Bridging Centuries: Fin de Siecle All Over Again

Bridging Centuries: Fin de Siecle All Over Again

Mini Teaser: While one might wish that the voters would show more interest in such foreign policy issues as Bosnia, Iraq, or Korea, and object to the tendency to reduce all foreign policy to trade policy, it has to be conceded that there is a certain short-ran

by Author(s): Paul Wolfowitz

"The scale on which events have shaped themselves [since 1895] has dwarfed the episodes of the Victorian Era. Its small wars between great nations, its earnest disputes about superficial issues, the high, keen intellectualism of its personages, the sober, frugal, narrow limitations of their action, belong to a vanished period. The smooth river with its eddies and ripples along which we then sailed, seems inconceivably remote from the cataract down which we have been hurled and the rapids in whose turbulence we are now struggling." --Winston Churchill, describing the passage from the last century, from the vantage point of 1938.

At the second debate of the 1996 presidential campaign in San Diego, the questions to the candidates came from the audience, a scientifically selected sample of undecided voters. Well into the debate, only one rather peripheral question had been asked about foreign policy, which led the frustrated moderator, Jim Lehrer, to plead for more on the subject. The questioner he then called on dutifully asked about U.S.-Japan trade policy differences. That was the end of any discussion on foreign policy in that debate, or, for that matter, in the campaign itself.

While one might wish that the voters would show more interest in such foreign policy issues as Bosnia, Iraq, or Korea, and object to the tendency to reduce all foreign policy to trade policy, it has to be conceded that there is a certain short-range common sense in the electorate's indifference to issues of foreign policy. The world is a much safer place for the United States and for American interests than it was during the Cold War. And despite the fact that the conduct of foreign policy in Clinton's first term was at best mediocre, the threats to American interests remain relatively small and remote. President Clinton's success in the 1996 election reflects a general public satisfaction with the status quo, abroad as well as at home. The United States is at peace, and to most Americans threats to that peace seem distant, if not rather contrived.

One of the major priorities of the second Clinton administration must be to persuade the American people that complacency is not justified, that foreign policy is still important and that the stakes are very high. This would present a serious challenge for any administration at a time when an understandable sense of relaxation still prevails after the successful end of a protracted and bitter struggle, and when no obvious enemy confronts us. One way of meeting that challenge, one that is particularly appropriate amid all the talk about building bridges to the next century, would be to invite Americans to think about where we stand at the end of this century in comparison to where the world was--and, crucially, where it thought it was--at the end of the last.

End-of-Century Optimism

Perhaps the single most important phenomenon of our time is the spectacular economic growth in many previously poor countries--particularly in East Asia but echoed also in other parts of the world--on a scale and at a pace that is probably without historical precedent. The increasingly widespread acceptance of market economic principles, the revolution in information technology, and the advances in productivity made possible by specialization on a global scale have produced unprecedented productivity gains in many of the world's economies, in some cases exceeding 5 percent per year on a sustained basis.

This extraordinary wealth creation is not only lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty and creating vast new opportunities for global trade; it has also led to the emergence of a large middle class in a number of countries that hitherto had almost none. That, in turn, is at least partly responsible for another remarkable phenomenon of our time--the triumph of democracy in country after country, including some that had no previous history of democratic rule. President Clinton was not guilty of exaggeration when he said in his Second Inaugural Address: "It is our great good fortune that time and chance have put us not only on the edge of a new century . . . but on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs."

The dawn of the twentieth century was, similarly, a period of exceptionally rapid economic growth. Even Charles Eliot Norton, the Harvard professor who bemoaned the vulgarization of culture brought on by democracy, acknowledged in 1896 that, "There are far more human beings materially well off today than ever before in the history of the world. . . . How interesting our times have been and still are!"

Per capita output growth in the United States, and in most of the countries of Europe (with the important exception of England), was 50 to 100 percent higher in the years 1870-1913 than during the preceding half century, which had been itself a period of accelerated economic growth. Prior to the Civil War, labor productivity in the United States grew at an average annual rate of 0.5 percent (a rate comparable to that of England in the first fifty years of the Industrial Revolution), but in the period 1870 to 1913 productivity growth in the United States quadrupled to an average rate of 2 percent.
Although we have become accustomed to faster productivity growth in some of today's more rapidly growing economies, at the turn of the last century 2 percent annual growth was unprecedented, generating a new sense of economic possibilities. In the words of some later economists: "The sustained and significant increases in productivity of industrialized countries beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century were one of the most momentous developments in modern history."

The optimism at the end of each century has also reflected the experience of remarkable technological progress and the belief in its continuation. At the turn of the last century some of the most important innovations of the Industrial Revolution--the automobile, the airplane, radios, and telephones--were just making their appearance. As Edmond Taylor observed, "The quickening pace of scientific and technological discovery, especially around the turn of the century, contributed to the prevailing euphoria." Today there is a comparable excitement about the growing possibilities of the Information Revolution.

It is not only economic and technological optimism that have marked the ends of both centuries, but optimism about the prospects for peace as well. If anything, the experience of peace--or at least peace among the major powers--was longer and deeper at the end of the last century than it is in our time. There had been no wars between the major powers for nearly thirty years, there had been nothing comparable to the four decades of the Cold War, and it had been nearly a century--marked by the end of the Napoleonic Wars--since the world had experienced war on a global or continental scale.

Indeed, the worst experience of warfare in the last eighty-five years of the previous century was our own American Civil War. But at the turn of the century even that bloody tragedy was a fading memory, vastly different from the more recent experience of the Spanish-American War, by which, in a "fit of absentmindedness" through a war lasting less than three months, the United States acquired a Pacific empire. Commodore George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in a morning, at the cost of only seven American seamen wounded. "Never had the country felt such a thrill of pride", writes Barbara Tuchman. "greatest naval engagement of modern times" boasted one headline. The general euphoria calls to mind the popular reaction to the victory in the Persian Gulf almost one hundred years later.

The optimism of both periods extended also to writings about the future of warfare, writings that reflected a hopeful expectation that economic and social changes were rendering war obsolete. In our time, that hope has been reflected in the popular reaction to such books as Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man or John Mueller's Retreat from Doomsday. At the end of the nineteenth century, Ivan Bloch wrote a six-volume study of warfare, The Future of War, which argued that the development of technology and tactics had given such an advantage to the defense that decisive victories were no longer feasible and, hence, war between the major powers had become impossible "except at the price of suicide." Bloch gained an audience with the young Russian Czar Nicholas II, and his argument was echoed in the call issued by the Russians on August 29, 1898 for a conference on the limitation of armaments that eventually convened in The Hague the following year.

Later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Norman Angell's book The Great Illusion became so popular that it went from an obscure printing, paid for by the author, to a worldwide bestseller that sold more than a million copies. The "illusion" of the title was the belief that nations could profit from war. To the contrary, Angell sought to demonstrate that:

"A nation's political and economic frontiers do not now necessarily coincide; that military power is socially and economically futile, and can have no relation to the prosperity of the people exercising it; that it is impossible for one nation to seize by force the wealth or trade of another; . . . that, in short, war, even when victorious, can no longer achieve those aims for which peoples strive."

This conclusion, he argued, was reinforced by the developments of the preceding forty years, which had "set up a financial interdependence of the capitals of the world, so complex [that it makes] New York dependent on London, London upon Paris, Paris upon Berlin, to a greater degree than has ever yet been the case in history." Consequently, were some hypothetical German general to attempt to make the Bank of England a prize of war, "there is no considerable institution in Germany that would escape grave damage" and "the influence of the whole finance of Germany would be brought to bear on the German Government to put an end to a situation ruinous to German trade."

Just two years after Angell's book first appeared, the Balkan War of 1912 seemed to disprove his theories. To one critic who said that Angell's theory was "one to enable the citizens of this country to sleep quietly, and to lull into false security the citizens of all great countries", he responded: "War is not impossible, and no responsible Pacifist ever said it was; it is not the likelihood of war which is the illusion, but its benefits", and indeed Angell repeatedly stated that although war would be futile and absurd, countries could be foolish enough to get into one. However, as Mueller suggests, one could conclude from his argument that the recognition of economic calamity would keep wars from becoming large or long-lasting. One of Angell's followers, President David Starr Jordan of Stanford University, argued in 1913 that "the Great War of Europe, ever threatening, . . . will never come. . . . The bankers will not find the money for such a fight, the industries will not maintain it, the statesmen cannot. . . . There will be no general war." Ironically, Angell received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1933, well after the Great War and in the year the Nazis came to power in Germany.

The Rise of New Powers

The end of this century resembles the end of the last one in another important way, one that puts a question mark over the great hopes for continued peace and prosperity as we enter the twenty-first century.

Alongside the remarkable and peaceful progress that was taking place at the end of the last century, the world was grappling with--or, more accurately, failing to manage--the emergence of major new powers. Not only was Japan newly powerful in Asia, but Germany, which had not even existed before the end of the nineteenth century, was becoming a dominant force in Europe.

Today, the same spectacular economic growth that is reducing poverty, expanding trade, and creating new middle classes is also creating new economic powers and possibly new military ones as well. This is particularly true in Asia.

Small countries in Asia, such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam, are small only by Asian standards. With populations in the range of 60 to 80 million, they are comparable in size to the Great Powers of Europe. If they were to continue to grow at rates 4 to 6 percent faster than the big European countries, they would overtake them economically in the next two to four decades. Although such disparities in growth rates probably cannot be sustained as they approach European levels of productivity, the effects of their growing economic power will be felt long before they reach equality.

Those, of course, are among the smaller Asian countries. In China there are three provinces that are each larger than unified Germany. India is a country of 900 million people and a GDP of more than a trillion dollars, growing at better than 5 percent per year. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. A unified Korea, which may be on the horizon, would be the size of a major European power, and even without unification South Korea alone is in the process of becoming one of the world's larger economies.

The emergence of China by itself would present sizable problems; the emergence of China along with a number of other Asian powers presents an extremely complicated equation. In the case of China, there is the ominous element of its outsider status. To hark back to the last turning of a century, the obvious and disturbing analogy is the position of Germany, a country that felt it had been denied its "place in the sun", that believed it had been mistreated by the other powers, and that was determined to achieve its rightful place by nationalistic assertiveness.

There are enormous differences, of course, between late nineteenth-century Germany and late twentieth-century China. China is an old country, recovering its strength, with a much longer history of involvement in the world. Some argue that the history of China's relatively non-aggressive behavior when it was one of the world's dominant powers (during the Sung and Ming dynasties) gives ground for optimism that a newly powerful China will use its strength with moderation.

But not all the differences are reassuring. China's real sense of grievance at mistreatment by the European powers in the last century and by Japan in this one has a much deeper foundation than Germany's. And in one other respect the similarities to nineteenth-century Germany should give us pause: China is going through a transition from two decades of extremely skillful management of its international relationships to a new leadership of uncertain quality. It was just such a transition from the statesmanship of Bismarck to the incompetence of his successors that is considered to be a principal factor leading to the tragedy of the First World War.

The Tragedy of the Twentieth Century

Of course, the twentieth century did not unfold as it appeared to promise. By its midpoint it was already the bloodiest century in history, and a very large fraction of that bloodshed can be attributed ultimately to the failure to deal with the emergence of the new powers of Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia. The first failure led directly to the First World War, which was by itself an historic disaster of previously unsurpassed proportions. The Great War, in turn, planted the seeds of Nazism in Germany and Bolshevism in Russia. The first led directly to the Second World War and the Holocaust; the second led to the crimes of Lenin and Stalin and Pol Pot, and to four decades of Cold War.

Moreover, the failure to deal effectively with the emerging Japanese power not only produced the extension of the Second World War into the Pacific, but was directly or indirectly responsible for half a century of horrors in China, some inflicted by the Japanese themselves, some by the communist regime, whose path to power was opened by the chaos following Japanese intervention.

The combined effect of all of these events was the violent death of tens of millions of people--more than we are able to count. The twentieth century closes on a remarkably peaceful note, but it was the bloodiest century so far in human history. Many Europeans would agree with the view that Boris Pasternak expresses through the voice of the character Lara in Doctor Zhivago:

"I believe now that the war is to blame for everything, for all the misfortunes that followed and that hound our generation to this day. . . . I can still remember a time when we all accepted the peaceful outlook of the last century. It was taken for granted that you listened to reason. . . . For a man to die by the hand of another was a rare, an exceptional event, something quite out of the ordinary. And then there was the jump from this peaceful, naive moderation to blood and tears, to mass insanity, and to the savagery of daily, hourly, legalized, rewarded slaughter. . . . This social evil became an epidemic. It was catching. And it affected everything, nothing was left untouched by it."

With a peculiarly American approach to history, President Clinton spoke in his Second Inaugural about how "The promise of America . . . exploded onto the world stage to make this the American century. What a century it has been!" In current American slang, "to be history" is the opposite of "to be happening." Events that have been consigned to history, in this country, generally have no political effect whatsoever. This short attention span of ours is a blessing in many respects. Our excellent relations with postwar Germany and Japan are examples. But it leaves us unprepared to deal even with those future events that are already casting long shadows.

The top priority of those now responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy must be to explain why it is important to take seriously the problems discernible on the horizon. The American public understands the importance of the budget deficit and can surely understand the importance to our children and grandchildren of using our current position of unprecedented strength and influence--not single-handedly, but within the framework of our impressive and equally unprecedented set of alliances--to affect the shape of the world. If the next century takes the place of this one as the bloodiest in history, humanity may not survive it. But if peace can be preserved, the prospects are truly wondrous. The United States cannot afford to neglect the world simply because today's problems do not seem to have an immediate effect on us.

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