All in Favor of the Long View, Say Nyet

Are Saddam Hussein and Company Merely Blips in an Inevitable Trend Toward Democratic Liberalism?

By Joseph Dorman

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century

By Michael Mandelbaum

Public Affairs, 512 pages, $30.

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It’s been almost 12 years since the first President George Bush, flush with triumph in the Cold War and victory over Iraq, declared a burgeoning New World Order with the United States at its head. Since then the world has seemed anything but orderly. We’ve witnessed near-anarchy in Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda and brutal ongoing war between Russia and the Chechens. Our own sense of strength and impregnability was shattered with the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, setting in motion a far more amorphous battle against terrorism. We are now on the brink of another war with Iraq, even as the North Koreans taunt us with the creation of a nuclear arsenal. The declaration of a new world order would seem, on the face of it, absurd.

Yet, in his new book, “The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century,” Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins and Newsday columnist, persuasively argues that a new order is indeed triumphing across the globe. Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il are not harbingers of a fundamental clash of civilizations but merely part of a desperate effort to derail the wheels of history — proof, according to Mandelbaum, that the liberal democratic West has already won the battle for the future.

For Mandelbaum it is the long run that counts. He sketches a map of the world based on what the French historian Ferdinand Braudel called the “longue duree,” a view that takes into account the larger historical forces that act upon us over the course of centuries. From this lofty perspective, he builds a case for the inevitable trend toward democratic liberalism that he believes is emerging from the confusion and violence of the present.

In large part Mandelbaum’s vision of the world is derived from Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic internationalism. Though Wilson’s attempt to foster a liberal democratic international order in the wake of World War I was largely discredited by Wilson’s own disastrous efforts, Mandelbaum believes Wilson’s vision itself was remarkably prescient. The terrible disruptions of the last century, the rise of illiberal forces in the form of fascism and communism and the large-scale terror they wrought, were not refutations of the idea of liberal progress so much as temporary, horrific obstacles on the road to a more peaceful, prosperous and largely democratic world.

Mandelbaum is at his best in simplifying and systematizing his theory, which boils down to three key liberal principles that have come to define the 21st-century West: democracy, the free market and the belief in peace. The first two, deriving respectively from the French and industrial revolutions, are obvious; the last and most recent, deriving from the 20th-century experience with war, is less so.

For centuries, Mandelbaum claims, war was both desirable — as a means of gaining wealth — and inevitable — because of the fluidity of national borders and the continual struggle for supremacy. Now for the first time, at least in the West, war has become neither desirable nor inevitable. Nation states have settled into recognized borders, thus eliminating the struggle for geography. At the same time, capitalism, which puts a premium on international trade, has made war a destroyer rather than a creator of wealth. The result has been the creation of a Wilsonian-inspired “common security order” dedicated to maintaining not just a temporary balance of power but a stable and peaceful co-existence among nations.

But how to account for the rest of the world, which seems neither democratic nor peaceful? Mandelbaum posits a post-Cold War “liberal hegemony” of ideas. If the non-Western world has not fully embraced democracy, with the defeat of communism it no longer has any serious ideological competitors. In this sense, Islamic fundamentalism is merely a rebellion against modernity not, as communism was, a competing alternative to the liberal democratic West.

Democracy’s growing ideological strength, Mandelbaum shows, can be measured in hard numbers: In the past 30 years, the number of democratic states has more than doubled to 91 from 44. Moreover, Mandelbaum roots this growth in a chain of necessity. Each of the three pillars of the liberal worldview is not simply linked to one another but is mutually self-reinforcing. Democracy and the free market necessarily promote each other’s values, he writes, and democratic capitalist states abhor war.

In this way, Mandelbaum hopes to answer those critics who would claim that he is at best a naive idealist and, at worst, an imperialist, attempting to foist America’s political and economic system on a deeply heterogeneous globe. After all, one might say, don’t capitalism and authoritarianism coexist successfully in Asian states such as Singapore, Malaysia and China?

For Mandelbaum, the democratic determinist, these countries simply represent history’s unfinished business. The ongoing creation of a property-owning middle class must inevitably catalyze these states’ transformation to liberal democracies because private property demands limitations to the power of the state, which in turn must lead to political rights. The logic seems unassailable, and yet it is unprovable. Meanwhile the world, as Mandelbaum knows, is far messier. Russia, for example, despite embracing democracy and the market has ended up with an economy deeply distorted by cronyism and oligarchy and an autocratic president whose dictatorial powers seem to grow each day. But Russia, for Mandelbaum, is also a state in transition and must succumb, in the end, to the larger forces of history.

In Mandelbaum’s eyes, political leaders across the globe must understand that those forces have inextricably changed the rules of 21st-century politics. The rush of China’s Communist Party rulers to embrace the market is an acknowledgement of the shifting rules of political legitimacy. If, in the past, legitimacy was based on the power to defend the state, political legitimacy today rests upon the ability to create wealth — witness recent reports that China’s new president, Hu Jintao, has begun his tenure with an appeal to the country’s peasant masses left behind by the country’s economic transformation. Hu and his Poliburo colleagues hope that the Communist Party can stay in power by harnessing the power of the market rather than resisting its inevitability. But the market is ultimately an uncontrollable tool, as Karl Marx himself wrote in “The Communist Manifesto” — an anarchic force that overturns “all habits and customs” and one that cannot coexist with the tight-fisted control China’s communists insist on exercising.

China, for the most part, has become a peaceful player on the world scene. The autocratic and economically stagnant Middle East, on the other hand, has provided the greatest challenge to the new world order and international peace over the past decade. Many of those in favor of war with Iraq both in and outside the Bush administration believe that the time is ripe to export democracy to Iraq, where it can prove a spur to the rest of the Arab Middle East. Whether this will work remains to be seen. It is one thing to support burgeoning democratic movements around the globe, quite another to install democracy at the barrel of a gun. Though democracies were created under military occupations with great success in postwar Japan and Germany and we may well be able to achieve similar results in Iraq, how long will it take and at what price? And, if it should succeed, the effect that such a democratic Iraq would have on the region is an even more tenuous issue.

Of course Mandelbaum’s intention is not to prescribe specific policies but to reveal the larger processes at work in history. For the most part, his book is convincing; a tonic read at a point when September 11 has done so much to shake our confidence. But in curing us of our shortsightedness, he necessarily gives short shrift to the many uncertainties that lie ahead. Africa, the continent least amenable to his heady optimism, gets little attention. Still deeply troubled, it remains riven by tribal conflict, corrupt dictatorship, widespread disease and hunger. For every Kenya or South Africa that has become more democratic there is a Rwandan holocaust or Congo nightmare. If Africa is inevitably moving toward peace, prosperity and political stability, it doesn’t seem likely to do so in our lifetimes.

The level of historical abstraction from which Mandelbaum writes necessarily glosses over the many critical problems that confront even a free and democratic world. He writes glowingly of the rise of globalization and the economic miracles being wrought by an expanding free market, but there is little mention of the wrenching pain and dislocation often caused by that same free market. He never alludes to the problems confronting even advanced democratic liberal states such as our own where we seem powerless to alter the growing disparity between rich and poor. Mandelbaum has given us an incisive primer on the future, one that convincingly sketches out the contours of a possible liberal democratic world to come. But history, along with God and the devil, is always in the details.

Joseph Dorman, an independent filmmaker best known for his 1998 documentary, “Arguing the World,” last appeared in these pages October 11, 2002, reviewing Kevin Mattson’s “Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970.”

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