In a conflict between democratic and totalitarian societies, one can assume the rationality of the latter only at one's peril.

Our successful societies are under attack. In itself that finding provokes a yawn, and not a commentary. However, this challenge is taking on increasingly perturbing features. An embedded peril is that our civilization finds it difficult to admit the threat and to mobilize the means to fend it off. A cause of this paralysis is that the clash’s peripherals are ignored by elites who wear pink glasses. This article’s purpose is to put a hazard into perspective that the political class likes to ignore; to overcome the menace, its basics must be examined.

The instruments available to an entity that contests the world order comprise only one component of the gravity of the challenge being posed. Equally important is to identify the goal it is pursuing. Some potential clashes are limited in nature. The conflict between Bolivia and Chile over Bolivian access to the Pacific is illustrative: neither party intends to “erase” the other. The wars of the nineteenth century were such limited conflicts by their purpose, and the assumption, that today’s foe might be a future ally, as the contest is over limited interests and not between good and evil.

The First World War, which was officially the war to end all wars, ended the era of limited conflicts. The implication is that such confrontations could be concluded by a treaty that would bring genuine peace. The age of ideology-driven struggles, which had seemingly been overcome in 1648 (by the Peace of Westphalia), returned in 1919. In part due to the will of the victors, four empires (the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman) disappeared. That conflict ushered in revolutionary regimes that intended to break with the past. The most benign of these was Atatürk’s, which reformed Turkey. In Russia, the Bolsheviks took power, and a Soviet republic briefly arose in Hungary, which was followed by the loss of nearly three-quarters of its territory, while Germany’s drift produced Hitler’s National Socialism to match the originally “victorious” Italian Fascism under Mussolini.

In part, as a reaction to earlier wartime propaganda, which had been utilized to make the masses bear unimaginable suffering, politics became based on ideology. This had decisive implications. Ideology means a total view of the world. It presents itself as revealing the general law that determines mankind’s development – and this is crucial – its predestined future. Making reference to mankind implies that it has universal validity and ambition. Ergo, the one who understands this principle is therefore infallible. Baby Kim and “the Party is always right” are examples of this. The unerring interpreter of ideology’s truth is – a generally secular – “Ayatollah,” and he will, by that logic, rule dictatorially. Note that tyrannical power, as Putin’s approval ratings show, can be popular. Hitler would have won the free elections he did not deign to hold.

A system to save mankind, guided by a Redeemer-Leader, will pursue unlimited goals, as Hitler and Stalin did. We admit this when we call them “totalitarian” in order to express the claim to absolute power that is pursued for the ultimate purpose of world domination.

This shapes the conflicts such structures will provoke. A consequence of this is a disposition to assert interests through war. Totalitarians regard clashes between classes, races, or between believers and unbelievers, to express an irrepressible conflict that determines humanity’s development. Such a view makes war inevitable and positive, because it lets man achieve his destiny in a perfect society. This renders war a force of moral evolution, which contrasts with its traditional perception, whereby interests are preferably secured by low-cost diplomacy which leaves war as a last resort that signals the breakdown of politics.

By this logic, given war’s assumed role in their worldview, negotiations with totalitarians are of limited use. Such people will see any negotiation as merely a pause between rounds of conflict, and not as a lasting deal. A theory that regards conflict as the motor of history must hold that negotiated compromises postpone the final struggle and ultimate victory. Accordingly, those parlaying with totalitarians discover that it is not a mutually advantageous matter that is being settled, but rather one that is negotiated in favor of one’s own demise.

Lastly, in discussing the new war of our time, the dimensions what is acceptable i the struggle must be considered. Where both domestic and international politics are considered as instruments in a war of annihilation, feuds become crusades. As morality is viewed as being equivalent to victory, the struggle that is waged will know no ethical limit. Furthermore, since the totalitarian goal is total victory and subjugation, the fundamental conflict cannot be avoided through negotiation. Additionally, a global cause means a global war which ends in a pitiless Armageddon. By design, it works toward the smashing of the vanquished party’s way of life and its population’s selective extermination.

Presently, the conflict to be managed is one between militant Islam and modern, by and large, “Westernized” societies. Due to our historical experience and a logic that reflects our culture, we expect our differences to be localizable and limited. If the forces that drive world politics were subjected to rational limits, and thus were influenced by logic, this assumption would be reasonable. However, when assessing cultures whose credo rejects actions based on reason as an immoral and alien corruption, an approach guided by reason produces skewed insights.

In a rational world, radical Islam would not exist. If pure reason would govern, Islamic culture would bring forth reformers who would strive to overcome a developmental gap created by lost centuries of social immobility. Furthermore, states committed to a pre-modern order lack the means to contest the systems from which they import weapons, food, and knowledge. By the standards of reason, the jihadists should be marginal and the world of Islam would not be at odds in a militant sense with the rest of the globe. (Admittedly, if logic is a standard, then there is likewise no explanation for why the developed world supplies its foes with the material instruments of power, and why the liberties created by free societies are allowed to be exploited with the aim of abolishing them.)

There is a good reason why it is the case that what is excluded by logic takes place in fact. The apocalyptic nature of ideologies makes those who hold to them impervious to essential facts, while likewise depriving those infected by it of the ability to make common sense calculations, such as in realistically contemplating the question: “Can we win?” Also, to risk a conflict by threatening one can yield results. This encourages a continual resort to threats that can lead to an unwinnable war, as Korea’s loaded temper-tantrum shows.

Those that face ideologically blinded leaders should remember that, when frustrated, such elites are not necessarily dissuaded in the face of overwhelming force that makes their victory uncertain, and its price prohibitive. Such factors in rational decision-making are beyond the true believers of otherworldly ideologies. (Accordingly, at least until Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s leaders – not to mention Mao – were convinced that an inevitable nuclear war was winnable.)

As we face jihadists in power, our political culture makes much of our public’s inclination to assume that “they” would not provoke a full-scale conflict once they are “ready” to wage it. Additionally, we are conditioned to assume that displays of our will to compromise means that “they” do not have to go to war to get what they “really” must have. This is brought to its conclusion by a resolute commitment to demonstrate that we are unreservedly “nice” and not their enemies.

Such assumptions might be logical, although they ignore the prejudices of the “other side’s” culture. The result is military conflicts that do not flow from an accident, but that are desired – especially at the expense of those who are thus unmasked as “weak.” While their risks are underrated, such clashes are seen as unavoidable by totalitarians in order to fulfill “history’s logic,” and are therefore provoked in the pursuit of unlimited, and therefore non-negotiable, goals. Given this characteristic, and by virtue of their being seen as “moral” struggles, such wars are unmitigated by traditional concepts that had humanized earlier clashes. Furthermore, such collisions can have no diplomatic conclusion once reason admits that the war has become unwinnable. This is the case because totalitarians pursue an ideologically-mandated total war that is waged in order to achieve the complete liquidation of the enemy – and even of themselves, if martyrdom requires it.

To conclude: a rational intellect can assess an irrational mind’s working. However, those who are mad are incapable of the reverse – namely, to grasp the normal mindset and to correctly interpret the signals that are sent in the coding of its political messages.Rest assured that the times ahead will bring not only more serious challenges, but also responses to them that may prove to be inadequate. We can be assured that the provocations, as well as our vulnerability, will persist, enhanced by responses that aim at the wrong target and which are fired using the wrong ammunition.

About The Author

Profile photo of George Handlery

George de Poor Handlery is a historian and holds an American Ph.D. In the US he has served as a tenured Associate Professor. Since 1972, responding to the restrictions imposed by quotas, he has lived and taught in Europe.