Thursday, January 31, 2008

American Empire I: Did the American Revolution Trigger World War I?

In a conversation yesterday on World War I, my good friend Jim E. suggested an astonishing but thought-provoking thesis:
that the anti-monarchist American Revolution of 1776-1781 precipitated a century-long anti-monarchist trend which led to Kaiser-dominated Germany facing off against the democratic Allies of France and Britain.

Jim also recounted the various secret machinations both sides went through to undermine their opponents: Germany supported the anti-czar Lenin and anti-British forces in Ireland and Africa, and even went so far as to prod Mexico to consider invading the U.S. The Allies of course had their own intelligence forces at work around the globe, including Lawrence of Arabia, whose job was to foment revolution in the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.

None of this was known to the general public on either side. Propaganda reigned supreme, with each side demonizing the other to flog the populace into continuing sacrifices of life and treasure.

Two other forces were at work, undermining monarchy beneath the surface: literacy and communication. The American Civil War was the first modern war in the terms of railway logistics, ironclad warships and many other innovations, but it was also the first modern war in the sense that the majority or participants knew how to read and there were newspapers and telegraphs to insure rapid and wide dissemination of war news.

The first imperative of any dictatorship/monarchy is to control the flow of news and ideas. A literate, well-informed populace is the natural enemy of monarchy and dictatorship, as Hitler well understood. After its brief, aborted lurch into democracy (recall that Hitler gained power via a free election), Germany renewed its love affair with dictatorship and centralized power, as did Japan.

Just as the American Revolution set the stage for World War I, WWI set the stage for World War II. With the complete and total defeat of both Axis powers, monarchy in the West was finally destroyed as a political and cultural force.

The American Civil War played a role in World War I as well. On one level, the war was about slavery, the deep, unanswered conflict papered over by the Constitutional Convention. But on another level, it resolved the lingering conflict between states rights and the Federal, centralized government.

The modern state capable of global reach and war is by nature centralized. Only by mobilizing an entire modern economy can any nation project power and protect the trading lanes and outposts which generate most of any global economy's net profits.

Before the American Revolution, every major government in the world was a monarchy. Afterward, European powers were drawn to dismantle or limit monarchies one way or the other; France convulsed in multiple revolutions and swings from democracy to monarchy, while Russia went down the path of the "dictatorship of the proletariat."

In this long view, the entire Cold War was a continuation of the long trend of democracy undermining and then replacing monarchy. The Soviet Union and Maoist China essentially lost the Cold War (along with North Vietnam and North Korea), and all but the latter have undergone slow, as yet incomplete transformations from dictatorships to more open societies and economies. Their transformation is still a work in progress.

In this context, it is well to recall what Chou En-Lai replied when asked about the impact of the French Revolution: "It's too soon to say." In other words, from the long perspective of Chinese history, it was too soon to say in 1970 what the full outcome of the 1790s revolution would be.

That is to say, we are participants in and observers of very long-term trends. From at least one point of view, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the (abortive) attempt by the Iranian people to replace their monarchy with a more open, more democractic government. (Their first attempt in 1953 had been foiled by a C.I.A.-funded coup which brought the Shah's father to monarchist power.)

How will the American involvement play out in Iraq? It is definitely too soon to say. Recall that U.S. troops remain in Japan and Germany, 60 years after their defeat, largely to insure their neighbors that the former Axis Powers will never be allowed to slip back into fascism and aggression.

As easy as it is to mock "nation building" and "democracy" in the chaos the U.S. has unleashed in Iraq, the genie is definitely out of the bottle in one supremely fundamental way: the media is gloriously, rampantly luxuriously free in Iraq. Let a thousand flowers bloom, indeed; by all accounts, newspapers and flyers arise and fade at a dizzying rate. With high literacy and a free press, Iraq is now under the sway of the long-term trend away from monarchy and dictatorship which has influenced every nation for the past 200+ years.

In a peculiar way, Iran and Iraq may well be bound up in a very long-term, largely hidden process of moving away from monarchy and oligarchy toward more open, more deomocratic societies. In this, they are simply following the global trend which has already been in place for hundreds of years.

We should also note that machinations don't work long-term. Supporting coups and terrorists never truly turn the tide back to monarchy and closed societies; at best they delay, at frightful cost, the inevitable.

In this sense, the entire notion of "empire" becomes suspect. More on that tomorrow.

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