Lessons not Learned

By Markus Ziener

There is a won­der­ful spot west of the city of Frank­furt in Ger­many. It’s in an area well known for its excel­lent white wine, its charm­ing hilly land­scape, and its wel­com­ing peo­ple. It’s called The Rhein­gau. Once you make your way up a hill from Rüdesheim, maybe com­fort­ably using the cable car, a fan­tas­tic view over the riv­er Rhine opens up. From there, the Nieder­wald land­scape park, you can see for miles to the West, over­look­ing the tran­quil Rhine val­ley and even have the illu­sion that you actu­al­ly see France.

“Ger­ma­nia” | pho­to cred­it: Markus Ziener

When I was there not long ago my daugh­ter asked me about the stat­ue named Ger­ma­nia that is hov­er­ing over the plat­form where peo­ple are gath­er­ing for the view. The 34-foot fig­ure is called Ger­ma­nia. In her right hand the lady holds the emperor’s recov­ered crown; in her oth­er she dis­plays the Impe­r­i­al Sword. I explained that the monument’s mes­sage was not a peace­ful one. Only a few years before the inau­gu­ra­tion of the stat­ue in 1883, Prus­sia had just fought anoth­er war with France, unit­ing the Ger­man princes for the first time into a sin­gle nation state. The Ger­ma­nia was noth­ing else but a warn­ing to the French: Stay where you are, don’t even think about com­ing here. This is ours.

My daugh­ter was bewil­dered. War with France? Of all coun­tries? War with our best neigh­bor, friend, and clos­est ally in the Euro­pean Union? I had to smile – and thought that maybe those his­to­ri­ans are wrong who believe that nations always fall into the same trap. After so many bloody wars between Ger­many and France, both coun­tries final­ly did the right thing after the car­nage of the Sec­ond World War. They learned from his­to­ry – thanks to the pre­vail­ing of rea­son and thanks to Charles de Gaulle and Kon­rad Ade­nauer. The French Pres­i­dent and the Ger­man Chan­cel­lor turned from arch ene­mies into friends. This seems to have worked so well that even a 17-year old today could not believe that a lit­tle more than 70 years ago things were just the opposite.

Nations time and again reach cer­tain mile­stones, and their lead­ers have to make far-reach­ing deci­sions. Luck­i­ly, they are not always about war and peace. Most­ly mak­ing choic­es whether to turn left or right at a his­toric junc­tion are much more pro­fane – or at least they look pro­fane. Nonethe­less they often have a last­ing impact, and it takes some wis­dom to do the right thing.

With­draw­ing from the Paris Cli­mate Accord is such an exam­ple. The U.S. under its Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump has decid­ed to make a turn, to exit the road the nation was on. Trump prob­a­bly tru­ly thinks that this deci­sion is good for busi­ness, for employ­ment, for his job approval, for his re-elec­tion. He thinks of the short-term ben­e­fits this move may pro­duce – for him, his admin­is­tra­tion, and his elec­toral base. He does not both­er about what one or two gen­er­a­tions ahead a 17-year old may think of it. He fol­lows the pat­tern après moi, le déluge’. In oth­er words: I don’t care what hap­pens once I am gone.

Trump, of course, is not the only politi­cian to act that self­ish­ly. Our demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tems with elec­tions every four or five years makes it dif­fi­cult for polit­i­cal lead­ers to with­stand the temp­ta­tions of reap­ing the low hang­ing fruits. Although in this case, the deci­sion is par­tic­u­lar­ly hard to com­pre­hend. Com­mit­ting to stop glob­al warm­ing is a win-win sit­u­a­tion – even if you think that cli­mate change is a hoax. Why? If cli­mate change were man-made, reduc­ing CO2 emis­sions obvi­ous­ly is the right thing. And if glob­al warm­ing, in fact, is the fate of the earth no mat­ter what, then we all might find out too late to reverse course.

Two of my favorite books are Why Nations Fail and Col­lapse, writ­ten by Daron Acemoglu/James A. Robin­son and Jared Dia­mond respec­tive­ly. The authors col­lect­ed exam­ples of his­tor­i­cal cross­roads at which lead­ers took the wrong turn even­tu­al­ly brought about cat­a­stro­phes even though they knew bet­ter. One case study is the demise of the East­er Islands in the South Pacif­ic. Accord­ing to Dia­mond, the tree-cov­ered island was destroyed by Poly­ne­sian colonists. They cut down the trees and used them to put up mas­sive stat­ues in order to wor­ship their reli­gious cult. As defor­esta­tion wors­ened, the islanders tried to appease their gods by erect­ing even more stat­ues. In the end, the vicious cycle of human stu­pid­i­ty led to catastrophe.

Jared Dia­mond final­ly writes: “I have often asked myself, ‘What did the East­er Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like mod­ern log­gers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Tech­nol­o­gy will solve our prob­lems, nev­er fear, we’ll find a sub­sti­tute for wood”?

Sounds famil­iar, doesn’t it?

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Markus Ziener is an author and pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­si­ty for Media, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Eco­nom­ics (HMKW) in Berlin. Pri­or to that he was the head of the op-ed sec­tion of Han­dels­blatt, Ger­many’s lead­ing busi­ness dai­ly. From 2006 to 2012, he served as head of the Wash­ing­ton bureau of Handelsblatt.