Robert D. Kaplan
Politics, North America
The tragedy of American foreign policy is seen when the intention to improve human rights leads to war and chaos.
The nineteenth-century Germans focused so much on philosophy partly in order not to compete with the protean genius of Goethe, who had dominated all the other literary genres in Germany for so long. And so we have Hegel, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer defining, among other things, the concept of tragedy. But it is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who concerns me here, because he formulated some concepts apt to our foreign policy debates regarding armed intervention, particularly in the Middle East.
Hegel notes that one example of a tragic situation is when a family duty is in conflict with a wider social or universal duty: a foreign policy parallel to this could be when the interests of state are in conflict with the wider interests of humanity—with both points of view more or less justified. Edith Hamilton, the mid-twentieth-century American classicist, interpreting Hegel, says “the only tragic subject is a spiritual subject in which each side has a claim on our sympathy.” Another earlier interpreter of Hegel, the English literary scholar A. C. Bradley, said that tragedy “appeals to the spirit” because “it is itself a conflict of the spirit.”
But while both sides in a conflict can have a claim on our sympathy, both sides cannot be right. Usually, one side is judged right and the other side wrong. Hegel, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), observes that when “figures whose ethical life is on the highest plane” come into conflict, “we are not elevated” by the destruction of one of the parties, but by the triumph of the truth which emerges. “This,” he says, is what “constitutes the true, purely ethical, interest of ancient tragedy.”
Therefore, among the many other facets and definitions of tragedy, one thing that tragedy can be about is the story of a person (or a group of people, for that matter), who, while right-thinking, acts wrongly. Such a person or group genuinely intends the best outcome, but ends up with the worst outcome.
Does this sound familiar?