GLOBAL POLITICAL WARMING: Five Emerging Lessons

By Jeffrey Scheuer

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 5, 1990

The collapse of Communism and the Cold War system in Europe is the most important and hopeful development of modern times. But it is also a complex lesson — for Americans as much as for Europeans — about where the warming winds of history are blowing. While it’s too soon to grasp fully the events of the past year, the unfolding story suggests at least five basic revisions of our political thinking in the new era.

Democracy is indeed a universal human value, as meaningful in Prague or Beijing as in Peoria. It isn’t arrogant to assume that the rest of the world wants what we want in this regard; it’s arrogant to assume the contrary. The whole world doesn’t need American-style government; but democratic institutions are concomitants of the basic human rights that all people want and deserve. The democracy movement in China, for example, rearranges our view of that alien land, long regarded with a certain deferential awe based on ignorance and fear. China must now be held to the same human rights standards as Western countries. We can no longer confuse the will of her aging strongmen with the will of her billion people.

Like Communism itself, the crudely polarized Cold War ideology of anti-Communism is defunct, and subtler distinctions are needed. Totalitarian Communism is a form of government unique to our time; it could never have existed in the 19th century and cannot survive the 20th. But the very different ideas behind socialism and Marxism will survive the wreckage. (In fact, Stalin was no more the direct progeny of Marx than Hitler was of Adam Smith.) What is ending with Perestroika and Glasnost is not socialism but its perversion, party rule in the fraudulent name of the working class. Socialist ideals will persist — as they have across Western Europe — based not on state ownership or party rule but on economic equality in more democratic forms, such as cooperative, worker- owned, local-government, and nonprofit enterprise.

Marxism will survive too, not as a statist dogma but mainly in the universities — and in a sense that’s where it belongs. Marx never offered an explicit design for government. What he devised was a mode of analysis of capitalism which, for all its limits and flaws, is an enduring contribution to social thought. The Marxist vision is probably too radical, and too intellectually complex, to ever win a broad following; but it is also too profound to lose its appeal to sophisticated thinkers on the democratic left.

As East-West conflict eases, North-South tensions will inevitably mount, and the industrialized countries will have to form stable political and economic relations with the less affluent nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Disease, hunger and overpopulation in these developing lands will be the challenges of the new century, as will the nurturing of democratic institutions. Egalitarian socialism may well prevail in the Third World, but if coupled with democracy we needn’t fear it. In the struggles of democracy’s newest adherents we may even have something to learn.

Foreign policy “realists” of the Kissinger-Haig-Kirkpatrick school have been utterly upended by events. Their basic premise that right-wing “authoritarian” states should be appeased as anti-Communist allies, and are democratizable, while Communist states are not, is now both demonstrably false and obsolete. The bipolar world of superpower conflict is bygone. The collapse of Communism is a victory for the human rights agenda that Jimmy Carter was scorned for advancing.

Down through history, nations have based economic power on military conquest and empire. But the contrasting experiences of the USSR, West Germany, and Japan since World War II have shown that might is no longer the key to economic success. On the contrary: prosperity is now based primarily on human capital, which means skills, education, energy, and incentive. And the return on human capital is incomparably higher in open, democratic societies. The splitting of economic from military power may prove the second great discovery of this century, after the splitting of the atom. History is not ending, as some argue; if anything, it’s resuming. As we grope to understand the new order, it’s time for new thinking across the spectrum of American opinion — and at the very top.