Sunday, December 17, 2006

Great Man of History, Human Nature and Culture, and You

By now you probably know that you are Time Magazine Man of the Year:
The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006. The conflict in Iraq only got bloodier and more entrenched. A vicious skirmish erupted between Israel and Lebanon. A war dragged on in Sudan. A tin-pot dictator in North Korea got the Bomb, and the President of Iran wants to go nuclear too. Meanwhile nobody fixed global warming, and Sony didn't make enough PlayStation3s.
But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. . . .

Carlyle - I have noted several times - also gave economics the label "the dismal science", for reasons you thought you knew. He was denouncing economics because it conflicted with his view that history is driven by great men and great races, whereas economics claimed races are equals but cultures and institutions exlained differences in the success of nations.

There are several related items in Sunday's Washington Post.

1. Culture Matters:
The war in Iraq has produced many casualties. One lesser-noticed one may be the death of an idea -- the idea that the culture of a nation or region can be transformed quickly by well-intentioned foreigners. The recent report of the Iraq Study Group scarcely mentions the grand goals of bringing democracy to Iraq, and instead contemplates a drawdown of U.S. combat troops. It seems that the notion of transforming the political culture of the Middle East has been drawn down as well.

"Are the people of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?" President Bush asked in 2003. "Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? I, for one, do not believe it." As his audience applauded, he went on to criticize the "cultural condescension" of skeptics who believe that Islam and democracy don't mix.

The president was, at best, half right. In the long run, the values of freedom may be right and true for all people in all societies. But the cultural values favorable to pluralism and entrepreneurship are indispensable to building democracy and capitalist prosperity.
. . .
Some cultures and some religions clearly do better than others in promoting democracy and prosperity. Iraq and Afghanistan show that, where culture is adverse, a blind belief in the power of freedom is a frail foundation for U.S. policy.

But culture is not destiny. The failures in Iraq and instability in Afghanistan do not prove that these or other countries are condemned to stagnation and political oppression. For politics to change, however, culture must change, too -- and that takes much more than dispatching troops, holding elections and writing constitutions.
. . .
Like other young idealists, I believed that President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress -- a "Marshall Plan" for Latin America -- would make the region safe for democracy.

But as I encountered daily the intractability of Latin America's problems, it became clear to me that poverty and injustice were rooted in the region's values. I was learning what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan would articulate years later, after the Russian economy collapsed in the late 1990s. "I used to think that capitalism was human nature," he reflected. "But it isn't at all. It's culture." The same is true of democracy.
2. Unlikely hypothesis: "Middle East. Former president Jimmy Carter defends his bestselling new book, which blames most of the problems in the Middle East on Israel. He's now planning a sequel, which blames most of the problems in "Ishtar" on some assistant producer named Mordecai Rabinowitz. In other news, Ahmadinejad insists he's never worked as a presidential ghostwriter."

3. Daniel Drezner examines the grand strategy of promoting democracy and free markets. About the Iraq Study Group he observes:
Two major public statements, coming less than a week apart, nicely capture the confusion besetting U.S. foreign policy these days.

The first is the report of the Iraq Study Group, released on Dec. 6. In good old-fashioned "realist" style, the report offers nothing about how to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East, focusing instead on the single-minded, amoral pursuit of the U.S. national interest.

Just five days later, outgoing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan delivered his valedictory address, imploring Americans to uphold human rights and the rule of law in prosecuting the war on terrorism -- idealism at its purest.
4. Doubts about Iraqi leader's capabilities persist.

It would be more correct to say doubts about the Iraqi constitution persist. Just as doubts persisted about America's future under the Articles of Confederation. George Washington was a great president under the Constitution which strengthened the power of the federal government. You don't need a Saddam to govern Iraq, but a stronger central government is necessary.

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