Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading :: Beware the Hubris Nemesis Complex

Beware the Hubris Nemesis Complex: A Concept for Leadership Analysis
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:

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]
In other words, Pres. Obama seems to be in consonance with Ronfeldt's advice on how to handle such personalities. Interesting.

1 comment:

David Ronfeldt said...

many thanks for noticing and plugging this paper, clay. i wish i could do a new version. yes, i’d surely mention hugo chavez today. and yes, from what i can see, obama shows no inclinations toward hubris or nemesis, unlike one or two of his recent predecessors (ahem).

a plan i once had for further elaborating the idea was to do a book titled “two faces of fidel: don quixote and captain ahab.” i got a bunch of chapters done on my own time (still available at rand.org), but never got around to the key chapters -- too much other work to do. my main methodology was rhetorical, i suppose: to compare speeches and other behaviors -- by going through fidel’s speeches looking for when he sounded like quixote or ahab. all three -- castro, ahab, quixote -- exibit marvellous rhetoric.

captain ahab is a great literary archetype of the hubris-nemesis complex. and in this face of fidel as ahab, the united states corresponds to moby dick, cuba to the ship pequod, and parts of his crew to his fidelista followers. don quixote had his moments of expressing hubris or nemesis, but he did not have the raging, fused complex. in this face of fidel, dulcinea is the cuban revolution (both as to dream and reality), sancho panza the cuban people.

i concluded that 1990 paper by speculating that fidel would end up more as ahab than as quixote. today, i’d finish it differently.

meanwhile, i continue to collect psychological readings where hubris and/or nemesis figure. mostly that means literature on narcissism. lately i also follow a blog: http://narcissismblog.com/. but while my interest endures, i’m not confident i’ll get back to this topic in a big way, though it does indeed relate to my interest in people’s space-time-action orientations.

again, thanks for the interest and support. onward.