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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century

Michael Mandelbaum, Ph.D.
The Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
Remarks to the Open Forum
Washington, DC
September 18, 2002

Opening Remarks and Introduction

Thank you very much, Alan, for that splendid introduction. It is a pleasure -- and a privilege -- to be here to speak with distinguished practitioners about some of the issues that this book discusses.

The purpose of The Ideas That Conquered the World is to provide a context into which to fit the disparate events that preoccupy all of us and that are of professional concern to people in this room: issues from terrorism to globalization, from Chinese succession politics to the Argentine economic crisis. The purpose of the book is to provide a framework, an overview, and the big picture.

We had such a framework during the Cold War years. The Cold War itself provided a context for almost everything that happened in the world, which either derived from or could be related to that great conflict between East and West. Since the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War, we’ve been without such a framework. The purpose of this book is to provide a replacement.

The replacement I propose is the supremacy around the world of three great ideas: peace as a method of organizing international relations, democracy as the optimal form of government, and the free market as a way of structuring economic life. The central fact of the 21st century, in my view, is the triumph of our liberal ideas.

But that phrase --"the triumph of our liberal ideas"-- which describes the thesis of the book, requires at least three qualifications. First, what do I mean by "triumph"? After all, these three ideas are certainly not practiced everywhere. The world is far from wholly peaceful, or democratic, although the market is more nearly universal. What I mean by the "triumph’ of these ideas is that, for the first time since they were introduced in the 18th century, they have no serious rivals as formats for organizing public and political life. Their stature is captured by a story I tell in the book about a French architect who was asked where in Paris he would most like to live. He replied, "The Eiffel Tower, because it’s the only place in the city where you don’t have to look at it." Peace, democracy and free markets are collectively the Eiffel Tower of the 21st century. Like them or hate them -- and we know that there are people who deeply dislike them -- they are unavoidable.

The second qualification to the assertion that our liberal ideas have triumphed has to do with the word "our." Who are "we" in this case? I do not mean only the United States: these are not exclusively or by origin American ideas. In fact, the ideas themselves were invented principally in Great Britain, and also in France, in the 18th century. They’re Western ideas, but they’re not only Western ideas. They have become universal. Japan is as much a market economy as is the United States; India is as much a democracy as Great Britain, and this universal character of these ideas is an important source of their appeal. It means that these ideas can be embraced without siding with the United States on everything, or even on any of the issues that face the international community. It’s perfectly possible now, as it was not during the Cold War, to be pro-democratic, and, in a sense, anti-American. Here, a certain country in Western Europe noted for its fashion and cuisine comes to mind.

The final qualification has to do with the term, "liberal". What do I mean by that? I do not use the term in the way that it is used in the everyday discourse of American politics, which pits liberals against conservatives over issues such as abortion and taxes. Instead, the term, "liberal" is here used in its original, classical, 19th century sense, meaning, "for liberty." In this sense, both political parties, and virtually all Americans agree: these three great ideas are what unite us, and have united us, for two centuries, and now unite much of the world.

The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with history, the second with foreign and security policies, the third with politics and economics. I’d like to say a word about each.

First, history: the purpose of this section is to fit the present moment into the global history of the last two hundred years. There’s much to say about this, but here I’d like to stress two points in particular: first, I see the history of the last two centuries, the history of the modern period, as being, a battle of ideas about how to organize and manage the world. In the 19th century, the battle took place between liberal, modern ideas -- peace, democracy and free markets on the one hand -- and the traditional ways of social and political organization that had held sway throughout the world for centuries or the other. According to the traditional approach to governance, war was normal, politics involved kings and emperors ruling on the basis of heredity, and economic life was stagnant. These traditional ideas lost ground steadily, after the French Revolution, in the course of the 19th century, and were swept away by World War I. But in their wake, our liberal ideas confronted a different opponent: what I call "illiberalism," a term that here covers both Fascism and Communism. These two ideologies, and the great powers that embraced them, differed in many important ways, but they had certain elements in common: they glorified war, they practiced government by dictatorship, and they exercised considerable -- in the case of the Soviet Union, almost total -- government control of economic affairs. Fascism was defeated in World War II, Communism in the Cold War. This left liberal ideas without a serious rival, or, as they are sometimes known in the Pentagon, a "peer competitor."

This brings me to the second point in the first section of this book that I want to stress: the second chapter of this book offers a re-interpretation of the Cold War. The Cold War resembled the other great wars of the modern period -- the Napoleonic War, World Wars I and II -- in that it was a global struggle, the outcome of which transformed the world. But it was unlike those predecessors in one crucial way: the Cold War was won not by force of arms, but, as I argue in this book and in this chapter, by the force of example. It was the success the West enjoyed in politics, and particularly in economics, that held the key to the collapse of Communism. I stress this point because it is, I believe, important for understanding not only the past but the future, as well. The Western example that won the Cold War is still extremely potent. The forces of example that brought down communism are still operating in the world, and now without serious rival. They exert a gravitational pull everywhere, and that gravitational pull is a political force not to be underestimated.

The title of the second section of this book, which concerns foreign and security policy, is "The Invention of Peace." The main point is this: in Europe, at the end of the 20th century, the countries of the Continent, and of North America, including, most notably, of course, the United States, stumbled into an answer to an age-old question: that question -- and it is in some ways, the central question in all of international politics -- is how, in a world of sovereign and independent states, without an over-arching authority, without world government, is it possible to have not only an armed truce, but genuine peace?

Genuine peace does, I believe, reign in Europe, which, as we all know, has been, historically, the cockpit of war. The nations of Europe came upon a formula for peace that involves two parts, each of which touches on armaments. I elaborate this formula in the fourth chapter of the book. Let me simply say here that the two parts of the formula for peace are, first, configuring armaments and armed forces for defending rather than attacking, and second, transparency, guaranteed through negotiated agreements, so that every country knows what forces all the others have, and what they are doing with them.

The key in inducing the nations of Europe and North America to adopt this formula for peace was and is a cluster of attitudes involving the use of force that evolved in the West, although not elsewhere, in the second half of the 20th century, which I call "warlessness." Warlessness is a pronounced, principled, widespread aversion to armed conflict, which has come to dominate Western Europe and has implanted itself, although far more weakly, in other parts of the world. In the fourth chapter of this book, I describe the origins of peace in Europe, which I call a "common security order." In Chapter Five, I discuss the prospects for bringing common security to East Asia, the other part of the world where a major war would be fought. In Asia, I find both good news and bad news. The central issue is China, and the good news is that there is only one serious issue that could trigger a major war involving China: that issue is Taiwan. The bad news is that, at this moment, no solution to the Taiwan problem is in sight. War there, I find, is not inevitable, or even likely, but it is possible, and a war over Taiwan, would be a serious one because it could well involve two nuclear-armed powers, the United States and The People’s Republic of China. Therefore, in my view the Taiwan Straits is, and this is a phrase I use in the title of Chapter Five, "The most Dangerous Place on the Planet."

Peace has come to Europe, but obviously it is not universal. It reigns in what I call the world’s core, the rich wealthy countries. But outside the core, in the periphery -- what we used to call the third world -- things are far more turbulent: I argue in Chapter Six of this book that the peace of the core and the turbulence of the periphery are related. Another important theme in this second part of The Ideas that Conquered the World is that great power rivalry in the core was the source of the interest of the great powers in the periphery. The United States fought in Korea and in Vietnam not because those countries were of intrinsic importance to us, but rather as part of a larger conflict with the Soviet Union. During the Cold War and for all of the modern period before this and indeed for most of recorded history, the great powers saw the world as a kind of chessboard. Every part was interconnected and so even the queens--- even the great powers -- of the global system had to be concerned about the pawns: the loss of a pawn, as every chess player knows, can lead ultimately to the loss of the game itself. Great powers cared about the pawns of the world until the 21st century, but that is no longer true, or at least it’s not true in the same way that it has historically been true. That is one reason that the world outside the core has been so disorderly. For on the whole, and with important exceptions, the core’s interest in the periphery helped to promote stability there. Those sources of stability are gone, leading to the new world disorder that we have observed since the collapse of Communism, which is the subject of my sixth Chapter.

The disconnection, at least in security terms, between the core and the periphery that I argue is characteristic of the world the 21st century does have one towering exception with which we are all familiar. There is one part of the planet outside the core from which emanate real threats to us and the other industrial democracies. I refer, of course, to the Middle East. The Middle East is home to the world’s largest reserves of oil, a cut-off of which could inflict great damage on the core economies. The Middle East is also home to countries that aspire to get nuclear weapons, and it is a spawning ground of terrorism, as we need no reminding after September 11 of last year. The solution to the problems we face in the Middle East and in and from the periphery is the spread to these countries of peace, democracy and free markets. What are the chances this will happen? That is the subject of the third part of this book.

The third part of this book is entitled "The Liberal Theory of History." As I interpret it, this is a widely-held if seldom systematically articulated view held in the west and, especially held in the United States, that all good things do go together, that there is a relationship among the three great liberal ideas, and that one tends to promote the others. Stated so boldly this sounds to good to be true, but the fact that something sounds too good to be true doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not true. And I find in this third part of The Ideas that Conquered the World considerable evidence in favor of the two propositions that lie at the heart of what I call the liberal theory of history.

The first of these propositions is that democracies tend to conduct peaceful foreign policies, a proposition that has been the subject of research and controversy and political studies on both sides of the Atlantic for the past quarter century. I believe that there is some evidence in favor of this proposition. There is nothing certain about this association, but the relationship between democracy and foreign policy is a pronounced one, if democracy is properly understood. For democracy, and this is one of the major points in the chapter devoted to this subject, consists just of elections but also of constitutionalism -- the rule of law, the protection of rights. Where the two go together, where people can choose their government and there are observed rules on what the government can do, then we do observe peaceful foreign policies.

The second proposition for which I think there is some encouraging evidence at the heart of the liberal theory of history is that market economies tend to become political democracies. This is of course not automatic, not a law of history like a law of physics -- there are no laws of history like the invariant laws of physics. But there is a real tendency, a predisposition for countries that have liberal market economies to move in the direction of liberal, meaning democratic politics. As I detail in the book, this is a matter of both logic and historical evidence. Most important for the liberal theory of history is the virtually universal embrace in our time of the free market. Indeed, I assert that the free market is probably the most popular and legitimate institution in all of human and history. But this assertion, important as it is, requires some qualifications. First we have discovered, especially in the wake of the collapse of Communism, that it is far more difficult to construct a working market economy than we believed throughout the 20th century. The struggle to construct a working market economy is, I believe, the most important public business in much of the world. And it is now the most important public business in two of the most important countries in the world, which receive considerable attention in this book, namely Russia and China. I argue that the economic problems of Russia and China are more similar than are often realized, and that these economic problems also have a good deal in common with the economic problems with which most of the countries in the periphery must cope. A second qualification of the universal embrace of the free market is that even where markets are securely embedded and operationally functional, this does not mean that the countries that have them are without problems, as we know in this country. What can be said is that the 21st century is the age of the market and while the 21st century will scarcely be without economic problems, those problems will be the problems that markets present. The third section of this book examines those problems at some length.

This is related to a larger point. The world as a whole is scarcely free of problems. But it faces a different set of problems now then it did during the Cold War, or indeed during the two centuries before. And, in my judgment, the problems that we face today and the problems with which you deal with every day are on the whole preferable to the problems we have left behind. Terrorism is obviously one such problem. It is a serious and dangerous issue and especially dangerous in an age of weapons mass of mass destruction. But I do not believe that the 21st century will be the age of terror. Terrorism does not confront us with the kind of threat that we faced in the 20th century in Fascism and Communism. Terrorists do not control, and have no chance of controlling, a powerful state. Terrorists do not offer ideas with universal appeal, as Fascism and Communism did. Insofar as the terrorist of September 11th actually embraced a formula for government, this formula has been tried and failed in Iran and Afghanistan. So, terrorism cannot dislodge the supremacy of peace, democracy and free markets. But that fact does not mean that the flourishing of these liberal ideas is a certainty. To ensure their flourishing is the role of the United States. This country has to take the lead in maintaining the international structures, both involving security and economics, within which peace, democracy and free market can flourish. And that is the challenge that United States and those responsible for its foreign policy face in the years ahead.

Now let me add a postscript to my remarks. This book concerns the last 200 years, as well as the next 50, but it does, I believe, bear on issues of the moment. So I would like to offer on the basis of what I have written four points that bear on one such issue: namely, what to do about Iraq. The first point has to do with the Middle East. As I have noted, this is the one region in the periphery that is of direct, continuing and urgent concern to us, because of the dangers lurking there. Indeed I devote a separate chapter to the Middle East called "The Dragons Lair", a title that comes from a phrase that was printed on medieval maps to denote areas of the world that were either unknown or thought to be dangerous, or both. That phrase was "Cave, hic dragones" --beware, here there are dragons. Whatever the outcome of the current confrontation with Iraq, the Middle East is, I believe, destined remain the center of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future. This is so as well because the two regions that have traditionally been more important, the two regions where great wars have been fought and could be fought, namely Europe and East Asia, are thankfully, at least for the moment, quiescent. We can, I think, say that where American security policy is concerned, the Middle East is the central focus.

The second point about the Iraq issue that I derive from this book has to do with nuclear weapons. The end of the Cold War made many problems nonexistent or easier to manage. But it also made some problems harder and nuclear proliferation is one of them. The Soviet Union, when it existed, controlled both dangerous nuclear materials and client countries aspiring to posses them. Now the grip that Moscow once exercised has relaxed, and weapons of mass destruction do constitute the principal security threat to the United States and the West in the new world. This raises an important and difficult question: what to do about countries that manage to acquire nuclear weapons and seek to use them or brandish them for purposes antithetical to the interests of the United States. In the response to this so far happily hypothetical, but perhaps imminent question, two controversial policies have been suggested: build a system of ballistic missile defense and adopt a doctrine of preemption. Whatever one’s views of these policies, they constitute responses to genuine and serious problem, problems that the end of the Cold War and the advent of world of dominated by peace, democracy and free markets placed in front of us.

A third aspect of the current issue with which so many of you are dealing on which some useful points can be derived from my book is multilaterialism. There is considerable talk about this issue, and the point I would make is that whatever the need, for and the utility of a multilateral approach to Iraq, and I am certainly sympathetic to it, the opportunity for a genuine multilateral approach is a mark of the distinctiveness of the world of the 21st century. Precisely because these three ideas are so dominant, precisely because the traditional opposition has been vanquished is it now possible to aspire to the kind of consensus that much of the world now seems to demand. In fact, it seems to me that international politics, because of the dominance of these three liberal ideas, is coming increasingly to resemble politics within a democratic community. Rounding up support at the United Nations for a resolution that the United States favors has something in common with trying to get legislation through Congress. It is frustrating and protracted but it takes place between and among entities that are in accord on basic values and agree that whatever their disagreement, they will not to go to war over it. Indeed in understanding American foreign policy it occurs to me that perhaps the text to study is not Machiavelli’s The Prince but rather Roberts Caro’s recent installment of his biography of Lyndon Johnson Master of the Senate. Running the senate was an exercise in herding cats, and in the 21st century leading the world, the burden of which falls onto the United States, also seems to be a metaphorical exercise in trying to herd cats.

Fourth and finally, this current issue raises a matter with which I deal with some length in the book, and that is the role of the American public. In any military operation against Iraq, the support of the American public will be critical and cannot be taken for granted. In The Ideas that Conquered the World I spend some time on what qualifies now as a contrarian point. The world worries about the United States acting in an overbearing fashion. While world worries about the United States doing too much in the international arena, I believe, and I make this argument in the book, that there is over the medium-and long-term an equal danger of excessive reticence. The world may some day complain not that the United States has done too much but that it has done too little, because the American government has not been able to command public support for tasks that it and the rest of the world wants the United States to do. Those issues and others are included in the book and that concludes my prepared remarks. I would be delighted to respond to any questions or comments you may have.

Mr. Lang:
Professor Mandelbaum, on behalf of the Secretary’s Open Forum, I would like to thank you for that superb presentation. Please give him a round of applause. [Applause]



Released on November 15, 2002

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