One of the great dramas of western history is playing out before our eyes--one which could conceivably compare, centuries hence, to the fall of the Roman Empire. For the second time in a century, the whole edifice of western civilization threatens to break apart. When nineteenth century civilization collapsed in large parts of Europe in the early twentieth century--first in the former Russian Empire, and then in Central Europe--totalitarian movements with contempt for human life filled the vacuum. The US intervention in the Second World War saved western Europe for a new and enhanced form of civilization, and the ravages of time eventually put an end to Communism. Europe, which had suffered so much from the cataclysm of 1914-45, responded by putting aside the national antagonisms of the previous three centuries, a process which reached its climax a little more than ten years ago with the creation of the Euro. Now a new economic crisis and the coming to power of European generations that have grown up in peace and affluence are threatening that achievement, while in the United States the whole idea of authority is coming under a new attack that threatens to tear parts of the country apart while making it impossible to cope with our own economic crisis.
My current research, as I have mentioned before, deals with the American response to the world crisis of 1940-1, and will focus largely on the almost unbelievable organizational effort that enabled us to win the war in Western Europe and the Pacific and create the world in which I have my whole life. Yesterday I had to lecture on the long-term impact of the Vietnam War, and pointed out that it turned out to mark the end of an entire era of warfare, and, in a sense, of civilization. It was the last major war fought with draftee armies and using massive, indiscriminate firepower, including bomb tonnages many times those of the Second World War. A new generation, it turned out, was unwilling either to submit to conscription or to tolerate destruction on that scale. In succeeding decades the American military, as a percentage of our (and the world's) population, has gradually shrunk until it is only marginally larger than it was in early 1940, when the US was effectively disarmed, at least on land. The military we have relies increasingly on precision weaponry, which, although it still kills innocent people, kills them by the dozens rather than by the thousands. And the United States in this respect has led the way. By the same measure of proportion of population, the armies of the world's other leading states, including China, India, Russia and the nations of Europe, are even smaller than ours. By historical standards the only remaining heavily militarized nations are the two Koreas, Israel, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. And for some time the United States has been the only nation to regard war as a normal instrument of national policy--and our recent wars have been designed to stabilize non-western states.
In the 1820s, when Clausewitz described a similar decline in the size of European armies and the role of warfare during the 19th century, he remarked, "All the world rejoiced at this development." In the same way, I still believe that we should rejoice at the one we have lived through. The dream of peace among industrial nations inspired millions in the early twentieth century, especially in the United States. It did much to bring about American entry into the First World War, and its evident failure after that war turned many Americans into non-interventionists when the Second World War broke out in Europe and Asia. After 1945, and for 45 years, Americans argued bitterly over whether peace with the Soviet Union and Communist China was possible, and prepared for the most destructive war of all, one that never came. But then, to paraphrase Pasternak, as suddenly as the appearance of the leaves in spring, the threat vanished in the 1990s. The terrible ethnic wars of the Balkans in the 1990s were, in a way, a measure of how far the industrial nations had come in 80 years. The outbreak of those wars represented a breakdown of law and civilization, but this time--unlike in 1914--the Russian, German, French and British governments saw no need to become involved in them themselves, with the single, brief exception of the Kosovo war in 1999, by the US.
It will be a great achievement if we can get through the next two decades without a major war, and I think it is quite possible that we could. I will be quite happy to die without ever seeing the world's richest nations once again mobilize their youth by the millions for another series of immensely costly conflicts, probably involving the use of nuclear weapons. But the ebbing of governmental power that has had other far less inspiring consequences as well, suggesting that we still face an enormous challenge of finding a workable balance between our enhanced liberty and the authority we need.
Here in the United States, an Administration that is simply trying to fix a few of our crumbling institutions--such as our financial markets and our health care system--faces a sustained, ferocious attack from about 45% of our population and the most vocal segments of the media. Meanwhile, deregulation has made certain corporate interests (including the big banks and health insurance companies) sufficiently powerful, it seems, make it very difficult, if not impossible, to institute effective reforms. Thirty-five years of endless anti-government rhetoric have made quite effectively discredited the idea that government can provide an essential counterweight to private power. The federal government has also failed to write laws reflecting the reality of immigration into the United States, creating both an underground economy and another source of popular resentment, one into which state and local politicians are beginning to tap, as the new law in Arizona shows. In much of the country basic public services are threatened by the combination of the anti-tax movement and the economic crisis.
Although Europe is also suffering severely from the economic crisis, its political crisis is nowhere near so far advanced as ours. That is because Western Europe took about a decade longer than the United States to emerge from the Second World War, put its new institutions on a secure footing, and start its generational cycle over again. (This is very clearly reflected in European birth rates. No baby boom occurred in Europe until the late 1950s, and even then it was much more modest than our own.) But postwar Prophets like Brown, Sarkozy and Angela Merkel now rule Europe, and it is not clear that they can keep their parents' institutional achievements alive. The Greek financial crisis has aroused voices in Germany arguing that the Euro was a mistake, since it made German economic health and financial stability hostage to the behavior of less responsible nations in other parts of Europe. Merkel herself, in a dreadful failure of leadership, allowed the situation to drift for weeks in hopes of getting through a key local election first, and thus has made it much worse. Britain is likely to elect a hung parliament for the first time in 87 years (interesting number, that!). The new democracies created in Eastern Europe in the 1990s have fared better than their counterparts from the 1920s had at this stage, but those created out of the former Soviet Union have not done well at all.
I have been reading about previous crises all my life, well before Strauss and Howe put them all in historical context. George Orwell despaired of the future of Britain and of the world in 1938, and Harold Nicholson documented his increasing despair during the winter of 1939-40, as well as his excitement when the catastrophe of France's fall drove Britain out of its funk. Solzhenitsyn spent the last twenty years of his life trying to document the collapse of his own country during the First World War, a tale without a happy ending. The financial collapse of 2008 was not enough, as it turned out, to overcome our inertia, or Europe's. But these are early days yet. Meanwhile, in six weeks, a new World Cup will begin in South Africa. I often wonder whether professional sport has provided a healthier outlet for the emotions that in earlier centuries fed enormous wars. Unless and until, as in 1940, the Olympics and the World Cup need to be adjourned for a dozen years, we will still be living in a period of relative peace.