By David F. Ronfeldt
I've been really enjoying reading David Ronfeldt's work, which mostly comes to me by way of RAND research reports. Ronfeldt is intellectually curious and roving, rushing ahead at high speed across disciplinary boundaries in order to collect new insights. In this way he seems a bit like Yrjo Engestrom. And like Engestrom, Ronfeldt is working on a grand social theory. For Engestrom, it's activity theory. For Ronfeldt, it's his TIMN framework and his Space-Time-Activity (STA) analysis, about which I have previously blogged.
Ronfeldt is currently retired from RAND, but in this 1994 publication, he was very much involved in thinking through national security problems. One problem is as fresh today as it was in 1994: what personality characteristics are shared by many of the dictators who deliberately and consistently provoke the United States in order to benefit domestically? Ronfeldt has Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein in mind, but we could update it by adding Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Dipping into Jungian psychology, Ronfeldt argues that such leaders represent an "extraordinary dynamic," the fusing of hubris ("a pretention toward an arrogant form of godliness") and nemesis ("a vengeful desire to confront, defeat, humiliate, and punish an adversary that may itself be accused of hubris") (p.5). Put succinctly, for people who hold the hubris-nemesis complex, their hubris involves becoming a nemesis to some other entity's hubris.
In a unipolar world, that other entity is usually the United States. And in setting out to punish that entity's hubris, the actor takes the mantle of "high ideals and a moralization of violence" (p.7). Such leaders tend to become maximalist and pragmatic, Ronfeldt says (p.13), picking their battles in order to strengthen their domestic and global positions.
Analyzing this type through his STA framework, Ronfeldt argues that hubris-nemesis leaders, unlike narcissists, have a keen sense of history (p.27) and have long time horizons - but use crises to "transform the meaning of past, present, and future and break through to a new kind of time" (p.34).
In the last chapter, Ronfeldt acknowledges that his focus on individuals as the kernel for national action "bother[s] social theorists who believe that mankind's history is driven far less by subjective conditions than by objective, material, and structural conditions ... [they] want concepts like the hubris-nemesis complex to be nested in a convincing discussion of the degree to which psychological and other subjective conditions matter in the first place" (p.40). Right, that's a pretty good description of my perspective. But I can also see how Ronfeldt is onto something. As I was reading this report, President Obama had just come in for substantial criticism because he had been photographed smiling and shaking Hugo Chavez' hand. Against this outcry, military historian Max Boot told Obama's critics:
In other words, Pres. Obama seems to be in consonance with Ronfeldt's advice on how to handle such personalities. Interesting.
All Obama did was shake the guy’s hand, and offer him a smile. Far from being a disaster, this could actually be a smart strategic move. Chavez, after all, derives much of his demagogic appeal from his claim to be an inveterate enemy of Uncle Sam. He thrives off provoking us and using the resulting reaction to “prove” that we are as bad as he claims.Obama is a lot harder to demonize than George W. Bush, however, and by shaking hands with Chavez the president may be undercutting his appeal more effectively than anything Bush did. [My emphasis]