Revolution continues to sweep the Arab world but the outcome becomes more and more uncertain. The lead article in today's New York Times deals with Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt, and the emerging obstacles to national unity in each of those countries. Tunisia is threatened by a split between the coastal elite and the more religious interior, which, some speculate, may lead to a military coup. In Egypt the 10% Coptic Christian minority suspects the majority, and vica verca. Libya remains riven by regional divisions, while in Syria, Assad clings to power as the leader of the Alawite Shi'ite minority (while proving that militarized authoritarian states--see the graph, below--can indeed suppress rebellions if they have the will to do so.) A successful revolution needs a measure of national unity, and many in these nations wonder where it will come from. The same problem, of course, is at the heart of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States has so unwisely inserted itself.
A great deal of confusion prevails over these issues for many reasons, not least of them the idea behind Francis Fukuyama's The End of History that the world is naturally evolving towards capitalist democracy and that the evolutionary process is at late stage. It was always, really, a Utopian idea, every bit as much as National Socialism or Communism, but with the key difference that natural processes were supposed lead us to the promised land. Yet this has never been the case. Fukuyama assumed away the other key term in developmental equation, legitimate political authority. Because he simply assumed it he did not have to ask where it came from. Had he looked, he would have found a much more complex and much less reassuring story.
Reading the Times story today I was reminded of the French and Russian Revolutions. Both of them were based on ideas of universal equality; both swept away an old order weakened by time, by corruption, and by war. But both led immediately to division, civil war, and the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. It took a decade for Napoleon to re-establish stable political authority in France and at least six far more bloody years for Lenin to do the same in the Soviet Union. Those countries, too, lacked any shared sense of national unity, and one had to be imposed, both by governmental success and by violence. And that is often, though not always, the case in the crises that seem to hit modern societies every eighty years.
During the twentieth century the western world (including the Soviet Union) offered the rest of the world a number of models of political authority. In Turkey Kemal Ataturk created a new secular state modeled quite closely, it seems to me, on Napoleonic France. Japan adopted much of the western model even earlier, in the late nineteenth century, and easily resumed it after 1945. Independent India established a parliamentary democracy that has endured, with only one brief interruption, to this day. Meanwhile Communism provided an extraordinarily effective tool for the mobilization and seizure of political power in China, in Cuba, and in Vietnam. It has not however been able to survive more than one saeculum anywhere, and I would suggest that with the possible exceptions of Hezbollah and Hamas there are today no revolutionary movements nearly as well organized as Lenin's, or Mao's, or Ho's.
Does the West today offer a useful model for the third world, including the Muslim world? Unfortunately I must answer that question with a resounding "no."
The European Union, in my opinion, represents today the most highly developed civilization in human history. States that warred for centuries have surrendered large parts of their national sovereignty and created a single economy. Most of them use a single currency. Their governments have established some form of national health care and put a very high priority on infrastructure. Increasingly they are focusing on energy conservation. They too may face problems in the near future relating to national unity, thanks to their large Muslim populations. In addition, nationalism in Eastern Europe--one of the most destructive forces of the twentieth century--is re-emerging in several countries, including one of the most advanced, Hungary. But the Europeans surrendered so much national autonomy because they had lived through the worst of what nationalism can do. Their example cannot be immediately replicated anywhere else.
As for the United States, we have been engaged for about thirty years in a two-pronged assault on the very idea of political authority which has now paralyzed our government in the face of an economic crisis. The Republican Party since Reagan has embraced the idea that government is "the problem," and the strategy of "starving the beast" has now worked, leaving Washington with nothing to do but arguing about what to cut, since tax increases have been ruled out. Even Newt Gingrich, one of the stalwarts of the revolution, realized briefly two weeks ago that it had gone too far, although he was quickly brought back into line. But at the same time, the Left, such as it is, has also rejected political authority, based on the idea, now 45 years old, that those who exercise power are almost inevitably wicked, especially if they happen to be white males. Today's Times also includes a review of a collection of essays, Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, which seems to be a compendium of newer-style history of the revolutionary period, written by another practitioner, Mary Beth Norton. None of the 22 essays in the book deal with a signer of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, a fact of which I am sure its editors are blushing with pride. They include Abigail Adams and Tom Paine, a number of American Indian leaders (many of which actually opposed the revolution), the rebels in Shays' and the Whiskey rebellions, and a number of very obscure folks who evidently held economic or social views that have become much more fashionable today. One such is Herman Husband, who dreamed of a new Jerusalem west of the Appalachians and whom his chronicler thinks "deserves to be remembered in the first rank of the heroes of American democracy." (Reviewer Mary Beth Norton dissents because Husband paid no attention to the rights of Indians, slaves, or women.) That actually is a good example of what a hero is to a Boomer or Boomer-trained academic: some one who held the right views, just as they have, by their own lights, for the last 40 years or so. Earlier generations thought that heroes, of whatever race or sex, did things like writing Constitutions, raising armies, fighting battles, making revolutions, and running governments. But Boomers in their youth became accustomed to thinking of those tasks as some one else's job, one unworthy of serious interest--and that goes for both the left and the right. In another interesting example of this trend, the Times also reports this morning that an education reform movement is sweeping the country--but it isn't the work of federal or state governments, but rather of Bill Gates, one of the more benevolent billionaires our new tax structure has created.
And thus Boomers are now proving themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the most fundamental task of government, passing a budget. Gen Xer Barack Obama, meanwhile, seems to feel very little urgency about the problem either--he is confident that he can make his peace with whatever outcome emerges, blessing it with a few typically eloquent words. Only in 1861, 1933 and 1940, I would argue, has the United States been so much in need of effective leadership as it is today--and I can assure you as a historian that we do not have leadership of comparable quality available.