Facing strongmen, remember their weakness

One of my favourite beach readings is the James Clavell’s novel "Noble House”. Over a 1000 pages long and ostensibly focused on schemings of Hong Kong’s tycoons, it also involves a large cast of government officials, spies and triads. British, American, Chinese and Soviet spooks all take part in this tale set in 1962. One of it its key messages, implicitly endorsed by the author, is the strategic acumen, inexhaustible resources and toughness showed both by Soviets and the Chinese. Compared to them, British politicians and, to a lesser extent, their intelligence services, are weak, penetrated by moles and easily manipulated through money or class resentment. Of course, we all know how this ended and who was left standing.

This picture came back to my mind reading what many commentators have to say about the current events in Ukraine, particularly the occupation of Crimea by Russian soldiers. In their words, the West once again appears incapable of resolute action, easy to divide and focusing on avoiding short-term cost. In many ways, this is true. Democracies tend be incremental, flexible and usually without single-minded focus (unless it is imposed by an unavoidable external event). This, however, is also their greatest strength. By the same token, they are not brittle, less prone to overextension and generally capable of learning from their own mistakes. As Winston Churchill once said: Americans always do the right thing once they exhaust all the other options.

I have to wonder whether this is true of the current Russian government. Accounts of how decisions were taken with regard to Crimea show that President Putin moved forward with inputs of a very small circle of trusted advisors, focusing on “face” and “credibility" and without allowing anyone to challenge the dominant view.

If you read Sleepwalkers, a recent excellent account of how the First World War started, you notice similarities with how top figures on the Austrian, Russian and German side deliberated their way into the conflict (which is not to exculpate the Brits and the French).

When facing strongmen, we should remember their weaknesses. They do not necessarily make them less dangerous, but they make for a better policy on our side.