On the eve of the German offensive against France in August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm confidently asserted to some departing troops, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” The German monarch was known neither for his prescience nor intellect and undoubtedly was einege Apfelstrudel short of a Dutzend, but his sentiments on this matter were not unique. Other military and political leaders were busy rummaging through their wardrobes to ensure that full dress uniforms for autumn would be available at a courier’s grasp for the inevitable march through their enemy’s capitol; after all, last summer’s garb is so-o-o-o, well, last summery. The last thing a monarch needed was to be fashion-challenged at the time of triumph.
This colossal arrogance generated colossal horrors, which, a half-century later, relegated the war’s participants to the status of effete sideliners—sideliners, that is, to greater historical dramas taking place elsewhere in the world. European hubris had political consequences far beyond the fortunes of national leaders, nearly all of whom put themselves first and their countries second. At lower levels in a political or military hierarchy, arrogance generates losses that are measured in the thousands, often multiplied many times. At higher levels, the fate of nations or entire civilizations is in the balance. In short, there is a geometric progression of consequences in the politics of arrogance, and politics informs all decisions in government, the military, and society in general. The inherent resistance to criticism and blindness to reality that are characteristic of oversized egos magnify such consequences.
Sometimes nations beat the math and survive the politics of arrogance practiced by leaders who identify their personal fortunes with the destiny of their country. For instance, in the opening campaigns of the Civil War, adulation of George B. McClellan reverberated hugely inside the echo chamber of his own ego, generating a conclusion that “God had placed a great work in [his] hands,” and the fate of his country rested solely with him. In fact, McClellan was an able organizer but an inept commander whose battlefield judgments were ludicrous and whose incompetence unquestionably lengthened the war. Unfazed by criticism, McClellan still ran against “the well-meaning baboon” Lincoln, who beat him soundly in the 1864 election. God, Grant, and “the original gorilla” saved the Republic to persevere, at least until another megalomaniac strode across the political platform to gain America’s attention.
Few fit this description better than Woodrow Wilson, particularly since he compared himself favorably to Jesus Christ, whose major shortcoming in Wilson’s view was the failure to produce a plan for peace. Wilson trumped the Ten Commandments by adding four—the Fourteen Points—and burned his life out leading a crusade for a cause few Americans cared about, the League of Nations. Wilson finally concluded that his countrymen were not ready for the grand project he had in mind for them. It’s hard to get more arrogant than that, but at least Wilson’s haughtiness produced few adverse consequences; international organizations are singularly inept at preventing war, and America’s membership in the League likely would have meant little. But Wilson’s politics of arrogance rendered him impervious to such considerations.
Which brings us to the present, with an administration filled with people whose self-esteem would make the Kaiser blush. America has a leader who reprises Sonny & Cher’s trademark song with the words, “You’ve Got Me, Babe.” Indeed, Mr. Obama’s use of the personal pronoun suggests a new political formula to calculate arrogance—call it the “I-Test”—which refers to the frequency the President uses that letter in his speeches. But it’s not just him; his supporters numbered millions who were swept into the “we are the change we’ve been waiting for” movement, and the American Left still views the current political situation the way the German leadership looked upon Europe in August 1914: now is the time to strike, we may never have an opportunity like this again.
But it is almost impossible to conceive of the United States over the next decade “beating the math” to overcome a McClellan-like ego or vitiate a Wilsonian-type moral crusade. Efforts to create a European-style social democracy likely will produce a European outcome: a debt-ridden menagerie of stagnant societies smothered under a thick cloak of bureaucratic mediocrities oozing with self-importance. The prevailing politics of “never letting a serious crisis go to waste” so far has generated national debt estimates that cannot possibly be sustained without the United States suffering in economic terms what imperial Germany did in military terms during the Great War.
The question is, can this politics of arrogance be stopped? To this, another German, Otto von Bismarck, had an answer: “God protects fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” Bismarck is no longer around to give advice, which leaves America with only one alternative to combat our own politics of arrogance.
God help us.