The recurrent affirmation that history is on our side, a phrase frequently used by President Obama and to a lesser degree by his predecessors, is a rhetorical flourish that betrays great naivety. TAI columnists Eliot Cohen and Walter Russell Mead have already commented on the latest presidential mention of this phrase here and here, eloquently noting that history does not take sides and that the repetition of this locution does not assuage the fear of people threatened by enemies. Survival and victory do not stem automatically from the conviction that one is marching in lockstep with History.
This—the belief that one needs not fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and streets, or in the hills because history is on our side and the enemy will auto-destruct—is the most troubling aspect of the progressive belief of being attuned to the direction of History. As the President stated on December 6, he is “confident that we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history” (emphasis added). Being on the right side of history, in his vision, causes one to win. The strategy (if we can call it that) is not to adjust our behavior to respond to our rivals and not to defeat the enemy but to keep a steady eye on history.
It’s a competition of sorts, but with history rather than with rivals or enemies. As such it is a plan, not a strategy, to match the path drawn by history.
One can imagine a policy memo written by the President’s advisers:
Dear Mr. President, our plan is to be on the right side of history. We are not engaged in a strategic competition with a rival, whose actions will receive an appropriate response not from us, but from history. If he/she misbehaves—namely, if he/she acts in ways not congruent with the path of history—he/she will engage in self-defeating behavior, or more precisely, in behavior defeated by history. Our goal, thus, must be to follow history, not respond to every manifestation of ahistorical behavior of those who chose to be on the wrong side of progress. Mr. President, your task is to be the steward of History.
The progressive belief in History can translate into passivity and inaction. Strategic interaction—that is, willfully pursuing a set of actions aimed at persuading or compelling the strategic rival to alter his behavior—is deemed to be overrated and useless.
But there is an even greater danger in the “History is with us” belief: it allows imprudent and outright reckless behavior, promising all the while that the costs we may incur now will be covered in the future. In the security realm, this progressive creed elevates expectations of future security through harmony while discounting the salience of current threats. It banks on the inevitability of a harmonious world in which current opponents engage in self-defeating behavior. By doing so, it can ruin the state in the present.
The dangers are well illustrated by a pithy historical vignette offered by both Tacitus and Suetonius, two of Rome’s greatest historians. Believing in the “right side of history” leads to a behavior analogous to that of Nero, who was fooled by a “man of crazed imagination,” a certain Caesellius Bassus (Tacitus, Annales, Book XVI, #1). A Roman knight, this Caesellius claimed to have had a vision of a cave full of gold, hidden there by Queen Dido, the founder of Carthage (Suetonius, Nero, #31), who allegedly did so out of prudence: she sought to limit the degenerative effect of wealth on her people.
Nero eagerly believed Caesellius. The conviction that this wealth existed—think of Dido’s gold as the “right side of history”—led the Emperor to further irresponsibility. As Tacitus writes, “Extravagance meanwhile increased, on the strength of a chimerical hope, and ancient wealth was wasted, as apparently the Emperor had lighted on treasures he might squander for many a year. He even gave away profusely from this source, and the expectation of riches was one of the causes of the poverty of the State” (Tacitus, Annales, Book, XVI, #1-3) Nero spent quickly what he thought he would receive in the future.
Visions of the inevitability of History, like dreams of hidden Phoenician gold, are of course not falsifiable. Nero did not “sufficiently weigh the credibility either of his informant or of the affair in itself” and did not “send to ascertain the truth of the tale.” But he spent furiously. And then he organized a large expedition, with fast ships and many people, to search for this gold. The thought of inheriting the treasure of a mythological queen excited Nero, eager to demonstrate in material ways that gods were on his side.
Unsurprisingly, nothing was found. And the fiscal and political outcomes were equally predictable. As Suetonius describes, “Nero found himself destitute—and his financial difficulties were such that he could not lay hands on enough money even for the soldiers’ pay or the veterans’ benefits; and therefore resorted to robbery and blackmail.” (Suetonius, Nero, #32) And Caesellius, the loony promiser of wealth? According to Tacitus, he either committed suicide, claiming that he had never been deluded before or, after a brief imprisonment, lived free but without his wealth, which was confiscated by Nero to cover some of the expenses incurred in the hunt for Dido’s treasures.
The story of Caesellius and Dido’s gold serves as a clear warning. Counting on chimerical promises of inevitable wealth isn’t just foolish; it’s also treacherous, because it tempts us to borrow against what in reality remains an uncertain future.
Discounting future risks, we squander the present.
We do not win because we consider ourselves to be on the right side of history. We win because we defeat our enemies. History doesn’t hand out victory. We have to underwrite it ourselves.