For the last couple of weeks I have been carrying out an old ambition, to read a 40-year old book by Ernst Nolte, a German historian about Germany and the Cold War. That historian, a most ambitious if sometimes erratic thinker, begins his tome with more than 150 pages putting the emergence of both the United States and the USSR in the whole context of modern western history. He also spends some time on the origins of Fascism, about which he had written another book. Although I do not always agree with his judgments, he gives the kind of extraordinary tour d'horizon that was expected of a great historian during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. I cannot read the book today without an acute sense that that whole tradition is dead. But more importantly, the world that it described has also died. My own adult lifetime, spanning the last half-century, has seen the end of an era in which western peoples and states counted on the political arena to create a better world. And the frightening consequences of that era are all over today's news, and may well dominate the news for the rest of my life.
The new era may be said to have begun in the late 18th century with the American and French Revolutions. Those two fraternal twin children of the Enlightenment claimed to use reason and human science to design a fairer and better world. Both promulgated declarations of rights and set up some kind of democracy. The American experiment progressed rather steadily, while the French one immediately emerged as the first great example of the dangers of Enlightenment principles, which could provide excellent excuses for terror and dictatorship. The crisis of the late 18th century actually led to a swing away from democratic principles in Britain and much of Europe, but they steadily gained ground during the 19th century. But the intellectual and political world were transformed starting around 1900 by the rise of socialism, the progressive reaction to the consequences of industrialization in the US and elsewhere, and then, the catastrophe of the First World War.
The Communist victory in Russia resulted in large part from the First World War, establishing a theoretically Utopian state within one of the largest countries on earth. Five years later, Fascism--to some extent a response to Communism--took over in Italy, and in 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. All three of these new regimes rejected democracy as it evolved in the West and became single-party states. While Mussolini's actual impact on Italy was relatively modest until the Second World War, both Stalin and Hitler embarked upon extraordinary redesigns of their societies, economy and culture, based on very specific visions of a great future to come. They also vastly strengthened their militaries.
Yet in the long run the most important impact of Communism and Fascism was the response in the West, and particularly in the United States. Franklin Roosevelt also recognized the need to transform the role of the state, and to redesign the American economy and society, albeit within the framework of American democracy. He came into office proclaiming that false values--a devotion to money above all else--had led the United States into Depression. He held out the vision of an America that would restrict the dangerous excesses of capitalism (for instance, by separating commercial and investment banking), and guarantee economic security for all. And when the world war broke out in the late 1939, and especially after the fall of France in 1940, he was determined, as I showed in No End Save Victory, to build a military that could allow his idea of democracy not only to survive in the US, but to prevail throughout the Americas and if possible, in much of Europe and even Asia as well. He succeeded in that goal, committing both the US and the world to his four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. In the postwar period the essential philosophy of the New Deal became the basis for the new welfare states all over Western Europe and even in Japan.
The Cold War remained a competition between the US and its allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other, each offering a new and professedly superior way of life. While American principles prevailed in western Europe, Soviet principles spread through China and into Korea and Vietnam. Colonialism rapidly came to an end, and in one way or another most of the leaders of newly independent states were also committed to the goals of political rights and economic justice for their peoples. And depending on their right, center or left orientation, they could count on some assistance from Washington or Moscow to achieve at least stability within their realms.
It is in this perspective that the collapse of Communism in 1989 takes on a whole new meaning. While it appeared to represent the triumph of the west, now, almost thirty years later, it clearly marked the beginning of the end of the era which I have been describing. The Cold War had forced both sides to claim that they were working for the interests of the peoples of their nation and of the world. When it came to an end, governments lost the best of their mission. All over the world, they have become increasingly beholden to economic interests. It is not a coincidence, I suspect, that that trend has been most striking in Russia and the US, the two leading contestants in the Cold War. Oligarchies rule them both now, and neither, to be blunt, offers the world a model which any nation ambitious for civic virtue or economic justice could want to emulate. They are still setting an example, but a very different one.
And for this reason, I would suggest, the international customary law that grew up during the second half of the twentieth century and at least partially restrained the cruel excesses of states has broken down. The President of the Philippines has unleashed a campaign of terror against his people, killing drug dealers and even users without trial. Turkey has metamorphosed from the most westernized state in the Muslim world into an authoritarian dictatorship that relies largely on religion and has locked up tens of thousands of citizens, like the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s. Venezuela is abandoning the last vestiges of its democracy. And in the midst of all this, the Trump Administration is backing rapidly away from the United States' role as a monitor of international human rights. Secretary Tillerson skipped his department's annual human rights observance, and has now approved arms sales to Bahrain that had previously been blocked on human rights grounds. At the risk of shocking many readers, I must admit that I have always been skeptical about our government's role as a human rights enforcer. While I applaud the efforts of private groups like Amnesty International to fight abuses, it seems to me that our government's attempts to do the same inevitably result in hypocrisy and often do more harm than good for the people we are trying to help. The best way for us to promote human rights or economic justice is the way that we did so from about 1933 through 1965 or so: to promote those things at home. But without a Cold War, we do not even worry that we have one of the largest prison populations in the world.
More than 10 years ago, when it was becoming clear to me where the US was repudiating the best traditions of mid-century politics, I gave a talk in Berlin, and suggested that it would perhaps be up to the Europeans to stand up for the principles they had shared with us in the postwar era. Sadly, that has not really happened either. Although Angela Merkel has remained an aggressive defender of human rights, she is also complicit in the austerity policies that have helped cripple many major and lesser European economies, and the politics of the various European nations are even more fragmented than our own. Global warming looms as the one element of our future that might force the world into a rebirth of strong institutions in order to make sure that our civilization survives. That is almost exactly what happened in the first half of the twentieth century. For a long time I was please that I would not, apparently, have to live through a crisis comparable to the Second World War. I still would not want to repeat it, but I see now that its terror, loss of life, and great crimes were linked, in a sense, to the great political achivements of that era that gave me and my contemporaries the world in which we grew up.