Zaman Stanizai Headshot

Zaman Stanizai 

Professor of Political Science at California State University, Dominguez Hills

When the Prophet of Peace Meets the Profit of War: An Analysis of the Hubris Syndrome in Governance

Posted: 12/15/2015 12:04 pm EST 

Peace has always been a human ideal, an ultimate desire, and a necessary prerequisite for social harmony--a seemingly achievable goal. Yet in spite of the many evolutionary advances in human thought, peace has always remained an untenable dream--wishful thinking at best. War, by contrast, has been viewed as an act of bravery, valor, and heroism and has been glorified as the ultimate sacrifice in defense of individual, tribal, religious, or national rights and liberties. 

Why does humankind like peace, but think war and why has this propensity for violence persistently defined human culture? Is violence inherent in human nature or has the role been subconsciously acquired through political socialization?

This is as much a case of mutation in political evolution as it is a failure in social engineering. In a traditional tribal administrative structure the chief and the tribe were bonded in mutual interests through blood and a sense of collective security. Because the survival of a tribal chief was tied to the survival and prosperity of the tribe, tribal leadership generally pursued peaceful alternatives instead of inter- and intra-tribal conflicts, resulting in extended periods of peaceful coexistence and social harmony. In modern governance, on the other hand, the survival of a political leader largely depends on his/her indispensability in times of crisis. This is why political leaders involve their countries in military conflicts in order to make themselves indispensable. This necessitates extending their term of office or at least increases their chance for re-election. 

The Hubris Syndrome
The lure of climbing the power pyramid, the desire to stay in power longer, by any means possible, and the political maneuvering for the concentration of power at the helm leads to perpetual wars--validates the axiom that "(A lot of) power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." This creates a conflict of interest between the people's interests and those of the individual or the clique that rules in their name.

The resulting hubris of excessive pride/arrogance or self-confidence becomes an addiction that feeds on conflicts. In ancient Greek, the word hubris often referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser and in Greek tragedy excessive pride toward or in defiance of the gods, led to nemesis. The defiance of gods, ancient or modern, seems to carry its own curse. In our times this often overlooked problem seems to be the hubris syndrome resulting from a sense of entitlement among leaders who try to hold on to their office beyond their terms. They justify this lingering on by creating crises and making wars and thus making themselves indispensable in resolving them. The wars these politicians start tie them to the military whose reciprocated support turns these politicians into dictators.

Addiction to power, like every other kind of addiction, demands continuous gratification. This is why holding on to power evolves from a symptom to a syndrome of hubris that manipulates political circumstances to serve an individual's pathological obsession. Their addictions need conflicts to divert the citizenry's attention from the legitimacy of extending their rule to foreign adventures and military campaigns.

Leaders who are addicted to power want to stay in power at any cost, but leaders who rise to power suddenly and who have not had the chance to develop the syndrome like Deng Xiaoping, Lech Wałęsa, Václav Havel, and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela leave their leadership post happily and often with greater achievements in a relatively shorter time. On the other hand those who change constitutions, and change their titles and/or posts to remain the de facto leaders of their countries like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Robert Mugabe, among others, become obsessed with power. The signs of hubris syndrome may be observed in their cracking down on their opponents, but even more dangerously in their military adventurism. Other techniques that political leaders with hubris syndrome use to stay in power include developing a personality cult like Stalin and Tito, shielding themselves from the public in layers of circles like the Kim Il-Sung dynasty, or simply putting on the mantle of authority as military dictators like Gadhafi and the Assads.

Other politicians have developed the hubris syndrome before formally coming to power. Their term of office may not necessarily have been long, but their warmongering agenda as an indication of a pathological disorder may have already been set in motion. The ideological camaraderie between Bush and Blair in dragging the world into the Middle Eastern quagmire, and the competitive warmongering agenda of Israeli politicians during an election year that usually ends up in some sort of a pre-election attack on the Palestinians or the Lebanese often on 'manufactured' pretext--falls in this category.

Political leaders who end up staying in power generally longer than 6 to 8 years develop the hubris syndrome. They insulate themselves from the people with a corrupting inner circle and in turn from the democratic process. They may have come to power democratically, but they tend to stay in power autocratically.

This self-serving syndrome feeds on its own miseries as violent military conflicts frequently produce conflicted personalities. Many political leaders have displayed signs and symptoms of psychopathic behavior. We hear about the post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD amongst the war veterans, but political leaders of these conflicts are not immune to this and suffer from variants of the disorder. They are often shielded by the government PR and 'manufactured consent' in order to protect their 'national' image, as well as by the collaborative media, and by the attitude of a celebrity-worshiping public who deceive themselves into believing in a strong and invincible leader. 

As the military and the political apparatus collaborate to stay in power, war profiteers join them in maintaining and sustaining authoritative figureheads. This Military-Industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of undermines democracies in advanced societies, but they devastate developing countries even more where the military and the war profiteers empower trigger-happy military dictators who spend their national resources on weapons they buy from 'advanced' countries. In such addictive fever third world dictators become first world clients. 

There have occasionally been paradigmatic shifts in the lives of individual hawk-turned-dove statesmen such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Perez. Their impact on world peace, however, has been marginal at best because such transformations have occurred late in their career when there just wasn't enough time to undo the damage they had caused and they have often been buried under by the avalanche of hatred and war mongering they had already set in motion--leaving them marginalized or even assassinated. 

It is self-evident that the prevalent global political system is neither conducive to achieving peace nor is it designed to maintain peace. The military is incentivized to fight wars that help them earn medals, ranks, and retirement. Politicians prefer wars in order to pay back military contractors, war profiteers and weapon-producing corporations who finance their elections. This vicious cycle contributes to an incumbency-centered political process in modern political systems that by design creates the hubris syndrome.

In addition to this systemic malfunction at the helm, there is the incumbency factor in the lower echelons of government that feeds into a system-wide trend of power manipulation. Incumbency is, by design, power accumulation and power monopolization. So even the incumbency-centered political process is designed to create the hubris syndrome. With help from the corporate lobbyists and the leverage of corporate campaign contributions, not to mention the flag wrapping of the military contractors, the incumbency is maintaining the tilt in the status quo by design. For instance, 96% of the U.S. Congressional office holders with 7% approval rate return to power after each election according to the Center for Responsive Politics and the percentage for U.S. Senate is not much different: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

With the prevalence of this scenario, governance has become a system of denying the citizens of democracy the right to opt for peace. Modern political systems, especially in the third world, are struggling to harness this unbridled tyranny by limiting the terms of office of their top leadership, but such constitutional restrictions are often ignored or bypassed by those who are bent on holding on to power.

These leaders are not only detached from Main Street, they simply ignore the public demands in stark arrogance. For instance, when in 2003 more than 86% of Americans wanted peace, their president declared an illegal war on a country that was no threat to the U.S. Worse yet, this threat was launched on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly in the presence of the U.N. General Secretary in clear violation of Article 4 of the U.N. Charter. The U.S. simply became a rogue state that dragged the peace-making credibility of the U.N. in the dirt. As a result the U.S. destroyed the economic infrastructure and shredded the social fiber of a country that suffers from these ills to this day, and the turmoil has engulfed the entire region, producing the largest number of refugees since WWII. Yet the two parties that pride themselves in peace and democracy, the U.N. and the U.S., simply walked away from any sense of responsibility and accountability. Adherence to the principles of human rights and human dignity notwithstanding, perhaps they did hang "the wrong president."

Something is seriously wrong here. There seems to be a major socio-political disconnect that no longer resonates with the call at Gettysburg for a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." The existing system of governance is not only a threat to peace, but also a threat to democracy as the U.S. government is now militarizing "peace officers" to resolve crime--real or misperceived. This is happening as the murder rate at the hand of police officers in recent years in the U.S. has now surpassed one every seven hours according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics released in 2015. Black Lives Matter may be just the kind of movement that could lead to the further demilitarization of the society, but only if its campaign gets traction and more broad-based support from the rest of the seemingly dormant American public.

In these heavily militarized political systems where the power- addicted are incentivized to start wars supported by war-profiteers as investors, legislators, lobbyists, advisors, and military contractors, those in charge have a conflict of interest in initiating or maintaining peace. In the blurred spectrum of the American political plethora not even the Pope could convince the religious right that they are religiously wrong.

This hubris syndrome is an illness that needs serious therapy. Without an in-depth understanding and analysis of this systemic power hunger and power addiction and a well-thought out remedy, peace advocacy and peace preservation are but misplaced expectations. 

Under these circumstances a broader spectrum of peace activists from the politically conscious to the faith and interfaith communities needs to re-think creatively and recast the mold for a peace-centered political order as befits our 21st century humanity. Such fundamental reform must included the following:

In the U.S.
• Convene a Constitutional Convention to re-frame the constitution reflecting a more progressive participatory democracy.
• Raise the winning threshold for incumbent candidates progressively in each subsequent election in order to level the field in competitive elections.
• Update the political process to accommodate direct democracy via social media.
• Establish term limits via progressive winning vote requirements.
• Subject any war related decision to a minimum 2/3rd majority vote of the citizens, and
• Define the accountability of the national leadership.

At the global level
• Revise the Geneva Conventions to enshrine human rights and human dignity without cultural relativism in its new provisions.
• Pursue a fundamental reform, reorganization, and democratization of the United Nations to reflect a fair and balanced representation of the different regions of the world.