Nizer Lectures (1994–1998): The Destiny of Freedom: Political Legacies of the Twentieth Century

Dec 11, 1998

Dr. Buultjens identifies a recurring cycle of conflict followed by political and economic disintegration that distinguished the twentieth century. He asks: "Do we have to repeat twentieth-century history and pass through still another cycle, or can we break out of these sequences and create a new future? Is trend destiny, or can we bypass history?"


W henever I rise and approach a lectern, I think of the advice of my good friend Ralph Buultjens. Quoting Mohandas Gandhi, Ralph counsels, "Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence." Wise words indeed. They remind me of my favorite quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance." Emerson, conjuring up the image of the interminable sermon, writes, "I prefer the silence of the church before the service begins rather than any preaching."

Why then, you may ask, does the Carnegie Council devote so much time, effort, and energy to events like this evening's Louis Nizer Lecture on Ethics and Public Policy? Why indulge in speeches, words, and gestures from the podium? To what end?

My answer comes from the pen of Louis Nizer himself. In his best-selling book Thinking on Your Feet: Adventures in Public Speaking (first published in 1940), Mr. Nizer defended the art of public speaking and the relevance of the good old-fashioned lecture. He wrote:

Who has not enjoyed the unique exhilaration of an inspiring address; the caress of a fortuitous jest; the power of a novel thought to speed the heart and create perpetual emotion; a truth brought to life and light by eloquent learning; an observation so brilliantly conceived as to reveal the mind's finest edge; a moral so profoundly demonstrated as to give new resolve; an error so bewitchingly revealed as to raise us from stodgy complacency; the beauty of words which search for beauty; and the delight of compulsion by persuasion, which is the essence of culture? Who has not thrilled to such an evening?

As you can see, Mr. Nizer had high standards and high expectations for those who would enter the arena of public speaking.

We conclude this lecture series with an artist worthy of Mr. Nizer's vision. In Dr. Ralph Buultjens we have a distinguished thinker and educator—an artist of the first rank. He renders in verbal form what the estimable Samuel Johnson told us was the very purpose of literature: to delight and instruct. After listening to Dr. Buultjens this evening we are sure to "see things in a new light," and in a way that would have delighted and instructed Mr. Nizer himself.

Longtime friend and former trustee of the Carnegie Council, Ralph Buultjens embodies the mission of the Council—"education for peace." In fact, it was Dr. Buultjens' energy and ingenuity that made this lecture series possible in the first place—a development welcomed by Mr. Nizer in the last year of his life, and certainly by all of us at the Carnegie Council as well.

Ralph Buultjens is a distinguished scholar, well-known media commentator, and trusted adviser to policymakers throughout the world. He has written ten books and hundreds of influential articles, reviews, and commentaries. Among the many honors he has received are the Toynbee Prize for the Social Sciences, the French Order of Arts and Letters, and the Nehru Chair of Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University. I am told that in a public awards ceremony several years ago, Mrs. Indira Gandhi—a leader who knew our speaker very wellcalled him "the most learned man in Asia."

I have no doubt that she was correct, for I have learned a lot from him—and I am grateful. But I must say that for me, and for the Carnegie Council, Ralph is most of all a friend. I am honored to introduce him to you this evening as my friend, as my teacher.

Joel H. Rosenthal
Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs


In a way, it is appropriate that we complete the Nizer Lecture series as the curtains close on our century, because Louis Nizer was quintessentially a man of this era. His perceptions and perspectives, shaped by the great and special tides of our times, were largely lodged in the twentieth century. Nizer came to the United States as a little boy in the early 1900s—a part of that vast and enriching inflow of European migrants whose like we will never see again. He was educated at Columbia University and Columbia School of Law. This was when American institutions of higher learning were beginning to open their doors to ethnic minorities—a process now largely completed. These circumstances inspired lifelong commitments in Nizer, ideals that fame and affluence did not erase.

Joel Rosenthal with Ralph Buultjens Louis Nizer was a self-made man whose incandescent talents proved that the America of his time was a land of opportunity for many. That it was not a land of opportunity for all was one of; his regrets. It was something that he wanted and worked hard to correct. In the process, Nizer became the most celebrated attorney in the country—the first modern media lawyer and a legendary pioneer in understanding the impact of the press on civil society. He was also a best-selling author, an artist of consummate skill, a composer of many melodies, and a raconteur par excellence with a genius for friendship. Those of us who knew him well, and many who did not, will testify to his warmth of personality and unfailing courtesy under the most adverse conditions.

In these days of ethical ambivalence, Louis Nizer remains a symbol of the professional as public man. He believed that professionals had significant responsibilities to the community—their participation in civic discourse guaranteed that public life would be governed by unwritten codes of propriety and decency. It may well be that such values and virtues are locked into the verities of America past.

Contemporary America, the United States of the twenty-first century, fashions its own compact with fate and weaves that compact from very different social textures. I am not sure that Louis Nizer, the man molded by early-twentieth-century experiences, would be quite comfortable with our Age of Aquarius.

The Twentieth Century—Context and Condition

Louis Nizer and thoughtful men of his generation consistently sought to examine big questions—to explore the macro-themes that resonate with human destiny. This breadth of vision and the looming end of a century in which it flowered make this an appropriate occasion to reflect upon some of the political experiences of the twentieth century—how they speak to us, how they form and inform our future. We, who are a human bridge between a time that is fading and a millennium that is arriving, will not find a more pivotal position from which to do this.

In 1922 Winston Churchill announced an anticipatory verdict: "What a disappointment the twentieth century has been....How terrible and melancholy is the long series of disastrous events which have darkened it." Almost simultaneously, the British polymath H.G. Wells looked at the shape of things to come and declared: "We are hardly in the earliest dawn of human greatness....Presently our human race will have to realize our boldest imaginations....The children of our blood will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than that which we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of adventure and achievement." So, to whom does the century belong? Was Churchill or Wells more prescient? In fact, they were both correct.

Throughout our century, humanity and barbarity have walked hand in hand. More than 200 million individuals have perished in violent military or political conflict. A larger number have probably starved to death in preventable famines. Genocide, currently called ethnic cleansing, continues unabated—monstrous acts of deliberate and collective murder. Many culturally commonplace brutalities, such as female genital mutilation, are reportedly increasing. Yet, larger numbers of people do live longer and live better than their ancestors ever did. Around the year 1900, only about 10 percent of the global population could read and write. Now, almost 60 percent can, and we are well within reach of universal literacy in the early twenty-first century. The Internet brings knowledge to the most primitive backwoods. And any massacre anywhere arouses an outcry everywhere—slaughter has not disappeared, but it is increasingly condemned, not condoned. Who, then, will be the archetypal figures and the representative icons of our age: Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, or Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa?

In many ways, these contrasts and contradictions are not historically unusual. Every age has had its compassion and its cruelty, although the scope and scale of events in our time has been much larger than before. What really separates our century from the rest of history, what makes it so particularly distinct, is technology and its dispersal throughout the world. Nuclear energy, satellites, certain medical advances, biogenetic leaps, the computer and communications revolutions are peculiar to our time. People, things, and information move as they never did before—on, above, or below the surface of the earth. The invention of television, and its global spread, is a vital landmark—sure to rank equal in importance to the discovery of agriculture some ten thousand years ago. Such markers come infrequently, but when they do there is a fundamental change in how people look at life and how they want to live. And there is no going back. We have all become children of Pandora, and the planet is her box. The net result is that our twentieth-century societies, our economics, our culture, and our public agendas are historically quite unique.

A Concept of Cycles

This unique condition has produced a unique consequence—something that has no equivalent in any comparable period of human history. There are, of course, several unusual features in the macro-political ethos of the twentieth century. But what especially defines it and has been largely unnoticed is a recurring pattern of events. An examination of twentieth-century history suggests that this is a cycle with certain specific features—a cycle that has repeated three times in our century. This cycle, with its remarkable similarities, is the flywheel of the international political economy in modern times. Its footprints, the components of the sequence which occur and recur, appear in an order that unfolds somewhat like this:

  • The cycle begins with a series of small local or regional conflicts. These are curtain-raisers to the progression. In the first cycle, during the early part of this century, such conflicts began in the Balkans. At the start of the second turn of the cycle, in the 1930s, these small wars included the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese assault on China, and the Italian attacks on North Africa. The third sequence, in the late 1940s, began with similar events—the Greek Civil War, the Chinese Revolution, and the initial Korean part of the Korean War.
  • Then, in the next stage of the cycle, these small outbursts escalate into larger disputes that draw major powers into prolonged battles. Vast numbers are destroyed and displaced in the big-time struggles. I refer, of course, to World War I, in which about 20 million died, World War II, in which about 50 million died, and the Cold War—essentially 40 years of combat in which some 40 million died in 130 local and regional wars (of which Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and the Central American conflicts are the best known).
  • These great and costly struggles have been won by powers that espouse values of freedom and liberty. In short, the "bad guys" lose: the Central Powers in World War I, the Axis Powers in World War II, the Soviet Union in the Cold War. A short period of triumphalism takes place during which the winners attribute all virtue to themselves.
  • The victories arouse high expectations. Foremost among them are hopes for a new era of democracy and prosperity, freedom and economic well-being. President Woodrow Wilson believed that the world was made "safe for democracy." President Franklin Roosevelt thought that "democratic processes" would flourish everywhere. President George Bush proclaimed a New World Order founded on "democratic principles and institutions and values." Many of their contemporaries enthusiastically echoed these sentiments.
  • The end of major conflicts also provokes the collapse of empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Imperial Russian empires after World War I; the colonial empires of Europe after World War II; the external and internal Soviet Empire after the Cold War. A kind of global reorganization takes place, with many new small and medium-sized states evolving and sovereign bound­ aries being redefined. Witness the Versailles states after World War I, the Third World nations after World War II, the more than 20 successor states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia after the Cold War. Everyone makes commitments to sustain their independence, invariably embracing the rhetoric of democracy and liberty.
  • At this moment in the cycle, new economic manifestations appear—the communist economy after World War I, the European welfare state after World War II, the emerging capitalist markets after the Cold War. Each of these expressions offers the promise of equity and prosperity for all.
  • The winners of the great wars hasten to establish or revive international institutions to prevent future catastrophes and to underwrite global prosperity through global cooperation. Thus were born the League of Nations and the Bank of International Settlements; the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund-World Bank; and most recently, a revived United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
  • Soon, however, the cycle moves into a darker phase—negative developments begin to undermine the high hopes of global freedom, prosperity, and institutional effectiveness. Frightening autocratic and expansionist ideologies arise—fascism after World War I, international communism after World War II, ethnic nationalism and fundamentalism after the Cold War. International peacekeeping structures prove unable to contain them and decline in credibility. At the same time, large parts of the global economy also begin to falter, causing considerable human misery and social turmoil. This prompts emergency renovation or rescue attempts to alleviate the evolving disorder. Thus, the New Economic Policies in the Soviet Union and Italy were initiated in the 1920s, and the fascist economic experiments in Germany and the New Deal in the United States in the 1930s. So, too, the reinforcement of the European Welfare State and the Foreign Aid Programs came in the 1950s. Currently, we have the quest for regulatory and reform mechanisms to arrest the economic slide in emerging markets. These efforts do not always work.
  • As political and economic deterioration sparks various tensions, the cycle now enters its final phase and completes its rotation. Once more, little disputes and wars erupt in small states. (Take a close look at Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and several African countries today.) Then, it all begins again with big power involvement in these situations. History begins to walk in the same tracks, the cycle rolls into another turn, and all hell breaks loose....

This rather tedious restatement of sequences is a reminder of uncanny parallels in the political record of the twentieth century. Of course, not everything around the world can be explained by such repetitious patterns or organized into the concept of cycles. There is no Karmic inevitability or perfectly identical symmetry in all this. However, I suggest that there are sufficient similarities to indicate that global high politics and macro-economics in our time do fall into some clearly defined recurrences with many common features. In this context, we should not forget the warning of the philosopher George Santayana. Nine decades ago, he wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past—who forget history—are condemned to repeat it." Indeed, if there is even a semblance of credibility in my argument about cycles, we now confront a major question—perhaps the truly authentic big question of our moment: Do we have to repeat twentieth-century history and pass through still another cycle, or can we break out of these sequences and create a new future? Is trend destiny, or can we bypass history?

A Fourth Cycle?

A decade or so ago, at the conclusion of the Cold War, history presented us with an unusual condition—a clean stage on which to design a brave new world. The old ideological cobwebs and hangups had been swept away: communism, anticommunism, and nonalignment faded into irrelevance. For a few years things appeared exceedingly positive. Peace agreements, arms control treaties, and collective responses to cross-border aggression were symbols of the early 1990s. A cluster of global conferences, town meetings of the world sponsored by the United Nations, prepared a new planetary agenda. Ideas of internationalism, interdependence, global community, and sustainable development dominated political discourse. Democracy, the ideological victor of the Cold War, was expanding rapidly—and this seemed to assure the future of freedom. Globalized, electronic capitalism captured the economic imagination of nations, and about three billion people were baptized into the market—and this seemed to assure a future of expanding prosperity. It looked like the springtime of nations.

Soon, however, this proved a false dawn. These constructive evolutions were challenged by several barbaric forces. Onto the world stage, apparently so positive and pristine, marched resurrected specters from the past and fresh horrors—ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism, international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, transnational crime cartels, and outcroppings of protofascism. Most of the past decade has been a great global struggle between the positive elements liberated by the end of the Cold War and these instruments of fear and disorder. Is this another titanic battle for the human prospect? And which way blows the wind?

In recent years, the balance has largely tilted toward the negative. Circumstantial evidence suggests that we are entering the early stages of a fourth turn of the twentieth-century cycle. Little wars splutter in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, all over Africa, and in parts of South Asia. Larger nations such as the United States and Britain are becoming involved. Fearful ideologies are gaining ground. International peacekeeping systems are not working well—the United Nations Security Council shows the same irresolution that paralyzed its predecessors during the Cold War and in the time of the League of Nations. Segments of the global economy are in deep trouble: one-quarter of the world's population has suddenly plunged into recession. If trend is destiny and the sequence follows its past path, some kind of world war will, in due course, again come upon us. And if it does, it will come with a velocity and virulence like no other—sneak attacks with weapons of mass destruction, terrorist onslaughts, religious crusades, perhaps impoverishing trade rivalries, and worldwide crime waves.

Messages from History—Politics

How can we prevent this apocalyptic vision from hardening into reality? How can we hold back the cycle from its fourth and perhaps fatal rotation? The antidote is in the infection. The political experiences of the twentieth century, those very experiences that provide evidence of repetitive formations, send us signals and instructions that could help to evade, moderate, or bypass the worst of another cycle. One of these messages is that liberal democracy is a possible prophylactic against some cyclical disasters. It is obviously good to strengthen democracy at home and abroad for all the conventional reasons—liberty, popular representation, and so on. But modern liberal democracy has three other features important in our context of cycles:

  • First, democracies do not often go to war with other democracies. A more democratic world would be a less troubled world in which a recurring cycle might lose traction and its momentum might fade.
  • Second, democracy ventilates important modern issues and brings them into the public arena: for example, human rights, women's rights, and environmental questions. If repressed, as they always are by authoritarian governments, these concerns will explode into violence. Such massive social disruptions would then give thrust to the cycle and accelerate its destructive trail.
  • Third, as the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pointed out, famine is most frequently generated by a lack of freedom, not a lack of food. Famines and upheavals associated with them often begin the chain reaction that ignites cyclical disturbances.

Thus, it is possible to conjecture that sustaining and expanding democracy could provide a buttress against the onward progression of cycles. It is encouraging that in recent years, for the first time in human history, more than one-half of the world's people live in some form of democratic governance.

Impacts of Economics
Yet the prospect for democracy does not germinate in a vacuum. In many newly democratizing countries, economics will have a major influence on the future of freedom. Until mid-1997, it seemed as if the current globalized form of electronic capitalism would be the seedbed for the advance of democracy. In demonstrating the virtues of choices in the marketplace it would inspire an increasingly liberated polity. This capitalist deliverance was manifest in East and Southeast Asia. The blooming of apparently populist capitalism seduced other regions-in Asia, in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, in parts of Africa—into the market. But the ebb tide has come fast. Post-Cold War capitalism now faces its first serious crisis since it emerged as the prevailing global economic order in the past ten years or so. And the challenge is to avert a meltdown of emerging markets with fearsome contaminating consequences for all.

Here, too, we can learn from earlier twentieth-century happenings. Capitalism, or modern market economics, without regulatory and humanizing mechanisms, contains the seeds of its own destruction. It took the New Deal to save American capitalism during the Great Depression. It took the welfare state to save European capitalism after World War II. Now, we have to find ways and means, methods and structures, to regulate contemporary globo-electronic capitalism and cushion its harsher impacts. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., puts it: "In the world at large, can capitalism, once loosed from national moorings, be held to social accountability?" Capitalism has served most of the residents of the older industrial countries quite well. But its recent expansion into societies with few, if any, social safety nets has exposed millions of workers to the ups and downs characteristic of market economics. These millions, those whose expectations were raised in South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, Brazil, and elsewhere, will surely not be pushed back into poverty, or wrapped into economic straitjackets designed by the IMF, without protesting violently.

If modern capitalism is to be preserved as a worldwide system it will not be rescued by IMF bailouts and other short-term bandaids. It will be redeemed by changes and reforms that soften its downswings and restore its credibility by broadening the plinth of its benefits. If not, the upheavals, already visible in Indonesia and likely to come to Russia, will put an end to both emerging markets and emerging democracies. Robust measures will then be required to restore stability, and dictatorships of the left or the right will again be the order of the day. This, however, need not be so. It is well within the provenance of capitalist ingenuity to fashion salvific mechanisms that will correct and modify the working of contemporary international economics. This is not a new task. It has been undertaken in the past, and many of today's captains of finance are calling for such efforts. Everyone knows what needs to be done. The question is whether it can be done fast enough and whether we can do it with an understanding that a market economy may be desirable but a market society is not.

National Ambitions and War

There are other instructive messages that come to us from the annals of our century. One of them concerns the outsized ambitions of nations and leaders. The twentieth century is the graveyard of these inflated aspirations. Territorial imperialism, long the yardstick by which the greatness of states was measured, has virtually disappeared. At least 12 major empires, some hundreds of years old, have crumbled during our era. Political colossi, several of whom were megalomanic leaders, but also men of considerable achievement, leave nothing but distaste and despair—their handiwork in shambles and their memory despised.

Planned utopias and powerful ideologies have been tragic failures. Each turn of the cycle has destroyed ideas and systems that dominated their times—hereditary absolutism in the wake of World War I, fascism and colonialism in the wake of World War II, communism in the wake of the Cold War. Will democracy and capitalism meet the same fate in another cyclical passage? The predicaments of those who overstretched and overreached are warnings that the big powers of today and tomorrow will do well to heed. Generally, they will not; national ambition has historically overwhelmed reason. But something new is taking place. In every country there are now whistle-blowers and nongovernmental activists who are energizing civil society in innovative ways. The imperatives of the state, involvements that fired our cycle, are under unprecedented scrutiny.

The arrival of economic suprastates, symbolized by the euro, is another possible brake on the egos of states and leaders. As financial sovereignty is transferred to a higher multinational authority, for the first time breaking the link between great currencies and great powers, the political sovereignty of participating nations is reduced. The Western European process has brought five decades of peace to a region that was afflicted with almost continuous war in the preceding millennium. As the notion of regional economic integration advances, and there are signs of this in South America and Southeast Asia, the opportunities for extravagant ambitions are reduced. All these are hopeful signs, but are they hopeful enough? We will surely have an answer within the next decade or so.

Another lesson that can help us face the future comes from the responses of countries to world challenges in the twentieth century. The big winners in our time are those who have constructed genuine international partnerships and alliances. World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and even the Gulf War were won by those who built cooperative coalitions. In recent decades, economic rewards have come to nations that forged common markets or crafted trade agreements or encouraged foreign investments and joint ventures—measures that are in themselves kinds of collaborative alliances. Today, it is almost impossible to achieve progress in world politics or economics by going it alone. No state, however formidable, can police the world by itself or remain prosperous in isolation. Cooperative alliances, coalitions, and partnerships are the secret of twentieth-century success—a truth more valid now than ever. If we want to avoid or overcome the global dangers of our time, we have to work at building and strengthening the international system. The pyrotechnics of individual states no longer bring rewards.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of cross-border aggression. In past centuries and in the early part of this one, initiating war was profitable. This was how rich empires were created. But in the second half of the twentieth century, wars have become ruinous for the provocateur or the invader. Recall what Afghanistan cost the Soviet Union, what Vietnam cost the United States, what Suez cost the British, what wars with Israel have cost the Arab states, what war in the Falklands cost Argentina, what war with Kuwait cost Iraq—and this is merely a short tally. Wars of international aggression are now the quickest way to national ruin. The hunting season in world affairs, as Shimon Peres put it, is over. As this realization spreads it should restrain the recklessness of nations and become a circuit breaker on the track of our twentieth-century cycle. Someday, it may even grow to embrace the internal conflicts that have become such popular substitutes for external conflicts.

Is Trend Destiny?

These are a few selective lessons and thoughts that can perhaps point the way to avoiding the drama of another cyclical sequence—enabling us to bust the cycle and make it an exclusively twentieth-century phenomenon. The near-term perspective suggests that a fourth cycle has just commenced. Yet, if we are attentive to the signals of history, the outcome need not be inevitable—and we can grow in human freedom and dignity without the catastrophes of the century that is expiring. This is why our particular moment is a moment of extraordinary destiny. The paths we take will determine the fate of the world to come. To my mind, these choices, how they will be made and who will make them, dovetail into the single most important "big" question in world politics today. We have the knowledge and power to escape the furies that battered our fathers thrice in the past hundred years. Do we have the wisdom to use them constructively?

Louis Nizer was especially fond of a quotation from Matthew Arnold. Looking around the social landscape of his day, this Victorian man of letters felt he was wandering between two worlds-one dying, the other struggling to be born. He might well have been forecasting our times and our condition. But one of Arnold's contemporaries did even better. Charles Dickens began his masterful novel A Tale of Two Cities with probably the most famous passage in English literature:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair....

Who can think of more luminous words to describe the political legacies of the twentieth century and the prospects and pitfalls that the millennium will bring?

Download: The Destiny of Freedom: Political Legacies of the Twentieth Century (PDF, 1.97 M)

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