Power Steering

Power Steering

Mini Teaser: Two optimistic portrayals of the international future--by political scientists Joseph Nye and Michael Mandelbaum--go under a historian's scalpel.

by Author(s): Walter A. McDougall

Even if one grants Mandelbaum's triumphalist claims for peace, democracy and free markets, however, his historical account obscures our present reality. He claims, for instance, that Wilson's dream was to check the exercise of governmental power, as if he were a good Madisonian. In fact, Wilson lusted after the power to impose his will, first on the Germans, then on the Allied imperialists, and finally on the United States Senate, brooking no opposition or compromise to his ideological purity. Wilson died lamenting, "Would to God I had had such power!"

More dubious still is the author's suggestion that Wilson's program of disarmament, democracy and a League of Nations would have forestalled World War II if only the major states, led by the United States, had adopted it. Not so. To begin with, they did adopt it, to a surprising degree, by the mid-1920s, led by Republican internationalists such as Charles Evans Hughes and Herbert Hoover. It was the Great Depression, not Versailles, that wrecked democracy in Germany and Japan and enervated the Western powers. The League of Nations would likely have been even more ineffective had the United States been a member (Hoover was a pacifist, Franklin Roosevelt an isolationist), while the only plausible barrier to the fascist challenge was the French army. When the "Wilsonian triad" really did triumph in Western Europe and Japan, it was thanks not to the power of its ideas but to the utterly devastating, indeed ruthless, force brought to bear on the enemies of those ideas. Curtis Le May's bombers, not Wilson's Fourteen Points or fdr's Four Freedoms, cured the Germans and Japanese of militarism once and for all.

The Cold War is a subtler case to which Mandelbaum devotes a whole chapter. But his one (albeit awkward) sentence about mass protests in Eastern Europe and Moscow gets at the truth: "Those moments were decisive for the fate of Communism but what decided its fate was not the irresistible power of the crowds: It was the decision of the Communist authorities not to fire on them." But why did the Soviet leadership lose faith in its own ideology? Not because Wilsonian truths melted their hearts. It was because free societies, to the stupefaction of Leninists, grew ever more musclebound under the pressure of Cold War while their own limbs grew more sclerotic. In short, the ideological power politics first of the Right and then of the Left were undone by the enormous and unexpected power of the liberal middle.

Why are liberal societies superior not only in the manufacture of Nye's "soft power", but of hard military and technological prowess as well? Mandelbaum's several and sometimes contradictory answers suggest he has not quite sorted that out. He begins by stating with confidence that "Great Britain and France invented the modern world" and that the "importance of the French and industrial revolutions can scarcely be overstated." The first bequeathed popular sovereignty, the second the market economy. But Mandelbaum overstates the importance of the French Revolution by ignoring the prior American invention of liberal republican government between 1776 and 1789, then by skirting over the French Revolution's decidedly illiberal drift into terror, totalitarianism and militarism. Some 400 pages later he does discover the roots of liberalism "in the Anglo-American world of the early modern era", only to revert at the end back to the "French and industrial revolutions" hypothesis. The history matters, for if one gets wrong the origins of the modern democratic state one cannot explain properly why liberalism has triumphed.

The wrong turn made by so many scholars trained as political scientists is to date the emergence of the system of sovereign states from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, brought about, as Mandelbaum has it, "by the triumph of the monarch over the nobility and clergy." This interpretation, first proposed by Marxists, depicts centralizing, state-building kings and their allies in the rising bourgeoisie sweeping away the "reactionary" medieval holdovers, thus clearing the historical decks for capitalism. The truth is that almost the reverse was the case. The year 1648 marked the triumph of the German nobility and Lutheran clergy over the centralizing Holy Roman Emperor. It also marked the triumph of the Dutch nobility and Calvinist clergy over the centralizing King of Spain. The 1640s and, later, 1688 marked the triumph of the English nobility and Anglican clergy over the centralizing Stuart monarchs. To be sure, France's Bourbon kings did repress feudal and ecclesiastical authorities, but they did so internally in the decades before 1648. Most telling is what happened over the 150 years after 1648. The so-called modern states forged by the so-called absolute monarchs proved far less able to mobilize financial and human resources than liberal Protestant states such as England, whose concepts of balanced government and natural rights were of medieval origin.

Why is such history important? Because while Mandelbaum is correct about the triumph of free market democracy, his insistence on including peace (or "de-bellicization") in his Wilsonian triad obscures the cause of the triumph, which is the ferocious power of liberal empires at war. The Athenian and Roman republics in their imperial heydays, the British Empire in its, and the United States most of all, have been bellicose beyond measure, visiting annihilation on those who threatened their peace, prosperity and liberty. And if popular sovereignty and the market economy reign supreme in our day it is because the American eagle, like the eagles born aloft by the legions of Caesar, surveys the globe, arrows gripped in its talons, daring anyone to interfere with its pursuit of happiness.

Like Nye, Mandelbaum talks of paradox. He notes that the lower the costs of leadership, the less eager seem the American people to pay them, while the same features that make the liberal agenda attractive also inhibit America's ability to sustain the institutions that embody those features. But the paradoxes dissolve once one admits that our Wilsonian world was forged and sustained largely by wars, however reluctant Wilson, fdr and Truman were to wage them. From the Whig ascendancy after 1688 to 2002, Anglo-Americans have known that freedom is power, which is why they have so often used power to spread freedom. That Mandelbaum, the once-realist author of The Fate of Nations, so much underplays the role of power in advancing ideas and norms is striking. Surely he realizes that if peace, democracy and free markets prevail over much of the world it is because the United States reserves the right to suspend those very norms when necessity dictates-and necessity has not been a stranger. Nobody wants to admit it-not Americans who have better things to do than fight perpetual wars for perpetual peace, and certainly not Europeans, who know that every government's clout at the peace table is proportional to its effort at war-but an American empire exists. Call it an empire of liberty, a benevolent hegemony or Pax Americana, but there it is.

Whether the Wilsonian triad has indeed won, to the extent that Mandelbaum claims, remains dubious. His rich middle chapters describe how the very triumph of liberal ideas at the end of the Cold War fertilized seeds of discord from one end of Asia to the other. Russia's conversion to Western norms is, at best, dubious. East Asia, where China, Japan, Russia and American power hover cheek-by-jowl over Korean and Taiwanese flashpoints, is "the most dangerous place on the planet." In South Asia, the Hindu-Muslim clash of civilizations is now nuclear. In the Middle East, aptly termed by Mandelbaum a "dragons' lair", serpents of terror seek weapons of mass destruction while Westerners covet the oily hoard.

As potential catastrophes pile up on the pages one begins to suspect that liberal world order is far from secure. Mandelbaum reassures us by affirming the propositions underpinning the liberal theory of history: democracies do not fight other democracies; free markets beget democracy; all peoples crave the prosperity free markets offer. And nowhere, Mandelbaum thinks, has more thrilling proof of the theory emerged than in the European Union, which he hopes is "a foretaste of the way the world of the twenty-first century will be organized." He even endorses world government, holding a world of liberal sovereign states to be the "second best solution."

Here we can see where Mandelbaum's original assumptions about the French Revolution have led him astray. For the Europe he so admires today is a continent in thrall to Napoleonic bureaucracies regulating citizens' every act and word, a continent that complains justifiably of a "democracy gap", a continent so de-bellicized it must rely on shoot-from-the-hip Yankees to keep the liberal theory of history credible. Add to that Europe's cultural demoralization, demographic decay, growing xenophobia and economic stagnation; can one really go to Europe today and say, "I have seen the future-and it works"? Evidently, Mandelbaum not only says yes, but he credits the French and Industrial revolutions with inventing the very concept of happiness, as if St. Francis of Assisi despaired beneath his "brother sun and sister moon." Then he concludes with what must be the greatest understatement in print today: "And in the wake of the Cold War, although not every one of the six billion human inhabitants of the planet was happy, there was, for the first time in the modern era, a rough consensus on the political, economic and international conditions best suited for them to be happy."

Essay Types: Book Review