Making Sense of World Affairs

If we want to improve the way things are, we need to understand what is going on – economic determinism, just plain stupidity, limited rationality by everyone doing his best from his own perspective, genuine clash of interests, or what? It is very easy to focus on blaming politicians (and their handlers on Wall St. or wherever) but much more useful to distinguish between those who raped and pillaged because that is exactly what they intended to do and those who got forced into it.

In his study of the French Revolution, Alfonse Aulard plaintively asks how a historian is to plan his analysis of a revolution if those involved did not themselves have any plan:

S’il n’y a ni plan ni méthode sensibles dans la politique des hommes de la Révolution, il est d’autant plus difficile à l’historien d’avoir lui-même un plan et une méthode pour le choix des traits qui doivent composer le tableau d’une réalité si changeante et si complexe. [Histoire politique de la revolution francaise.]

This point bears considering as we attempt to figure out in real time what various politicians, factions, and societies are trying to do today. In brief, is there a plan? We seem to be floundering, but is that the result of confusion or simply due to a general willingness to let things just run along on their own?

Returning briefly to the French Revolution, Aulard is no doubt correct in noting the absence of an overall plan agreed upon either by “French society” or even by the key actors in the revolutionary movement, but to argue that no individuals had plans—that the whole revolutionary process just rolled over a dazed and clueless population would seem overstated. Surely both some of the key actors and some of the nameless demonstrators must either have had or very quickly have formed plans, “burn the house down,” or “protect my estates no matter what,” etc. Aulard’s message is very close to Solzhenitsyn’s implacable “red wheel” of history, not coincidentally, since both the French and Russian Revolutions seemed to have the inherent implacability of an avalanche, smashing everyone who got in their way. But that appearance is misleading: humans may be as helpless as snowflakes in many situations but still, humans also frequently do make choices, and the statistical preponderance of those choices is likely to create an outcome “biased,” if you wish, (not “created,” but at least “biased”) by the statistical equivalent of free choice. [Fernand Braudel made a brilliant career out of focusing on precisely the “snowflake” in all of us, i.e., the great amount of human action that is undertaken by habit rather than conscious choice (note his comment in La Dynamique du capitalisme, 13).]

So, if we wish, for example, to analyze some contemporary political process, we may agree with Aulard that there is “no plan or method” characterizing the whole process but with the reservation that there still are numerous very serious plans and methods being pursued by certain of the participating actors. Solzhenitsyn, in his Red Wheel series on the Russian Revolution, targets this idea by devoting a distinct chapter to each key participant in each event, a brilliant but ambitious approach to writing history that requires him to devote some 100 pages to each day of the period he analyzes and still leaves all the work of putting these pieces (i.e., the minister’s viewpoint, the baker’s viewpoint, the student’s viewpoint, the general’s viewpoint, the Bolshevik’s viewpoint, etc.) together to the reader.

All the above is merely to prepare the way for asking, “To what degree does U.S. foreign policy follow a plan, consciously designed to achieve some purpose as opposed to A) simply being the outcome of a multitude of self-absorbed little political ants scurrying around trying to line their own pockets or B) being the inevitable result of the implacable red wheel of history driven by underlying cultural, economic, biological, geographic dynamics and just rolling over us all?”

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