Today I started reading a lengthy (and somewhat gloomy) book about the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its consequences in the horrors of World War I. Intriguingly, the book covers areas of political history that I had been unaware of, namely the role of the Hungarians (supported by a Prussian-dominated Germany) in weakening the Austro-Hungarian army and in contributing to the discontent of the Slavic minority of the empire. Between the decisive defeat of the Austrian Empire at Koniggratz in 1866 and the start of World War I, Austria’s army had shrunken to parity with Serbia and the position of the Dual Monarchy (as Austria-Hungary was called) was marginal despite its massive land and historical strength. Yet this decrepit regime, beset on all sides by internal difficulties, was pushed by Germany into one last war to punish Serbia for sponsoring assassins against its Crown Prince and his morganatic Czech wife a century ago, a war which led to disaster for everyone involved.
What proved more dangerous to the world than Austrian strength was Austrian weakness. When strong, Austria’s armies had weakened Napoleon enough to defeat and overthrow his monarchy and had helped (along with Poland) to fight off the menace of the Ottoman Turks for centuries. When weak, though the Dual Monarchy could not even manage to defeat Serbia and defend itself against Italian and Romanian invasion without massive German assistance. Ironically enough, in the same war it was German weakness in logistics that led to the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare that led to the entrance of the United States into war and to Germany’s defeat (and that defeat to the rise of Nazi Germany), and the weakness of Russia that led to the horrors of Communist rule over Russia and much of Eastern Europe. This is not to say that the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and Romanovs were excellent rulers, but their replacements were far worse . This ought to caution us on the value of revolution. Only very lucky countries end up better off after revolutions, and few nations are fortunate enough to have ethical revolutionary leadership.
Nor is this example isolated. As a student of the American Civil War, I have been struck by the paradoxical nature of the weakness of the Deep South leading to the horrors of fratricidal combat. To be sure, when the South dominated the early American Republic as a result of the 3/5 clause, its leadership was unjust in various ways: the gag rule preventing the discussion of any abolition proposals in the House of Representatives, the agitation for foreign conquests and expansion for more slave territories, and the coerced removal of the Cherokee tribes and other peoples more civilized than they were. That said, the death and destruction caused by Southern weakness, which led it to rebel from the United States rather than accept demographic defeat, was far more deadly and dangerous than the unjust bullying that resulted from Southern strength. This is a pattern that merits reflection, even if it is an unpleasant matter, because what is true for declining empires and regimes fighting against the darkness that threatens them with oblivion may also be true for individuals, and the brutal warfare waged by those whose back is against the wall may be far more destructive than the normal processes of decline as waged in diplomatic and political contests. We can see this dynamic, for example, in the Chinese Civil War of the first half of the 20th century, Pearl Harbor and the Pacific front of World War II, the current Syrian Civil War and its Iraqi equivalent, and many other conflicts that resulted from the weakness of regimes leading to an overreaction to project strength which leads to brutality and tyranny and aggression.
How are we to deal with this difficulty? Those same people and nations and institutions that serve as bullies when they are strong are also aggressive in the face of vulnerability. While most people can, if with difficulty, deal with the problem of being vulnerable, those who are used to being seen as strong and mighty find such vulnerability to be unacceptably tense. Unless overwhelming force can be brought to bear against such bullies, neither strength or weakness leads such people or institutions or states to be gracious and modest or even realistic in their dealings. Yet such overwhelming force is not easy to achieve. The alternative, though, is either to deal with dying bullies in the hope of outliving them and hoping they collapse on themselves and do not take anyone else with them or to deal with brutal combat that may make things worse then they were before. Yet in this life we do not deal with ideal situations but rather actual ones, and we have to face the choices that we have and take responsibility for those options that are available, with the possibility that things could always be worse.
I was reminded of this fact when I listened to a particularly infuriating lecture on Globalization, in which the professor (who appears to be a dyed-in-the-wool and unrepentant Communist, who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing from the massive failure of Communism throughout the world), and who still tilts against capitalism in the name of some Trotskyite “New International,” complains to no end about the problems that have resulted from the spread of capitalism around the world, neglecting to note that no capitalists have ever brutally slaughtered tens of millions of their own people, as is a routine feat in the history of Totalitarian regimes (particularly of the Communist variety) in the 20th century. Many of the evils of contemporary business culture result from an insufficiency of property rights, in that the property rights of workers and people who deal with the downstream effects of business practices are not sufficiently respected. In that sense, more capitalism, of a kind that focuses less on the imaginary rights of the fictitious people known as corporations and the cronyist connections of business and political elites and that focuses more on the rights of real individuals to profit from their physical and intellectual labor and to be protected from harm from the behavior of others, is a far better solution than the increase in size and power for corrupt and incompetent governments and bureaucracies that typically results from leftist agitation. Often the cure is worse than the disease in such circumstances, and the weaknesses of our societeies lead to even more dire attempts to deal with those weaknesses.
Let us therefore recognize that we do not only have to fear from the strength of our enemies, but also from the weaknesses of our would-be rivals and their institutions. The weakness or vulnerability of people and institutions and governments may not lead to a better reality for their rivals and opponents and enemies. On the other hand, a weakness that is recognized but not accepted may lead to heroic and violent efforts to arrest that decline, which may end out more destructively than a slow decline which is to gradual to be noticed until it is too late to arrest its progress. In such a circumstance, it can be an immensely unwise act to point out the weakness and vulnerability of those who are not willing to accept a loss of their power and prestige without a fight, because the recognition of that weakness will often lead to a fight that no one really wants but that no one is willing to back down from because the stakes of defeat are so unacceptable to everyone involved . Sadly, we are often unwise, and the wisdom that we have is bought at a harrowing price.
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 See, for example: