Thursday, June 26, 2014

Historical Butterflies: Richard Cohen Version

For once I am not going to be too critical of a column in the Washington Post, this one two days ago by the sometimes execrable Richard Cohen on The Lessons of World War I.  Indeed, I applaud his noticing that we are coming up on the centennial this Saturday of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo that touched off World War I and all the horrors that came out of it, including WW II.  I completely agree with him that this is as good an example in history of a butterfly that flapped its wings and caused a hurricane, as in the old Edward Lorenz story from climatic chaos theory that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could cause a hurricane in Texas.  As an old chaotician, I like these sorts of analogies and simply remind everybody that this most famous of ideas associated with chaos theory is formally known as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions."

Of course, I do have some criticism, albeit mild this time around, more a matter of taste.  Cohen spends part of the column comparing that awful event to the current situation in the Middle East, particularly in light of the ISIS successes in Syria and especially Iraq, with it very unclear how far this will go, although I seriously doubt it will result in anything as ultimately destructive and awful as World War I.  My fuss  is with what he suggests is the equivalent "butterfly flapping its wings."  His candidate is the "uprising in Syria."  I beg to disagree and figure that this is just more neocon whining that Obama did not support the moderate opposition in 2012, although there is near zero reason to believe that his doing so would have led to either the overthrow of Assad or preventing the rise of ISIS in Syria.

As it is, I do think that there is a much more obvious butterfly flapper than that on two grounds, both on being much smaller and more buttefrly-like and also in terms of being more fundamental in terms of causation.  That butterfly flapper would be the self-immolation of the small vendor in Tunisia somewhat earlier (sorry, do not have his name).  This was really a small event, arguably smaller even than the assassination of Ferdinand.  But it set off the Arab Spring, and I think it is pretty straightforward that the uprising in Syria started out inspired by the Arab Spring, whatever one thinks of either the Arab Spring or the uprising in Syria.  As it is, the uprising in Syria is already a pretty big deal, not just some butterfly flapping its wings, it is already at least a substantial windstorm, if not a full-blown hurricane.

I remind that at least in Tunisia, where it started, the Arab Spring has turned out not so badly, with the corrupt dictatorship of Ben Ali overthrown, and after a period of rule by a moderate Islamist government now a largely secular democracy in place, just the sort of thing people in the US like.  I would also note that Tunisia is just about the only nation in the Arab world where this has been the outcome.

Barkley Rosser

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A better analogy than a butterfly flapping its wings would be a spark landing in a barrel of gunpowder. Europe before 1918 was geared for war, and even if the assassination in Sarajevo didn't trigger it, something else would have. There were numerous prior incidents when the powers almost went to war before backing down: Fashoda Incident, the First Moroccan Crisis, the Second Moroccan Crisis, the Bosnian Crisis, the two Balkan wars. World War I would've broken out sooner or later.

The same argument can be applied to the Arab Spring. One guy martyring himself would've been irrelevant if there already wasn't a great divide between the peoples of Middle East and their government. A good historical analogue would be the revolutions of 1848. This is just another incident in the same historical process. The increasing middle class is working to gain a share of political power from the upper class. As long as economic progress is creating more middle class, this pressure will remain. And since the Arab Spring mostly failed, that means more political disturbances in the future.