Sunday, August 30, 2020

How Poor Leadership can Create Collapse or Make It Faster: Lessons from European History

The damage that a bad leader can generate is simply fearsome, especially if that leader has a lot of power and he is nearly impossible to remove from his position. If then that leader controls a large military apparatus, even including nuclear weapons, then the disasters that can happen are beyond the imaginable. If you, like me, doubt the competence of our current leaders, there is plenty to be worried about.

The problem seems to be that our system of choosing leaders guarantees to propel to the top all sorts of power-mongering psychopaths. And as the power we manage increases, going from nuclear weapons to the control of the Web, the chances for truly disastrous damage created by an incompetent leader also increase. 

Maybe there should be a science of incompetent leaders that might be a branch of the more general "science of evil." In this post, I propose a brief exploration of this field that starts with the idea that the past is the way to understand the future. So I repropose a theme that I had already examined: that of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) (1808-1873) one of the best examples we have of an incompetent leader who ruined the state he was leading. At that time, fortunately, there were no nuclear weapons available and Luis Napoleon himself was not so aggressive and bloodthirsty as other famously bad leaders. Nevertheless, the damage he generated was considerable and we can learn something from his story.

Napoleon 3rd: how to destroy an empire in the making.  

The armies of Napoleon Bonaparte went through many victories and a few crushing defeats. Leaving aside the question of whether Napoleon was the military genius that we often think he was (but Lev Tolstoy totally disagreed on this), we can say that at least he had a clear vision of what he was trying to do: creating a Europe-wide French empire. In this sense, the invasion of Russia of 1812 was not a strategic blunder. Napoleon had correctly identified a crucial enemy, Russia, to his imperial ambitions. It was more a tactical mistake: he had grossly underestimated the difficulty of the task.

But Napoleon's task was more difficult than just taking an army across the Russian plains in winter. France's imperial ambitions were difficult to put into practice for a simple reason: resources. As you see in the figure, below, France had only modest coal resources and its production never could match that of its more powerful rivals, England and Germany. And, during the 19th century, coal was the crucial resource that created military power: no coal, no empires.

Yet, in the 19th century, France had an advantage in the European power game. Look at the political map of Europe (the figure shows the situation in 1830). You see France as a large and unitary state placed right in the middle of Europe and surrounded by a plethora of statelets in the East and South. At the beginning of the 19th century, France had the largest coal production and the most developed economy in Europe, apart from Britain,. That was the factor that propelled Napoleon's armies in their conquests. And even after the fall of Napoleon 1st, the situation remained the same: France was the most powerful state of central Europe. 

But France had a problem: it didn't control a crucial region: the Ruhr and its coal mines, the richest of Europe. Without that region, France's coal production from the Vosges and Jura couldn't possibly be enough for France to dominate Europe.

The Ruhr region is today part of Germany and it had been occupied by Prussia already in the 18th century. Napoleon annexed the region in 1801 and turned it to the Grand Duchy of Berg whose ruler was his brother in law, Joachim Murat. Napoleon never made a mistake in judging the strategic importance of a territory. And he probably understood that the Ruhr was the center and the focus of the European coal production. Whoever controlled the Ruhr, controlled central Europe. 

At the same time, another empire was going through its death throes for lack of coal. It was the Ottoman empire, said to be the "Old Man of Europe." But the Ottoman empire was not older than the other states it was facing,  it was just desperately starved of coal. It controlled no mines. That was another strategic element of the puzzle that Napoleon had perfectly understood when he had embarked on the invasion of Egypt in 1798.

Now, imagine yourself in the clothes of a successor of Napoleon Bonaparte. You are the absolute ruler of France and you want your country to dominate Europe, what should you do? Basically, you have to continue what Napoleon himself had started: dominate the center and make sure that the Ruhr mines are yours or, at least, not under the control of a rival power. Then, you have a free hand to expand in the Mediterranean. And, indeed, France had started doing exactly that by conquering Algeria in 1830. At that point, the way for France was open to conquer the whole North African Region from the weak Ottoman Empire. It was not to be exactly a piece of basboussa cake, but it would have been possible to turn the Mediterranean into a French lake.

At this point, we see arriving on the scene Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He managed to be elected president of France in 1848, then he made himself "Emperor" by a coup d'état in 1852, taking the name of "Napoleon III."

The story of Louis Napoleon is long: he ruled France for 22 years, and of the many things he did, not all were wrong. But, in terms of international strategic choices, he was truly a disaster, even worse than our George W. Bush. 

It will suffice to say that Louis Napoleon did exactly the opposite of everything he should have done. Really, if he had been paid by the enemies of France, he couldn't have done more damage than he did. At least, we can consider him as a bad example to ponder. 

Let's start from the beginning. We said that France had started expanding in the Mediterranean already in 1830, conquering Algeria. France could have continued expanding along the North-African coast provided that, 1) Italy was prevented from forming a unified state that would have been a competitor for the same area. 2) France would seek an alliance with Russia to further weaken the Ottoman Empire, and 3) England was kept out of the Mediterranean area as much as possible.

But, as I said, Napoleon III had a knack for doing the opposite of what needed to be done. In 1853, instead of fighting Britain and the Ottomans, he created and led an alliance with them to fight Russia in Crimea. It was a strategic mistake so huge to be truly mind-boggling. France had no strategic interests in the Black Sea and why in the world should the French help the Turks against Russia when the French had a good chance to snatch a huge chunk of the Ottoman possessions in North Africa? 

The Crimean war was a disaster: it was a military victory for the French-led coalition, but it was one of those victories that you would prefer had been defeats. The effort had utterly exhausted the coalition, but far worse was how the Crimean war influenced the events in Italy. Piedmont had sent troops to Crimea in exchange for the promise that France would later help Piedmont to fight Austria. In 1859, Napoleon III felt he had to honor his promise, and he sent troops to Northern Italy to help Piedmont. The result was another victory that one would have preferred having been a defeat. In the wake of the victory, Piedmont conquered the whole Italian Peninsula and unified it in a single state. A complete strategic disaster that saw France help to create a state that in the future would be a competitor and even an enemy. Among other things, in 1911, Italy attacked and conquered Libya, stopping all hopes of France to expand further in North Africa.

Afterward, Napoleon III kept making one mistake after the other, as if he wanted to create a cliff as deep as possible to fall into it faster. He didn't move a finger to stop Prussia from gobbling up its neighbors to create a single, powerful state. He did nothing even when there were good chances for France to fight Prussia in a coalition with other European states. First, there came the Schleswig war in which Prussia was left free to maul the weaker Denmark at the Battle of Dybbøl in 1864. Then, there came the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 where, again, France didn't do anything to counteract Prussia's expansion. Then, there came France's turn to be mauled by the Prussian artillery. The French army was crushed at Sedan in 1870 and Louis Napoleon himself was captured. With that, France was forever consigned to the status of 2nd rank power. It was a rapid ruin for a leader who had outlived his own mistakes and died in exile, in England, in 1873. 

But perhaps we can say also something good about Louis Napoleon. Despite all his blunders, he was not a bloodthirsty psychopath as many leaders are. One of the last images we have of him is after the defeat at Sedan, 1870, after that he had been captured by the Prussians. We see him sitting and amiably (perhaps) chatting with Otto Von Bismarck, minister-president of Prussia. Earlier on Louis Napoleon had ordered his army to surrender to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. At least that was a good thing he did.

Now, what can we learn from this incredible series of mistakes? One is how difficult it is to get rid of a bad leader once he takes upon himself the title of "Emperor." But what caused Louis Napoleon to be so ineffective?

For one thing, Louis Napoleon may have been trying to emulate his illustrious uncle, Napoleon 1st, and the attack on Russia in 1854 was perhaps an attempt to avenge the French defeat in Russia in 1812. But, like many leaders, Louis Napoleon was also a womanizer. So, he could be controlled, in part, by means of his sexual appetites. He may have sent the French army to help Piedmont as the result of the work of his Italian mistress, the Countess of Castiglione who, in turn, had been operating as a secret agent for her cousin, Count Cavour, the leader of the Piedmontese government. Or, it may just be that the task of governing a state is beyond the capabilities of most people, and Louis Napoleon was not an exception to the rule

It is a general pattern, leaders often arise by understanding and exploiting the internal power-games of an organization. But when they reach the top, they may turn out to be completely incompetent at leading the organization. It is typical of politicians, good at being elected but often totally unable to do anything else. And Louis Napoleon was surely a politician more than anything else. 

So, why do we trust a system that can't do anything else than place incompetents at the top? It may be just because we couldn't think of a better system. The alternative, often touted as a good idea in difficult times, is to put a "strong man" at the top, hoping that miraculously he will fix what needs to be fixed. It never works that way.

In the end, it could be that Louis Napoleon's blunders were just part of the inexorable flux of history. Imagine that the two men in the figure above had exchanged their roles, with Otto Von Bismarck a competent French Emperor and Louis Napoleon as an incompetent Prussian leader. Then, maybe, Napoleon 1st's dream could have been realized, with France dominating Europe and the whole Mediterranean Sea. In this case, you would probably be reading this post in French, but would something really have changed in the bloody history of the world during the 20th century? A French European empire would have found itself in direct contrast with the Russian Empire and the British Empire. So, plenty of wars and carnage would still have occurred. Perhaps a competent ruler is not necessarily better than an incompetent one. Whatever the case, history keeps going onward.




Notes on the Crimean war

The Crimean war is one of the most misunderstood events of modern history, not so remote to have been so thoroughly forgotten, and yet it was forgotten and its reasons often twisted in such a way to make it turn into something completely different. Just as an example, James Hamblin briefly mentions the Crimean War in his 2020 book "Clean" saying at page 242 that it took place because " the British were fighting back Russian expansion into Crimea" forgetting that Crimea had been part of Russia since 1783, 70 years before the start of the war. And BTW, the US was friendly to the Russians at that time. 

Here are some posts I wrote about the Crimean War

The Ring of Fire Around Russia


  1. "Maybe there should be a science of incompetent leaders that might be a branch of the more general 'science of evil.'"

    See Peter's Principle:

  2. ["In this case, you would probably be reading this post in French, but would something really have changed in the bloody history of the world during the 20th century? A French European empire would have found itself in direct contrast with the Russian Empire and the British Empire, so wars and carnage would still have occurred. Perhaps a competent rule is not necessarily better than an incompetent one. Whatever the case, history keeps going onward."]

    What the hell Ugo ! ... are you succumbing to cynicism ?
    Are you suggesting voting is not all what it's cranked up to be ?

    Would you not rather suggest that overshoot tends to enable the rationalization of belligerence and conflict which is exactly the fertilizer you need for the emergence of spectacularly dumbass leaders ?

    1. Do you remember Gore vs. Bush in 2000? Apart that a situation like that, today, would mean an all-out civil war, I wonder what would have happened if Gore had insisted on the recount of the votes and had managed to become president. Would 9/11 still have happened?

    2. I know, I know ... I understand, I was just teasing you more than anything ;-)

      Like Tom Lewis wrote in his latest post on his Daily Impact blog:["Presidents can lead, they can propose, they can advocate, they can influence, but they don’t and can’t run the country.

      Take for example the pandemic. The federal government has been like a fire department trying to deal with multiple blazes with no water in their hoses, not much to do but stand around and watch ‘em burn. One thing the feds could have done but didn’t is mandate a lockdown comprehensive enough and long enough to slow the rate of infections and give the doctors the upper hand.

      That’s not an option for Biden. If he tries it he will face armed resistance from a significant proportion of the population for whom the whole subject has been politicized and weaponized. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. And that resistance, armed or not, will doom the effort. So no matter who’s president, the pandemic is going to have to burn itself out, with incalculable harm yet to be done to millions of people. "]

      But still, in principle, we can say that [at the margins] more often than not, we're marginally [!] better off with people at the helm who are ideally the closest thing to 'wisdom' our kind of meat package can achieve, but that it assures us of not much in the grand scheme of things ...

    3. Maybe. But the US had no more deaths from Covid than Italy, taking into account the different population sizes. That despite the fact that Italy implemented a rigid lockdown nationwide and we have no gun-toting madmen running around. My impression is that the covid was another example of the powerlessness of the big men on top. The best laid schemes of mice and men / Gang aft agley.

  3. Leader in a political party is like fish in a pond. He knows his environment and his competition; it's ambition and vanity of relatively small group of similar people. It's possible to master that environment.

    But leader in the the environment of world affairs is something completely different. It's like fish in the ocean. It's impossible to master that environment because it's too big and complex. Instead of the fishes of the same kind, there are many different fishes, some big and some small, dangerous and friendly ones. The only thing a leader can achieve in that environment is to find some ecological niche and exploit it. No way to master the ocean, and yet some leaders are so blinded by ambition that they can not understand it. They lead their followers to disaster.

  4. For several billion years all organisms have competitively pursued profit and growth (reproduction). There has been some accommodation of symbiotic relationships, clonal cooperation and various social hierarchy arrangements that have aligned goals but always towards growth and success. Human civilization, as a second expression of the DNA/RNA/tool relationship, is comprised of entities that now compete in a similar manner for profit and growth. The focus is on advancing technology and surviving in a competitive environment. Unfortunately the natural environment must take a backseat with these dynamics. Trump will struggle to achieve success by restarting growth (unlikely) which would only result in a hollow victory on the road to collapse. Between the Great Silk Road and MAGA everything will be lost regardless of leader or economic system employed. However, a few more viruses or nuclear exchanges could get us to where we're going much faster.

  5. I wonder if a leader has ever said to himself. I'm going to turn this place into a F---king Paradise and nobody is going to stop me!

    Probably not. There have been few philosopher kings.

    Marcus Aurelius was one. His son was not and when Commodus came to power the Pax Romana came to an end. A kingdom of gold was transformed to a kingdom of Iron and Rust.

    I listened to a podcast released today where Richard Wolf talks with Chris Hedges. This subject came up and Chris said empires in decline attract bad leaders. He did not explain why but I suspect opportunists take advantage of chaos and exploit weaknesses in the system. Trump is an obvious example which makes that point.

  6. Professor, you are correct . A living example right now is Narendra Modi ,PM of India . Incompetent and clueless who thinks (imagines) he is a know all . His economic policies have crashed a country that was growing at 8 % in 2015 when he took over to (-) 23.9 % this quarter . An economic catastrophe in 5 years .

  7. Actually, the truth is that an expanding system can cope well with the bad leaders: the consequences of their actions simply become more apparent in times of decline.

    Growing wealth makes up for all the losses and errors. See the history of the British Empire -indeed, all empires.

    Rather ironic to place at the top images of two elderly men, one senile and very corrupt party tool, the other a narcissist and outsider demagogue.

    What a choice!

    1. Biden is a senile and very corrupt? Seriously?

      (or did you mean the Democratic party is very corrupt?--maybe but not compared to the Republican.)

  8. I am unable to view comments on your posts recently, a Blogger issue perhaps?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)