubs up against. However elegant the assessment, however spot on the analysis, it must survive contact with the random. Or, as when John Kennedy asked British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan what worried him, the sage old premier supposedly replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

While by definition such random events are beyond human control, that does not mean that they cannot be analytically managed. It is the job of the political risk analyst to identify weak spots in today’s political constellations, links that can be broken when an unforeseen event blows up, where a single spark can ignite a prairie fire, such as occurred following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, precipitating the calamity of the Great War.

Dealing with the “butterfly effect” in foreign relations—wherein small random events can have outsized consequences—is a major commandment necessary for mastering political risk analysis. Analysts must check, and check again, for a global system’s weak links, waiting for the day when they must be instantly shored up in order to head off potential disaster.

Macmillan Strives to Salvage Britain’s Place in the World

All through his passage through time he had been haunted by unwanted ghosts, both of his own life and that of his country. Now, in December 1962, Harold Macmillan found himself in the Bahamas, attempting to save what could be saved—to salvage the reputation of Great Britain as one the world’s great powers.

The broader context of the Nassau Conference was that of Britain’s place in a post-Suez world. Greatly regretting the damage that he had personally done as Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Suez crisis—initiated by President Gamal Abdel Nasser when he nationalised the Suez Canal in Egypt on July 26, 1956—a butterfly effect that had seemingly come out of nowhere—Macmillan used his subsequent premiership to make a grand effort to repair British foreign policy.

When forced to choose between France/Europe and the United States, he came down strongly on the side of Washington, setting about rebuilding the “special relationship.” One of the many ways Macmillan did this was to jointly work with the American nuclear program. In fact, the Prime Minister’s staunch unwillingness to disclose US nuclear secrets to France contributed to Paris’s veto of Britain’s proposed entry into the European Economic Community. Shorn of its empire and cut off from Europe, Macmillan had put all of his strategic eggs into the American basket.

However, once again an unforeseen event threatened Britain’s newfound place in the world. The special relationship was in danger of collapsing, and all over the inadvertent cancellation of an obscure missile program.

The Skybolt Crisis

Skybolt, a ballistic missile jointly developed by the UK and the US during the early 1960s, had run well over projected costs. Without giving any thought to the broader strategic symbolism of Skybolt—the fact that it served as a concrete illustration for the enduring Anglo-American strategic partnership—the Kennedy administration had unilaterally cancelled the program because it had become enormously expensive, and also because it was so far behind schedule that it would have been obsolete before it was even deployed.

However, utterly unexpectedly, the cancellation of Skybolt provoked a crisis of confidence between the United States and Britain. The optics of the cancellation caused unthought-of tensions, as it looked as if the US was yet again (as at Suez) cutting the UK down to size, this time high-handedly divesting London of its independent nuclear deterrent. Given that Macmillan had staked everything on the centrality of the special relationship, the Skybolt crisis came to be seen as a litmus test of the true post-Suez value of the US-British alliance as a whole. It was in this atmosphere of unexpected existential crisis that the December 1962 Nassau conference was convened.

Macmillan finally triumphs over the butterfly effect

The Prime Minister was left to walk a very fine diplomatic line at Nassau. He was eager not to alienate the Americans, but also absolutely needed to ensure Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Macmillan had to either convince Kennedy to countermand his original order and retain Skybolt, or secure a viable replacement, which in this case was the Polaris missile. Britain’s perceived status as a great power hung in the balance.

Fortunately for Macmillan, he was just the sort of man Kennedy instinctively liked: brave, stylish, witty, and unflappable. And it was at this pivotal moment, with the President wavering, that the Prime Minister successfully managed to save his world from the butterfly effect.

Standing to speak, Macmillan invoked his own horrendous experiences in World War I (where he had been wounded three times, once severely), and eloquently detailed to the Americans what Britain had sacrificed for the world in its storied past in the greater cause of preserving Western civilization. After tugging at the President’s heartstrings, the Prime Minister dropped the hammer. Macmillan directly demanded Polaris, and pointedly noted that a failure to get it would result in a dramatic strategic reappraisal of British foreign and defence policy.

Kennedy, at last realizing what was at stake in Nassau—how devastating the Skybolt controversy was proving for Macmillan in particular and the special relationship in general—quickly agreed to provide Britain with Polaris missiles on extremely favourable terms. The Prime Minister had (just) managed to stop random events from upsetting his world yet another time.

Conclusion: Macmillan’s warning

The Prime Minister had a parting political risk warning for the President. In Nassau in December 1962, on the evening they both arrived in the Bahamas, Kennedy and Macmillan—at the Prime Minister’s urging—walked alone together for a long time, a rarity given Kennedy’s ever-present and vast staff.

They immediately hit it off, talking not only about the Skybolt crisis and domestic politics but also about their shared interest in history and the things in their lives that both found ridiculous, funny, or deadly serious. It was during this intimate walk that Macmillan queried Kennedy as to what he feared most. The President, ever the literal rationalist, admitted that nuclear weapons and the American balance-of-payments deficit were the two issues that most frightened him. Kennedy was scared of the known.

However, when the President asked Macmillan what frightened him the most, the Prime Minister (perhaps mythically) replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” Macmillan, unlike the modern, cerebral President, knew from his own bitter experience that it is the unknown that is to be most feared by analysts of all stripes, as it can—at a stroke—upend the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Will the US ever escape the Losing Gambler Syndrome in Afghanistan?

HulsmanThe Losing Gambler Syndrome is a fact of the human condition that casino magnates have come to well understand. When someone loses big at the tables, almost always they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses, rarely bothering to think about the reasons for these losses in the first place. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund at the roulette table, so he keeps playing . . . and keeps losing. The reason for his demise—the terrible odds—is never analytically addressed.

Policymakers are not immune to this folly, often doubling down on a bad assessment emotionally in order to wipe the slate clean of their intellectual mistakes. I saw this doleful analytical process up close and personal in Washington as the Iraq War slid toward the abyss; very often those policymakers urging ever-greater efforts in Iraq from the American people did so largely to make good on their already monumental strategic losses.

History’s graveyard is replete with losing gamblers

Anyone who has ever walked the mile and a half in that beautiful, tragic open field between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges at Gettysburg knows that the Confederate assault on the third day of the battle should never have been made. The simple reason for Pickett’s disastrous charge is that Robert E. Lee had emotionally invested too much at Gettysburg to easily turn back. The famed Confederate general was both desperate and overconfident, a fatal combination. Lee was held intellectual hostage by his tantalizing near success (and actual failure) on the second day of the battle, becoming an unwitting prisoner of the Losing Gambler Syndrome.

Likewise, as the years rolled by without the United States ever finding a political ally in South Vietnam with local political legitimacy, it never seems to have occurred to Lyndon Johnson that the lack of such a partner was a sure sign to get out, not to redouble his efforts.

When will they ever learn?

Tragically, the losing gambler’s curse continues today, with America’s seemingly endless war in Afghanistan being a textbook example. Within of few months of 9/11, American-led forces had routed the Taliban and dislodged al-Qaeda from its bases. However, then the war goals fatefully shifted. To prevent al-Qaeda’s resurgence, the US ended up endlessly propping up weak, corrupt, unrepresentative governments in Kabul.

As these governments did not have sufficient organic political legitimacy, the US found itself mired in an unwinnable situation, as without Taliban involvement in the central government (the Taliban represent almost exclusively the interests of the Pashtun, the largest single tribe in the country) any local rule was bound to be seen as inherently unrepresentative. This political reality is at the base of the 16-year unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Doubling down yet again

Yet President Trump’s ‘new plan’ (there have been an endless number of these over the past decade and a half) does nothing to deal with this central political conundrum. Despite in his campaign saying the war in Afghanistan had been ‘a total disaster,’ the President was persuaded by his respected Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, to increase American troop levels in-country to 16,000, ignoring the fact that during the Obama administration 100,000 American soldiers had been fighting there, all to no avail.

I suspect a key reason for this strange decision is that both Generals Mattis and McMaster served with distinction in Afghanistan. Like Lee, President Johnson, and the neo-conservatives huddled around George W. Bush, both have invested too much emotionally and practically to turn back, whatever the fearful odds.

So an unwinnable war is set to continue, as the unsolvable political reality at its base goes unremarked upon. The losing gambler’s syndrome tells us that once resources and intellectual credibility have been expended, it is all too tempting, whether met with crisis or entranced by near-success, to keep doing what has been failing up until that point. It is entirely understandable to do this, but as Gettysburg, Vietnam, and Iraq point out, practically disastrous. Policymakers must instead have the courage to look at failure straight in the eye and make adjustments to mitigate its effects, rather than doubling down and inviting more.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Everything to play for: Winston Churchill, the rise of Asia, and game changers

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

HulsmanThe ability to know when game-changing events are actually happening in real time is to see history moving. It is an invaluable commandment in the mastering of political risk analysis. To do so, an analyst must adopt an almost Olympian view, seeing beyond the immediate to make sense of what is going on now by placing it into the broader tapestry of world history itself.

The rewards for this rare but necessary ability are legion, for it allows the policy-maker or analyst to make real sense of the present, assessing the true context of what is going on presently and what is likely to happen in the future. It is jarring to compare the lacklustre abilities of today’s Western politicians—so far behind the curve in seeing the game-changing rise of Asia and the decline of the West as we enter a new multipolar age—to the phenomenal analytical abilities of earlier statesmen of vision, such as the querulous, needy, challenging, maddening, often wrongheaded but overwhelmingly talented greatest Prime Minister of England.

Churchill Rejoices over Pearl Harbor

In the hustle and bustle of the everyday world, recognizing game-changing events can prove exceedingly difficult. Being surrounded by monumental goings on makes separating the very important from the essential almost impossible. So it was in December 1941, undoubtedly the turning point of the Second World War. During that momentous month, the Red Army turned back the Nazi invasion at the very gates of Moscow, marking the first time Hitler’s war machine had met with a real setback. But for all that the Battle of Moscow mattered enormously, it did nothing to change the overall balance of forces fighting the war, with the outcome still sitting on a knife’s edge.

But half a world away, something else did. At 7:48 AM in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Navy of the Empire of Japan, attacking without warning as it had done in the earlier Russo-Japanese War, unleashed itself against the American Pacific Fleet, serenely docked at Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning. The damage was immense. All eight American battleships docked at Pearl were struck, and four of them sunk. The Japanese attack destroyed 188 US aircraft, while 2,400 were killed and 1,200 wounded. Japanese losses were negligible.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor misfired spectacularly, changing the course of the war fundamentally, drawing America into the conflict as the decisive force which altered the correlation of power around the world. Stalin, with his back still to the wall in the snows of Russia, did not immediately grasp the game-changing significance of what had just happened any more than Franklin Roosevelt did, now grimly intent on surveying the wreckage of America’s Pacific Fleet and marshalling the American public for global war.

These were pressing times and it is entirely human and understandable that both Stalin and FDR had other more immediate concerns to worry about during those early December days. But Winston Churchill, the last of the Big Three, immediately latched onto the game-changing significance of what had just occurred. For the Prime Minister understood, even in the chaos of that moment, that the misguided Japanese attack had just won Britain and its allies the war and amounted to the game changer a hard-pressed London had been praying for.

In his history of World War II, Churchill wrote of that seminal day, ‘Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.’ The great British Prime Minister slept well that night because he understood the fluidity of geopolitics, how a single event can change the overall global balance of power overnight, if one can but see.

On December 11, 1941, compounding Tokyo’s incredible blunder, Germany suicidally declared war on America. Hitler, vastly underestimating the endless productive capacity of the United States, didn’t think the declaration mattered all that much. The miscalculation was to prove his doom, as the US largely bankrolled both its Russian and British allies, supplying them with both massive loans and a limitless supply of armaments and material. Because of Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s disastrous decision, America would eventually eradicate the dark night of Nazi barbarism. Churchill was right in seeing the full consequences of what was going on at that pivotal time. December 1941 saved the world.

The decline of the West and the rise of Asia is the headline of our times

In the crush of our 24-hour news cycle, it is all too easy—as it was during the stirring days of World War II—to miss the analytical forest for the trees. Confusing the interesting from the pivotal, the fascinating from the essential, remains an occupational hazard for both policy-makers and political risk analysts. But beneath the sensory overload of constant news, the headline of our own time is clear if, like, Churchill we can but see.

Our age is one where the world is moving from the easy dominance of America’s unipolar moment to a multipolar world of many powers. It is characterized by the end of 500-plus years of western dominance, as Asia (especially with the rise of China and then India) is where most of the world’s future growth will come from, as well as a great deal of its future political risk. The days of International Relations being largely centered on Transatlantic Relations are well and truly at an end, as an economically sclerotic and demographically crippled Europe recedes as a power, and even the United States (still by far the most powerful country in the world) sinks into relative decline.

To understand the world of the future requires a knowledge of Asia as well as Europe, of macroeconomics as well as military strategy, of countries the West has given precious little thought to, such as China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, as well as the usual suspects such as a declining Russia and Europe. International Relations has become truly ‘international’ again. And that, coupled with the decline of the West and the Rise of Asia, is the undoubted headline of the age. Churchill, and all first rate analysts who understand the absolute value of perceiving game-changing events, would surely have agreed.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Julian Zelizer on The Presidency of Barack Obama

ZelizerBarack Obama’s election as the first African American president seemed to usher in a new era, and he took office in 2009 with great expectations. But by his second term, Republicans controlled Congress, and, after the 2016 presidential election, Obama’s legacy and the health of the Democratic Party itself appeared in doubt. In The Presidency of Barack Obama, Julian Zelizer gathers leading American historians to put President Obama and his administration into political and historical context. Engaging and deeply informed, The Presidency of Barack Obama is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand Obama and the uncertain aftermath of his presidency.

What was your vision for this book? What kind of story are you trying to tell?

My goal with this book is to provide an original account of the Barack Obama that places his presidency in broader historical context. Rather than grading or ranking the president, my hope is to bring together the nation’s finest historians to analyze the different key issues of his presidency and connect them to a longer trajectory of political history. Some of the issues that we examined had to do with health care, inequality, partisan polarization, energy, international relations, and race.

How did you approach compiling the essays that make up this book? What criteria did you use when choosing contributors?

The key criteria was to find historians who are comfortable writing for the general public and who are interested in the presidency—without necessarily thinking of the president as the center of their analysis. I wanted smart historians who can figure out how to connect the presidency to other elements of society—ranging from the news media to race relations to national security institutions.

What do you see as the future of Obama’s legacy?

Legacies change over time. There will be more appreciation of aspects of his presidency that are today considered less significant, but which in time will be understood to have a big impact. Our authors, for instance, reveal some of the policy accomplishments in areas like the environment and the economy that were underappreciated during the time he was in the White House.  In other ways, we will see how some parts of the presidency that at the time were considered “transformative” or “path-breaking”—such as his policies on counterterrorism—were in fact extensions and continuations of political developments from the era.

How did the political landscape of the country change during Obama’s tenure?

While we obtained many new government programs, from climate change, to ACA, to the Iran Nuclear Deal, we also saw the hardening of a new generation of conservatism who were more rightward in their policies and more aggressive, if not ruthless, in their political practices. Some of his biggest victories, such as the Affordable Care Act, pushed the Republican Party even further to the right and inspired them to be even more radical in their approach to legislative obstruction.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope that they will have a better sense of where this presidency came from, some of the accomplishments that we saw during these eight years, and some of the ways that Obama was limited by the political and institutional context within which he governed. I want readers to get outside the world of journalistic accounts and come away understanding how Obama’s presidency was a product of the post-1960s era in political history.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN Political Analyst. He is the author and editor of eighteen books on American political history, has written hundreds of op-eds, and appears regularly on television as a news commentator.

Michael Brenner explains why a Jewish State is “not like any other state”

BrennerIs Israel a state like any other or is it unique? As Michael Brenner argues in In Search of Israel, the Zionists attempted to put an end to the millennia-old history of the Jews as the archetypical “other” by creating a Jewish state that would be just like any other state, but today, Israel is regarded as anything but a “normal” state. Instead of overcoming the Jewish fate of otherness, Israel has in fact become the “Jew among the nations.” Israel ranks as 148th of the 196 independent states in terms of geographical area, and as 97th in terms of population, which is somewhere between Belize and Djibouti. However, the international attention it attracts is exponentially greater than that of either. Considering only the volume of media attention it attracts, one might reasonably assume that the Jewish state is in the same league as the United States, Russia, and China. In the United States, Israel has figured more prominently over the last three decades than almost any other country in foreign policy debates; in polls across Europe, Israel is considered to be the greatest danger to world peace; and in Islamic societies it has become routine to burn Israeli flags and argue for Israel’s demise. No other country has been the target of as many UN resolutions as Israel. At the same time, many people around the world credit Israel with a unique role in the future course of world history. Evangelical Christians regard the Jewish state as a major player in their eschatological model of the world. Their convictions have influenced US policies in the Middle East and the opinions of some political leaders in other parts of the world.

Why does Israel attract so much attention?

The answer lies in history. Many people call Israel “the holy land” for a reason: it is here where the origins of their religions were shaped. The Jewish people too are regarded as special: they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the world’s dominant religions. In Christianity and in Islam, Jews were both seen as a people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected by God. While over the last two hundred years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained. That the Jews became victims of the most systematic genocide in modern history lent them yet another mark of uniqueness. After two thousand years in exile, the fact that Jews returned to their ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded the people and place with additional mystique.

Did the Zionists view themselves as unique?

The irony is that the Zionist movement was established at the end of the 19th century precisely in order to overcome this mark of difference and uniqueness. Many Zionists claimed that they just wanted to be like anyone else. Chaim Weizmann, longtime leader of the Zionist movement and Israel’s first president, was quoted with saying: “We just want to be another Albania,” meaning a small state that nobody really cares about. Even Israel’s founding document, the declaration of independence, says that Israel has the right to be “like all other nations.” But at the same time the notion of being different, perhaps being special, was internalized by Zionists as well. Many of its leaders argued that a Jewish state has a special responsibility. Even the most secular among them regarded Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations” as a crucial part of a prophetic tradition.

Does this mean that Zionism was a religious movement?

Not at all. Most of its early leaders were strictly secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, knew no Hebrew and in fact very little about Jewish traditions. But he wanted to establish a model state for humanity, and saw the formation of Israel as an example for the liberation of African-Americans. Long before any other state granted voting rights for women, he let women be active participants in the Zionist congresses. He drew a flag for the future Jewish state that had seven stars, symbolizing a seven-hour-workday for everyone. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was a Socialist and rejected organized religion. But just like Herzl, he believed in the mission of a model state that could spread the prophetic ideals of universal peace and equality among the nations.

Why then is Israel seen by many today not as a model state but as a pariah state?

Herzl discussed other potential destinations, such as Argentina and British East Africa, as refuge for the persecuted European Jews. But the only place Jews had an emotional connection with was the territory they had originated from. Over centuries, Jews prayed for their return to the land of Israel. But it was not an empty land. The Arab Palestinians soon developed their own ideas of nationhood and rejected the growing Jewish immigration. In the meantime, antisemitism increased in Europe and other countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came too late to save the lives of millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But by then, most of the world recognized the Jews’ right to their own state in their ancient homeland, as reflected in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Yet the Arab world did not see why they should pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. The situation reflected the parable of a person (the Jews) jumping out of the window of a burning house (Europe) and hitting another person (the Palestinians) on the street in order to save his own life. The ongoing conflict of two peoples over the same land, combined with the special significance of this land in the eyes of the world, led to a situation where even outsiders have strong opinions. For Evangelical Christians, Israel fulfills a divine mission, while for others, especially in the Arab world, Israel is regarded as a foreign intruder in the tradition of the medieval Crusaders and modern Imperialists.

So, can Israel one day become just a “normal state?”

To begin with, let me qualify this question. The idea of a “normal state” is a fiction altogether. Every state sees itself as special. But it is true that some states receive more attention from the rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another Albania in the eyes of the world, or relegated in our attention to its place among the nations between Djibouti and Belize? I do not believe so. The history of Jerusalem is different from that of Tirana (Albania’s capital), and the Jews have attracted so much more attention than nations of comparable size. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the limelight of media attention. However, let us not forget: The people in Israel live their everyday lives just like everywhere else. They worry about their jobs and about their sports teams, they want their children to be safe and successful in school, and they dream of a peaceful future. In this deeply personal sense, Israel has become a state just like any other.

Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lilian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His many books include A Short History of the Jews.

Gaming out chess players: The Italian Renaissance and Vladimir Putin

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

HulsmanIf learning the precious truth that we can be the danger (see my Gibbon column of last week) is the first commandment of political risk analysis, gaming out chess players is surely another. Chess players—foreign policy actors playing the long game, possessing fixed, long-term strategic goals even as they use whatever tactical means come to hand to achieve them—are rare birds indeed. Patient, low-key, but implacable, chess players do that rarest of things: they actually think ahead and are not prisoners of short-term day-to-day events, instead conditioning all that they do in furtherance of their long-term strategy.

Chess players manage to cloak their dogged, disciplined strategies, hiding them in plan sight of our frenetic 24-hour news cycle, from a world that does not generally follow such fixed principles and cannot really conceive of how others might be able to hold to a clear strategic line. In a world of tacticians, it is easy for a strategist to conceal themselves.

Pope Julius II as the true hero of The Prince

Following on from the Crusades, the western world entered a period of cultural and political regeneration we now call the Renaissance. As is true for most eras, it was more politically chaotic, brutal, and bloody than it seems in retrospect. In the confusing, uncertain milieu of early-sixteenth century Italy, a man arose who fit the tenor of his times.

Pope Julius II has been shamefully underrated by history, as his contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli—the author of The Prince, the bible of modern realpolitik—instead lionized failed Bond villain Cesare Borgia rather than the more successful pope. However, we have five centuries of distance from the swirling events of the Renaissance, allowing us to take up the more dispassionate, chess-playing view that Machiavelli urges on us. So let us here re-write the ending of The Prince, this time using Julius II as the proper analytical hero of the piece.

Julius was born Giuliano Della Rovere around 1443. Like Cesare Borgia, his path to power was speeded along by close familial contacts to the papacy. Della Rovere was the much-loved nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, becoming his uncle’s de facto prime minister. Following on from the death of Sixtus, Della Rovere assumed that he would succeed him. However, he was beaten out by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Cesare’s father, who assumed the title of Pope Alexander VI. So Della Rovere, in good chess player fashion, tried to undercut Alexander, knowing his time was coming.

When Alexander VI died in 1503 (and with the lightning quick demise of his successor, Pope Pius III, in just 26 days) Della Rovere at last made his long-considered move. He deceived the supposedly worldly Cesare and ran rings around him diplomatically, securing the papal throne by means of bribery, both in terms of money and future promises. With Cesare throwing the powerful Borgia family’s crucial support behind him, the new papal conclave was one of the shortest in history, with Della Rovere winning on only the second ballot, taking all but two cardinals’ votes. He ascended to the papal throne at the end of 1503.

Now that Cesare had outlived his usefulness, Julius withdrew his promised political support from him in true Machiavellian fashion, seeing to it that the Borgias found it impossible to retain their political control over the papal states of central Italy. Julius rightly reasoned that to fail to eradicate the Borgia principality would have left the Vatican surrounded by Borgia possessions and at Cesare’s very limited mercy.

Without papal support Cesare’s rule on his own—without the critical backing his father Alexander VI had provided—lasted merely a matter of months, with his lands reverting to Julius and the papacy itself. Julius had run rings around Machiavelli’s hero, fulfilling the chess-playing maxim that securing one’s political position leads to political stability and long-term rule. That, Niccolo, is what a real chess player looks like.

Making sense of Putin

However, chess players are not just relic of the byzantine Renaissance age. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a perfect modern-day example of a chess player, as all the many devious tactics he pursues ultimately amount to a very single-minded effort to restore Russian greatness, often by blunting the West’s drives into what he sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in the countries surrounding it. In other words, the Russian strong man resembles another chess player, former French President Charles De Gaulle, in his single-minded efforts to restore pride and great power status to his humiliated country.

As such, Putin’s many gambits: theatrically opposing the US despite having a puny, corrupt economy the size of Texas; pursuing an aggressive adventurist policy against the pro-Western government in Ukraine; intervening to decisive effect in the horrendous Syrian war; all serve one overarching strategic goal. They are designed to make the world (and even more the Russian people) change their perceptions about Russia as a declining, corrupt, demographically challenged former superpower (which it is), and instead see it as a rejuvenated global great power, one that is back at the geo-strategic top table.

Despite all facts to the contrary (and in the end, as was true for De Gaulle’s France, the facts just don’t bear out the incorrect perception that Russia will again be a superpower), Putin has been very successful in (wrongly) changing global perceptions of Russia’s place in the world. It is also the reason the current tsar has an 80% approval rating in his own country, as he has restored pride to his formerly humiliated countrymen. By knowing what ultimately motivates the chess-playing Putin, we in the West can do a far better job in assessing the entirely explicable tactical gambits emanating from the Kremlin.

The rewards for spotting the rare chess player

Despite the difficulty in spotting them, it is well worth the time trying to game out chess players, perhaps the rarest of creatures in global politics. For once they are analytically brought to ground, the fixed, rational, patterns that chess players live by means a true analytical understanding of them is possible, as well as a far better understanding of the world in which they live.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Robert Wuthnow on The Left Behind

WuthnowWhat is fueling rural America’s outrage toward the federal government? Why did rural Americans vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump? And, beyond economic and demographic decline, is there a more nuanced explanation for the growing rural-urban divide? Drawing on more than a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, Robert Wuthnow brings us into America’s small towns, farms, and rural communities to paint a rich portrait of the moral order—the interactions, loyalties, obligations, and identities—underpinning this critical segment of the nation. Wuthnow demonstrates that to truly understand rural Americans’ anger, their culture must be explored more fully. Moving beyond simplistic depictions of the residents of America’s heartland, The Left Behind offers a clearer picture of how this important population will influence the nation’s political future.

You argue that rural America’s politics cannot be understood in terms of economic problems, but require a cultural explanation. What do you mean by that?

What I learned from the research over the past decade in which my research assistants and I interviewed hundreds of rural Americans is that their identity is deeply connected with their communities. We cannot understand rural Americans by thinking of them only as individuals. They have to be understood in terms of their communities. I call these moral communities because people feel obligated to them and take their cues about what is right and good from their neighbors. These moral communities define their way of life. But these ways of life are slipping away. Population is declining, schools are closing, jobs are disappearing, and young people are moving away. Even families who are doing well economically feel the changes. They are having to commute farther for work and to conduct business. The major forces shaping society are beyond their control. People feel threatened and misunderstood.

Are you suggesting that Donald Trump appealed to this sense of displacement? Did rural voters win him the election?

Many factors went into the 2016 presidential election. Political analysts are still sorting them out. Rural voters did opt for Trump is greater percentages than urban voters. My research was less concerned with the election, though, than with understanding at a deeper level what people in small towns and on farms value and why they feel threatened. You have to spend time in rural communities and talk at length with people to understand this. You can go out as a reporter and ask them about politics. But ordinarily they don’t talk that much about politics. They live from day to day going to work, taking their kids to school, maybe volunteering for a local church or club, and maybe helping their neighbors. They see problems, but basically like their communities and want them to stay strong. If you just see rural Americans as voters, you miss the warp and woof of their daily lives.

When they did talk about politics, the people you studied seemed to be totally alienated from Washington. What troubles them about the federal government?

They voiced two major complaints about Washington: the federal government is distant and at the same time it is intrusive. Washington’s distance is both geographic (in most cases) and cultural. It is perceived as catering to urban interests. Washington bureaucrats don’t seem to care about rural America or even inquire about its needs. They seem to look down on people in small towns. Washington nevertheless intrudes on daily life through taxes, regulations, and unfunded mandates. Besides that, Washington deviates from small town residents’ notions of common sense. It strikes them that big bureaucracy is inevitably inefficient and ineffective.

From what you’ve learned about rural Americans, would you think they now have buyer’s remorse and will vote Democratic next time?

Some may. Current trade policies have hurt farm families. Rural hospitals and small-town schools are struggling. Nothing is being done to promote jobs in rural areas or to address the opioid epidemic. Rural people are certainly aware that President Trump is very different from them in terms of origin, wealth, and values. But many rural Americans have been Republicans all their lives and are unlikely to change their affiliations. In those locations, voting preferences happen in Republican primaries. Anger at Washington, as we know, can be directed at “establishment” Republicans as well as at Democrats.

You paint a largely sympathetic portrait of rural America, but you also say you heard things you disagreed with. Can you say something about that?

The most disturbing comments were ones with blatant racist overtones. These were not common but surfaced in reference to President Obama especially in the South. Comments about immigrants were more mixed than Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric might suggest. Farmers and construction companies often relied on immigrant labor. Sometimes small towns were happy to have newcomers and had done well adapting schools and service programs to immigrant families. Negative sentiment mostly focused on undocumented immigrants and Muslims.

How are rural churches faring these days?

Church-going still occurs at higher rates in rural communities than in cities. Depopulation has forced some congregations to merge or close. Clergy sometimes minister to congregations in several locations, much like circuit riders did in the nineteenth century. Membership may be declining and aging, but churches still provide vital community services, including assistance to the poor.

There are approximately 14,000 small towns in the United States and the rural population is estimated at somewhere between 30 and 50 million people. Surely you observed a great deal of variety.

Absolutely. The biggest differences are between towns of fewer than 5,000 people and towns with 10,000 to 25,000 people. While most of the smaller towns are declining, most of the larger ones are holding their own or growing. It also helps growth to be a county seat and located near an interstate highway. Towns with better climate and natural amenities are doing well too. Agriculture is the mainstay of small town America, but the most common jobs are often in social services. I was surprised at how many towns have small manufacturing plants. Many of these towns of course are struggling to prevent plant closings.

You grew up in a small town in Kansas. How did that experience affect your research? Did you find that things nowadays are dramatically different?

My hometown, like many small towns, is smaller than it was by about 50 percent. It is also more ethnically diverse. Farms are larger. People commute to other towns to work. Townspeople have had to work hard to keep the hospital open and build a new middle school. The ambience is a mixture of cautious optimism and concern. I found that it other places too. People are proud of their community. It’s home. But they worry. When a school closes or a large family moves away, it affects everyone. As one resident put it, “It tears at your gut.”

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. His many books include American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability, Small-Town America, and Remaking the Heartland.

Nancy Woloch: The roots of International Women’s Day

WolochInternational Women’s Day has roots on the left. The idea for such a day arose among socialist women in the US and Europe early in the 20th century. A New York City women’s socialist meeting of 1909 endorsed the plan. So did the International Socialist Women’s Conference that met in Copenhagen in August 1910 as part of the larger Internationalist Socialist Congress. The hundred delegates from seventeen nations who attended the women’s conference shaped a demanding agenda. In what manner would socialist women support woman suffrage? Might they join forces with “bourgeois” feminists to accept restricted forms of enfranchisement, as urged by British delegates? Or did the socialist campaign for woman suffrage involve “the political emancipation of the female sex for the proletarian class-struggle,” as claimed by German delegates? The Germans won that point. In other areas, the women delegates found more unity. Denouncing militarism, they spoke for peace. They urged international labor standards for women workers, such the 8-hour day, limits on child labor, and paid support for pregnant workers and new mothers. Finally, they endorsed a day of activism around the globe to promote women’s emancipation, a counterpart to the May Day marches of socialists. “[W]omen of all nationalities have to organize a special Woman’s Day, which in first line has to promote woman suffrage propaganda,” wrote German socialist Clara Zetkin and her comrades. “This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman question according to the socialist conception of social things.” As of 1913, socialist women chose March 8th as the date for International Women’s Day.  

Women activists of the 1960s in Chicago revived the socialist strategy to promote women’s emancipation. Adopted by the United Nations in 1975, International Women’s Day now sponsors less politicized and more broadly inclusive goals; proponents celebrate facets of women’s achievement and champion action to achieve gender equity. Over the decades, on March 8 of each year, events around the globe underscore common themes such as equal rights, women and peace, and opposition to violence against women. In the recent words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, the celebration of International Women’s Day seeks “to overcome entrenched prejudice, support engagement and activism, and promote gender equity and women’s empowerment.”

Workplace rights are key issues for advocates of International Women’s Day, just as they were for defenders of labor standards a century ago. The growth of labor standards—such as maximum-hour laws and minimum wage laws—is the subject of my book, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s. With global roots and global impact, labor standards remain vital for women workers today. Women constitute almost half the workforce of the world and half of migrant workers, often the least protected of employees. Current concerns include the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid family leave, workplace safety, and opposition to sexual harassment. Labor organizers worldwide focus on job segregation, the gender wage gap, and the need for policies to integrate work and family. Celebrants of International Women’s Day share such goals and seek to uphold labor standards around the globe.

 

Nancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s–1990s.

Sources
Report of the socialist party delegation and proceedings of the International socialist congress at Copenhagen, 1910 (Chicago: H.G. Adair, 1910), pp. 19-23.
Temma Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day,” Feminist Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 163-171.
Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Hilda Sabato: The dilemmas of political representation

SabatoSince the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word “populism” has gained increasing space in the media, initially associated with political events in Latin America. The term is far from new, but it has reappeared to label very different regimes—from that of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, to those of Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and the Kirchners in Argentina. Unlike the spread of populist regimes in the postwar era, however, this latest wave has reached well beyond that continent, to include political and ideological movements all over the world. And while the success of the former was often explained by resorting to the long history of caudillos in Spanish America, it is quite obvious that such an argument cannot be applied to this new spread of populism across the globe. Both moments, however, share some common features that may better account for the flourishing of populism than any reference to a past tradition of caudillismo.

The end of the twentieth century heralded an era of political change on a global scale. Some of the main institutions and practices that had long reigned unchallenged in Western democracies have come under heavy scrutiny. The key political actor of the past century, the party, is in peril of extinction—at best, it will survive in new formats. Analysts talk about the crisis of representation, while most individuals feel foreign to the men and women in government, who they sense operate as a closed caste rather than as representatives of the people. In the words of Federico Finchelstein, “Democracy is confronting challenges that are similar to those it encountered during the Great Depression….” In that context, therefore, “Populism offers authoritarian answers to the crisis of democratic representation.”[1]

We are then, once more, at a critical turn in the history of modern politics, as it developed since the revolutions of the eighteenth century succeeded in introducing the sovereignty of the people as the founding principle of the polity and shattered the edifice of the ancien regime in several parts of Europe and the Americas. Within that framework, a key step in the actual organization of the new was the adoption of representative forms of government. In contrast to former experiences of direct popular rule, in the late eighteeth century the introduction of political representation offered a theoretical and practical solution to the challenge of making operative the principle of popular sovereignty.

Yet such a step posed dilemmas that have persisted throughout the centuries. Thus, the tension between the belief that power should stem directly from the people (an association of equals) and any operation whereby a selected few are set apart to exert power in the name of the many has run through the entire history of self-government. Modern representation did not overcome this quandary, although it offered a partial solution by combining democratic and aristocratic means: elections by all to select the few. Yet the attribute of distinction that marks those few—however chosen—keeps challenging the principle of equality, a value reinforced with the consolidation of democracy in the twentieth century. Besides this conceptual conundrum, the actual relationship between the representatives and the represented has always been, and remains, a crucial matter in the political life of modern times.

A second dilemma involved in representative government has posed even more challenges to the functioning of the polity. At the beginning of this story, although representatives were chosen by individual citizens embedded in their actual social conditions, they embodied, above all, the political community (the nation) as an indivisible whole, thus materializing the unity of the people. For almost a century, this issue informed the public debates around the unanimity or the plurality of the polity, and permeated the discussions on the forms of representation, which found one of its more heated moments late in that period in the controversies around the figure of the political party. By the 1900s, however, parties had become key institutions in the prevailing paradigm of representation, so much so that they were usually considered inseparable from democracy as it consolidated during the twentieth century. But today that whole edifice is crumbling, a clear sign that the challenges and dilemmas of political representation persist.

Republics of the New World addresses these issues at the time when modern representation appeared as a viable solution to the difficulties of instituting forms of government based on the principle of popular sovereignty. It traces the conflict-ridden history of representative institutions and practices in an area of sustained experimentation in the ways of the republic: post-colonial Spanish America. Two hundred years later, political representation remains problematic, and some of the same questions posed by the founders of those republics keep coming up, defying our democratic era. Today, like in the past, the way out of the crisis is uncertain and depends upon our own choices. In this context, populism offers a particular response to this predicament, while other political proposals resist its authoritarian features and seek to address the current dilemmas by enhancing the pluralistic and egalitarian elements of our democratic traditions.

Hilda Sabato is head researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Argentina and former professor of history at the University of Buenos Aires. She is the author of Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America.

[1] Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, p.29.

The Rage – and Resilience – of The Left Behind

The intense anger felt by many inhabitants of rural America became palpable to outsiders during the 2016 presidential election. But the values and anxieties fueling that anger had been prominent in rural life for decades. In The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, sociologist Robert Wuthnow provides an unusually nuanced look at rural America’s people and communities, examining the sources not just of their rage, but of their resilience.

Wuthnow probes the stereotypes that urban and suburban Americans hold about rural people to reveal a more nuanced and complex population than his readers might expect.  The statistics showing rural communities’ decline don’t reflect that many rural populations are holding steady or even thriving, or that those populations are much more diverse and varied than many commentators realize. Rural people don’t all think or vote the same way. Yet many feel a deep fear that their communities are changing in ways they cannot control and do not benefit from.

As they have done for a hundred years or more, these communities look inward for resilience and solutions. Some changes they accept; some, they even welcome. But some they cannot stomach, responding with the deep rage that stunned much of the rest of the country in 2016.

Interrogating the now-common insight that rural residents vote “against their self-interest” (popularized in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?), Wuthnow shows that at the heart of rural Americans’ value system is their town, or what he calls their moral community. This community is held together by the values it shares, from greeting neighbors on the street to prizing independence – values that may seem incompatible to those who don’t understand their complexities. For example, the moral obligation to take care of one’s neighbors may seem to an outsider to conflict with the value of self-sufficiency or independence. But in fact, taking care of neighbors means that the town needs not look outward for help – therefore upholding, as a community, the value of independence.

The moral community is often tied together, at least in part, by a shared commitment to religion. While outsiders may scoff at this commitment, Wuthnow shows how necessary it is to sustain hope and faith when rural livelihoods are so often determined by forces outside their control, whether they be weather events, price controls, or factory closings. To so-called “values voters,” conservative politicians’ focus on social or cultural issues is not a trick or a distraction from economic issues. It is, rather, a reflection of what is important to the community.

Wuthnow’s subtitle, and the ideas with which many of his readers will approach the book, are about “decline and rage” in rural American communities. But The Left Behind is also a testament to the evolution and resilience of these communities. Wuthnow’s patient insights offer much to the urban or suburban reader, for whom understanding, rather than demonizing, rural communities is key. As Wuthnow points out, “Rural people… participate in the same society that all of us do—the one we all hope can work for our collective well-being.”

 

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Gibbon, Decadence, and Europe’s Current Decline

HulsmanBetween 1776 and 1788, the peerless eighteenth century Enlightenment historian (and sometime lackluster British Whig MP) Edward Gibbon set about remaking his profession. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fastened upon an analytical conclusion that has not only proven invaluable to historians since but lays down an incredibly challenging gauntlet for political risk analysts in particular.

Gibbon managed to conjure up through his life’s work a novel, cutting-edge answer to one of the most important historical questions of all time: why did the Roman Empire, in many ways the most powerful and durable political construct ever created, finally disintegrate? He persuasively argues that, while on the surface it was the barbarian invasions that brought it to an end, this was only the final symptom of the Roman malaise, not the root cause of the disease. For Gibbon, Rome fell not primarily because of outside pressures but rather owing to an internal and gradual loss of civic virtue amongst its citizens.

In other words, Rome was destroyed from within. Gibbon creatively saw that the political risk that overwhelmed the greatest of empires came about due to a failure to recognize and combat home-grown problems. Political risk analysts have grappled with Gibbon’s incisive analysis ever since, as there is almost nothing harder than for humans to look in the mirror and honestly say, “We are the problem.”

A Heat Wave in France

In early August 2003, the blood-red sun rose implacably over the city of Paris. It was the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. Temperatures were regularly hovering at a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit. As the heat rose to wholly unaccustomed levels, many people—particularly the elderly—started dying. According to the French National Institute of Health, in France alone 14,802 people died of heat-related complications that sun-baked August.

As is the case with most catastrophes, there was plenty of blame to go around. Saying this, one basic overriding thread connects all the culprits behind this tragedy: the absolute and ridiculous sanctity of the French summer vacation. In place of religion or ethics, many Europeans have to come to worship their comfortable (if economically unsustainable) way of life as the paramount goal of being, to the exclusion of all else.

At the time of the emergency, President Jacques Chirac was on holiday in Canada. He remained there for the duration of the crisis. Likewise, Prime Minister Raffarin refused to return from his Alpine vacation until August 14, the day before the temperatures at last began to cool. Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei also exhibited highly dubious priorities, failing to come back to a sweltering Paris when he was most needed. Instead, his junior aides blocked emergency measures—including the state recalling doctors from their holidays—to attend to the afflicted.

But even this is too simple. Do French doctors really need to be told by the government that it is their duty to come back and deal with an obvious medical emergency? Do French families really need the state to instruct them that they must cut short their time at the beach to minister to the endangered elderly relatives they have left behind?

This was a society-wide conspiracy, in that no one was responsible because everyone was responsible. As Gibbon would have appreciated, thousands of individual, personal decisions—on their own merely dots in the national painting—all pointed in the same, indefensible position. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of les vacances.

Europe’s present state perfectly fits Gibbon’s classic definition of decadence; it is a society that has lost the ability to deal with its problems coupled over time with abdication of responsibility for them. Gibbon would clearly see that it amounts to the psychological, political, and moral process that is destroying the old continent.

Managing, not solving

European leaders, in thrall to decadence, have gotten used to talking of ‘managing’ problems, rather than ‘solving’ them. Yet does anyone think the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, or the political crisis of the EU has been ‘solved?’

Rising above all these unmet challenges is a simple factor of math: EU countries comprise 9 percent of the world’s population, account for 25% of global GDP, but consume a staggering 50% of the planet’s social spending. The bleak truth is that these numbers are simply unsustainable. Europe is not going through some little local difficulty. The way of life it knew and enjoyed from 1950 to the Lehman Brothers crash will never return.

Conclusion: Back to the heat wave

Everyone in France that dreadful August knew that something terribly wrong was happening back in Paris. Few had the will to give up their overly-precious vacations and do anything about it. Gibbon’s old and venerable concept of decadence emerges as the primary roadblock—and the chief source of contemporary political risk—that not only obscures the knowledge necessary to save Europe but saps the will to act itself. Whether we like it or not, we are the risk.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.