America Is Fated to Lead

Culture and geography really do matter. Great statesmen may attempt to rebel against these limits, but their skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that they exist.

January-February 2015

THE SLEEP of any president, prime minister or statesman is haunted by what ifs.

What if I had only fired that defense secretary sooner, or replaced that general in Iraq with the other one before it was too late? What if I had not wholly believed the air force when they told me that the war in southern Lebanon could be won from the skies? What if I had more troops on the ground in Iraq from the start? What if I had called off those fruitless negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians a few months—or even a few weeks—earlier than I did? What if I had asked more questions at that meeting, and listened sooner to the pleas of my assistant secretary or whoever it was that said something could be done about Rwanda? The whole world, and my reputation, would be different.

Counterfactuals haunt us all in the policy community. We all want to be right, and assign failure to someone else. We all want to deny fate, even as we recognize that it exists. For example, we know that despite Isaiah Berlin’s admonition against the very idea of vast impersonal forces, such as geography and culture, these forces really do matter, and they affect the tasks ahead: whatever the intervention strategy, Iraqis will never behave like Swedes, and Afghans or Libyans will never behave like Canadians. And sometimes it is that simple. While individuals are more real and concrete than the national groups to which they belong, group characteristics actually do exist and must play a role in the foresight of any analyst. For group characteristics are merely the sum total of a people’s experience on a given landscape throughout hundreds or thousands of years of history.

But that is only the half of it. We also know that grand historical events can turn on a hair’s breadth, on this or that contingency. While the destiny of Afghanistan or Libya might never be that of Canada, better or worse outcomes in such places are possible depending upon the choices of individual policy makers, so that all of us, as Berlin rightly suggests, must take moral responsibility for our actions. And because wrong choices and unfortunate opinions are part and parcel of weighing in on foreign policy, we go on torturing ourselves with counterfactuals.

WHAT IS fate—what the Greeks called moira, “the dealer-out of portions”? Does it exist? If it does, Herodotus best captures its complexities: from his geographical determinism regarding the landmasses of Greece and Asia Minor and the cultures they raise up to his receptivity to the salience of human intrigues, he skillfully conveys how self-interest is often calculated within a disfiguring whirlwind of passion, so that the most epic events emerge from the oddest of incidents and personal dramas. With such a plethora of factors, fate is inscrutable. In Jorge Luis Borges’s short tale “The Lottery in Babylon,” fate means utter randomness: a person can get rich, be executed or tortured, provided with a beautiful woman or be thrown into prison solely because of a roll of the dice. Nothing appears to be predetermined, but neither is there moral responsibility. I find this both unsatisfying and unacceptable, despite the story’s allegorical power.

How can a great episode in history be determined in advance? It seems impossible. The older I get, with the experience of three decades as a foreign correspondent behind me, the more I realize that outside of a class of brilliantly intuitive minds—including the late Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger—political science is still mainly an aspiration, and that Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories offer a much better guide to the bizarre palace maneuverings of the last Romanov czar and czarina of Russia, of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu of Romania, of Slobodan Milosevic and Mirjana Markovic of Yugoslavia, or of Zviad and Manana Gamsakhurdia of Georgia. In short, there is no scientific formula to understanding international relations. There is primarily insight, which by definition is Shakespearean.

Yes, geography and culture matter. Tropical abundance produces disease, just as temperate climates with good natural harbors produce wealth. But these are merely the backdrops to the immense and humming beehive of human calculation, the details of which can never be known in advance. And yet, over the course of my life I have known people who are abrasive and confrontational, and generate one crisis after another to the detriment of themselves and their relations, even as I have known others who are unfailingly considerate and modest, who go from one seemingly easy success to another. Character, which itself is partly physiological, can indeed be destiny, and that is fate.

It is this very contradiction concerning fate that produces our finest historians: men and women who discern grand determinative patterns, but only within an impossible-to-predict chaos of human interactions, themselves driven by the force of vivid personalities acting according to their own agency, for better and for worse. A classic work that comes to mind is University of London historian Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. “It was by no means inevitable that the [Russian] revolution should have ended in the Bolshevik dictatorship,” he writes. “There were a number of decisive moments, both before and during 1917, when Russia might have followed a more democratic course.” Nevertheless, Figes adds,

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