Understanding the Flow of Events Is Key to Success as a Statesman. Unfortunately It Is a Dying Art

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Image shows a weathervane on top of a lighthouse, with barbed wire in the foreground.There are three levels on which we should approach the task of predicting the course of public events.

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We can divide them into things that ought to happen (morally), things that should happen (in an intellectually consistent world) and things that probably will happen (admitting that these may neither be morally welcome or intellectually consistent). This state of affairs is necessary by virtue of man’s status as a fallen animal capable of very beautiful thoughts, very ugly actions and fighting always an interior battle between the intellect and his passions.

Image shows Palestinian flags.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is subject to more than just the forces of reason.

While the formulation above is probably quite intuitive, it may help to have an example to draw out what I mean. Let us consider the present case of the bombardment of Palestine by Israel and of Israel by Hamas operating out of Palestine. One might, for instance, think that the only morally acceptable course of action is that both sides stop firing rockets at one another and settle down to lives of peaceful rectitude and mutual respect. We can take a game theory approach and argue that in an intellectually rational world, for instance, Hamas would weigh the cost of the terrible retaliation their actions are drawing, the utter ineffectiveness of their own shelling campaign, the incredibly long odds against any effective military support from a major power against Israel, and conclude that the best thing to do would be to negotiate a cease-fire and stick to it. The pragmatic approach tells us that neither of these things is likely. Instead this approach includes a weighting for the passions of the human heart – men have died for their nations, their religions, their territory and their freedom from time immemorial. They have often done so at odds that appear suicidal because their passion for that principle (and hatred of their foes) runs so deeply. In this case, we can take the sad long term view that the relationship between Israel and Palestine will remain, periods of cease fire notwithstanding, bloody until the point at which one side successfully butchers so many of the others that it no longer perceives them as a threat.
It is important to understand fully both the moral and the intellectual case for what should happen – in informing our decision-making, it allows us to be clear-sighted about what is required of us to reach a goal. However it is important always to temper this with an understanding of what is likely to happen. In taking the sum of these three views, the wise statesman will be able to reach a set of actions that is most likely to promote the common good through the practical implementation of abstract ideas.
The purpose of this essay is to argue that we have lost sight of these essential distinctions and are in a phase of emotional public policy-making where politicians, major corporate actors and the public reference only their feelings and have lost the critical analytic capacity needed to understand the world and the way it actually works. I will argue that this softening of our capabilities is largely a function of the changes in society and technology since the end of the Cold War.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."Emotional policy-making

Image shows the UK Houses of Parliament at sunset.
Governments create policy on the basis of emotion and optimism, not realistic assessment of the situation.

We live in an age of unreason. Governments the world over create policy on the basis of what they would like to be true, rather than what is true. They devote significant resources responding to problems largely of their own invention and for which there is no public appetite for action. They not only refuse to address actual problems, but work enthusiastically at compounding them. The government view of the future is not moral (as contains no apparent consistency of principle other than power preservation), it is not intellectually robust (as it involves obvious contradictions of fact) nor is it pragmatic (as history would record that it is extremely likely to be a model replicable over the mid-term). It is the policy-making of corrupt and stupid children and it is poisoning modern life.
These are big statements and we would do well to support them. Let us look, firstly, at the global financial markets. I have written about the morally disgusting and practically useless problem of quantitative easing before and shall not re-hash the argument in detail. The second strand of post-crash monetary policy, close to zero interest rates, is also one which long ceased to have an economic rationale. Around these two policy pillars has been built what Ben Hunt, the brilliant analyst at Salient Partners, calls the “narrative of central bank omnipotence”, in other words, the common knowledge held by all major market participants that central banks are able to dictate all economic outcomes from stock market prices to the investment behaviour of households and institutions using these tools.

Image shows a cartoon of a Euro symbol on a pendulum, slicing ever-closer to a Greek flag.
The solution to the crisis in Greece seems to have been nothing more than wishful thinking.

Let us take an example of this in action. The Eurozone between 2011 and mid-2012 was in deep crisis. The southern governments were finding unemployment running riot, GDP continuing the shrink and government debt continuing to spiral long after the age of austerity was supposed to have kicked in. Then, Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank made a speech. In it, he promised that “within our mandate, the ECB is willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” That was it. No structural changes to a currency union that locked many of its members into a spiral of poverty, no changes to the fiscal policies that at a national level were the ultimate cause of this carnage, no internal transfers, just an assertion of wishful thinking without substance.
What is interesting is that the markets acted euphorically. Since that speech, Europe’s bond yields have fallen to levels not seen since the 15th century when Genoa flourished as a great trading power. In Greece, the market has accepted Draghi’s words at face value to the extent that 10 year bond yields have fallen from 37% to a touch over 5%. This is despite there being no change in the trends in the macroeconomic data for that country – GDP has shrunk every year since 2008, unemployment is still over 20% and youth unemployment over 50% and both are flatlining; in 2013 the year after the speech Greece’s debt to GDP ratio increased by over 15%. The story is substantially the same in Spain and Italy as Grant Williams explains here. In all these nations, the markets, the central bank and the government are conspiring in a kind of magical thinking – choosing consciously to ignore all of the data points that would normally inform decision-making, choosing to ignore the morality of perpetuating an economic order that is obviously harmful to a majority of the population, concentrating instead on the world as it we would like it to be, where unemployment, debt and recession are all subordinate to the magic of words, the power of promises.

Image shows parachute jumpers diving out of a plane.
The way our governments act – except without the parachute.

I call this type of policy-making emotional because it starts from the basis of an irrational attachment to a certain ordering of the world and works backwards from there. The politician, the banker, the captain of finance whose world view is coloured by the unbreakable notion of the inevitability of the Eurozone is no more mature or politically adroit than the lunatic who steps off the roof of a building convinced of his powers to float. It does not just persist in finance, but in every corner of Western government – we lock in economic decline through adherence to climate change laws, which we cheerfully acknowledge serve no useful purpose aside from acting as a vague inducement to the Chinese to wreck their economy too; we refuse to tackle the notion that allowing large numbers of illiberal theocrats into liberal Western countries and providing them with state assistance to radicalise one another is a way of promoting a stronger society; we never balance a budget with pounds and pence when we can balance it with rhetoric and intellectual laziness.
In this way, Western society has taken leave of its senses. Not one of the three ways a normal person might look at the events – moral, intellectual, pragmatic – appears to have the slightest hold on policy-making. Not only this, but the public has not noticed, and when it does notice, it doesn’t mind. There is an intellectual and spiritual vacuum at the heart of a generation that would have it that technology and progressive politics has made it the equal of God – all-wise, all-seeing, all-compassionate and always right.

Blindness in the wilderness

Image shows someone watching the news on TV.
We have greater exposure to current events than ever before.

I think there are several reasons why we have lost our ability to judge events by any standard other than what we would like to be true. The first is around the way in which we consume news. We are better informed, thanks to rolling television news coverage and the new media, about global events than at any other time in history. However, the mechanisms that deliver this news to us destroy our ability to discern the bigger picture by placing events into context, proportion and a moral, intellectual or pragmatic narrative.
There are a number of reasons why the delivery mechanism affects our understanding of news. I will take two extreme examples to illustrate my point here – Twitter and The Times – but everything from BBC News to a blog fits in somewhere on the spectrum between the two, and I think it is fair to say that the media mix is moving towards the former at the expense of the latter.
In what ways is Twitter different to The Times? Firstly, information is not limited – unlike in a newspaper, Twitter does not select the most important information for us, it bombards us with disconnected facts and opinions and does not attempt to filter the banal and the untrue. Unlike a newspaper, Twitter does not differentiate the space it gives news stories, a key mechanism by which The Times allows its readers to judge the relative importance of each story. Twitter cannot convey nuance in a way a newspaper can, nor can it offer effective advocacy built up over paragraphs in the opinion pages. Because of this terminal limitation, advocacy has to proceed on an emotional basis if it is to proceed at all – thus arguments are dispensed with and replaced with direct emotional appeals and vulgar abuse. Instead of a layered argument on paper, which presents direct challenges capable of acceptance or rebuttal, the online recourse to emotionalism means we are asked to judge world affairs simply on the basis of our own prejudices. Collectively this transition away from a mechanism of delivery that offers depth and sophistication towards one that is crude but quick, shallow but wide, acts to sabotage our reasoning instincts. The migration of politicians towards Twitter is distressing evidence that this is now mainstream in British public life.

Image shows the interior of Ely cathedral.
British society has become increasingly secular.

The other main factor which I think is key to our refusal to weigh news on any basis other than our own feelings is the secular nature of modern society. A religious society enforces a discipline on the mind in the sense that it clarifies the essential distinction between what we would like to do and what we ought to do. It conditions us to think of our actions not only in terms of our own momentary appetites, but also of a wider moral code. This discipline is equally applicable to the life of the mind – forcing us to be intellectually coherent even when our passions fluctuate. Finally, the religious conception of man as a fallen creature attempting to live an ideal existence in a damaged world leans us towards pragmatism, covering the major useful ways of conceptualising the world. In a largely atheist society, the self substitutes as the main arbiter of ethics – it is such a system under which we now live, and it should not, therefore, be surprising that this system is more hysterical and self-regarding than the old one.
It is noticeable that the most pragmatic and, on their terms, successful world leaders are those who hail from countries which retain their old religions and have powerfully pushed back against the new news platforms (rarely from honourable motives). The on-going spectre of President Putin running rings around the West is a testament to this. An understanding of the ways of men and the ways of God are essential to building and sustaining a successful modern society – instead, we know only ourselves, and this will be our undoing as time goes by.

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Image credits: banner; Palestine; Westminster; parachute jump; news; cathedral.