Barbarians at the Gate: Course Correcting for the Future

Containment (n)/: The act, process, or means of keeping something within limits. Miriam-Webster

The famous 1989 book detailing the hostile corporate takeover of RJR Nabisco, “Barbarian at the Gate,” by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, borrows its name from a classic old world euphemism. The story of corporate raiders was juxtaposed with the historic idea of old world raiders reminiscent of the Barbarian raiders of Western Europe’s past.

While we cannot know all what was occurring during Europes’ Dark Ages, we do know that significant contingents of raiders often issued from certain lands in the region on foraging expeditions. These expeditions often involved massive violence, theft, rape and debauchery. So much, was this the case that the term evolved and endured through the ages as a concept.

The greatest method, many In the old world could see to combat the scourge of the Barbarian raider was one of containment. Therefore many built impressive gates, moats and long-range weapons and develop a strategy of non-engagement to stop the Barbarians at the gate. You must imagine the sort of horrors a nation faced, if the Barbarians got beyond the gate. Mass carnage, theft and often the total destruction of their land, institutions and infrastructure. Barbarians employed a scorched earth policy, that left ruins in their wake. After all, we do get the word barbaric from these raiders. Hence, containment was the core response and maximum force should the Barbarians breach the gate.

As we speak of containment in recent times, it seems the strategy may be misapplied. Particularly, misunderstood by those who perhaps need to employ it most. Containment was a strategy of self defense, not offense entirely. Containing fiscal or international growth of non aggressing powers by obstruction or violence is not containment. It’s obstruction.

Containment in those times acknowledged the savagery of the advancing Barbarians and determined they needed to be kept at the gate and defeated by some other means than man-to-man combat. The Barbarians were not known for great intellect or emotional continence often employing the same tactics. Those who faced their periodic raids recognized their penchant for fury and savagery and determined to find an alternative strategy to contain them. The Barbarian wanted their adversaries to come down to fight them in the field where they had advantage.

Perhaps in this day and age of provocations, the best strategy is to manage and contain the Barbarians at the gate. Many nations have failed to manage their international relationships with greater diligence. Particularly with those who have a long history of invasions and violence, where mismanagement can have detrimental, long-ranging consequences. Managing adversarial actors is essential, particularly, acknowledging their lust for violence, hegemony and confrontation.

History offers us many examples of smaller less powerful nation being able to repel their Proverbial Barbarians at the Gate. They first had to understand the adversarial nature of the opponent. The Haitian Revolution is a glaring reminder that strategy and dedication can push the Barbarians from among you. The military and tactical superiority of former slaves was able to ouster the advancing French horde. It was only when later, believing the lie of compromise, that they let down that gate and saw certain demise up to present day.

Noted writer, Malcom Gladwell retells the story of the Moutain Climber, the Central Intelligence Agency’s finest agents who were outwitted on every side by Cuban agents. The true story demonstrates the reality of outwitting the most celebrated intelligence agency in the Western hemisphere. While the noted writer came to his own conclusions about the story, we can see that size, technology and length of time in power does not always guarantees victory. The Vietcong are yet another story of a smaller nation repelling their veritable Barbarians at the gate. And these stories can go on and on, but they beg the question of superiority of resources verses superiority of tact. And in the current age, more attention to the latter may be best.

However, we are not living in a Cold War scenario, nor the beginning of one. This is the end of an era and all of the requisite chaos that comes with it. When the Titanic was sinking, it took with it many who had escaped too late, as their lifeboats and rafts were pulled down by the undertow. Many were too busy making deals and negotiating options with a vessel that had already been mortally wounded and had taken on more water than could be expelled to save it. It’s understandable that many cannot understand the level of provocation and aggressions seen today. But many are unaware of the grassroots level decay in the underbelly of once powerful hegemons that are far more telling than bold speeches and strident legislation.

It may be that in what has been a highly provocative world, nations who are being aggressed, or where treaties are betrayed may find management and containment a better method. It may be necessary in these times where giant powers are sinking and empires are falling by fate, foe and friend, to find better methods. The “containment” we see today is too aggressive to be a defense strategy. Rather it is an obviously offensive maneuver evident in all of its stages to the world. This is effectively, NOT containment–its aggression that seeks open confrontation, because its time is running out.

The Barbarians of old were savage precisely because they were desperate. They had no alternatives, many did not have the skills or cognitive resource to ably grow and supply their own food or produce their own clothes. If they did not raid for winter, they died. The increasing chaos of a center that cannot hold will only devastate those who seek to maintain it.

The world in which we formerly lived must be acknowledged to be gone. Completely and entirely defunct, it must be laid to rest with the old ideas of international protocol for better prototypes. The old order is dead. It is dead.

Holding on to this past only makes many nations more vulnerable. The trade ally with which you once commanded robust trade has become an open enemy. The scaffold of thinly veiled contentions of the past have been snatched off. And the latent disagreements over land and territory are naked before the world.

For those willing to engage in sensible dialogue, mutual trade and other equitable treaties, the future may hold great promise. For those clever enough to contain or neutralize the Barbarian, manage their engagements selectively and acknowledge the signs of the times, there may be a glorious future in store. But for those who insist on maintaining the dying status quo and engage with the Barbarian directly, they may one day find themselves seated with that same Barbarian in the ruins of their once grand future.

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