Letter to Congress on the Continuation of History
1039 Longworth House Office Building
Washington DC 20515
Wednesday, March 21, 2004
Last Saturday, Debby and I joined about two hundred people at the Torch of Friendship on Biscayne Boulevard and millions of people around the world to support an end to the “War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan and the other 130 countries where U.S. troops are now deployed. I am writing today with some reflections.
Throughout history, human societies have evolved through ever-changing economic and political systems with different centers of power. In “The End of History”(1989), Francis Fukuyama theorized that the end of the “Cold War” had brought this historical process to a close, with the victory of American-style economic and political liberalism, which could now expand unopposed to every corner of the globe (under American leadership, of course).
Fifteen years on, it is clear that American economic and political leaders have taken Dr. Fukuyama’s message to heart, or have at least acted on the same assumptions he made. However, the world is conforming neither to his theory nor to their efforts to act on it. The end of the Cold War was a significant moment, but the world’s economic and political history is quite possibly evolving more vigorously than ever, and being shaped by popular forces beyond the control of the U.S. government or the corporate interests it represents.
President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” epitomized the illusion that a handful of renegade regimes were all that stood between America and universal acceptance of the American system. And yet, paradoxically, Mr. Bush’s efforts to eliminate his handpicked enemies have stirred up unanticipated reactions in countries presumed to be “post-historical” safe havens of corporate employment and consumerism.
The fact is that the people of the world are not playing the parts assigned to us. Instead of mindlessly embracing corporate consumerism and supporting whatever policies are decided on by our leaders, more and more of us are objecting loudly to the deficiencies of our present economic and political system, which is failing to address many of our most serious concerns. Jonathan Schell has noted that we are facing “an arduous, wrenching, perilous, mind-exhaustingly complicated process of learning how to live as one indivisibly connected species on our small, endangered planet”; and that U.S. political and economic leaders have derailed large-scale efforts to advance this process in order to pursue a corporate and militaristic agenda which is a “huge, unnecessary roadblock between the world and the Himalayan mountain range of urgent tasks that it must accomplish no matter who is in charge”.
The problems we must tackle this century include: natural resource depletion; population growth; climate change; the proliferation of all kinds of weapons; extreme poverty and inequality; old and new diseases; environmental degradation; as well as ethnic conflict, terrorism and war. Our economic and political systems must evolve in order to address these problems and support our common and yet diverse aspirations as human beings.
Against this background it is no secret that American economic and political leaders have huge material interests in preserving a status quo in which the United States exercises the dominant military and political role that it has played for the past half-century, and they would like us to believe that the future of our country rests on their efforts to do so. However, in historical terms, our government’s present reliance on the aggressive use of military force, coupled as it is with unprecedented debt on all fronts, conforms more closely to the model of a great power in decline seeking desperately to prolong its dominance. Mythologies of “defense” and “freedom” that have served its interests in the past are losing their credibility, especially overseas, and exploiting the very real threat of global terrorism to further U.S. geopolitical aims in Iraq and elsewhere has been profoundly irresponsible.
With such a large stake in the status quo, it was perhaps inevitable that the United States would not be the country to lead the world forward into the 21st century, but our political establishment must face reality and find a new and more constructive role for our country that actually addresses the fundamental challenges of our time. The global nature of these challenges will require unprecedented international cooperation, and President Bush was right when he called for humility in American foreign policy.
Fukuyama pointed out correctly that, with the demise of Communism and Socialism, there is no longer any competing ideology to Western liberalism. So, if this system is not addressing our needs, what is the alternative? One of the features of the current peace and social justice movement is a fluidity regarding ideology that resists the creation of a new -ism or theoretical system, and this seems to me to be a strength rather than a weakness. Ideologies have always been opportunistic constructs designed to validate the interests of their proponents, and we may be better served in the future by something that is far simpler, less resistant to change and more responsive to our needs.
In “Century of War”(1994), Gabriel Kolko describes a way forward based upon “a quite simple dedication to being on the side of the oppressed, the disadvantaged, and the people who really work to earn what they spend, whenever the basic criterion of who should gain or lose in a society is applied”. He adds, “In the most basic sense, when the question of “whose side are you on” is asked, this is ultimately the only response that makes the entire historic tradition of reform and the improvement of society both meaningful and consistent. And it complements an equally necessary devotion to the prevention of war.” Such basic, humanitarian principles have in fact been the real driving force behind what social progress we have made in the past few centuries, whatever ideological forms have been superimposed on them. And they must and will continue to shape our evolving world.