British soldier and military historian B.H. Liddell Hart published his book, Why Don’t We Learn From History?, in 1944.
Much of what he wrote still resonates today:
Man seems to come into this world with an unalterable belief that he knows best and that he can make others think as he does by force. (How else do we explain why leading men in government madly propose the use of nuclear weapons against the people of another nation because of a trade dispute?) Nations delight in having a militaristic leader represent them and thrive on enforcing their will on lesser powers with a view to the glory and plunder that will follow victory. Peoples are never so united as in the early days of war nor so determined to overcome once they see that a greater effort and more sacrifices will be demanded of them before success is won. All very noble and all fantasy. Has any war in the history of the world followed such a pattern? None on the Ship of Fools ever asks.
The book is about the history of war but it also provides a heavy dose of the behavioral psychology behind the people who start them.
Hart spends an entire chapter discussing the psychology behind dictators and authoritarian leaders:
We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the “conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” Thereby, this system of government tends to result in the triumph of mediocrity, and entails the exclusion of first-rate ability if this is combined with honesty. But the alternative to it, despotism, almost inevitably means the triumph of stupidity. And of the two evils, the former is the less.
He goes on to lay out the patterns that arise when dictators wield too much power:
They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it.
They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy.
They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends.
They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public.
They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality.
They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward.
They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people.
They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created.
This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.
This may have been written in the 1940s but it sure sounds like a certain mad man in Russia right now.
It’s a strange thing to watch one man upend the lives of so many innocent people and the world at large.
I don’t know what the Russia-Ukraine conflict means going forward but it has certainly widened the potential range of outcomes in both geopolitics and the financial markets. It doesn’t seem like there are very many good outcomes in the short run right now.
Hart does share a positive view of the long run in his book:
A long historical view not only helps us to keep calm in a “time of trouble” but reminds us that there is an end to the longest tunnel.
Let’s hope this tunnel isn’t very long.
Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group, joined me, Josh and Michael to discuss what’s going on and what it all means for geopolitics, markets and the economy:
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Fighting the Last War