Blood, Iron, & Fortune: Otto von Bismarck & the Role of Chance in Statesmanship

Introduction

History is, by its very nature, contingent; that contingency has gone by many names over the eons: luck, chance, fate, or – if one is inclined to see the workings of the divine in history – Providence. The famed Renaissance political philosopher and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, in his masterwork The Prince, called this element of randomness Fortune and saw it as a major factor in the passage of history and the practice of statesmanship. He did not, however, see Fortune as the only factor in human affairs, instead writing that “I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”[1] What is more important than luck is how the statesman deals with that element of chance – fortune or misfortune – and his ability to succeed in achieving his goals regardless of the quirks of fate. That, for Machiavelli, meant that a key job of the statesman was to “direct his actions according to the spirit of the times” so as to tame the whims of Fortune and use them to his own advantage.[2] To bring this idea down from the lofty heights of political philosophy to the everyday practice of government, Machiavelli analogized Fortune to a flowing river, saying:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.[3]

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Saigon 2.0: The Fall of Kabul

The humiliation of the United States and the total collapse of Afghanistan will be a disaster for American power for years to come.

Many pundits have compared the current catastrophe in Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. In quite a few respects, those commenters are not wrong, and the similarities are echoed by the images coming out of Kabul today. The photo above is eerily reminiscent of the famed images of a helicopter airlift from the US Embassy in Saigon and videos coming out of the Kabul airport are just as heartbreaking and terrifying as those from South Vietnam almost 50 years ago. Our precipitous withdrawal will lead to thousands of refugees, greater civil violence, and horrible human rights abuses by a totalitarian Islamic dictatorship that sees its mission as forcibly bringing jihad to the entire world.

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Historical Presentation, Two Ways

If you have the chance to travel to Charlottesville, Virginia and are interested in history, the area is fantastic for exploring the landscapes of the early American republic. Two estates of former Presidents – and good friends – are within only a few minutes’ drive of one another: James Monroe’s Highland and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The differences in how each estate is presented to visitors are a microcosm of contemporary society and tell us quite a bit about where things may be going culturally.

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How to Lie with Maps

Lying with statistics is a common practice; when it comes to Israel, lying with maps is just as common.

The map presented above was published by Al Jazeera this week and purports to show that “From 1947 to 1950, during the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’, Zionist military forces expelled at least 750,000 Palestinians and captured 78% of historic Palestine.” The map is not new, and is consistently used by anti-Israel publications, media outlets, and pundits to “explain” how the Palestinians have been historically oppressed by the foundation and continued existence of the state of Israel. The big problem? Almost none of what the graphic depicts is true, a good deal of it is deliberately misleading, and it leaves out crucial context that undermines the point it is trying to make. Here’s an object lesson in not taking everything you see online at face value.

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The New Appeasement

Prioritizing domestic audiences in foreign policy speaks of a strategy doomed to failure.

“Politics stops at the water’s edge.” This statement – on the necessity of presenting a united front with respect to key national interests – was the accepted wisdom in American foreign policy for quite a long time. There have always been dissenters and partisan infighting in America’s approach to foreign affairs, but for the most part domestic political debates have been subordinated to important international considerations when determining foreign policy. Recently, that seems to have shifted a full 180 degrees; now domestic political concerns and debates drive foreign policy, even at the expense of broad-based American interests globally. Domestic movements and debates have been internationalized and global events and geopolitics are now being viewed almost entirely through the lens of internal American issues. Gone is the single-issue organization or lobby, now replaced with groups who universalize their missions under the theory that all politics is intersectional and intrinsically linked. That’s why, for instance, we see groups ostensibly dedicated to raising awareness of police brutality against African-Americans also making strong declarations on entirely unrelated issues like the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As a result of this universalizing approach, the Biden administration has put the concerns of domestic lobbies ahead of real national interests time and time again. Nothing has made that clearer than three events which have unfolded over the past week.

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