(This piece won a prize in a History Book Club competition)
Niall Ferguson has reminded us, in his Virtual History, that history is essentially directionless. The notions of Progress and Manifest Destiny that have sustained us in the US are inherently fragile. And this first decade of the twenty-first century might give us extra cause to wonder whether the perceived movement to a more stable world, through the spreading of free trade and liberal democracy – Fukuyama’s End of History – is about to stall. Constitutional democracy is under attack from a violent ideology that we struggle to understand and counter. Disturbed by their memories of recent wars, the idealistic turn to an international body for initiatives to reduce terror without waging war. But the United Nations organization is shown to be stained with corruption and careerism, and is almost entirely powerless in removing dictators or preventing genocide. Moreover, the system of free enterprise that has been responsible for creating the wealth of the industrialized nations, acclaimed by such as Hayek as being the vital accompaniment and guarantor of individual liberty, comes under constant scrutiny. Socialist governments have come to power in South America, starting to nationalize critical industries, while the rise of cheaper manufacturing and service capabilities around the world poses a threat to the nations with advanced social welfare systems, many of whom struggle to liberate their economies while their unemployment rolls increase.
An echo of these conditions can be found within living memory of a few of us. In the 1930s, the Nazi machine, fulfilling Hitler’s distorted imaginings, was seen as a more dangerous ideological menace than Communist Russia. Well-intentioned Western politicians could not fathom the extent of evil and destruction implicit in Hitler’s agenda, and their democracies, mindful of WWI massacres, were too weak to resist the dictator. The League of Nations was the predecessor talking-shop, finally ridiculed as it stood by while Mussolini’s troops committed their slaughter in Abyssinia. Moreover, in an era of economic hardship, Edmund Wilson kick-started the decade by suggesting, in his Appeal to Progressives, that Americans would be willing “to put their idealism and their genius for organization behind a radical social experiment”, pointing out that the model of the Soviet Union should replace capitalism. With the iniquities of collectivism being conveniently obscured by fellow-travelers, the New Deal and imitative programs overseas heralded greater state involvement in the economy, but risked stifling the private enterprise that created wealth.
President Bush has recently elevated the threat of Islamic terrorism, revealing its architects’ plans for recreating a caliphate from Morocco to Pakistan, and equating it to the menacing isms of the nineteen-thirties. So the dilemmas he and other national leaders face are the same that confronted Roosevelt, Chamberlain and Daladier: Have we identified the real threat? How should we confront it? Should we appease? Can we entrust our security to international collaboration? How belligerent should we be? Can we afford a military build-up? Can we carry the country when we take the battle to the enemy, and how durable is our economic system?