Robert S. McNamara’s Life Lessons and the EU Crisis

Last week I watched again one of my favourite documentaries: The Fog of War (2003), Errol Morris’ brilliant interview with former US Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara. In his autobiographical account McNamara outlines several lessons of war that he learnt through his active participation in top level decisions during the most decisive conflicts of the 20th century, i.e. World War 2, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and finally the Vietnam War. Though one might not concur with McNamara’s political attitudes and/or take a rather critical stance on his legacy, it is hard not to agree with the deeper wisdom these life lessons reflect. Personally, I think his insights have a somewhat universal validity beyond the context of war but one that applies to all forms of political, cultural, and social conflict. Especially in light of the EU/Eurozone crisis discourse that was rekindled with the unsurprising yet still very controversial outcome of the Greek elections last month, these lessons appear as adequate guidelines for those who either partake or observe the transnational debate:

Lesson #1: Empathise with your “enemy” (or opponent/alter)

This is by far the most important insight any political leader should consider in her/his daily work. If the chief interest is to genuinely solve a conflict, it is indispensable to see the issue that causes tensions from alter’s point of view, i.e. to put your self in your opponents shoes and interpret his actions from an angle that is not your own. The austerity/anti-austerity conflict is one instance in which this kind of thinking might have prevented a lot of misunderstandings that partly cumulated in profound cultural tensions (see the various quasi-racist stereotypes that described power-hungry German domination and lazy as well as corrupt Southern-Europeans). This, of course, demands a certain level of social intelligence and presupposes that not short-term goals, like domestic elections, but long-term solutions are the ultimate aim.

Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us

Rationality is a highly controversial issue by itself and always looks different depending on your socio-economic as well as political-cultural background; there hardly ever is one single rational approach for any political conflict. In fact, the clash of different perspectives that in themselves appear rational cause tensions and conflicts; thus, rationality never is a guarantor for lasting solutions. Instead, one should take a critical view on what seems rational and assess potential courses of actions and their probable outcomes based on a particular rationale before actually acting on it. Various actions taken to overcome the Eurozone crisis but which ultimately failed to deliver (e.g. reform programmes) imply that rationality was often taken at face-value – with partly disastrous consequences for those who were directly affected.

Lesson #3: There’s Something beyond One’s Self

McNamara relates this lesson to the nation or society; his basic argument is that one needs to work for a common good and overcome individual interests, at least in certain situations that demand this. In the case of the Eurozone crisis a real solution can only be approached if the involved parties agree that there is something worth working for above particular interests; something that represents a shared, common goal. Unfortunately, the crisis discourse in the past years rather hurt the idea of solidarity and union in Europe; it has become very difficult to convince electorates of the benefits of transnational cooperation, as leading political forces often placed emphasis on “national” interests.

Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency

This should be a no-brainer but longterm observers of the Eurozone crisis’ unfolding will agree that EU leaders’ actions tended to achieve quite the opposite of “maximising efficiency” when they tried to solve the crisis. Instead, delayed and insufficient measures contributed to a prolonged state of political and economic turmoil. Again, national politics and an unwillingness to communicate the real stakes of the crisis to sceptical national electorates impeded efficient decision-making on a transnational level. This in turn diminished prospects for European cooperation.

Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline (in war/conflict)

Fortunately, the Eurozone crisis has not lead to a conventional war between nation-states; however it quickly evolved into a war of words and images. Caricatures of German politicians as Nazis or portrayals of Greeks as unthankful cheaters are some of the more extreme transgressions in contemporary political communication in Europe. Public speakers across the political landscape have repeatedly lost their sense for proportionality and more than once the debate became downright toxic. The conflict of polarising framings seems to dominate political discourse on EU- and Eurozone politics; this inevitably has a inhibiting effect on deliberation on a transnational level.

Lesson #6: Get the data

Political decisions should be based on as much information about the issues in focus as possible. Ideally, valid data that represents aspects of social reality accurately informs policy making. However, things are rarely that simple; often insufficient or even skewed data can lead to fateful political decisions. So far nobody can really say whether austerity will actually solve problems in Eurozone member-states that suffer under an enormous public debt load. At the same time there appears to be lack of convincing alternatives. It seems highly recommendable that any viable longterm solution to the crisis should be based on a critical analysis of relevant data. Then again, the same data can always be interpreted in more than two ways…

Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are often both wrong

This one is closely connected to the previous lesson: before any political decision is made, one better makes sure that there is no doubt about the situation and that each entailed action is worth the stakes weighed in. Hearsay, false assumptions, prejudices, gross misinterpretations, wishful thinking, utopian visions – all of these can lead to bad policy decisions with disastrous consequences. Recently there was a lot of talk about growth in the Eurozone. However, a closer examination reveals the limits of this alleged betterment. Actors and commentators in the crisis discourse frequently premeditate all sorts of potential future scenarios and act on the assumption that action A will lead to result B. In how far these premedations are rooted in empirical reality is, however, often an open question – a crucial limitation that should be considered in decision-making processes.

Lesson #8: Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning

Being able to have empathy with an opponent and realising that one’s biases as well as observations might be wrong should lead to a re-examination of one’s reasoning. In other words, when you conclude that you might have based your previous reasoning on wrong assumptions, remain flexible enough to take a fresh approach; do not close your mindset to a single dogmatic grand strategy but stay open for new impulses. McNamara points out that people are just people and they make mistakes all the time; the trick is to accept this fact of life and be able to change your behaviour. The way in which political leaders stick to their interpretations of and proposed solutions to the Eurozone’s crisis implies that they have little inclination to take a critical stance on their reasonings and to admit that they might have come to the wrong conclusions; again, the austerity/anti-austerity discourse is somewhat exemplary for this. The same could be said for the debate on the general political infrastructure of the EU, where proponents of more integration oppose those who are less willing to increase transnational cooperation.

Lesson #9: In order to do good you may have to engage in evil

McNamara explains that any political leader who engages in a conflict must be aware that his/her actions may cause unnecessary harm to other, potentially innocent individuals; collateral damage cannot be avoided but should remain in proportion to the “good” it ultimately helps to preserve (or the “evil” it allows to minimise); the negative effects must remain as limited as possible. Yet this cannot mean that political decisions which might bear a considerable risk to cause harm to others are avoided at all cost if they serve a greater, common good. To the contrary, one has to accept that certain goals cannot be achieved without losses. Indeed, EU leaders implicitly accepted a high level of damage to social cohesion and solidarity across its member-states when they attempted to overcome the crisis and preserve the single currency – for the alleged good of all Europeans. However, they often failed to communicate explicitly how these losses were justified and that certain decisions really served the interest of the majority of EU citizens and not only financial institutions.

Lesson #10: Never say never

In political crises and conflicts nothing’s really for certain and politicians must actually remain flexible and open-minded if they want to overcome current challenges and find lasting solutions; it will do them no good if they exclude a particular course of action from the outset for some kind of short-term gain, since they might have to change their position at a later point. Furthermore, if a particular outcome to a current development appears highly unlikely from a certain angle it does not necessarily mean that it will not materialise at all. The complexity of modern conflicts actually forbids a strict commitment to a single approach and the non-negotiable exclusion of another. In the Eurozone context German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeatedly vowed to her domestic political basis that she would never agree to Eurobonds, i.e. the de-facto mutualisation of debt in the Eurozone; other maintained that the Eurozone will never break-up while some predict quite the opposite, e.g. that a Greek exit was inevitable. Such positions and forecasts must not be taken as set in stone, since there always is an erratic, unpredictable moment inherent to political developments; one simply cannot take a particular expectation for granted.

Lesson #11: You can’t change human nature

From a historical perspective, the crisis will probably remain temporary and be “solved” at one point, even if it takes enormous social and financial costs. However, probably there will be more crises in the future, as with increasing complexity and convergence the lines of friction and thus areas of conflict appear to multiply in the EU as well as Eurozone. It would be foolish to expect that longterm solutions to current problems will prevent future crises, as society is a constantly changing system of communication that is vulnerable for yet unforeseeable irritations and collapses; the increasing transnationalisation of human interaction is somewhat inevitable against the background of a globalised world but also adds further uncertainty to an already highly dynamic and unstable situation. One must indeed learn from the current crisis to avoid similar mistakes further down the road but should always remember that there is no ultimate solution to the endless chain of challenges.

Image courtesy of https://unsplash.com

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