By Tom Kando
I was just re-reading the history of World War One. It’s clear that from 1917 onward, the world took a new turn, due to America’s entry into that war.
Until then, history was largely the history of Big Power Politics. These were primarily European. the UK, France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia - plus two newbies: the USA and Japan. Most other countries were either colonized, or otherwise less powerful.
For some reason, the Big Powers decided to commit collective suicide. It was largely Germany’s fault, but that’s irrelevant here.
For the next three years, the world experienced the greatest bloodbath in history. Single battles such as Verdun cost 800,000 lives - twice the total deaths of the entire American Civil War! This went on for no apparent gain to either side.
One Great Power kept its sanity - the US. America’s special position was clear to the combatants: for three years, both sides repeatedly appealed to President Wilson to please mediate and help put an end to the slaughter. In essence, they were begging America to save them.
They appealed to America because, coincidentally, that country had become a powerful giant which now dwarfed the other “Big Powers.” Only one country was (1) civilized and (2) powerful enough to save the world from itself.
Finally America acquiesced, reluctantly. It went about it by tipping the balance and putting an end to the stalemate and the bloodbath.
The Peace Treaties show the enormous influence of the US and of President Wilson. His 14 points, self-determination and the League of Nations were all his initiatives. The idea (alas not the reality) of world government and thus the end of war was born.
We all know what followed. Another, even bloodier war. Then a Cold War, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Again, America did its best to save the rest of the world, for example through the Marshall Plan (which was even offered to Stalin, who turned it down) and by promoting European unification.
We are now approaching a century of American-led world order. It has been far from perfect, but better than the alternatives.
The world has avoided global conflict for two thirds of a century. The Cold War ended without conflagration. The idea (alas not the reality) of world government progressed, via the United Nations. Global capitalism has produced enormous inequities, but there has also been decolonialization and economic development. The primary beneficiary has been the Western world - the “core,” in World System Theory parlance. But others are also benefitting.
This has been the logic of world system development: bring more and more countries on board. First South Korea and the other Asian Tigers, now the B.R.I.C. countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), then others. (See for example Alice Amsden’s "The Rise of “The Rest”).
It is America who started this ball rolling. Its assistance and intervention were the sine qua non to rebuild Europe and Japan.
The entire “core” has reaped the rewards of the existing world system, but it is America which has done most of the heavy lifting to safeguard it. For nearly a century, it is primarily the US which has safeguarded the world order - flawed as it is.
Let me be provocative, and say that America has saved the world.
Saved it from what? You probably ask, horrified by my statement.
Simple: from the chaos which would have prevailed in the absence of a world cop. From even more mass suicides such as World Wars One and Two. What America did in the first World War, it did a fortiori in the second one: defeat the forces of international lawlessness.
Again, I offer the evidence of the absolute necessity of a world cop who is willing and able to intervene: No sooner were the 1919 Peace Treaties signed, than various regimes launched lawless rampages: Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Abyssinia, Franco in Spain, Stalin in Poland and Finland, Hitler everywhere. Within 5 years after World War Two, North Korea invaded its neighbor. Plus perennial aggression by smaller potatoes everywhere.
America was able to save the world - for a while - because (1) it is relatively civilized and because (2) of its economic might. There are many other very nicely civilized countries - wonderful little countries in places like Scandinavia. There may also be countries which will develop great economic might.
But the 20th century American one-two punch of power and wisdom was unique. This is scary. Will the world descend into greater chaos and lawlessness, as America becomes increasingly fallible and limited?
The ultimate goal is of course world federalism, peace and stability. President Wilson’s vision gave us the League of Nations and then an improved version - the United Nations. But without the backup of power, such institutions cannot play a meaningful role.
The American century may be coming to an end. The world may become “multi-polar” again. China? Who knows. Many rejoice at this, as many welcomed the fall of Rome. Be careful what you wish for.leave comment here
Monday, January 9, 2012
By Tom Kando