Dash of liberalism topped with fancy

The Ideas that Conquered the World
June 27, 2003

Michael Mandelbaum is a specialist in US foreign policy. In this contribution to the "end of history" genre, he surveys the course of world history of the past 200 years and offers predictions for the future. His thesis is that we live in a world dominated by liberal ideas and institutions, and the victory of liberalism is irreversible.

His hero is Woodrow Wilson - the US president who, after the first world war, tried to reconstruct the world to a liberal plan. If Wilson failed, we are told, it is only because he was ahead of his time.

Wilson's big ideas - democracy, free markets and collective security - were destined to triumph. Mandelbaum explains this triumph by means of the "liberal theory of history". This is "an interpretation and an extrapolation of the dramatic events of the last decade of the twentieth century". There is no irony: Mandelbaum feels confident in constructing a theory of history from the events of the past 13 years. Crucial to this is a distinction between "core" and "periphery" regions. Cultural innovations are made in the core and diffuse to the periphery, which contributes almost nothing. In the current liberal era, the core is North America and western Europe. The US is "the core of the core".

On Mandelbaum's account, Britain and America between them are almost entirely responsible for liberalism. In one of his aperçus , he asserts:

"Great Britain and France invented the modern world. From France came popular sovereigntyI From Britain came almost everything else." Britain and the US are "the oldest democracies". Constitutionalism was invented in Britain. So was the free market. The Anglo-Saxons even seem to have invented peace: the idea that "war had to be abolished" had an "Anglo-American cradle".

The liberal theory of history postulates interconnections between free markets, democracy and peace. Because free markets generate wealth, even illiberal states introduce markets to maintain popular support. Free markets necessitate and promote the rule of law. The rule of law promotes political liberty and democracy. Democracy and free markets promote international peace. We have a "virtuous chain reaction". A central hypothesis is that democratic countries conduct peaceful foreign policies.

It helps the argument along to view the US' overwhelming military capability as an instrument of collective security and as an international police force.

But, leaving aside the US' and Britain's long records of military involvement in other countries, modern history provides ample case studies of conflicts between entities that took themselves to be democratic or constitutional - take the American civil war and the first world war. And democracies have certainly elected leaders committed to extreme violence - such as Adolf Hitler. To deny that democracies can wage aggressive wars is to bury one's head in the sand.

Some important forces have been edited out of Mandelbaum's theory of history. It is revealing that he plays down the role of nationalism in Wilson's plan for reconstructing eastern Europe as a system of nation-states. Ethnic conflict has been one of the constants of modern history, and it is not clear that either democracy or free markets offer an antidote. The best Mandelbaum can offer are platitudes about the virtues of devolution.

Also missing is the role of violence and realpolitik in the "diffusion" of markets. Mandelbaum might have considered an example close to home. The emergence of the US as the world's largest economy was not simply the peaceful growth of a nation-state that happily stumbled on liberal institutions. It involved the conquest, expropriation and in some cases extermination of American Indian nations and the import of slave labour. In an unguarded moment, Mandelbaum explains that America's military forces now serve as "the guarantor of the core countries' access to the oil of the Persian Gulf". What happened to peace and free markets?

Surveying the future, he is confident that the liberal order is secure. The "minimal likelihood" of major war makes the 21st century quite different from its two predecessors - or, at least, it does so for the countries of the core. Among the small clouds on Mandelbaum's horizon is the possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, but that would not count as a major war. After all, it would not greatly inconvenience the core countries to treat a few "nuclear-infested regions of the planetI as no-go areas".

And what about the depth and violent potential of anti-western sentiment revealed in the activities of groups such as al-Qaida? Mandelbaum displays no wish to try to understand the atavistic intellectual currents of the periphery. Liberal internationalism, he says, now has "no serious, fully articulated rival as a set of principles for organising the world's military relations, politics and economics". But since when has such articulation been a necessary condition for the viability of a political ideology?

The book is not analytical enough to contribute to academic debate and too polemical for a students' guide to world history. I assume Mandelbaum is addressing a general reader with an educated interest in public affairs.

His polished, urbane style and fondness for quotable pronouncements might work in a news magazine (he is a foreign affairs columnist), but they will not hold the attention of a general reader for almost 500 pages.

At least for non-Americans, this book seems useful mainly as an insight into how the world can look through American eyes.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.

The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century

Author - Michael Mandelbaum
ISBN - 1 903985 44 7
Publisher - PublicAffairs
Price - £18.99
Pages - 496

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