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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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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Compared to What?

A plea for context.

In our modern Western society, a disturbing trend has become incredibly prominent in the media, education, and common discourse: the complete decontextualization of historic and current events so as to present the West as uniquely evil or especially horrible. One often sees this coming from people – usually on the political left – who use it as a cudgel to demean modern Western societies as part of a project of radical change to those very societies. This seems to be more present in the Anglosphere than in other developed societies. Much of the radical activism we’ve seen over the past year or two has emanated from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, where statues have been toppled, history decried as uniquely genocidal, and modern societies seen as evil and immoral simply for existing in previously-colonized lands. Don’t get me wrong, all nations have blemishes and blights on their histories and each and every country has injustices in the modern day; still, these cannot be understood in a vacuum or without context.

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Foreign Telegram – June 16, 2021

Welcome back to the Foreign Telegram, a series of posts in which I touch on some of the most important international stories that you may not have seen on the news. This time around, we’ll be visiting Israel to see how their new government helps debunk so many of the false narratives about the Jewish state, Taiwan to address the escalating Chinese incursions into their airspace, and Afghanistan to see how the precipitous American withdrawal is delivering the country into the hands of an unrepentant terrorist regime, as well as seeing how the Chinese-developed Sinovac vaccine is doing to stop Covid-19 (spoiler alert: not well).

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A Tale of Two Pipelines

Fossil fuel pipelines on both sides of the Atlantic have been in the news recently — one for nearing completion and the other for being halted. Both have interesting international implications and each pipeline’s story defies convenient narratives based solely around climate change. In this tale of two pipelines, I’m for the completion of one and against the completion of the other. Unfortunately, the reverse is actually happening in reality. Let’s start with the pipeline that I support, yet is now being shut down — possibly for good.

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