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The Ideas That Conquered The World: Peace, Democracy, And Free Markets In The Twenty-first Century

The Ideas That Conquered The World: Peace, Democracy, And Free Markets In The Twenty-first Century

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by Michael Mandelbaum

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At the dawn of the twenty-first century, three ideas dominate the world: peace as the preferred basis for relations between and among different countries, democracy as the optimal way to organize political life, and free markets as the indispensable vehicle for the creation of wealth. While not practiced everywhere, these ideas have--for the first time in history--no


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, three ideas dominate the world: peace as the preferred basis for relations between and among different countries, democracy as the optimal way to organize political life, and free markets as the indispensable vehicle for the creation of wealth. While not practiced everywhere, these ideas have--for the first time in history--no serious rivals. And although the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were terrible and traumatic, they did not "change everything," as so many commentators have asserted. Instead, these events served to illuminate even more brightly the world that emerged from the end of the Cold War.

In The Ideas That Conquered the World, Michael Mandelbaum describes the uneven spread (over the past two centuries) of peace, democracy, and free markets from the wealthy and powerful countries of the world's core, where they originated, to the weaker and poorer countries of its periphery. And he assesses the prospects for these ideas in the years to come, giving particular attention to the United States, which bears the greatest responsibility for protecting and promoting them, and to Russia, China, and the Middle East, in which they are not well established and where their fate will affect the rest of the world.

Drawing on history, politics, and economics, this incisive book provides a clear and original guide to the main trends of the twenty-first century, from globalization to terrorism, through the perspective of one of our era's most provocative thinkers.

Editorial Reviews

an excellent historical understanding of the evolution of the Western liberal ideas of free trade, democracy, and peace.
Mandelbaum captures with considerable scholarship and clarity the general underpinnings of current international relations and the possibilities for the future.
Richard Reeves
A thoughtful and powerful...analysis of the triumphant and ongoing impact of the ideas of peace, democracy and free markets.
Charlotte Observer
This is a timely and relevant analysis. Mandelbaum speaks powerfully and insightfully to our vexing and manifold challenges.
Leslie H. Gelb
The Ideas that Conquered the World is the most important work thus far on what's new and what's old about the post-Cold War world, about the forces and ideas that will do battle in the future, and it is beautifully written. It shows that history continues with interesting new wrinkles—worrisome and exciting.
Thomas L. Friedman
An important and compelling new book.
Continuing in the same tradition as Francis Fukuyama's , political science professor (and senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations) Mandelbaum continues the argument that capitalism and democracy are inextricably linked and that so-called "free markets" have emerged as indisputably triumphant in the world of contesting political and economic ideas. In exploring the political affairs of the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and China, he advances two propositions about liberal democracies that may seem surprising to observers of the current international scene: that democracies tend to conduct peaceful foreign affairs and that free markets naturally lead to democracy. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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By Michael Mandelbaum


Copyright © 2002 Michael Mandelbaum
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1586481347

Chapter One

Wilson Victorious

For a brief moment in the winter of 1918-19, Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth American president, bestrode the world like a colossus. When he arrived at the peace conference convened in Paris in the wake of World War I with a set of ideas for remaking the international system so as to assure that another such conflict could never take place, he commanded wider attention and generated higher hopes than any American before or since. The British writer H. G. Wells wrote that "humanity leapt to accept and glorify Wilson.... It seized on him as its symbol. He was transfigured in the eyes of men. He ceased to be a common statesman; he became a Messiah."

Wilson's ideas did not take hold, another terrible war erupted two decades later, and his career came to be regarded as a failure, its details forgotten by all but historians. At the outset of the twenty-first century, however, these ideas had come to dominate the world. His prescriptions for organizing political and economic life and for conducting foreign policy are the keys to understanding the new world that emerged when the great global conflict of the second half of the twentieth century, the Cold War,came to an end.


The world in the wake of the Cold War had the eerie aura of a large city from which the major landmarks had suddenly disappeared. The rivalry between East and West that dominated international relations in the second half of the twentieth century was the geopolitical equivalent of a city skyline: massive, solid, familiar. By the end of 1991 it had vanished. Long-standing borders, long-serving governments, the familiar alignments and animosities by which the countries and peoples of the world had oriented themselves and to which they had geared both their foreign policies and domestic arrangements were gone. The new setting was initially defined by what was no longer there. The world after the fall of European Communism had entered the post-Cold War era.

Different though it was from what had gone before, however, the post-Cold War world was not totally unfamiliar. For the historically minded it evoked a feeling of déja vu. That impression was accurate: The world had passed this way before, in fact three times before. The aftermath of the Cold War was the last stage in a recurring historical pattern.

In the Cold War, for the fourth time in the course of two centuries a great power had made a bid for political and military dominance on the continent of Europe and beyond. Each bid called into being an opposing coalition. On each occasion, after a bitter and prolonged conflict that included initial gains by the would-be master of Europe, the resisting coalition prevailed. On each occasion, the war destroyed the old political and economic order, creating the need to build a new one.

The French Revolution triggered the first of these cycles. The armies raised by the revolutionary regime and ultimately commanded by Napoleon swept over Europe and beyond, reaching east to Moscow and south to Egypt. The other European powers assembled in coalition three times to oppose the French but failed to defeat them. Finally, in 1815, a fourth coalition prevailed.

A century later imperial Germany sought the mastery of Europe. The resulting conflict was more destructive than any previous war. Of the 65 million men who fought, approximately 8.5 million were killed and another 21 million wounded. On the eastern front Germany defeated imperial Russia and imposed a harsh peace. But in the West, the opposing coalition, with Britain and France at its core and with the late but crucial addition of the United States, which entered the war in 1917, finally broke German military power in the fall of 1918.

Two decades later, Germany, governed by the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler, again sought dominance in Europe. It was opposed and, after five and a half terrible years, defeated by the countries that had overcome imperial Germany in 1918. Nazi Germany's opponents were joined by the Soviet Union, the successor state to the Russian empire, the government of which had collapsed under the weight of its military failure in the previous war. In the Asia-Pacific region, Japan took the role of Germany, the power bent on conquest and domination, and was defeated largely by the efforts of the United States.

The fourth great conflict followed almost immediately. The Cold War conformed to the familiar pattern. The Soviet Union, its satellites, and its ideological allies aspired-at least rhetorically-to implant Communist regimes throughout Europe and ultimately the world over. The opposing coalition included the United States, the democracies of Western Europe, and Japan, and it prevailed. The collapse of Communism, and of the Soviet Union itself brought the world, for the fourth time in modern history, to the final stage of the cycle.

This is the stage of reconstruction. On the three previous occasions the victors organized peace conferences to make plans for the postwar order. They drew new borders, installed new governments, founded new international institutions, and established new rules for international relations-or tried to do so. How well did they do? They have been judged, logically enough, by a single standard. In reconstructing a city gutted by fire, the first order of business is to make what is rebuilt fireproof. Since it is not possible to ensure that no fire is ever lit within the city limits, fireproofing involves minimizing the number of blazes that do break out, finding ways to keep them from spreading, and protecting the major structures against them-as well, of course, as organizing a fire department. Similarly, Europe's postwar reconstructions aimed, first and foremost, at avoiding wars such as those just concluded: preventing conflicts to the extent possible and, where prevention was not possible, containing them.

By this standard, the first postwar reconstruction, the foundations of which were laid at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, earns the highest marks. For the next century Europe was free of a major war. This was not simply a matter of good luck, coinciding with a period in which few political sparks were struck. To the contrary, the nineteenth century, with its industrial innovations and movements for social and political change, was more eventful, turbulent, and stressful than all the centuries of recorded history that preceded it.

The period after World War II was the second most successful. To be sure, the Cold War era was not free from conflict and tension: In fact, war between the two rival blocs was a constant possibility. But for almost half a century no shot was fired in anger directly across the great East-West divide of the European continent. The two blocs waged wars by proxy outside Europe, but the two principal adversaries never fought each other directly. Judged by what followed it, the least successful postwar reconstruction was the one after World War I, which brought Europe and the world a mere twenty-year respite from the horrors of major war. Yet it is this post-World War I settlement that bears the most instructive similarities to the international order after the collapse of Communism. It is in looking back at the aftermath of World War I that the sense of déja vu becomes most pronounced. To understand the problems and prospects facing the world after the collapse of Communism, a good place to begin is the failed effort at reconstruction in the wake of the First World War-and in particular the blueprint for the reconstruction of international affairs brought to the Paris peace conference of 1918-19 by the American president Woodrow Wilson.


Woodrow Wilson was the central figure at Paris, arriving to extraordinary expectations. His country had remained neutral for most of the war, with Wilson trying unsuccessfully to play the role of mediator, before finally entering the conflict in 1917. Although American casualties were modest compared with the losses sustained by the powers that fought for the entire war (or in the case of Russia, most of it), the American entry had tipped the military balance against Germany. Alone among the leaders at Paris, Wilson insisted that his country would have no part of the claims of territory and economic compensation over which the European powers were fighting. His country, he emphasized, stood for new principles of international order that, once put into practice, would prevent a repetition of the ghastly conflict into which Europe had fallen in August 1914, which turned out to be the worst military catastrophe that the continent had ever experienced. With his lofty ambitions and soaring rhetoric, Wilson seemed a political messiah who could spare the peoples of Europe another journey through the hell into which they had stumbled.

Wilson failed. At the heart of his program was the establishment of an international organization, the League of Nations, that was to play a central role in keeping the peace. Although the League was established, the United States Senate refused to ratify its charter, leaving Wilson's own country outside the organization, and in the end it turned out not to be effective in keeping the peace. It was not even a significant obstacle to the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

Eight decades after he stepped on to the international stage Woodrow Wilson remained a controversial figure. Retrospective judgments of the man, his policies, and his record were perhaps more sharply polarized than for any other figure in American political history. In this historical controversy both sides have a case. But the basis for Wilson's importance for the twenty-first century is something that historians seldom discuss.

Wilson's critics saw him as personally rigid, politically maladroit, and strategically naive-a man who concocted an unworkable scheme and then stubbornly resisted all efforts at improving it. They considered him a person whose responsibility for his own failure was mitigated only by the possibility that the cerebral hemorrhage he suffered in the midst of the political battle over American membership in the League of Nations impaired his faculties.

Wilson's defenders, by contrast, have regarded him as a visionary, a great reformer of world politics martyred by the pettiness and short-sightedness of his opponents. To them he was a prophet without honor in his own country who, if his program had been implemented, might well have been able to steer the world away from the disastrous course upon which it embarked in rejecting him.

The case against Wilson is a strong one. He was indeed stubborn and self-righteous. His handling of the ratification of the League charter was a masterpiece of political incompetence. The questions that skeptics raised about how the League would function and what membership would mean for the United States were entirely reasonable. It would have been a dereliction of their duty for the members of the Senate not to have raised them. Just how, they asked, would the League prevent war? Article X of its charter committed all members not only "to respect" but also to "preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the League." If the League's Council found a country to have committed an act of aggression, and arbitration did not resolve the matter, would the Council's member countries, including the United States, be obligated to take up arms against the aggressor? If so, how did this square with the American Constitution, which reserved to the United States Congress the prerogative of declaring war? If, on the other hand, Article X of the Charter did not require an automatic military response to international lawbreaking, was the League not fated to be a toothless, hollow creation, ineffective in preventing future wars?

Wilson had no answer. At first he tried to dodge the question. Attempting to remain faithful to the Constitution while at the same time standing firmly behind his vision of the League as the key to world peace, he asserted that resolutions by the League Council would be morally although not legally binding-which neither answered the question nor squared the circle. He implied that moral force could substitute for military force. But it was all too easy to imagine circumstances in which this would not be the case. History is full of examples of aggressors unswayed by moral condemnation. What would happen then? Wilson did not say.

Still, Wilson's defenders do have a case. In one important sense he was undoubtedly right: Europe needed a peace that conciliated Germany and it was this kind of peace-"peace without victory" was the phrase he used-that he sought to establish. But he was unable to produce such a peace because the war had been so costly that public opinion in the victorious powers, particularly Great Britain and France, demanded a settlement that could justify the sacrifices that had been made to win it. The publics insisted that the Germans pay reparations; but to the Germans this made the settlement harsh, unfair, and thoroughly unacceptable, sowing the seeds of the next conflict.

Moreover, some policies and decisions with which Wilson was associated, and that seemed in the immediate aftermath of the Paris peace conference to have been blunders, appear in a more favorable light decades later, if only because no one has since done better. If Wilson vested unrealistic hopes and expectations in the League of Nations, this was because it seemed to offer a solution to the problem he had gone to Paris to solve, the problem of war. With an effective global authority to keep them in check, he believed, sovereign states would not be free to commit the horrors they had perpetrated between 1914 and 1918. He was not the only person to conclude, in the wake of World War I, that a powerful international organization to keep the peace was rational, logical, and necessary.

All of these it might have been, but such an organization was not feasible. The experience with the League taught a lesson that held true thereafter: The world's sovereign states would not quickly, readily, or voluntarily surrender their sovereign prerogatives, whatever the price of retaining them. The international organization that was founded after World War II, the United Nations, embodied that lesson. The UN proved more durable than the League, but it was not a powerful institution and could not enforce peace. The question that Wilson had been unwilling and then unable to answer had long since been settled. The UN would not infringe on the sovereign prerogatives of its member states. The governments of these states were not prepared to submit to a supranational authority. The UN acted effectively on occasion, but only when its most powerful members agreed on the action and chose the UN as the vehicle for it. It did not have the power to compel the United States or any other country to go to war, or indeed to do anything at all.

Wilson and the other peacemakers at Paris were also retrospectively criticized for naivete in seeking to apply the principle of national self-determination to the multiethnic territories of central and southern Europe that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had ruled before World War I. But on this score they were not naive. Although they recognized that the eastern and southern parts of the continent could not be neatly parceled into ethnically homogeneous slices, they could not avoid dividing these territories in some fashion, as the Habsburg empire had already collapsed by the time the conference began. It could certainly not have been reassembled, although Wilson, wisely in retrospect, sought to preserve a measure of economic integration among the former Habsburg possessions. Recognizing that the successor states would inevitably contain substantial ethnic and national minorities within their borders, the peacemakers tried to devise a settlement that would protect them. And while the borders drawn were often contested, most of them survived the twentieth century.


Excerpted from THE IDEAS THAT CONQUERED THE WORLD by Michael Mandelbaum Copyright © 2002 by Michael Mandelbaum
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Leslie H. Gelb
The Ideas that Conquered the World is the most important work thus far on what's new and what's old about the post-Cold War world, about the forces and ideas that will do battle in the future, and it is beautifully written. It shows that history continues with interesting new wrinkles—worrisome and exciting.
—Leslie H. Gelb, President, Council on Foreign Relations
The Ideas that Conquered the World is the most important work thus far on what's new and what's old about the post-Cold War world, about the forces and ideas that will do battle in the future, and it is beautifully written. It shows that history continues with interesting new wrinkles—worrisome and exciting.
—Leslie H. Gelb, President, Council on Foreign Relations

Meet the Author

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the School of Advanced International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University, and is a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular foreign affairs columnist for Newsday and the author or co-author of eight books on foreign policy.

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