The human desire for change is so surprising. Consider cats: a single cat occupies the entire world as far as it is concerned, and it is perfectly comfortable spending its entire life in its owners’ house. Or take dolphins: having no food problems, they enjoy swimming and playing all day long their entire lives. Not so with people, both for good and for bad.

It is understandable the empire of Alexander the Great broke down on the day of his death as his heirs quarreled. But how odd is it that Pinochet’s rule or Soviet empire ended despite them being firmly in power? It takes a single wrong decision to break a tyranny. Pinochet succumbed to the Pope’s plea for democratic elections, and Gorbachev made fatal mistake of allowing withdrawals of hard cash from corporate bank accounts; neither regime ever recovered from their errors.

Modern states are temporary

Rigid regimes cannot last forever because states necessarily make many political decisions. Just as casino players go home broke not because of a small difference in chance, but because the longer they play, the greater their chance of suffering a bankrupting string of losses, so a state that makes many decisions will sooner or later make an unbearably wrong decision or an unbearable string of small errors. Developed societies with complex economies and complex foreign relations have to make many political choices, and in the end they invariably lose.

Good regimes suffer the same problem. The United States can safely adopt mistaken economic policies, go down a bit, and then recover. But foreign relations are unforgiving: once a giant steps on a slippery slope, everyone gathers to destroy him. In 1945, the US had a choice to remain the world’s only superpower or to become the leader of the developed world. It opted for the later, and subsidized the recoveries of Germany and Japan, which eventually became its major rivals. The lesson was not learned, though. The US actively traded with communist China, and so essentially financed China’s path to superpower status. Instead of supplying Western Europe with American oil and African uranium, the US allowed Russia to protract its superpower claim by oil and gas exports. Instead of forcing the Arabs to sell oil at low prices in return for American protection―a major issue for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia―the US bowed to the interests of its liberals and oil corporations, and allowed Arab sovereigns to jack up the price. This American procrastination resulted in a mammoth Muslim bloc in the UN. Instead of formally requiring allegiance in return for aid, the US supplied aid to African states unconditionally; as usual, the recipients came to hate their benefactor and acted in the UN against American interests.

It should have been easy to prevent nuclear proliferation. Closing US markets to Chinese imports would have brought China to its knees within a matter of months. Banning US investment and outsourcing in India would have pushed India to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Cutting off humanitarian aid to North Korea and blocking its air and sea traffic would have made even hardline communists close Yongbyon. Sealing the Persian Gulf to Iranian oil exports would have finished off the ayatollahs fairly quickly. Pakistan could be blackmailed into dismantling its nuclear facilities by the threat of military aid to India. A thoughtful, aggressive policy could have prevented the current situation, in which every radical regime strives for nuclear weapons capability.

But states make errors, and errors bring them down.