Blogs > Liberty and Power > FLAMES & OXYGEN

Dec 27, 2003


My debate on Atlantis II continues. I'd like to reproduce here some points of interest.

Does anyone honestly believe that World War II would have happened anyway without World War I and the events that transpired in its aftermath? Ayn Rand often said that World War I—the war"to make the world safe for democracy"—led to the birth of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia, and that World War II led to the surrender of three-quarters of a billion people into communist slavery. These were"unintended consequences" writ large, on a scale that was previously unimaginable.

With Rand, I would agree that ideas, especially philosophical ideas, are the driving force of history. If human beings accept a virulent strain of philosophy, it is no less lethal than being exposed to a deadly strain of virus. But there are all sorts of inoculations and vaccines that one can take to prevent a virus. And there are all sorts of things that one can do, once a virus has hit, to shorten its course, making certain, for instance, that it doesn't spread.

Thus, if one looks strictly and only at the philosophy of Nazism, outside of any historical context, one could certainly conclude that this was a militant, racist, anti-Semitic creed that had to lead, by its very nature, to death and destruction. But just because the logical implementation of an idea can lead to death and destruction does not mean that it must. When Rand endorsed the view that ideas have efficacy, she didn't endorse the view of philosophic determinism: that ideas must result in certain outcomes, regardless of context or circumstance. There is nothing inevitable or inexorable about it. Nazism, the flame, needed oxygen to flourish. The loss of Germany in World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, and the Great Depression were all its sources of oxygen. [...]

Everything about Islamic fundamentalism reeks of death and destruction. But there is nothing inexorable about this. Such ideas do not exist or flourish in a historical vacuum. They can only become lethal in the context of a certain constellation of historical conditions. That is why Rand emphasized the political conditions of tribalism's rebirth (which I mentioned in an earlier post). That is why I've emphasized that so much of what is happening today is a product of the collision of fundamentalism with a particularly short-sighted,"pragmatic," interventionist US foreign policy, which created the conditions for the empowerment of autocrats, despots, and fundamentalists. You cannot abstract virulent ideologies from the conditions that allow them to rear their ugly heads. If such things are deadly flames, past US foreign interventions have been their oxygen. (And, furthermore, you cannot abstract US foreign policies from the system of interventionism that Rand characterized as the"New Fascism," since such policies emerge from, and perpetuate, that system.)

So too, we can't abstract the current situation from the history of US foreign policy: from US enrichment of the Saudis—who export fanatical Wahhabism to the rest of the world; from US involvement with the Shah of Iran—which led to the rise of the Khomeini theocracy; from US encouragement of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war—which bolstered the Hussein regime; from US encouragement of the mujahideen in Afghanistan—which empowered the Taliban.

Granted: We can play the game of"what if" forever. So, let me play that game, briefly, by quoting from Thomas Fleming's book The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2003). Fleming is worth quoting at length:

If the United States had refused to intervene in 1917, would a German victory in 1918 have been a better historical alternative? The answer is debatable. By 1918, the Germans, exasperated by the Allied refusal to settle for anything less than a knockout blow, were contemplating peace terms as harsh and vindictive as those the French and British imposed, with Wilson's weary consent, in the Treaty of Versailles.

There is another possibility in this newly popular game of what-if. What would have happened if Wilson had taken William Jennings Bryan's advice and practiced real rather than sham neutrality? Without the backing of American weaponry, munitions, and loans, the Allies would have been forced to abandon their goal of the knockout blow. The war might have ended in 1916 with a negotiated peace based on the mutual admission that the conflict had become a stalemate. As a genuine neutral, Wilson might even have persuaded both sides to let him be a mediator. Lloyd George's argument—that unless the United States intervened, Wilson would have no place at the peace table—was specious at best. Both sides would have needed America's wealth and industrial resources to rebuild their shattered economies.

Germany's aims before the war began were relatively modest. Basically, Berlin sought an acknowledgment that it was Europe's dominant power. It wanted an independent Poland and nationhood for the Baltic states to keep Russia a safe distance from its eastern border. Also on the wish list was a free trade zone in which German goods could circulate without crippling tariffs in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Austria-Hungary. It is not terribly different from the role Germany plays today in the European Economic Union. But the British Tories could not tolerate such a commercial rival in 1914 and chose war.

Some people whose minds still vibrate to the historic echoes of Wellington House's propaganda argue that by defeating Germany in 1918, the United States saved itself from imminent conquest by the Hun. The idea grows more fatuous with every passing decade. A nation that had suffered more than 5 million casualties, including almost 2 million dead, was not likely to attack the strongest nation on the globe without pausing for perhaps a half century to rethink its policies. One can just as easily argue that the awful cost of the war would have enabled Germany's liberals to seize control of the country from the conservatives and force the kaiser to become a constitutional monarch like his English cousin.

A victorious Germany would have had no need of political adventurers such as Adolf Hitler. Nor would this counterfactual Germany have inserted the Bolsheviks into Russia and supported them with secret-service money. Lenin and Trotsky might have agitated in a political vacuum in Switzerland unto a crabbed old age. Or ventured a revolution in their homeland that would have come to a swift and violent end. On the eve of the war, Russia had the fastest-growing economy in Europe. The country was being transformed by the dynamics of capitalism into a free society. The war created the collapse that gave Bolshevism its seventy-year reign of blood and terror.

Let me conclude by reiterating a Hayekian point: All human action—by its nature—leads to unintended consequences. But war especially leads to far-reaching unintended consequences, and most of these are negative. The reason for this is that it creates a dynamic that feeds on destruction: destruction of life, liberty, and property. It creates a host of institutions geared toward such destruction, and these institutions—no matter how important they might be to a relatively free society's defense of life, liberty, and property—have had long-lasting effects on their diminution over time. That's because the institutions left in place after the war are almost always consolidated in the peace, and used to further erode the very values that they were put in place to"defend."

If war is necessary against those who have attacked innocent American lives, then it is all the more necessary to pay careful attention to the kinds of strategies and institutions that are created to forge this battle. The Iraq war was unnecessary, in my view, to the defense of American security—but it has now extended the dynamics of unintended consequences in ways that we have yet to understand fully. We have not learned the lesson of the complications that result from"pragmatic" US intervention abroad. We don't wish to concern ourselves with the new oxygen that we may be providing for future flames—that will consume more American cities and lives.

Karl Marx said it best when he declared that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce.

And the joke, I fear, is on us.

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