- Historic Sites
“The Shah Always Falls”
A soldier-historian looks at how the world has changed in the past decade and finds that America is both hostage to history and likely to be saved by it
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
I don’t see China as an empire. It’s got some imperial possessions, but it’s not an empire in the European sense. I think the greatest threat to the Chinese is internal fissuring. There might be a period of warring states. There have been such periods throughout Chinese history. Whether we’ll see a division between the rich east coast and the poor interior, whether we will see a Chinese democracy or a renewal of dictatorship, perhaps of a grotesque and monstrous form, nobody knows. China is the great wild card for the twenty-first century. It’s important that we avoid the American arrogance of imagining we can have a decisive effect on a power like China. We’re not even going to have a decisive effect on Indonesia, but if we engage there, we can make a difference. With China, we’re playing on the margins. Patience is the one great virtue Americans lack. It’s true in our personal lives, it’s true in our consumer habits, and it’s certainly true in geostrategy.
We lack patience, but you believe Americans have virtues that increase our edge against possible competitors. What are they?
I believe that perhaps our greatest advantage is a tradition that grew up over centuries, that we inherited from England. This is our tradition of openness to new information, of respect for empirical data, and of resistance to theoretical constructs other than those generated within the scientific community. Theoretical constructs did fantastic damage to Europe in the twentieth century, and much of the rest of the world lives in a fantasy land. They do not have our ingrained, hard-learned ability to separate fact from fiction. We have our myths, but we’re not paralyzed by them, and we question them. There are many ways you can divide the world, but I think one of the more useful ways is between factualizing societies and mythologizing societies. Listen to our enemies’ rhetoric. They’re in love with their myths of themselves, both old myths and relatively recent ones, and they’re myths of self-justification.
“Today America operates on a wartime basis every single day in terms of our utilization of human capital. Rosie the Riveter is in the boardroom, she’s on campus, she’s flying jets off carriers.”
The other crucial American advantage is the fact that over the past 150 years American women have fought their way into the workplace and the educational system. This means that today America operates on a wartime basis every single day in terms of our utilization of human capital. Rosie the Riveter is in the boardroom, she’s on campus, she’s flying jets off carriers. The numbers aren’t hard to understand. This is grade-school math. Because of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, because of Susan B. Anthony—and the Pankhursts in England—the American economy is booming. Greenspan’s done a good job, but it was really the feminists who put us over the top.
Look at our tremendous openness to the utilization of human capital, the multiple revolutions that have occurred in our lifetimes and are still developing, the opening of our society to women, to minorities, to old people. Traditionally the role of old people in societies has been to consume resources, mind the kids, and die. Yes, they’re romanticized as imparting wisdom, but in fact they’re drooling in the soup. In America today they’re healthier and they’re active. My father-in-law is one of my heroes. A former marine, a Korean War vet, a workingman, he worked hard all his life, built a good life for himself and his family. His wife worked too. Now he’s formally retired, but he works with Habitat for Humanity, he drives a volunteer ambulance, and he still works part-time for his company when it needs him. He’s about 70 and still contributing. This is happening at a time when in Europe if you lose your job at age 50, you’re probably not going to get another one.
Of course we’re pretty much focused on the Islamic world now. What does history suggest about how things will play out there?
Having gone out and seen much of the world—more than 50 countries—I find it clear that some cultures are better structured than others for success in the postmodern world. I’m most pessimistic about the Arab heartlands of Islam. I think the Indonesians have a fighting chance. Persia may surprise us all and turn out to be the first modern market economy and democracy in that part of the world. The average Iranian desperately wants to re-embrace the West and America in particular. So I’m hopeful about Iran—Persian civilization is amazingly robust—and I’m hopeful about Turkey.
In countries where there’s a struggle going on for the soul and future of Islam, the jury’s still out. I’m actually increasingly optimistic. But I do believe the last couple of centuries demonstrate that cultures that oppress women, that don’t have freedom of information, that don’t value secular education, that have one dominant religion that infects the state and has power over the state, and whose basic unit of social organization is a clan, tribe, or extended family are just not going to compete with the West and especially with the United States. So I’m extremely pessimistic about the old Islamic heartland.