The holiday season offers a chance to stand back and look at the larger picture, to consider one's blessings and discount worries, to ask whether the headlines that fill one's head are the total picture or even a representative one.
In doing so, one can have no better guide than Michael Mandelbaum, a leading foreign-policy analyst and author of the new book The Ideas That Conquered the World (PublicAffairs). Those ideas are spelled out in his subtitle: peace, democracy, and free markets.
Mandelbaum argues that an epochal achievement has taken place, almost without notice, as these concepts have vanquished the competition. Now, being in favor of no-war, political openness and wealth may at first glance seem banal. Doesn't everyone want them? He acknowledges they are clichés, "the political equivalent of Muzak," but argues - and this is both the heart of his book and of our holiday cheer - that it is precisely their banality and near-universality that is so remarkable.
He shows that these ideas are in fact stunningly new and controversial. They date back merely to the late 18th century; for most of the prior human experience, they were dismissed as outlandish. And it took two long centuries for them to succeed.
- Peace: War was traditionally seen as the natural condition of states; no one imagined a change. As a British jurist wrote, "War appears to be as old as mankind but peace is a modern invention." Only in the past couple of centuries did the idea develop of making peace the normal condition, yet even then old-fashioned monarchs and new-fashioned Nazis and Communists resisted. Only now, especially with the spread of democracies, has the prospect of ending war become a realistic goal.
- Democracy: It used to be called "mob rule" and was despised from the ancient Greeks forward: How could the unwashed masses make intelligent political decisions? Nazis and Communists took this distrust to new extremes, centralizing all key decisions among a handful of leaders. Despite much resistance, democracy spread in the last century from a few English-speaking countries to much of the world.
- Free Markets: The notion that governments can and should increase their populations' wealth is a radically new one. Until the Industrial Revolution in England two centuries ago, wealth was viewed as static and zero-sum; the more I make, the less you do. Then came the Nazi and Communist ideologies, which put nearly all economic power in the hands of the state. Only in the past decade has it become widely accepted that restraining governmental power is the key to prosperity ("globalization").
In the 19th century, these three ideas had to combat the forces of tradition until those collapsed in the First World War. Then emerged an even deadlier enemy, the two radical utopian ideologies of fascism and communism, which for 70 years glorified war, created totalitarian regimes and controlled all aspects of life, including the economy.
But now the argument is settled. For the first time ever, the triad of peace, democracy and free markets has no serious rival. Its message is also widely (though not universally) accepted and increasingly practiced.
Russia, Mandelbaum points out, has a rough and ready democracy and a market economy. China has at least the second. India has both, as does Latin America. East and Southeast Asia are following the same path. There are even hopeful signs in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Arab Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, stand out as the great exception. But that, Mandelbaum convincingly argues, is the point: They are the exception - even if a large, consequential, and dangerous one - and not the rule.
My one disagreement with Mandelbaum's excellent analysis concerns the Middle East. This region worries him for several reasons (terrorist networks, oil and gas reserves, weapons of mass destruction), but he dismisses militant Islam as a major threat to the ideas that make up the core of his book. I see this ideology representing no less profound a challenge than did facism and communism.
Still, Mandelbaum's main point remains: That peace, democracy, and free markets "characterize the conduct of human affairs at the outset of the third millennium" is surely a blessing we should be thankful for.