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Sir Issac was writing from the viewpoint of a physicist. But the metaphysical philosophers were quick to apply the rules of the natural world to the philosophical and political realm, especially Newton’s contemporary John Locke who coined the phrase “unintended consequences.”

The ethics of consequentialism go back to 5th Century BC Chinese philosopher Mo Di. In the West, they were later picked up 100 years later by the Athenian Demosthenes. Basically, they argued that the consequences of one’s actions are the ultimate basis for political action and that the action should be based on the amount of good created by the consequence of that action.

Another way of putting it is that our political leaders have a responsibility to carefully examine every conceivable intended and unintended consequence of their thoughts, words and deeds before opening their mouths, despatching a tweet or issuing a military command.

Unfortunately, there is scant evidence to indicate that most of today’s politicians are bothering to even consider the consequences of their actions beyond the publication of the next opinion poll, although sometimes their time horizon extends to the next election.

The two current best examples of consequential failure can be found in the Anglo-Saxon world on either side of the Atlantic. President Donald Trump is notorious for dashing off explosive tweets without giving a moment’s thoughts to the consequences. This week he has told the world that America is “locked and loaded” and that war against Iran is an option following the drone attack on Saudi oilfields. What are the possible consequences of such words or — if followed through—actions?

On the minus side, a war with Iran would make the Afghanistan or Gulf War look like a walk in the park. There would be a probable retaliatory attack on Israel; total disruption of world oil supplies; possible Russian intervention on the side of Iran; a split with America’s allies in Europe and the possible break-up of NATO which would strengthen Russia’s position in Eastern Europe.

On the plus side, Trump will have shown that he is tough; that America’s Middle East allies can count on the US to come to their defence; an anti-American Jihadist-motivated Iran will, hopefully, be eliminated from the Middle East equation. The embarrassment of the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis will finally be expunged. America, if it wins, will emerge as the supreme power in the Middle East able to dictate terms in the Arab-Israeli conflict and control the flow of oil.

It is now clear from David Cameron’s memoirs that he failed to think through the consequences of calling a referendum on continued British membership of the EU. He simply assumed that the vote would be remain. Assumptions are one of the most dangerous of political actions. Cameron failed to take into account the divisive nature of the debate and as a result his legacy and his country has been badly damaged.

The Leave campaign lied and cheated without any regard to the facts and certainly without any plan beyond winning the referendum campaign. It is now clear that the Brexiteers never had a clear workable plan for a negotiated withdraw from the European Union. No deal is the result of no plan.

The world is, of course, quite a bit different from the days of the Zhou Dynasty or the Athens of Demosthenes.  Both regimes existed at a time when communications moved at the speed of a slow horse. Information was communicated orally from a podium and extended as far as the speaker could be heard. The population of Athens was 300,000 but only 30,000 citizens could vote, and in China the politicians had only to worry about a handful of courtiers.

Today’s 24/7 interconnected world has multiplied the competing voices and ideas and the consequences of pursuing an ill-considered political path. Success in politics requires the ability to excel at three-dimension al chess on a constantly shifting board sitting atop a camel racing through a minefield during an Arabian sandstorm. The result is that the choices are not so much between good and evil, but between bad and worse. Which makes it more important that all options—plans A through Z—are carefully considered.   

Tom Arms is a regular contributor to US radio and newspapers. He is currently completing his book “America: Made in Britain.”


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