The Confidence Game

Confidence is a vital element of life, for nations and civilizations as much as for individuals. Confidence is the ingredient of hope. It allows you to project yourself into the future, to fulfill or even transcend your capabilities. It comes from within, but can be reinforced or weakened by the way others perceive you. But confidence, like blood pressure, must be balanced: the problem starts when you have too much or too little of it. Overconfidence tends to be as destabilizing as a lack of it.

Consider, for example, America in Iraq. The Bush administration’s overconfidence in the validity of its objectives – democratizing the Middle East – much more than implementation failures, was the key factor behind the unfolding catastrophe there.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

I recently debated one of the key thinkers behind the decision to “liberate” Iraq from Saddam Hussein. A prominent neo-conservative, he seemed to me something of a Bolshevik of democracy, owing to his unshakeable confidence in the validity of his vision.

According to him, the status quo in the Middle East was untenable and dangerous. Democracy in Iraq would not only bring peace in Jerusalem, but also a new, safer, and better equilibrium in the entire Arab world. Because the United States is the most powerful and wisest of nations, it has a unique role to play, and the world should rally behind it in courageously tackling this challenge.

In other words, even as late as the early summer of 2007, he was, like the Bush administration, in a state of denial. For him, things were going well in Iraq, and a new balance of forces was being established – one that would benefit Iraq’s Shia majority, but not necessarily Iran. The courage and audacity of the US government and its army was finally “paying off.” Daily violence should not be allowed to hide deeper strategic realities: victory was around the corner, and soon, the world – despite all the anti-Bush propaganda – would recognize it.

At such a level, overconfidence is generally the product of an excessive assessment of one’s capabilities and an insufficient appreciation of the capabilities of one’s adversary. Both are the product of an ideological reading of the world that bears little connection with reality. In invading Russia in 1941, Hitler, like Napoleon, demonstrated a military overconfidence that resulted in catastrophe. Saddam himself fatally overplayed his cards, convinced as he was that America would not dare to attack him.

At the same time, lack of confidence on the part of a country, a culture, or a civilization can be just as dangerous. The deep conviction that reform can only lead to revolution and chaos results in a stultification of reality that can lead to immobility and despair – and thus become a dangerous and self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, in Egypt, which is highly representative of the prevailing political situation in the Middle East, the status quo is the result of the regime’s absolute lack of confidence in its ability to open up and reform. This same lack of confidence is behind the potentially explosive situations in Algeria, Tunisia, and even Morocco. Because their legitimacy does not rest upon the support of their people, these non-democratic regimes consider the risk of opening themselves greater than the cost of maintaining the status quo.

Of course, confidence and self-doubt are not mutually exclusive. A country like Israel booms with economic confidence, but is full of self-doubt when it comes to strategic and political considerations.

Can the right amount of confidence be instilled in countries or groups that badly need it? And if overconfidence is so dangerous, can restraint and modesty be taught to those who do not have it?

Strangely, it may be easier to gain confidence than to restrain it. Confidence can come from three things: hope, pride, and progress. Success breeds confidence, and confidence brings progress. Today’s Chinese and Indians are now convinced that they are succeeding. They see in the West a mixture of respect for their achievements and apprehension for the challenge they now pose, and that fills them with pride.

Attempting to impose democracy on others is an act of unbounded arrogance. But democracy is also the best remedy against overconfidence, because it allows ordinary people to decide whether their leaders are behaving arrogantly or responsibly. Only the self-correcting mechanisms of truly democratic regimes can ensure the right balance.