"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 6, 2020

War Is The Continuation Of Politics By Other Means - The Fallacious Argument Of Equality, Compromise, And Good Will

Clausewitz wrote these words in his work On War published posthumously by his wife in 1832.  This observation about the continuum of politics, diplomacy, and war reflect his conclusion that conflict is continual, innate at every level of human society; and that only through an awareness and understanding of this fundamental, immutable aspect of human nature, can nations and their leaders be prepared for war. 

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There is nothing new in this idea.  Conflict, territorialism, self-interest, aggression, and self-defense are endemic in all families, public and private institutions, and nations.  The goal of all them is to gain, maintain, and extend power and influence; and the struggle to succeed is constant and familiar.  Husbands and wives negotiate inequality to achieve a peaceful equilibrium, but such agreements are only workable if both parties get what they want, give no more than they get, and never give up their fundamental ambitions. Children negotiate with the parents from a very early age.  Their behavior is designed to extract the greatest deference to their wishes and to garner as much wealth and power as they can.  Sibling rivalry is such competitiveness taken to another level.  Now children not only have to negotiate, fight, and compromise with their parents, they have to disarm and defeat their brothers and sisters.  Child warfare is warfare at its most elemental.  Siblings don’t want to share with each other, especially their parents, and want nothing more than to get rid of the enemy.

School playgrounds have always been places where lessons learned at home are played out in public.  A child understands immediately the rules of battle and must figure out how to get time on the monkey bars without being thrown off by the big kids; how to deal with bullies either through accommodation, courage, or evasion.  In other words how to get space, performance, and influence in a competitive crowd.  Politics – diplomacy – is used at first, for advantageous compromise is always preferable to a fight; but then, if the disputed territory is valuable enough, and if diplomacy doesn’t work then a physical fight should be considered; and if a fight is inevitable, then the more allies that can be recruited the better.  A show of force is the final expression of diplomacy.

The lessons of the playground are lessons for the workplace.  No institution is without conflict, jealousies, aggression, strategy, alliances, and battles.  The World Bank is a good example.  Employees are recruited from top positions in their own countries.  Cabinet Secretaries, members of Parliament, and political leaders come to Washington from Third World countries used to war, civil conflict, ethnic strife, authoritarianism, and corruption.  They have survived the impossible conditions in their own countries, have managed to secure sinecures at a prestigious international bank, and given the Bank’s tenure policy only have to hold on to retire with what is for them the wealth of Croesus.  At the same time, these formerly high-level civil servants, have lost none of their competitiveness, aggression, or desire for power and influence. The Bank has a flat organizational structure.  There are only a few top executives, with all others at the same professional level.  The competition among these mid-level employees is fierce, and the politics within the ranks of the World Bank are known to be the most brutal and unremitting.

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The Bank’s ethnic alliances – Bangladeshi, Indian, Chinese, Nigerian, and Pakistani mafias - are powerful and intimidating.  They fight within themselves for influence and fight each other for larger and larger shares of the Bank’s loan portfolios.  Americans, idealists to the last man, always lose out because they refuse to play the remorseless politics of the ethnic cliques.

Wall Street is perhaps the last bastion of laissez-faire capitalism in the country, and despite the post-2007 reforms that were instituted by government to rein in what were considered dangerous excesses, it still is a jungle, a savagely competitive place where great riches are to be made and power to be had.  Investment bankers are no different from their World Bank colleagues – they take note of the force of the enemy, select the most vulnerable for easy conquest and the least vulnerable for conflict; design strategies to curry favor with supervisors, to eliminate competitors, and find the edge between profit and loss.  They will stop at nothing to succeed, and follow Clausewitz to the letter – first politics and diplomacy, then preparation for war – alliances, strategic partnerships, operational plans, and strategic objectives – and then war itself.

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It is no surprise then that politics itself follows the same dicta.  Politicians will follow exactly the same course of currying favor, isolating the weak, challenging the strong, developing and executing strategic battlefield plans, and finally entering into a no-holds-barred fight on the floor of the House and Senate, in State legislatures, and in the Oval Office.

Many lament the divisiveness of the country during the Trump years; and the liberal Democratic camp has promised to heal the divisions, promote social harmony, respect, and collaboration, and govern humanely and compassionately.  Of course, if the Democrats win the 2020 election nothing of the sort will happen.  They may wear the mantel of propriety, temperance, and taste; but behind closed doors they will be just as brutal and politically aggressive as Trump and the Republicans.  They will use any means possible to keep their defeated opponent down.

Trump has been unfairly branded as a bully – a selfish, brutish, insensible man with only his own personal interests at heart and not those of the nation.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  He has simply been more willing than previous presidents to go public with his political defiance, hostility, and moves.  He is an easier target than an LBJ, for example, who talked about compromise and good will, and based on his strong civil rights stance, hoped to deflect the country’s concern about the ill-guided and ill-fated war in Vietnam.  He refused to be ‘the first American president to lose a war’ and capitulated to his hawkish advisers.  Richard Nixon played dirty tricks.  JFK compromised the nation’s security with his womanizing.  The list is endless.  Supremely confident men, used to and welcoming battle, have not surprisingly been the ones to make it through the brutal political process to the Presidency.  Even Jimmy Carter in his wool cardigans by the fireplace, his religious fundamentalism, and his belief in goodness did not shy away from war.

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Bare-knuckled fights for power, wealth, and influence are innate in every social grouping and always will be.  Those who suggest that they can engineer a more tolerant, compassionate, and sharing society are simply whistlin’ Dixie  There is no more chance of such an idealistic Utopia than Hell freezing over.

Conservatives have no such illusions and take human nature and its competitiveness for granted.  Progress results from competition, the weeding out of the weak, and the elimination of less worthy rivals.  There is no shame in political fisticuffs or arrayed armies.  Politics, diplomacy, and war – as Clausewitz presciently observed – are part of a continuum, always moving, always rearranging, but permanent. 

So if the Democrats win the White House (still undecided three days after the election) be prepared for more of the same – bloody floor fights and worse street fights.  The electorate was evenly divided this election as in the one past – nearly 50-50 percent – so divisiveness has not gone away.  The racial demonstrations and riots may end, but the conservative opposition will be unhappy, restive, and out for revenge.  It will not be a quiet time, but then again, only those who see Biden as a latter-day Messiah are still hopeful.

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