Our 21st Century Challenge

by on April 13th, 2007

As we have argued in these columns, historical comparisons often provide an enlightening context to our challenges, persuasively arguing that ours is not the unique age it appears to be, that in fact, as George Bernard Shaw wrote (and borrowed from the Bible), “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Writing in the Times of London, Anatole Kaletsky reviews the last century in light of comparative technological advancements and the major wars that were fought, and makes the credible conclusion that despite our travails we have little to complain about.

Momentarily side-stepping the fact that unlike the shadowy, omnipresent foe we face in radical Islam and the fact that the conventional challenges of communism and fascism came in the form of identifiable adversaries, modern Americans will never suffer the 25 percent unemployment rates of the Depression and the ravages of Dust Bowl poverty. Indeed, the boom and bust cycle that informed much of the early to mid-20th century has been systemically addressed such that broad-based economic woes will be part of a fading if painful memory.

That leads us to the central premise of our subject for today and that is how the lessons provided by the successive chapters of history inevitably exact a recalibration of the metrics of misery and success. The recollections of those who lived through the horrors of World War One and the Great Depression are vivid and savage reminders that not long ago the world was far less civilized in terms of the quality of life most of its inhabitants enjoyed.

For most of us, economic insecurity is defined by the fear of credit card debt–a matter more of discipline than issues beyond our control–rather than not being able to provide food for our families.

That stated, evil is genetically written into our identity as humans and since it can’t be expunged we must find ever more sophisticated ways to deal with it. That segues us to Thomas P.M. Barnett’s book The Pentagon’s New Map, which provides convincing evidence of the need to seed democratic principles–i.e., the rule of law, self-determination, respect of contracts, etc.–in regimes and nations that are susceptible to the plague of Islamic radicals.

The collateral observation is that offensive, conventional military action will become progressively ineffective in dealing with asymmetrical threats, as is evidenced in various real and nascent hot spots. As Frederic Bastiat, the 19th century classic liberal theorist observed, “Where goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” That’s somewhat simplistic, but it aptly communicates the inherent safeguards provided by a civic consensus predicated on a respect of international law and effective trade agreements.

However, because foresight is necessarily circumscribed, Mr. Kalatsky’s argument can only be taken so far. Although we’re not facing the genocidal Hitler or Stalin’s purges, we are facing an enemy that has sworn the destruction of the West, one which made a barbaric down payment on that promise on 9/11, as well as lesser attacks in other nations.

That argues for an aggressive policy of counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, and pre-emptive action where indicated. Passively awaiting the next attack, which is what many Democrats are essentially supporting, is a formula for self-destruction.

Mella is Editor of ClearCommentary.com.

Philip Mella