How do nations fail?

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By Irfan Asghar
During the last month visit to the states of Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy, the writer had weighty discussions with representatives of various segments of these societies. These discussions were chiefly concentrated on the topic: how do nations fail or collapse.
From these animated discussions, the writer has distilled certain conclusions which will be discussed in this piece of writing. The nations end up destroying themselves through disastrous decisions. On sober and mature reflection, it comes out that disastrous things happen to nations due to four major weaknesses:
Firstly, such nations lack the vision, professional mindset and resources to see the problems coming. This may be due to many reasons. One is that they may have had no prior experience of such problems and so may not have sensitised to the possibility. But sometimes, even prior experience is not a guarantee that a nation will anticipate a problem.
This happens because nations, for the most part, try to blot out unpleasant experiences. And the intriguing factor is that this weakness is not par for the course only with less developed nations. Occasionally, the most developed countries fall prey to such blunders. The most glaring example in this regard is that of the US.
Despite having ignominious defeat on the Vietnam front, the US has entered into Afghanistan and now again the Vietnam – like failure stares it in the face. Being fully cognisant of the fact that its army is impotent enough to win the guerrilla warfare because it lacks the spirit and other essential qualities to do so and despite having many bitter experiences in this regard, the US has gone into Afghanistan. All this is because the US has failed to imbibe lessons from past experiences and institutionalise these hard learnt lessons into the cultural memory of its army.
Another reason why a society fails to anticipate a problem, involves reasoning by false analogy. When we are in an unfamiliar situation, we fall back on drawing analogies with old familiar situations. That is a good way to proceed if the old and new situations are truly analogies but it can be potentially dangerous if they are only superficially similar.
Even if sometimes the old and new situations are truly analogies, their intensity and incidence may vary and so they may require totally different solutions. The most famous example of reasoning by false analogy involves French military preparations from World War II.
After the horrible bloodbath of World War I, France recognised its vital need to protect itself against the possibility of another German invasion. Unfortunately, the French army staff assumed that the next war would be fought similarly to World War I. But quite the contrary.
In the next war, Germany used a different strategy. It used tanks rather than infantry to spearhead its attacks, bypassed the Maginot Line through forested terrain previously considered unsuitable for tanks and thereby defeated France within a mere six weeks. In reasoning by false analogy after World War I, French generals made a common mistake: generals often plan for a coming war as if it will be like the previous war.
Secondly, after a nation has or has not anticipated a problem before it arrives, it may fail to diagnose the real problem that has actually arrived. This, in turn, leads to failure in finding out the exact causes of the problem. In this context, we can discuss the phenomena of Al-Qaeda and terrorism. The nations of the world are wrongly perceiving Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation and terrorism as a manifestation of extremism and intolerance restricted to a particular religion and so success in combating these phenomena eludes them.
These nations need to understand that Al-Qaeda is a mindset and terrorism is a problem and both of them owe their existence and development to certain political, economic and social factors and are not restricted to a particular religion. Eliminate political injustices, economic discriminations and social deprivations and there will be no Al-Qaeda and terrorism.
The commonest circumstance under which the failure to diagnose a problem takes place is when it incubates slowly and gradually. The phenomenon of terrorism has not raised its ugly head all of a sudden. It has taken decades – long injustices and discriminations to develop first of all from an invisible to slightly visible and then to an obviously visible form.
Thirdly, nations often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived or diagnosed. This situation arises when conflicts or clash of interests among members of the nation result into failures of group decision-making. Some people may assume that they can further their own interests by behaviour harmful to others.
This situation gets momentum when the perpetrators know that they will often get away with their bad behaviour especially if there is no law against it or if the law is not effectively enforced.
In order to advance their petty interests, the self-centred leaders of such nations emasculate the institutions, don’t give a hoot for rules and regulations and disfigure the system which results in the loss of vigour to fight off the problems. To cap it all, for the lust of power these feckless and lily-livered politicians, sometimes, become pawns in the hands of foreign powers, kow-tow to their malicious designs and try to dismantle the fabric of their own nations. Empire building is the trademark of such politicians generally. Throughout recorded history, actions or inaction’s by self-absorbed kings, chiefs and politicians have been a regular cause of societal collapses.
Finally, even after a nation has anticipated, diagnosed and tried to solve a problem, it may still fail for obvious reasons: the problem may be beyond its present capacities to solve, a solution may exist but be prohibitively expensive or its efforts may be too little or late. Some attempted solutions may backfire and make the problem compounded.
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst
Source: The Nation, 14th January 2009

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