Brent H. Cameron is a Senior Advisor with Concierge Strategies, and a local councillor in Ontario, Canada. The second edition of his 2005 book, “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade: Options for a new globalization” is available on Amazon worldwide – both in paperback and in Kindle e-book formats.
Suleiman I was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. He was the longest serving ruler in the history of the Empire and oversaw its leadership during what is considered its golden age. He oversaw a reform of taxation and the legal code. He was also a great patron of the arts and of scientific inquiry. His forces conquered Hungary and laid siege to Vienna – the apex of Ottoman military power in Europe. He led the Empire at a time when its size, power and population were at its greatest. In Turkey, he is known as “Suleiman the Lawgiver,” while in the West, he is referred to as “Suleiman the Magnificent.”
Upon his death, he was succeeded by his son, Selim II – arguably the worst ruler in the history of the Ottoman Empire. Raised in the royal harem by concubines, he was never destined to rule and only inherited the throne after murder and disease killed more senior claimants. He ruled from 1566 to 1574. It is said that he was “fond of pleasure and entertainment” and convened so-called “drink councils” of poets, musicians, wrestlers, and connoisseurs. It is said that he once had a swimming pool filled with wine and drank so much as to discernibly lower the level. Not surprisingly, like his father, he also is known by a nickname – “Selim the Drunk.”
Under Selim’s rule, the Ottoman Navy was wiped out at the Battle of Lepanto, and the Empire would never recover its former power. In one generation, the Ottoman Empire went from being a force to be reckoned to being on the path to its eventual status of being the “Sick Man of Europe,” and subsequent disintegration.
Variations of the phrase “lions led by donkeys” have been applied to the British Army in the First World War to explain the sometimes glaringly incompetent leadership of generals in commanding brave and fierce troops. In the case of the Ottomans, it was surely a case of “Lions succeeded by donkeys.”
If we were to step out of our own circumstances, to take the perspective of a historian in the future looking back at our current time what would they see? How would they judge our age?
View the liberal democratic world at the exact moment of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and you will see it at its apex. You would see the realization of years of struggle and sacrifice of successive generations stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century – the battle of empires and ideologies, through wars, revolutions, economic and technological upheavals. The time from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the collapse of that Wall was 75 years – interspersed with far too many moments where it could have all gone wrong. It was the interplay of inspired skill and luck that ensured it didn’t.
32 years later and the liberal democratic world is, to be blunt, a “hot mess.”
Within democracies, we fight and attack one another over issues that were supposed to have been resolved more than a generation ago, engaging in a digital version of the Salem Witch Trials or the Reign of Terror which followed the French Revolution. At any given moment, a thousand miniature palace coups are being plotted and carried out on social media to assume jobs, money and status once held by another, with all the predictability of a game of “Simon says” injected with anabolic steroids.
Despite the flowery rhetoric and photo ops, allies close borders and threaten to withhold vaccine shipments, PPE, and other materials from one another. All the while, an illiberal and oppressive regime has become so powerful that it can extend a middle finger to a collective group of diplomats from over 20 sovereign nations standing outside a Beijing courthouse.
And the pandemic wears on into a second year, while whole societies are under a version of house arrest. Those who can work do, while the rest sit in their house subsisting on a government stipend, listening to news reports that will be sure to contradict themselves at some point – sometimes within the same news cycle.
Good news, we have a vaccine! Oops, there will be delays in getting it. Update – they’re coming again! Darn – our allies are threatening to stop them from being exported. Another update – they’re back on! Bad news – we’re worried about complications. Good news – while we’re still worried about complications, we’ll only risk it for people above a certain age. Bad news – the variants are spreading faster, so we must lock down yet again. Good news – once we reach herd immunity, we can return to normal life. Bad news – this may be with us for a long time and maybe what we consider to be “normal life” will have to change.
Suleiman was a brilliant and inspired ruler, and the Ottomans saw greatness during his reign. His successor was a coddled drunk who became Sultan because of what amounts to nepotism. What his father took 46 years to build, Selim squandered in less than ten.
The liberal democratic world, like the Ottoman Empire of old, saw its leadership passed to a generation of arrogant egotists of marginal talent who owe their positions not to ability or intellect, but to what household they were born into, what family connections they could exploit, and how well they could speak cognoscenti. They are anodyne and uninspired – lacking intellectual curiosity and innate talent.
Mediocrity never recognizes itself in the mirror. You think you look normal, but a camera will add 20 pounds. On social media, the cognoscenti feedback loop adds 80 IQ points to anodyne note takers, making them geniuses in their own mind’s eye. The Selims of our age look back at their reflections and see a Suleiman, but in those most private of moments, they know it is a lie. So, they amass the toys and trappings of social status as some substitute for an authentic legacy – a high-end salary, a luxury vehicle, invitations to the best parties with the best people as some alternate measure of their significance because they have won no wars, defended no principles, prevailed in no struggles, nor elevated the condition of those on the lowest rung of society’s ladder.
If President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant were the true heroes of the American Civil War, ending the pernicious institution of slavery, our current crop of leaders must surely be the equivalent of the slightly overweight middle-aged men who dress up like Union and Confederate soldiers, gather in a public park to shoot blank rounds at one another, then retire to the local IHOP for stacks of pancakes and bottomless cups of coffee. Lots of noise that accomplishes nothing, settles nothing, but gives the participant the sugar rush high of being a party to something bigger than themselves.
The Ottomans never recovered their former glory under Selim. Indeed, the rot continued to spread. From the vantage point of Topkapi Palace, you would not have noticed a thing – inured by opulence, flattery and the delusions that were sweeter than the truth. The same was true of the Bourbons, and the Romanovs, and dozens of others that both preceded and followed them.
The question for us is whether the uninspired pedants who are now cosplaying Churchill and Roosevelt or Kennan and Kissinger are any better at introspection than in the discharge of their responsibilities.
The answer to that question will determine the fate of us all.