I first encountered the healthy corrective of fatigue when I was a young writer for a television news service in London. I was chronically late. Every interview I did started with an apology. Every day when I showed up for work, I was late. My supervisor would look at me and at the clock and sigh.
One day, I decided that the price of being late was too high: If you have to start with an apology, you never get a decent interview and the long face of my supervisor was painfully reproving. I was tired of my self-imposed misery. I was fatigued with my own sloth. Since that time, I have been fairly punctual.
Fatigue, it seems to me, can be motivator in governance and foreign policy. Take the three great revolutions of our time: accommodation in Northern Ireland, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and the end of the Soviet Union. I submit that in all of these, fatigue played a critical if not seminal role.
I have been in and out of South Africa all of my life. Sure sanctions and international pressure played a role in bringing about change. But there was something else at work: fatigue. The people of South Africa were very tired of their own creation. Driving across South Africa in the 1970s with an African relief driver, I ran into what used to be called “petty apartheid”: segregated places to eat. As a result, we took out food and ate it in the car. But at two roadside eateries (they were few and far between), the owners apologized to me for the offensive law. The weight of the injustice was getting to them.
That was the first time I saw a sufficient glimmer of hope that peaceful change would come, as it did.
In Northern Ireland it appeared that the sectarian violence, which emerged in 1963, would go on forever. Catholics and Protestants were killing each other in barbarous ways and terrorism was spreading into Britain. Over the 15 years I participated in a think tank in Ireland, I heard endless speeches from both sides about the hopelessness of the situation in which the Irish Republican Army, the right-wing Protestant “hard men” and the British Army fought a triangular terrorist war.
On a summer’s morning in 1982, there were two terrorist attacks in the center of London. A car bomb was detonated as 16 members of the Queen’s Household Cavalry trotted along a Hyde Park’s South Carriage Drive; and less than two miles away, in Regent’s Park, a military bandstand was blown up. Toll for the day: 10 soldiers killed, 55 injured. The I.R.A. claimed responsibility for the strikes. All of Britain was on a terrorist footing, but that did not stop an attack on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brighton, England two years later.
By the 1990s, you could sense a change in Ireland: People were tired of the killing and living in fear. Without that fatigue, that revolution, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and power-sharing, would not have happened.
Likewise by the late 1980s, the Soviet Union–the edifice of communism with its incompetence, its privations and its paranoia–had lost the loyalty of the people and the terror apparatus of the state was failing. Russians were tired of it and Poland was in near revolt. Mikhail Gorbachov loosened the reins and things hurtled forward.
Alas fatigue is not a policy, not even a strategy. It is just a reality; a factor in protracted disputes, oppressive governance and pervasive injustice.
When, then, will fatigue set in between combatants in the Middle East, the oppressed of North Korea or the misgoverned of Africa? According to my theory of fatigue, these things are overdue. But it is easier to fix your own timekeeping than history’s.