One of the great tragedies of historical reputation is the way that people think of King Louis XVI and Queen Antoinette the way their libelous critics thought of them, as monarchs who had no concern for the fate of their struggling and suffering people but said things like, “Let them eat cake.” As it happens, while the period before the French Revolution was a decadent period, much of the suffering came about because of the foreign policy of the French , including their involvement on behalf of the United States in our own revolution. Far more common is the situation where elites walk blindly into their own destruction by pursuing conduct that nearly everyone knows will end well but those in charge simply are unable to change course because of their unwillingness to lose face. Such situations are far too frequent to enumerate in total, but it happens often enough that it is worthwhile to examine this phenomenon at least a little bit.
In the early 1900’s, Thailand was an absolute monarchy ruled over by a dynasty that had through savvy diplomacy managed on preserving its independence in the face of British and French efforts and controlling Southeast Asia. While Britain ruled over Burma, formerly a mighty regional empire, as well as Malaysia, France had gradually expanded from the coastal areas of Vietnam to control Laos and Cambodia as well, which had formerly been under Thai domination. Then, after a period of considerable instability in which the rulers sought to preserve their absolute monarchy in the face of growing interest among military leaders for a constitutional monarchy, a pattern of coups and countercoups would begin that has lasted to the present day . Could the Thai monarchy have stepped back from the brink and offered gradual but peaceful reforms rather than first being victimized by the military and then seeking to use the military to overturn the mandate of the people as has been the case over the past decade or so? That would depend on rulers being people more concerned with the well-being of the people rather than their own comfort and their own position, and few rulers care more about the people they rule than the continuance and glory and dignity of their rule, unfortunately.
The Thai experience is certainly not a unique one. Often rulers face deep dilemmas when it comes to their power. Among those is the realization that their power is often insecure. A refusal to pay officers for months helped encourage a bloody coup in Serbia in 1903 that led to a change of dynasty over that tinpot nation in the Balkans. The dynasty that took its place, aware of its dependence on the good graces of the military, ended up turning a blind eye to various efforts at militarism that first led Serbia to be the most dominant Balkan military power (a rather dubious honor) and then led it into the maelstrom of World War I, which ended with Serbia leading a Yugoslav state that would cause a lot of trouble in the decades ahead. Serbia’s weakness as a nation led it to be a bully to other peoples, an experience that Croats, Bosniaks, and Kosovars, among others, have burned into their historical memory. A more secure government would have found it easier to rule more gently. One of the great paradoxes of power is that those who are secure in power need not exercise power so strongly, while those who are insecure and weak often become bullies in order to prove their strength to those they rule as well as to themselves.
This is a problem in at least two ways. The first problem is that the bullying and abuse that weak authorities direct towards their people are the sorts of things that provoke problems. While some people are cowed under by abusive treatment, some people who are a bit more prickly are provoked into hostility and rebellion against oppressive governments and authorities, and the results are unpredictable. Where popular revolt has a degree of elite support or where elites are divided against each other, there is a reasonable chance at success. The danger comes from an alliance of those driven to rebel out of self-defense in the face of exploitative and oppressive government and those who are savvy enough to recognize that a given authority is weak and therefore capable of being overthrown. This alliance between despair and opportunity can make for a fatal combination. It would be far better for authorities that feel insecure to focus on increasing their own hold on power rather than on provoking people to rebel by harshness. Yet the insecure do not often have the strength of character to govern with restraint, for if they did, they would likely not be so insecure in the first place.
Among the most poignant examples of this is the American Civil War. The elites of the South were (and are) a notoriously insecure group of people. In the face of an election that showed that their region was not necessary for an electoral majority (1860) that elected a moderate anti-slavery president (Abraham Lincoln), the elites of these slave states stirred their populace to rebellion and the establishment of a divided nation. Their insecurity led them to implement a high degree of socialism and government control, whatever their claims of state’s rights, and also led them to draconian hostility towards captured prisoners of war, especially black soldiers. And then, even though by early 1865 it was clear that the South’s logistical weaknesses were leading to imminent collapse, the core leadership of the Confederacy fought on because they were unable to honorably surrender, thus leading to the destruction of their land and the subjugation of their region in a long period of suffering and marginalization. They would have been wise to have accepted the best terms possible from a merciful Abraham Lincoln, but had they been wise they would not have rebelled in the first place. It is a tale that can be repeated over and over again.
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