Presentation to the Seattle Rotary Club on the ‘Wars of the Ways’
Twelve years ago, The National Interest, a Washington, DC policy journal, published an article by a State Department analyst named Francis Fukuyama. The article was entitled, “The End of History?” Dr. Fukuyama, taking his cue from the 19th century German philosopher Hegel, argued that, with the end of the Cold War, “history” as Hegel understood it was over. The great issues of the modern era had been settled once and for all. Liberalism and capitalism had triumphed. What remained was to work out the details, and to extend the blessings to those who had yet to enjoy them. “The end of history,” Fukuyama wrote, “will be a very sad time.” No more heroics. From here on out, it would be calculation, consumption, and nostalgia.
Well, there are some mistakes so ridiculous only experts can make them. Still, Fukuyama got it half-right.
The Age of the Wars of Ideology is over. What began at Lexington and Concord and Philadelphia; what proceeded to the Bastille and Napoleon and much of 19th century Europe; what metastasized in the 20th century into the totalitarian nightmares of Marxism and Nazism . . . is over. The two great questions of these struggles the proper forms of political and economic organization have been answered, at least from the rational Western perspective. Some form of liberal democracy, coupled with some form of market economy, does more good for more people than anything else ever devised. Freedom works. More prosperity, more opportunity, more of everything that markets and governments can do to enhance the existence and potential of the individual.
But Fukuyama also got it half-wrong. When he wrote, communism was collapsing, peace was busting out all over, a decade of economic expansion loomed, and Osama bin Laden was somewhere in Afghanistan, hanging with the homies and wondering what to do with himself now that the Russians had left.
Today, we know what he chose. Yes, the Age of the Wars of Ideology is over. But the Age of the Wars of the Ways has begun. The events of 9/11 and our current struggles provide only the barest glimpse of what awaits us. Were at Act I, Scene I or, if you prefer, at the start of the Prologue. The philosopher Santayana once wrote that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. Like Fukuyama, Santayana got it mostly wrong. Those who know history repeat it. Those who do not know history are condemned to be surprised when it happens.
Welcome to the Wars of the Ways.
Its a complex phenomenon, this age and these wars now upon us. But the basic thesis is simple.
The human race is on the verge of fissioning into two virtual species. One part, perhaps a billion or so, embraces and participates in the potential of the 21st century: the vast expansion of wealth made possible by technological advance and globalization; the great expansion of freedom made possible by prosperity and liberal democracy. For this minority Just Do It, No Limits well explore the cosmos, map the genome, make the miraculous routine and the unimaginable trite. The other segment, five billion or so, either rejects the 21st century and wants out Osama bin Laden, eco-terrorists, ethnic separatists, and so on or cant find its way in: the desperate peoples at the bottom. For poverty is no longer a matter of more versus less. Nor is freedom.
To put it more simply still: The Wars of the Ways will be fought between those who sail the heavens, plumb the depths, and live amid endless wealth and opportunity . . . against those who, to borrow from Milton, would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven and those who cant get out of Hell because of endless anarchy, war, poverty. And many times, these two will be the same.
Geographically, it will be the nations of North America, Europe, parts of Asia, parts of Latin America, Israel, against the nations of Africa, some of Latin America, much of Asia, much of the Middle East. But it will also be a struggle within these nations, a struggle fought at least as much by subnational and transnational groups as by states. And it will be fought amid a backdrop of overpopulation in the areas that can afford it least; ecological havoc in the areas that can afford it least; new plagues and diseases; economic oscillations; and chronic despair and desperation.
And it will be fought by nations and groups that increasingly have access to, and are ready to use, weapons of mass destruction, mass death, and mass disruption.
If this is true, then we must ask ourselves: What American purpose in the world now? In the 20th century, we saved much of the world from two Dark Ages, one Axis, one Marxist. What purpose now? And if we can define such a purpose, are we any longer can we become a people capable and worthy of it?
Throughout the decade that historians may someday call The Wasted Nineties, a debate of sorts puffed and waffled over “Americas Purpose.” Today, it might charitably be described as inane, naive, and utterly worthless.
Forget the rantings and preenings of the so-called “Americas Greatness” crowd, the “America Must Lead because America Must Lead” approach. Whos following? Perhaps these folks would do well to ask themselves a simple question: “If were so pretty, how come we cant get a date?”
Forget the pieties of the muscular humanitarians, those who would have us play not just World Policeman, but Global Therapist and Social Worker. We cant keep intervening in other peoples domestics. We cant build nations for others. God knows, weve tried. Weve been trying since Woodrow Wilsons day, and the worlds still paying for his mistakes.
Forget the Human Rights uber-Allies aficianados. Yes, it matters. You cant build stability upon wholesale repression. But in the world as it is, civil order must precede (and protect) economic development, and economic development must precede political liberalization. History is filled with tyrants who trashed their countries. But history is also filled with strong, no-nonsense rulers whose goal was to leave their countries better than they found them, and who succeeded.
Forget the fizzy effervescence of those who believe that increased trade and technology will automatically bring peace. The 19th century believed that, and we saw what happened in the 20th. Yes, we can stick a PC in every hovel, a cell phone in every hut. We can strew the planet with running shoe factories. But evil remains evil, and thats all there is to it.
And finally, forget the “realists.” Forget those “tough-minded” academics and pundits who believe that Looking Out for Number One automatically means we succeed in Looking Out for Number One. Forget the chirpy libertarians who avow that “the best defense is to give no offense,” or the pouting populists who demand that we face the future (as Ike once put it) by walking backwards into the past.
Forget them all. But if you believe, as I do, that America, by virtue of virtue as well as power, has a unique role to play in the world . . . if you believe, as I do, that Madeleine Albright (Warrior Princess) got it right when she called America “the one indispensable nation” . . . what purpose now?
I believe that the American purpose of the 21st century must be to serve as the defender of the potential of the 21st century against those who would destroy it. From time to time, we must lead. But we must also learn when not to lead, and how to let others be strong. We cannot save the desperate billions, but we must be ready, as the old Book of Common Prayer has it, to do good to all “according to our abilities and opportunities.”
And we must fight, in ever-shifting alliances with those who do what they can, in accordance with their abilities and opportunities.
And we must do this in and for a world that, more often than not, will continue to hate and despise us, or at the very least, to view us with extreme ambivalence. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said that the beginning of wisdom is the realization of ones own deficiencies in necessary things. God knows, weve been deficient in many ways. But we must also accept that much of the world hates us, not just for what weve done, but for what we are. And for much of the world, hating America provides an easy evasion of and excuse for their own disasters, failures, and atrocities. In much of the world, if the CIA did not exist, they would have to invent it.
That said, are we a people who might or can embark on such a nebulous, strenuous, open-ended mission? To ask that question is, in effect, to ask: What have we become as a result of the Culture War of the last forty years? Or, more precisely, of Culture War I that ended in the 1990s, and of Culture War II now upon us? For we must understand that in the 21st century, our wars and our ways are and will be inextricably interlinked.
The Culture War of the mid-Sixties to mid-Nineties was about many things: left against right, religious against secular humanistic, women against men, men against women, modern against postmodern, civil rights, gay rights, an endless array of issues that got all bollixed up into One Big Issue that no one could untangle. And, as they said back in the Sixties, “The issue is not The Issue.” So what was The Issue?
Simply put, Culture War I was about Diversity. Not just superficial food-court diversity. And not just about coercive diversity: quotas, hate crimes, speech codes, and lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits. Much closer to the truth is the cliché its been a cliché for decades that there is no longer a dominant culture, only subcultures. In essence, Culture War I was the attempt to create a civilization with only the most minimal commonalities of language (more or less) and law (more or less). It was an attempt to create a civilization in which no group or gender or creed or lifestyle or culture, no matter how tolerant or benign or appreciative of difference, provides the norm. It was, in essence, the initial attempt to create a civilization without norms, only choices.
But now its the Wars of the Ways, and we hear the calls, muted and ineffectual these last few decades, to restore the Center. We hear that no civilization without a normative center can survive, much less fight. We hear it in many ways, from knee-jerk attacks on “PC dissent” to calls for religious revival; from communitarian hopes that emergency will restore faith in community and government to liberal hopes that emergency will restore faith in government and community. Even the “National Service with Military and Non-Military Options” are back.
In short, its Culture War II the struggle between those who would restore some sort of normative center, and their profiteers and racketeers, against those who would build a civilization with no normative center, and their profiteers and racketeers. Its Culture War II, this time in time of war.
Can a civilization exist without a center? History would offer scant encouragement. Can a civilization without a center fight and win wars? Both history and common sense would seem to say no. And yet, has not the history of the last few centuries been mostly about the breaking of bonds and the blurring of boundaries that people considered essential for civilized life? Established churches. Hereditary aristocracies. Keeping the lower orders and the colonies in their place. Slavery.
The issue cannot and will not be settled today. Indeed, it may never be settled. But I would suggest to you that theres no inherent reason why a civilization part normative and part acentric cannot muster the civic virtue to survive, flourish, and fight. Provided . . .
By now youve probably seen that wonderful TV commercial done by the Ad Council. It shows people of every shape, size, color, gender, accent, attire, each saying, “I am an American.” Very fine, but what does it mean to be an American today?
It means, first of all, the recognition that, to borrow from Comrade Trotsky, while you may or may not be interested in the war, the war is interested in you.
It means, to repeat myself, understanding that our wars and our ways are inextricably intertwined.
It means accepting that although all choices may be valid for the chooser, not all choices work.
It means knowing that, although all subcultures may be valid for their members, not all subcultures contribute equally or effectively. For the attempt to build a civilization without a center is still the attempt to build a civilization.
It means remembering, as all people of true faith do, that not every jerk who presumes to speak in the Name of the Lord is entitled to respectful attention, and that when some one talks about “restoring the Center,” you can usually guess whom he or she thinks that Center ought to be.
Most of all, it means accepting that Our Long National Group Therapy Session is over; and with it the Age of Ill Do Anything I Damn Well Please and Who Are You to Judge?
Who am I to judge? I am an American.
Who are we to judge? We are Americans. We are, should we choose to accept it, the stewards of the potential of the 21st century. We are the defenders of a species that can extinguish itself, and of a planet that can be destroyed.
And if you believe as I do, that we can as a species commit suicide, and that there is such a thing as ecocide, then in this, our little fragment of the galaxy, our tiny speck of universe, we are the guardians of forever.
Welcome to the Wars of the Ways.