It’s hard to think about the new war against ISIS without being reminded of the contingent nature of history: America finds itself in a war again because of what it did (or didn’t do) last time around. And its political decision-making apparatus has decided, once again, that it has no other option.

We can dispute the wisdom of that decision and debate the likely repercussions, but what’s clear is that any decision will have unknown repercussions down the line. We can’t imagine that there exists an action now (or ever) that can put the world in a “stable state” such that the international system just goes into maintenance mode, with no further major action needed. That’s not how history works.

I was thumbing through a book of Hannah Arendt’s writings that I found on a neighbor’s stoop. The following seemed apropos:

Wherever men live together, there exists a web of human relationships which is, as it were, woven by the deeds and words of innumerable persons, by the living as well as by the dead. Every deed and every new beginning falls into an already existing web, where it nevertheless somehow starts a new process that will affect many others even beyond those with whom the agent comes into direct contact. It is because of this already existing web of human relationships with its conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose.

The absence of a maker in this realm accounts for the extraordinary frailty and unreliability of strictly human affairs. Since we always act into a web of relationships, the consequences of each deed are boundless, every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction, every process is the cause of unpredictable new processes. This boundlessness is inescapable; it could not be cured by restricting one’s acting to a limited graspable framework or circumstances or by feeding all pertinent material into giant computers. The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness and unpredictability; one deed, one gesture, one word may suffice to change every constellation. In acting, in contradistinction to working, it is indeed true that we can really never know what we are doing.


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