Commentary Magazine


American Politics in a Revolutionary World, by Chester Bowles

Not One World
by Irving Kristol
American Politics in a Revolutionary World. By Chester Bowles. Harvard University Press. 131 pp. $2.25.

We grow old, but we can hardly believe it, and are always unprepared for the shock of self-recognition in those awful moments when we see ourselves under the harsh aspect of mutability. As with individuals, so with nations. Western Europe is, in this half of the century, undergoing just such a crisis, both in fact and in laggard consciousness. What it used to do easily and naturally, it finds it now cannot do at all. Thus, where once Britain and France could dominate North Africa and the Middle East with a few battalions, they must now muster all their strength in order to keep an ever more precarious toehold. It is not even, in this case, a matter of disproportionate numbers finally prevailing, for the combined population of England and France is still almost twice the total number of Arabs in the world. What is lacking is virility and self-confidence—the courage to dare and the will to sacrifice. The English may read with pride Churchill’s history-saga of their world mission; and French pupils may still begin their studies with the premise that Dieu est français. But these are only the nostalgic reveries of middle age. And the fact that Western Europe has achieved the highest living standards in its history, that its current rate of economic progress compares favorably with any previous period in its history—these are but the comfortable circumstances of middle age, not signs of a new lease on life.

And America? America is a puzzle, for it is neither on European nor on any other known time. We Americans are accustomed to take it for granted that we are the embodied quintessence of life’s prime. To our supposed elders we are anxiously sympathetic; to our reputed juniors we are cheerfully helpful. But somehow, it doesn’t come off. Other people seem not to take us at our own estimate. Our worldly encounters frustrate instead of satisfying us; our vigor is misspent and yields no fruit; our expectations do not materialize. Every day the 20th century becomes less of an American century. Are we older than we think? Or younger?

Chester Bowles, our one-time ambassador to India, has first-hand knowledge of our national frustrations, and it is reassuring that he finds them to constitute nothing more serious than a passing case of immaturity. His new book, American Politics in a Revolutionary World, comprising the Godkin lectures he recently delivered at Harvard, sketches a theory of long-term political cycles in American history which is at the same time a theory of American development. It is a brief, urbane, and thoughtful volume. It is also a typically American book in that, having finished it, one is uncertain whether Mr. Bowles has diagnosed the crisis in America’s foreign relations or merely provided us with yet another symptom of that crisis.

Basically, what Mr. Bowles has done is to follow the honorable 19th-century custom of transplanting the Whig interpretation of history—history as the unfolding story of liberty—from the English to the American scene. He divides American history since the founding of the Republic into three periods, each of them representing a new consensus about, and a new ordering of, the nation’s political, social, and economic arrangements, and each being “higher” than the previous one in that the idea of liberty is expanded to encompass an ever greater portion of men’s activities. The first cycle, from Jefferson to Lincoln, secured political democracy for the people and national sovereignty for the Federal government. The second, from Lincoln to F.D.R., extended Constitutional rights to the Negroes and set up the juridical and ideological framework within which private initiative was able to convert the United States into an industrialized, wealthy country. The third, from F.D.R. to Eisenhower, saw the establishment of the welfare state and the extension of the democratic ethic—and the “rights” that are a corollary of it—to economic and social problems. The fourth cycle, on which we are just entering with timid and faltering step, will have foreign policy as its central political issue, and the consensus which Mr. Bowles hopes to see victorious would involve the further extension of the dynamic of American liberty to govern our attitude toward the world outside.

Such an interpretation of American history is, of course, a myth. It does, however, have the advantage of being, not the offshoot of Mr. Bowles’s private fancy, but rather a neat re-statement of the American myth—the myth America lives by, for better or worse. (Other nations have other myths, for better or worse.) His is the America of our textbooks and of our patriotic devotions; this is the image that, in young and tender imaginations, makes for a moral patriotism and a humble pride. And it is this idea-image, of a mystic and indissoluble partnership between the specific fortunes of America and the ineluctable march of Human Liberty, which is now undergoing a crucial confrontation with reality, in the form of America’s confrontation with a world we had some part in making but which is, it seems, becoming every day more foreign.

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As to the new consensus that would allow us to fulfill our “natural” role in world affairs, Mr. Bowles holds strong and elevating opinions on its nature:

“The most powerful ideas and principles in the history of man are closely linked with the evolution of American democracy. Today it is our revolution for self-determination, for human dignity, and for expanding economic opportunities which is alive and marching in Burma, India, and the Philippines, in Nigeria, the Sudan, and Tunisia, indeed throughout the non-communist world. If the leaders of America’s fourth consensus but rediscover the mission of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, we will find that we are again in step with the world and confidently on the offensive.”

Now, no one is likely to deny the fact that American foreign policy gravely lacks a set of working principles. But can these venerable clichés, no matter how earnestly declaimed, pass for such? Perhaps at one time they could. But not now. For the blunt and distasteful truth is that the world revolution of our time is not our revolution. We have not forfeited the leadership of this revolution for the good reason that we never possessed it. This revolution, so far from being ours, is frankly directed against the world hegemony of Western civilization, of which America is a part. The realities of this situation are obscured by the rhetoric of liberalism, which we have taught the rest of the world so well that they use it naturally to express even the most profoundly anti-liberal sentiments. Egypt’s desire for “self-determination” is so great that nothing less than a sovereignty over North Africa will satisfy it; and it values human dignity so highly that it is closing down Christian schools lest they detract from it. And the yearning for “expanding economic opportunities” is so great in the new nations of Asia that they are all busy devising plans that neglect mere food and shelter in favor of steel mills and factories which can manufacture such essential articles as tanks, guns, and airplanes.

Mr. Bowles, alas, has his centuries confused. It was the 19th century that witnessed the kind of liberal revolutions he has in mind. The revolutions of the 20th century are of quite a different order; and if we fail to see this, we are easily confounded by the self-evident. Take, for instance, the anti-Americanism that is rampant in the new nations of Asia and Africa. Why do the Indians and the Indonesians and the Moroccans dislike us, despite our past friendliness toward their movements for independence? There has been an extraordinary amount of ingenious sociology and soul-searching devoted to this question, whose answer stares us candidly in the face. They dislike us because we are what we are, and they are what they are. They dislike us for belonging to the white race which has humiliated them; they dislike our power, which is greater than theirs; they dislike our wealth, which they do not think we merit; they dislike our individualism, which runs counter to their notions of a right social order; they dislike our hedonistic mass culture, which offends their moral sensibilities; they dislike our democratic system of government because of its instabilities and lack of permanent authority—they dislike us for our vices, and they dislike us for what we would regard as our virtues. There is nothing dark or mysterious about their feelings so long as one does not make the assumption that our values are theirs.

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One hopes that Mr. Bowles will not be too upset and discouraged to learn, as he soon doubtless will, that outside Europe (including much of Eastern Europe) there are few parts of the world that have any faith, or even any interest, in the missions of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. For too long now we have been hypnotized by the mirage of a world conflict between the principles of freedom and those of totalitarianism in which our role is the gratifying one of preacher and savior. There is such a conflict, but it is pretty much limited to Europe. So far as the nations in the rest of the world are concerned, the battle between Communism and Western liberalism is a distant and dubious one. On the whole, they are instinctively more sympathetic to Communism because it suits their non-liberal frame of mind; but their real sympathies are centered on themselves, and even when they are tempted by Communism this is a totally different temptation from that known to the West—they are attracted, not by its utopianapocalyptic promise, but by its method of creating a powerful state in a poor country. And they want powerful states in order to work out their own national destinies as they understand them. The fundamental problem in South Asia is not whether India or Pakistan will “go Communist” or “choose freedom,” but whether Hindu or Moslem is going to dominate the sub-continent. Just as the fundamental problem in the Middle East is whether pan-Arab nationalism is going to be successful in its intention of reducing Western Europe to a state of dependency by seizing control of its supplies of oil.

It is about time we recognized that not all the peoples and nations in the world want to be free and happy, as we in America understand those terms. What they clearly all do want is to be the makers and shakers of history—of their own history first of all, but ultimately of our history too. This is a perfectly natural ambition which we share with them, though our self-righteousness sometimes inclines us to forget it. And this new, complicated world power struggle is taking place at a moment when the centuries of Western expansion appear to be over and the epoch of Western contraction to have begun. Mr. Bowles is under the impression that his principles are vital and forward-looking. For a majority of the earth’s population they are an irrelevant anachronism.

A new consensus about America’s role in world affairs is as badly needed as Mr. Bowles asserts. But this consensus will have to be new: our familiar schoolboy notions of the American Heritage will not suffice. The world, pace Mr. Bowles, is not one grand community. It is not quite a jungle either; but we shall probably be the less disillusioned if we are ready, even if only intermittently, to regard it as such. We shall surely discover what all great powers sooner or later discover: that there are inescapable contradictions between the ideals by which we govern our relations among ourselves, and the realities of our relations with others. In the course of this discovery, our own liberal institutions and habits of mind will be subjected to a tension and strain that only a lucid self-consciousness will be able to resist. Democracy, heaven be praised, is not indivisible, any more than peace is; we need no perfect solutions to survive in an imperfect world.

But if, as Mr. Bowles would have us, we insist on seeing the world as created in our own image, such overreaching vanity will end up in an overwhelming despair. Our new consensus would then be some form of a new isolationism, a withdrawal to Fortress America where we would live off our own savings and provisions, leaving the rest of the world to its wilful self-profanation. We could then take what satisfaction was to be found in our being the youngest nation ever to qualify for an old-age pension.

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