Op-ed: In quest to win power, leaders often generate huge problems

Unless our “practice of virtue” increases in proportion to our knowledge, we may not be able to escape the boomerang effect. The chances of that happening are not closed forever. An interesting analysis of how our decisions come back to haunt us! Must Read for students of Int. Relations & History!

boomerang effect

“A boomerang is a thrown tool, typically constructed as a flat airfoil, that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. It is well known as a weapon used by some Aboriginal Australian peoples for hunting”.

In the world of politics and international relations, we find recurrent examples of decisions taken by leaders, at some consequential point in time, that come back (sooner rather than later) to bite the same decision-makers: thrower seems to get back the boomerang in his own hands! Sometimes this boomerang effect visits decision-maker(s) within few years, and at other times, this may continue to have import for succeeding generations.

It seems that we solve one problem by a particular decision (and may even get wide spread ovation from peers) but we actually give birth to a new problem which is sometimes solved (or left to be solved) by future generation(s)! The cost of solution escalates with each cycle of challenge-response-challenge.

Read more: Operation Spring Awakening: Germany’s Final Assault of World War II

The reason of such irresponsible decision-making may lie in human nature itself. It is commonly observed that human beings take action in hurry, fail to properly analyze significance of their decisions, and are shocked later when unintended consequences start to become evident.

In our greed of near-term benefit and in our pursuit to win at all costs against odds we confront, we sometimes generate new problems, and, in the end, sins of parents may be visited even upon children. It is as if we forget side-effects of medicine that we take to cure one disease, and end up as a result of that medication with new, sometime more lethal, disease!

Take the example of decisions taken by victors at the end of First World War. The kind of onerous terms that were imposed upon the vanquished through Treaty of Versailles 1919, clearly showed that the then victors, in their confidence to find solutions to the challenge they confronted and to leverage their positions in order to gain near-term advantage, actually sowed seeds of next war. The Treaty of 1919, the medicine, created a much larger problem.

In this case we will have a great opportunity to stay out of the conflict, and we could plan the opportune time for us to enter the war…Our choice is clear

The next one generation, not only in Europe but in the entire world, paid for that medicine of 1919 through their “blood, tears, sweat, and toil”. Sadly, human nature trumped human reason in such a moment of great consequence. That is why the vicious cycle continued: war of revenge, followed by treaty of revenge, followed by another war of revenge. And the cost, paid in the next cycle by the entire world, increased manifolds, as human innovation to devise destructive technology was increasing at much faster speed than human virtue!

One would have expected that leaders of the next war would be wiser, having more knowledge. Sadly, it was not to be so. Leaders of Second World War did not learn many lessons from the first one. In summer of 1939 Soviet Union faced an existential choice: to side with Germany, or join the West to stop Germany. Stalin concluded Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the summer of 1939, that allowed Germany time and space to launch its planned invasion of Europe and start Second World War.

Read more: World War II, US military destroyed 66 Japanese cities

Stalin, in a speech delivered by him in summer of 1939, had to explain to his colleagues in Politburo why his decision was beneficial for Soviet Union (such secret speeches were re-constructed later). That speech is one of the most astounding ones ever delivered by a world leader and fully explains the thought process that went behind the decision that Stalin had taken:

“If we conclude a mutual assistance pact with France and Great Britain, Germany will back off from Poland and seek a modus vivendi with Western Powers. War would be avoided, but further events could prove dangerous for the USSR. On the other hand, if we accept Germany’s proposal, that you know, and conclude a non-aggression pact with her, she will certainly invade Poland, and the intervention of France and England is then unavoidable. Western Europe would be subjected to serious upheavals and disorder. In this case we will have a great opportunity to stay out of the conflict, and we could plan the opportune time for us to enter the war…Our choice is clear. We must accept the German proposal…I repeat that it is in the interest of the USSR, the workers’ homeland that a war breaks out between the Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French bloc…Everything should be done so that it drags out as long as possible with the goal of weakening both sides. For this reason, it is imperative that we agree to conclude the pact proposed by Germany, and then work in such a way that this war, once it is declared, will be prolonged maximally.”

The boomerang effect of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact came to visit Soviet Union not in the next generation but in less than two years

Stalin went on to review during his speech different scenarios that could result once the looming conflagration commenced in Europe. The question was: what will happen after the war started? Evidently, said Stalin, if Germany lost in Europe it would not be able to attack Soviet Union. The real fear, however, was what if Germany conquered Europe and then turned its invading armies towards Soviet Union. Stalin explained how he envisioned the apprehension of German victory as follows:

“Now let us consider the second possibility, a German victory. Some think that this would confront us with a serious danger. There is some truth in this, but it would be a mistake to regard the danger as so close at hand or as great as has been proposed. If Germany should prove to be victorious, she will leave the war too weakened to start a war with the USSR within a decade at least. She will have to supervise the occupation of France and England and to prevent their restoration/restore herself. In addition, a victorious Germany will have vast colonies/territories; the exploitation of those and their adaptation to German methods will also absorb Germany during several decades. Obviously, this Germany will be too busy elsewhere to turn against us.”

Read more: 75 years since end of WW-II: Have we learned any lessons?

We all know that Stalin made an earth-shattering miscalculations in history at that point in time, as on 22nd June 1941 Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and attacked Soviet Union. That night, while he was on vacation, Stalin was informed about the largest invasion in human history. Stalin initially dismissed it as fake news: he thought, it must be BBC propaganda. It took him a few days to realize that what he had sowed in 1939 had come to fruition so quickly in 1941.

The boomerang effect of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact came to visit Soviet Union not in the next generation but in less than two years. The actions and decisions taken at that moment of great consequence resulted in years of death and violence for Soviet Union, against all the scenarios that Stalin had envisioned in his 1939 speech to Politburo.

Not that leaders on the other side of Europe were learning and following hard lessons of history. Victory at all cost was the slogan for Churchill. His V-sign became symbol of resistance. Churchill, in his unique style, had clearly stated that the means were irrelevant for him as the challenge the British Empire faced at that moment was existential:

“If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” Hence, this time, in order to defeat Germany, he decided to enter into war-alliance with Soviet Union, a Communist country which till few weeks ago was considered Devil-incarnate by most of the elite on that side of Europe.

During Cold War, Americans took two key decisions that ultimately sapped foundations of their rival, which was dubbed as the evil empire

As expected, the boomerang effect of that war-time decision came during Churchill’s own lifetime. Once Soviet Union emerged as key victor of Second World War, the earlier war-time alliance quickly evaporated. Hot war was followed by Cold War between erstwhile allies, which resulted first in “Iron Curtain”, and ultimately in the Berlin Wall. In pursuit of victory against the then enemy (Germany), decision-makers created a new ogre in Europe, in the form of enlarged, expanding, and belligerent Soviet Union. The next generation, not only on both sides of the Atlantic, but the whole world, faced the consequences of Cold War and all the mayhem it entailed for many decades.

Ironically, having the soul of an acrobat who proudly and continuously changed his political affiliations and positions as necessity and desires demanded or required, Churchill was in the end destined to become his own whistleblower on this account! On 5th March 1946, Churchill visited Westminster College and delivered “Sinews of Peace,” a message heard round the world that went down in history as the “Iron Curtain Speech.” “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “iron curtain” has descended across Europe, declared Churchill. The boomerang of that war-time alliance came in the form of “Iron Curtain”, Cold War, and Berlin Wall.

Read more: Is India forcing partner countries to take sides in US-China cold war?

The post-war generation in United States (by now a full-armed colossus) focused all its energies on defeating Soviet Union. Just like Churchill before, next generation Americans were ready to go to “Devil” if it helped to defeat Soviet Union. Means were not relevant and only the end/objective mattered. During Cold War, Americans took two key decisions that ultimately sapped foundations of their rival, which was dubbed as the “evil empire”.

The first most crucial decision taken during Cold War was Nixon-Kissinger ganging up with Mao-China. That historic move, in one stroke, isolated Soviet Union. After Nixon’s visit to Mao, Soviet Union faced a new world reality in which Communist block was divided and all its sworn enemies were ganging up against it, despite the fact that America-China both were sworn enemies (at least till just few months ago). The boomerang of that Cold War era decision taken by Nixon-Kissinger and their elite teams came later in the form of emergence on world stage of “Frankenstein” China (the popular name given these days to China by some American elite).

The current generation of American elite is repenting that momentous decision by their own leaders few years ago. It does not matter whether there actually is “Frankenstein” China or not, nor does it matter what other people in the world think about the role of China today. The only fact that matters is that it was American elite that took the decision to shake hands with China, and now it is American elite that is bemoaning “Frankenstein” China. For the current generation of American elite “it is the mission of our time to secure freedoms from “Frankenstein” China” (Pompeo).

The boomerang effect visited Americans, few decades later, in the form of 9/11. The resultant “War on Terror” caused death and violence in many parts of the world, including United States

Just like Churchill before him, Nixon was in the end destined to become his own whistleblower on this account as he later realized how China had grown after Nixon-Mao meeting, and had become a new world power, which no one had foreseen even as a possibility when that decision was made to shake hands with China. It was reportedly Nixon himself who, at a later point in his life, said that by opening China “he feared he had created a “Frankenstein”.

The second most crucial decision taken by American elite during Cold War, in pursuit of vanquishing their rival styled as the “evil empire”, was arming Taliban after Soviet Union had been “induced” to invade Afghanistan. “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahedeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 December 1979.

But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was 3 July 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention…That secret operation was an excellent idea.

It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.” (Brzezinski, US National Security Advisor).

Read more: Op-ed: US involvement in Vietnam and the domino theory

During the time when Americans were arming Taliban, the message by Brzezinski to Taliban in February 1980 was clear: “God is on your side”. Brzezinski was later on asked whether he regretted that decision of having given arms and advice to future terrorists? He was not repentant at all and said: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” (The clarity of thought in this comment matched Stalin’s 1939 speech to Politburo!)

Of course, Cold War did end and Warsaw Pact did evaporate but more than some people were “stirred-up”. In the end there was no escaping the boomerang effect of momentous decision taken during 1979 at peak of Cold War, i.e., arming Taliban. The boomerang effect visited Americans, few decades later, in the form of 9/11. The resultant “War on Terror” caused death and violence in many parts of the world, including United States. None of the scenarios envisioned by Brzezinski ever thought of an event like 9/11: he only dreaded “some stirred-up Moslems”.

He could never even imagine that tools handed over to Taliban could ever “return to the thrower” in the form of 9/11. He completely forgot, in moment of pride but of import, that boomerang weapon is literally designed to do exactly the same: to come back in the same hand that throws it. To this day many are still wondering how did Brzezinski know in February 1980 whose side God was on, when he assured Taliban that “God is on your side”? And many also wonder, with Rein Mullerson “Has God since changed his mind?” when Americans started to bomb Taliban!

The boomerang effect is not restricted to decisions of states only. Parents and children are both paying, and will continue to pay, the cost of climate change that is engulfing us slowly but surely

[The War on Terror] could not be won as “nobody wins wars against an abstract noun…[This War] was an act of folly more glorious than any since the Athenians in 415 B.C. sent a splendid and costly fleet of gilded triremes to its destruction in Sicily, and by so doing lost both the Peloponnesian War and the life of their democracy….”: The Age of Folly: Lewis Lapham

The two poison pills that were designed and crafted by American elite to destroy the “evil empire” (mission of that time) have instead infected the doctor in the form of “Frankenstein” China and “War on Terror”. History will tell how this new power struggle (or potential confrontation) between United States and China plays out, and what new monsters it will create for future generations to battle with. No poison-pill for “War on Terror” could be found (complex story there also but not relevant to our essay today). The doses administered to cure it have caused new enormous side effects: as United States burnt its economic and reputational capital in “War on Terror” during which “enormous sums squandered with mediocre military results and politically disastrous consequences” [Gerard Chaliand], “Frankenstein” China got a life-time opportunity to save, invest, grow, and become stupor mundi of our times.

It would seem that even history is moving on accelerant fuel. Unlike previous generations when burdens and costs of a particular decision could be passed on to future generations, now boomerang comes back to the thrower at much fasteru speed. Now instead of sins of parents visiting upon the children, parents may have to pay for their own sins, along with the children paying for the sins of parents also, that too with cost escalation!

Read more: Op-ed: Monsoon disasters just a trailer of climate change storm that lies ahead for Pakistan

The boomerang effect is not restricted to decisions of states only. Parents and children are both paying, and will continue to pay, the cost of climate change that is engulfing us slowly but surely. Climate change is also an example of boomerang effect: we are now facing consequences of decisions taken years ago. Future generations will pay for decision that we take now: all is being done in pursuit of near-term greed, to generate quick buck, make a killing, and ensure comfort now for me and forget the rest, with no thought of future impact, or even sustainability of our comforts.

Less than 200 years ago we found treasures that were buried under our feet millions of years ago. In this short period of two centuries, we have plundered those inherited treasures at such breakneck speed that we have now clogged life on this planet by pollution and warming. Soon conditions on this planet may not be about further evolution of life but may become a test of endurance for the living: kindly ask the people of Karachi what is happening there, or the people of Baghdad that set two new records this year: snow in February and 51.8C in July.

And, the surviving generations, will look at these last two hundred years, not as years of linear growth and progress but of wrong choices and jet-stream rush to mass gaseous ‘ecocide’. It seems there is indeed, in this case especially, no escape from boomerang impact. The lesson is clear: our own “slow and silent” processes and decisions have long-term consequences. We, unfortunately, are self-sufficient in bringing on ourselves the wrong that happen to us.

Sometimes as we gradually advance in the knowledge of truth, we proportionally decline in the practice of virtue, said Edward Gibbon

There can, prima facie, be two explanations why boomerang effect is so recurrent, or why we keep falling in this pit again and again, or why we keep solving one problem and generating multiple new problems, or why side-effects of cures that we manufacture so proudly are sometime more lethal than the original disease itself, or why sins of parents keep visiting children?

First explanation could be conspiracy theory: our leader are smart but crooked; elite are fully cognizant of consequences, of forces involved, and of weight of history; they deliberately want to keep people permanently in fear in order to maintain their control and hegemony; that is why they keep inventing new enemies every generation; that is why they start new power struggles every generation: all this is done in order to maintain their dominance and control over people, territories and resources; and credulous and foolish masses keep following these smart but crooked leaders towards death and ruin, and hence this vicious cycle continues ad nauseum.

It is difficult to give credence to this theory: this is also a variant of “big man” theory. What we have seen above about Stalin, Churchill, Nixon, or Brzezinski, belies first assumption of this conspiracy theory, i.e., that leaders are always smart, and take a long-term view or that they weigh all pros and cons! The reality is that these leaders, just like ordinary mortals, by their short-term view make sub-optimal decisions that start vicious cycles of challenge-response-challenge.

Read more: ‘War on terror’ or genocide: Is world ready to acknowledge post 9-11 massacre of Muslims?

Second explanation of this boomerang effect could be long-term human failure to live by ethical code (or moral principles). “Sometimes as we gradually advance in the knowledge of truth, we proportionally decline in the practice of virtue”, said Edward Gibbon. At the individual level this may seem pessimistic and many will challenge Gibbon’s views on this issue, as we all tend to believe that as we understand more, we improve our lives and also our ethical standards. But at the collective level, what we are experiencing, for example, with climate change or nuclear weapons, makes one wonder: where is human wisdom hidden?

May be, whenever humans pursue one single goal only, disregard relevance of means in order to achieve ends, ignore long-term consequences, get deceived by long term biases and prejudices, believe they are armed with absolute truths, blinded by triumphalism, and focus only on near-term gains, the decisions that they make are sub-optimal. They end up creating new monsters that bedevils even future generations. Unless our “practice of virtue” increases in proportion to our knowledge, we may not be able to escape the boomerang effect. The chances of that happening are not closed forever.

Asim Imdad Ali is currently a partner in an Islamabad-based law firm. He earlier served in Central Superior Services, at positions of increasing responsibility, in its prestigious DMG group (1992-2006), and later served as Head of legal and regulatory affairs in a major multinational company. He is LLB (gold) from Punjab University, LLM from Kings College London, and did Masters in Public Administration at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University where he was an Edward S Mason Fellow. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.