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History’s Largest Lessons
A historian of the ancient world believes that in every era humankind has reacted to the demands of waging war in surprisingly similar ways, and that to protect our national interests today Americans must understand the choices soldiers and statesmen made hundreds and even thousands of years ago
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
I have no answer to that paradox, yet nobody could have predicted the success of the Chinese economy to date. National characteristics make a difference; they survive in all sorts of strange circumstances and may make China richer than any other society ruled by a similar regime. And the wealth necessary for China to be scarily strong is almost within its reach now. China will not need maximum economic efficiency to be a real problem.
What about the Islamic world?
I think imminent conflict with the United States has been oversold. History suggests that the prerequisite for a conflict with Islamic civilization is the political unification of at least a large portion of that civilization, and that is not very likely; it didn’t last very long even at the very beginning. The long Ottoman threat to Europe was a Turkish threat, not a pan-Islamic threat. Islamic states fight one another vigorously.
If you start with the Mohammedan period, in the seventh century, you notice that Islam broke apart pretty quickly. Islam suffered internal splits, akin to those in Christianity, and thus significant divisions remain. Islam contains many powerful ethnic groups. The Iraq-Iran War was an ethnic war as much as it was anything else. And many Muslims have found advantages in cooperating with the West.
So where does all this leave America?
In my view America represents something relatively new in the history of international relations. We are the greatest military power in the world today and we remain the greatest economic power. There haven’t been very many times in the past when there has been a single power with so much relative strength.
And we are still almost universally perceived to be what Bismarck called a satisfied power, happy with what we have, self-sufficient, not aiming to seize anything essential to others. We don’t represent the kind of menace that powers approaching our relative strength have in the past. So I think there is a new set of rules for us: If America tries to exert leadership in the world, it can do so in ways that are historically new.
But you have also argued that this very exceptionalism may have led us to believe that the rules of the state system have changed more than they really have, which makes isolationism tempting.
Yes, we remain in many respects an insular power, like Great Britain vis-à-vis Europe before the development of the aircraft and the submarine. We still unconsciously rely upon distance from others, and our combination of pre-eminence and contentment means that while we can exercise world leadership with significantly less threat to others, this is offset by the fact that we are all too likely to assume we need not exercise any power at all.
The main lesson I’ve learned from looking at history in general, and the history of the twentieth century in particular, is that the United States, with its tremendous interest in maintaining something like the status quo, must retain its position as a great power in the world, able to help direct the course of events, and not simply count on its current good fortune and retreat into a passive observer’s position. That’s the great thing we can learn from this century. One has to look at the specifics to determine the proper American reaction to any given situation, but if you dissipate your power, you’re not going to have anything to say about what happens.
So you find the increasing embrace of isolationism by both left and right one of the more disturbing features of American politics.
From Vietnam until quite recently it seemed to be a position taken chiefly by the left and the Democratic party. But since the end of the Cold War the Republicans have become at least as prone to embrace a policy of international disengagement. I fear that what formerly prevented this among Republicans was less a recognition of the realities of international politics than a visceral hostility to communism, so that when communism disappeared, they did not understand that America’s interests and security, and the world’s capacity to avoid war, still required close American engagement.
You also believe that Americans retain a large bump of what’s often called Wilsonian moralism, which leads to the vigorous prosecution of a war and then a retreat in disgust from the imperfect world that they’ve necessarily created. Do you think we’re in a phase like that?
Yes. We’ve been challenged this way three times in this century. In World War I we were sold a bill of goods that we were fighting for the principle of democracy, when we were in fact fighting to check a dangerous militarism and preserve the balance of power in Europe. We were very swiftly disillusioned by the results we had won. Then, in the Second World War, a tremendous ugliness appeared in the world in the various forms of fascism and Nazism, and we destroyed them, although another very ugly form of power immediately expanded in their wake. The interesting thing is that we did not withdraw that time; we remained deeply engaged and checked the menace we felt from the Soviet Union.
So the Second World War legitimized the necessity of maintaining an imperfect world—a balance of power stabilized by peacetime American military preparation- for a generation or two, but that was unique in our history. Isn’t the rebirth of isolationism the natural consequence of the aging and death of a generation that knew some harsh things?