GLS 592: The March of Folly: How and Why State Leaders Historically Act Against their Self-Interest
Instructor: Dave Shuster
German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, when asked to comment on Europe’s exploitation of Chinese peasants, responded that “The plight of the Chinese coolie will forever be a factor in my sympathy, but never in my policy.” He meant, of course, that states act in accordance with their interests (real or perceived), not moral principles. History, however, provides numerous examples of nations visibly, and often proactively, acting against their interest, i.e., a repeated, in historian Barbara W. Tuchman’s words, March of Folly.
From Troy to Vietnam and beyond, Tuchman conducts us along a singular track of state sponsored self flagellation and suicide. She asks why wisdom and judgment, acting on experience, repeatedly fails, and why “…holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self interest suggests?”
Misgovernment, according to Tuchman, occurs within a combination of (1) tyranny or oppression, (2) excessive ambition, (3) incompetence or decadence, and (4) folly or perversity, i.e., “pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved…whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed…folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.” Policy, as folly, meets three criteria, (1) “…it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight,” (2) “…a feasible alternative course of action must have been available,” and (3) “…the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.”
Course participants will conduct a tour of Tuchman’s work, critique her methodology and analysis and, through original research, present examples of folly appearing world-wide since the end of World War II, 1945 – present.
Last Update: March 9, 2009