Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

On passion, reason and the economy

What is the proper relationship between the passions and reason in politics, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

I was most impressed by the leader of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah Hassan Nasrallah when I heard him speak for the first time. He was able to combine inflammatory speech with cold reasoning. His demonstrations were convincing, and you had to think seriously if you wanted to refute his views on one topic or another. This was no easy task. Of course you could say that his deeds do not match his speeches, or you could question his assumptions or criticise his conclusions. But you could not shrug your shoulders in disdain.

One renowned analyst said at the time that Western and Israeli leaders should pay attention. Many have assumed that the West is the land of rationality, and the East the realm of the passions. But comparing Nasrallah to some Western leaders (former US president George Bush Senior, for instance, or even some European leaders) has tended to prove the contrary.

This does not mean that Nasrallah has no passions. His preferences and his hatreds can be compelling. But they are “cold” passions, even if very intense ones. This does not mean he has no charisma. Hearing Nasrallah speak is often moving. His impressive logic has a considerable appeal, and logic is a universal language, contrary to some passions.

One the other hand, the former Egyptian and Iraqi presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Saddam Hussein and the present Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan look like highly emotional people who react sometimes without too much thinking. Political scientists, historians and journalists have described them as “impulsive”, and many of their decisions looked and still look very ill thought out.

When Saddam attacked Iran in the 1980s, I was in the Cairo office of the French news agency AFP chatting with three French journalists. The wires announced Saddam’s invasion of Iran. The reaction was unanimous: what a mad blunder. When the Turkish military shot down a Russian plane on the Turkish-Syrian border earlier this year, we similarly wondered if Erdogan had gone mad. Nasser’s opponents also consider his decision to commit troops to Yemen in the 1960s and to escalate the situation before the 1967 War as major blunders.

Therefore, it is fascinating to read the archives (for Nasser and Saddam), or the think-tank analyses of the time. One should recall the plain fact that Nasser and Erdogan at least were (and are) master tacticians who often displayed considerable skills in crisis management. Moreover, they always pondered their moves and the pros and cons behind them. I myself have written papers trying to show that Nasser’s decision to intervene in Yemen in the 1960s had its own rationale behind it, given the geopolitical context of the time, along with his isolation and “encirclement”, the dynamics of his charisma and the cost of doing nothing.

This example is interesting, and it might help us to elucidate the complex relations between passion and reason. Nasser’s decision to commit Egyptian troops in Yemen had a sound strategic rationale, but it was economically absurd. Egypt did not have the means to sustain a long intervention in the country. Nasser was aware of this, but he did not pay enough attention to the risk of being unable to retreat. It seems that Erdogan did not give much thought to the possibility of Russian sanctions against Turkey. In the same vein, I sometimes wonder if Russian President Vladimir Putin is happy with the costs of his intervention in Syria.

It is tempting to say that passions and strategy can coexist and foster each other, but the passions and economics do not go well together. Even so, this raises many questions and objections: greed is a passion and a politically relevant one. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides and the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes both considered it to be one of the three main passions, along with fear (the longing for security) and pride (the quest for glory).

So we should go further. We might say, with Hobbes, that only fear and the need for security can lay the foundations for political order, and political order enables everyone to become richer and to display greed. Pride, the need for recognition, and the quest for glory are potent passions, but they are also destabilising ones, especially in our contemporary world that is structured by capitalism, globalisation and “connectivity”.  In this world, the quest for glory is not welcome, except if its aims are economic.

These three passions all also have close relations with violence, but the quest for glory now seems to be unnecessary and ultimately counter-productive or self-destructive.

The longing for security and greed are also self-destructive. This, however, is easier to overlook.

Moreover, the list of major strategic and political blunders that were driven by economic calculations is impressive. France is still suffering from its economically sound decision to diminish the numbers of police officers. It is too early to gauge whether French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent decision to cut the budget of the French Defence Ministry is a good one, but it clearly entails considerable risks. Such examples are telling, as decisions dictated by temporary but compelling conditions can lead to lasting damage. Bear in mind that we do not need to associate “temporary” with economic and “lasting” with strategy: it can be the other way around. Short-term strategic considerations can lead to lasting economic woes.

We should also not forget that glory can be lucrative. Both Nasser and his successor president Anwar Al-Sadat punched above Egypt’s “objective” weight. The great powers wanted to placate these two great leaders, at least for a time, and they wanted to avoid the trouble they could stir up. Glory is costly, but it also brings rewards.

Passions are also a formidable creative force. Political thought tends to oppose them to interests, and this is the theme of US political scientist Albert Hirschman’s great book on the subject, entitled exactly The Passions and the Interests. Passions are thought to be violent, whereas interests require cold-blooded calculation. But, as my own teacher the French political theorist Pierre Hassner pointed out in one of his last books, all this assumes that a society with no passions is sustainable, and this is not the case. This is one of the main objections, as Hassner pointed out, to the US theorist Francis Fukuyama’s well-known thesis of “the end of history” with the apparent triumph of Western-style democracy and market society. Passions do not disappear, Hassner said. They degenerate, become jealousy and powerless hatred, and soon reappear. If not, society itself declines.

Fortunately, even being cold-blooded requires passion, as it entails considerable self-discipline. Being committed to rationality requires a passion for objectivity. We should also be aware that the frontiers between reason and the passions are porous. Reasoning, in political life, is not a transcendental operation. You have to determine means and objectives and above all to select the relevant data and information. In all these operations, the passions are also necessary.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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