The International Century
How will the twenty-first Century be defined? History tells us that it will not be defined by the way it began. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was an isolationist country. World events and the American economy forced the United States to abandon its isolationism. Throughout the twentieth century, America expanded its influence into the greatest empire in the history of the world, initially through force but increasingly through persuasion. Admired or envied, America was the undisputed champion of the world. Looking back on "the American Century," one has to appreciate that American capitalism, democracy, and diplomacy had almost infinite abilities to evolve, to promote change, and to overcome dissent. George W. Bush does not have much faith in capitalism, democracy, or diplomacy. His faith is in God and force.
If Bush were a thoughtful man, his intuition might have told him that Tony Blair's subordination to America holds an historical lesson. It was the British Empire that dominated the world at the start of the twentieth century. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were members of the British Commonwealth. Great Britain controlled much of the Middle East and shared control of most of Africa with France and Germany. Great Britain controlled the oilfields in what is now southern Iraq. A British Viceroy led India. I assumed that it was satire last week when I read that Stephen Forbes was recommending Newt Gingrich to be Viceroy of Iraq. I have always thought of Newt as being the "white man's burden" rather than bearing that burden. Bush, the man who does not believe that government can do anything positive for the American working class, clearly believes he can do in the Middle East what Great Britain already proved the West could not. Then again, Great Britain was the civil West and Bush's faith is in the Wild West.
Unknown to the British at the start of the twentieth century were not only the oncoming wave of independence movements but also an international competition for control of natural resources and markets. British influence would wane during and after two world wars. The countries of Europe would fight for control and influence over the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East. Millions would die. After the first war, the victors looked at the vanquished, divided up their territory and demanded reparations. The aftermath was so successful that a second war soon followed. The spoils of war today are divided up before the first missile is fired. For example, Halliburton may not get the largest contract for the rebuilding of the Iraqi infrastucture, but it already holds the contract to extinguish Iraqi oil fires. The United Nations Security Council appears more upset with the undemocratic distribution of the spoils of war than they are with his invasion. Corporate contracts are paramount, occupation or not.
How many Americans are aghast that during the presidential campaign Bush attacked the Clinton administration for "nation building"? Now Bush is about to move Bechtel Corporation from Boston's "big dig" to Baghdad's "big redo." Bechtel did such a great job in Boston under Republican leadership that the cost overruns total billions of dollars. Most presidents tell the public during a campaign what they want to hear about the potential for war. Woodrow Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the promise that he would keep the United States out of the war. Soon after his inauguration in 1917, the United States was sending troops to Europe. Wilson's campaign would not be the last presidential campaign that promoted the rhetoric of peace only to turn quickly into a policy of war. Wilson's call to arms was not well received. In response, Congress enacted the Selective Service Act. At the urging of the president Congress also enacted the Espionage Act in June 1917. The law's intent was to suppress anti-war rhetoric and opposition to the draft and the war. Today, we have the Patriot Act. If Americans love war why do presidential candidates always promise peace during campaigns? Can anyone imagine Bush campaigning in 2000 on a promise to start a war?
At the end of World War I, the Allied Powers met in Paris to redraw the map of Europe under the Treaty of Versailles (this was also the time that Palestine became a British Mandate). The Wilson administration supported the treaty and the formation of the League of Nations. The United States Senate refused to ratify this treaty with Republicans rejecting its internationalism. Today, most Americans do not know that the United States never joined the League of Nations and Bush wishes we never joined the United Nations.
The allied nations demanded that Germany pay them reparations for war damages. The German psyche, scarred by war, was further damaged by the terms of the peace so onerous that they would lead to more war. With the value of the mark in a free fall and German resentment of the world increasing, Adolf Hitler became the first chairman of the National Socialist Workers' Party (that is, the Nazi Party). Hitler's ugly violence and rhetoric led to his being sent to prison where he would write Mein Kampf. The world, and most Germans, ignored Hitler's plan to play to German nationalism, take back what Germany had lost at Versailles, and ignite another world war. Hitler and the Nazis relied on nationalism, bullying, and scapegoating of minorities to build domestic support. In a field of many candidates and many political parties, the Nazis won electoral victory. The unlikely rise to power of a right-wing extremist was later entrenched by the Reichstag, the German parliament, when it enacted special laws abdicating its own power and making Hitler a dictator. The real horror began. Religious and ethnic minorities, mostly Jews, were imprisoned in concentration camps and later executed. Intellectuals fled into exile. Dissent was squashed. In that vacuum the German people supported Hitler in a war that would kill tens of millions.
There is no moral equivalence between Bush and Hitler. To suggest such an equivalence is to dismiss the true nature of the evil of Hitler and the Nazis. But there is a history lesson to be learned about what gives rise to right wing extremists and how those extremists maintain power. The American psyche was scarred by terrorist attacks of September 11 and by both the media's and our government's response to those acts. Americans saw themselves as victims. Despite worldwide international support for our country, our media and government fanned the flames of nationalism. Minorities were scapegoated. Congress accepted curbs on civil liberties and abdicated war powers to an administration that came to power without a plurality of the popular vote, never mind public support of its political agenda. In turn, we have seen dissent attacked. We have seen war started in the name of protecting peace. In that vacuum, the American people support Bush and support war. They have acquiesced to right-wing extremism. We should have known better, especially Ralph Nader, who famously quipped that there was no difference between George Bush and Al Gore.
History teaches us that this will not be "The American Century." My hope is that the twenty-first century will be "The International Century" and that throughout it, persuasion will speak louder than force.