Michael KreponPolitical Reflections from the Serengeti

Quote of the week:

“Everything has an end.” – Maasai saying

Animal herds help explain political behavior and the travails of arms control. For example, after nine days of observing and learning about herds in the Serengeti, I think I now understand Senator Lindsey Graham better. (Explanation to follow.) My wife and I visited Tanzania’s magnificent national parks for a life-affirming experience, not to better understand politics and arms control. But since I have a blog post to write, kindly allow me to make tenuous connections.

In elephant herds the Alpha female runs the show with a coterie of followers of varying sizes – until she is toppled by another female. The males are expelled from the herd when they reach about fourteen years of age. They stay within hailing distance of the matriarch and her followers for a time, eventually finding themselves sad and lonely figures in old age.

My favorite animal is the hippo, for reasons I cannot quite explain. Hippos keep cool by staying mostly submerged in their watering holes with only their backs on display. They appear as convex, massive stepping-stones between intervals when their nostrils break the surface for air. Clans of hippos are also very hierarchical. Male hippos that are dethroned, like female elephants, aren’t expelled, but fade to the periphery.

Hippos joust like politicians and talking heads in Washington, but with far more gusto. Two heavyweights will rise up, open their mouths, and press full-throated against each other. The hippo with the larger mouth has greater leverage and wins, or so it seems to my untrained eye.

Cape buffalo are clannish and nasty. The big males form a phalanx to protect their young when lions are loitering in the vicinity. You don’t want to mess with cape buffaloes, or for that matter, to be charged by an elephant or a hippo. It’s always best to avoid provocations. Peter Matthiessen, who wrote The Tree Where Man Was Born about East Africa and who was prone to risk-taking behavior wherever he traveled, offers two potentially saving possibilities when being charged by a cape buffalo: they suffer from poor eyesight and they are dim-witted, so after a while, they forget what prompted them to charge. But it’s still a good idea, he advises, to have a tree nearby for climbing to safety.

So, how does all this help explain Lindsey Graham’s behavior? Graham was all for the impeachment of Bill Clinton on flimsy grounds before he was unalterably opposed to the impeachment of Donald Trump for grave offenses. Graham was the sidekick of John McCain, the bane of Trump’s existence, before he became Trump’s staunch defender. MSNBC-ville’s easy answer for Graham’s starkly different colorations is political expediency. I now see another dynamic at work here.

Graham is a solitary male who is naturally drawn to Alpha males. He followed the lead of Speaker Newt Gingrich during Clinton’s impeachment before Gingrich was expelled from the Republican herd for hypocritical behavior and too aggressive political instincts. After becoming a Senator, Graham found his Alpha male in John McCain. Their views concerning muscular internationalism were closely aligned; Graham basked in and shared McCain’s spotlight. When McCain died, Graham switched Alpha male allegiance to Trump, the man who beat him soundly in the Republican primaries and became President.

It’s a good bet that Graham will outlast Trump on the political stage. Graham isn’t an Alpha male so, if past is prologue, he’ll become the next Republican President’s sidekick. After a checkered record of allegiances, Graham is likely to resemble the male elephants I saw in the bush, forlorn and lonely figures in their old age.

And what, if anything, does herd-like behavior have to do with arms control? Alpha Republican males negotiated major arms reductions. Alpha Republican males also opposed treaties. The negotiators grew old and lost primacy in the Republican Party after the Soviet Union dissolved.

Arms control successes were the result of creative domestic friction between squeezers and dealers, since success requires squeezing as well as knowing when to deal. The Republican herd is now bereft of negotiators; musclemen with loud voices have taken over a shrinking Republican herd. They point out what’s wrong with the deals struck by others but have no skills to make better deals.

Democrats in the House are led by a strong woman — the first matriarch, if you will, of American politics. Their herd of a presidential field is being culled without signs as yet that a strong leader will emerge. Some of the candidates are staking their claims on risky positions. If Democratic majorities emerge in both houses of Congress after the 2020 election, it’s unclear where arms control fits into a long to-do list.

Arms control is an old behavior for which muscle memory is fading. Success requires new impulse buttressed by new thinking. Herd behavior is easily denigrated, but it is conducive to safety. Enlarging the herd is a precondition for success. Enlargement requires protective mechanisms and avoiding unnecessary provocations.

Pardon my overreaching. My primary intent here is to plug eco-tourism in Tanzania, a country that prohibits visitors from bringing plastic bags in with them. Some of you already have stunning mental images of the Serengeti imprinted on your brains. You will find that these images pale in comparison to the real thing. There is more natural, animal and human beauty to be found here than the imagination can hold.

One example might eventually prompt you to act on your as yet unrealized inclinations: Imagine a collapsed volcano whose girth was so immense that its caldera encompasses 100 square miles, or an area thirty percent larger than Washington, DC. Inside this caldera are perhaps 25,000 animals. The Ngorogoro crater beckons.


  1. Paul Smith (History)

    Personally, I’d take the average hippo over the average Congressperson any day of the week; inactivity in hippos offers a wonderful photo opportunity, at least.

    Your characterization of the “squeezers and dealers” sparked a thought; During the Cold War it seems that it was likely that one of the numerous motives to arms control deals was to punish the Russians, deny them an arsenal to feel pride in or a sense of superiority. This could be done on our part with the sneaking belief that our technical superiority made a better arsenal even if smaller, or a single-mindedness to punish that it was worth cutting off our nose in the process. If this is the case it might explain our difficulty dealing with the smaller nuclear actors like North Korea, our desire to punish them lacks a mechanism since they have sacrificed so much to gain their arsenal: no economy to speak of, no international relations either, so they have nothing to trade away that we could match in kind and consider it fair.

  2. Phil Tanny (History)

    I was drawn in by your comment “Enlarging the herd is a precondition for success.”

    For the last month I’ve been following about 100 nuclear weapons posters on Twitter. Like any community online, there’s a lot of herd-like behavior and repetitive chanting of the group consensus etc, most of which I agree with, but…

    I’m troubled by the incessant Trump bashing, not because I’m a Trump supporter (more a Bernie Sanders type voter) but because incessant Trump bashing seems an obstacle to enlarging the herd. Disarmament advocates should instead be looking for ways to reach out to Trump voters, for the seemingly obvious reason that broad agreement across the political spectrum will be required if America is ever to disarm. Feeding the partisan political divide seems a recipe for disarmament failure.

    One strategy for “enlarging the disarmament herd” would be to ignore Trump to the greatest degree possible while developing and displaying some understanding that Trump voters have some generally reasonable concerns.

    I’ve been somewhat troubled to learn that many (all?) nuclear weapons activists seem to be prioritizing the building of a mutual validation society over the enlargement of the herd.

    Rant complete, as a fellow nature lover I celebrate your trip!

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      I’ve never been a talking points kind of guy.
      That makes me an old male elephant.
      Best wishes,

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