Monday, September 06, 2004

Historical Analogies: Is the U.S. Like Germany or South Africa? Or Maybe Russia?

Brian Leiter (inspired by this article) asks, is the U.S. today like the Weimar Germany of the 1930s? In response, Timothy Burke wonders if an analogy between the U.S. and 1948 South Africa might not be better. On the analogy to Germany, Burke writes:

Given speeches like Zell Miller’s, which I think really did have many of the cadences and tropes of 20th Century fascism and militarism, it’s a hard analogy to pass up.

While in the same vein, Leiter laments:
There is a growing concern among many both inside and outside the country that the United States is gradually becoming inhospitable to freedom and democratic values... Could it be that the U.S. is poised to be transformed the way another democratic society was transformed in to a world-historic monstrosity in the 1930s? That the current Administration has gone so far as to revive the Nazi doctrine of preventive war clearly exacerbates the concern.

To justify the South Africa analogy, Burke writes:

The current leadership of the Republican Party strikes me as being... capable of sustaining a long-term authoritarian "emergency" whose ultimate fate is certain but whose misery could be horribly prolonged. The speeches at the Republican Convention, most especially those by Giulani, Miller and Cheney, made it clear that the current leadership of the Republican Party is rolling the dice and going for broke. They’re not going to compromise here and bend there, acknowledge dissent on some points or soften their policies where prudent. They’re pushing a total, rigid program of social and political transformation that serves the needs and desires of a sizeable minority of Americans and imposes their authority over the will of the majority. Like the National Party in South Africa, they may be able to accomplish this by taking advantage of the peculiarities of American electoral politics—and like the National Party, they may have both the will and the methods to permanently alter the structure of American constitutional democracy so as to lock their control of the government for as long a perpetuity as they can manage.

Assessing the value of these analogies relative to each other is difficult for me. While I know a lot about pre-war Germany, I know almost nothing about 1940s South Africa (though Burke's article gives a nice synopsis of the events and atmosphere of that time). However, my suspicion is that while both of these analogies might demonstrate some interesting parallels, and perhaps even provide some potential courses of action, they will ultimately break down. The economic conditions in Weimar Germany that went a long way toward determining the social and political events of the 1930s are not analogous to those of the United States today, and drawing an analogy between the racial and military events of the 1940s in South Africa and those of the contemporary United States would be difficult. So, while I am not qualified to determine which analogy is better, I doubt either is hold in the long run.

Interestingly, though, and on what seems at first to be an unrelated topic, Brad DeLong reads Putin's speech in response to the recent murders in North Ossetia, and worries that a "Weimar Russia" is emerging. He does so primarily through a comparison of the economic situation in Russia with that of post-WWI Germany1. The three analogies together made me wonder if their might be a fourth. Is the U.S. like Russia? On the surface, this seems like a stretch, since I've just noted that the U.S.'s economy is not very similar to the Germany economy in the 1930s, and the primary motivation for the Russia-Weimar Germany analogy is economic similarity, but bear with me for a moment.

Currently, Russia is facing a major terrorist threat. Two large-scale attacks -- the simultaneous hijacking and downing of two passenger jets, and the school siege -- have caused Russia to become paranoid and poised for violent retaliation, as Putin's speech demonstrates. Furthermore, civil rights in Russia have been under constant threat since the fall of the Soviet Union (no champion of civil rights itself), and Putin's nostalgia for the Soviet era demonstrates that they are more threatened today than at any time in the last 15 years. Finally, in post-Soviet Russia, the government has often been a slave to unscrupulous business men and corporations2 over which it has had little control.

Now take a look at the United States. As both Leiter and Burke note, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the political and social atmosphere in the United States has largely been one of paranoia, along with a bloodthirsty electorate and a climate increasingly hostile towards civil rights. The influence of rich individuals and giant corporations on U.S. politics is nothing new, and while it has yet to reach the depth of influence and corruption of the post-Soviet Russian economy, with the current Republican-dominated federal government and their tax cuts for the rich, along with the age of Haliburton and other such corporate giants who somehow end up profiting from just about anything the government does, be it proposed drilling in Alaskan nature sanctuaries, or wars in oil-rich countries, the distance between us and Russia is beginning to evaporate.

So, is the U.S. like Russia? The analogy probably breaks down in the same way that the Weimar Germany and South African analogies do, and perhaps does so even earlier than those. Russia has been fairly isolated from the rest of the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, including from many of its former allies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It's economy has struggled in the transition from central planning to a market-based system, and the government has never really been able to gain control over the black market. However, I think that like the first two analogies, this one may raise some interesting questions, and perhaps even provide some important lessons. The Russian people, and now their leader, are increasingly expressing a desire for a return to some of the policies of the Soviet Union. If the U.S. and Russia are at all alike today, and Russia is leaning towards a return to totalitarian rule, where is the U.S. headed?

A more important question relates to how the Russians have brought the increased terrorist threat on themselves, and how they are handling it. For thirteen years, the Russians have been fighting insurgents in Chechnya who want a Chechnyan state independent of the Russian Federation. Russia's response to the rebellion has been brutal and constant. The result? The constant threat of terrorism from Chechnyan groups. The U.S. is now fighting an at times brutal, and as has becoming increasingly clear, lengthy war against Iraq, with wars in other Arab/Muslim states likely to follow. Are we doomed to Russia's fate? Is the lesson of the Russian war in Chechnya that violence does not stop terrorism, but promotes it instead? If recent reports of Al Qaeda's numbers, and the fact that 2003 saw more terrorist attacks than any year on record are any indication, this is in fact the case. How long, then, until the terrorists bring the fight to U.S. soil once more? And will the United States government, dominated by hawkish conservatives with little regard for civil rights, respond with the same move towards totalitarianism that it appears may be inevitable now in Russia?

1And in the process, illustrates the differences between the economy in that period of Germany's history, and the economy in the U.S. today.

2Many from foreign countries, including the U.S. -- check out
this book for a satirical look at this reality.


OHenry said...

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OHenry said...

Counsel from elders seems to be a lost treasure. Lost are lessons learned that may contain pearls of wisdom that could have benefited the seeker. Having survived my share of hazardous crossings, I am pleased to be able to share a thought or two. The main lesson is to keep on learning. Read and seek out other points of view like visiting your blog. Finding what is ultimately important has lead me to appreciate actuality, efficiency and mindfulness. Helping others to see some of the forest through the trees is a rewarding benefit of age and maturity. discernment

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