There are ideas that once expressed become crystallized into paradigms that become very much part of how we see the world. The Swiss Jacob Burckhardt pioneered the field of cultural history by opening our eyes to the radical changes taking place during the period he named the Renaissance, a definition that endured. In a different way, the American historian Barbara Tuchman described a series of historical events from Troy to Vietnam in “The March of Folly” that highlighted how leaders can perform in ways that they know are diametrically opposed to their own interests. Recent events in Ukraine and Switzerland may fit her description.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s was a monumental event. Suddenly, and unpredictably, a world superpower imploded with global consequences. Because the world was not prepared, the aftermath continues to unfold in an unforeseen fashion. For many, the end of the U.S.S.R. was an opportunity. The supposed ideological triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism was complemented by the expansion of western-oriented organizations like NATO and the European Union. Ideas and institutions were ready to step in to fill the vacuum left by the end of communism and the Soviet Union.
Little thought was given at the time to the view from Moscow. When the NATO ministerial conference of 2008 approved the eventual future membership of Ukraine and Georgia in the defense alliance, the Russian perspective was ignored. The Russian perception of having western troops on its immediate borders was not fully appreciated. After all, it was presumed, now that communism had been thrown off, eastern expansion of the victorious Cold War institutions seemed inevitable. Few thought that if the Warsaw Pact had folded, there was no longer a justification for NATO. “Wasn’t the Cold War over?” people in Moscow asked. Then Russian President Medvedev proposed a comprehensive European security framework outside the traditional west-east division that was ignored.
The current crisis in the Ukraine is the direct result of a continuing deterioration of East-West relations since the end of the Soviet Union. While President Putin has been soundly criticized for the grandeur of the Olympic Games, few remember the grandiose triumphalism of the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead of including the new Russian Federation in a comprehensive security framework, western ideologues pushed their own agenda as the ultimate governing system. The end of history indeed.
Barbara Tuchman writes: “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history…is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” With examples such as the Trojan rulers dragging the suspicious-looking wooden horse inside the walls or Napoleon and Hitler invading Russia, Tuchman ponders the difference between self interest and a counter-productive folly.
The February 9 vote in Switzerland may turn out to be another example of the march of folly. The Swiss people, living well above the average of other European countries, voted to limit immigration which for many economists was a crucial factor in its prosperity. By undercutting its dialogue with the European Union by limiting free movement, the Swiss isolated themselves from subsidized international student movement, access to European research consortia and advantageous trade relations, all in the name of preserving a conservative vision of national identity.
The current crisis in Ukraine as well as the consequences of the February 9 vote could have been avoided. There were alternatives – a major criteria for Tuchman’s definition of folly. While international diplomats scurry to try to avoid a catastrophic confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War and Swiss officials desperately try to find pragmatic solutions to re-establish their privileged position with the EU, we think back to Tuchman’s description of the march of folly and continue to be impressed at the capacity of people to shoot themselves in the foot.