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Change and Continuity


ISSUE:  Winter 1994
Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, By Paul Kennedy. Random House.$25.00. Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy. By George F. Kennan. Norton.$22.95.

We live in an era of unprecedented change and Paul Kennedy’s latest venture into “large History” catalogues some of the sources of change. He finds a rough parallel in the revolutionary tide of the 18th century that began with the French Revolution and spread throughout much of Europe. Europe’s population spiraled upward from 100 million in 1650 to 200 million by 1800.The growth of the cities, fueled by large-scale migration from the countryside, climbed even more precipitously. Malthus warned of the growing gap in England between people and resources, but developments such as emigration, improved agricultural output, and the Industrial Revolution postponed realization of the Malthusian prophecy.

Increasingly concerned with the future since his bestselling The Rise and Fall of Nations, Kennedy, a Yale historian, points to three present-day social and economic revolutions that threaten the world. World population is doubling every 20 years, every ten years in some developing countries, and predictions for the next century call for an increase to eight to ten billion people. The population explosion adds fuel to environmental deterioration, once local but now worldwide. Polluted rivers, smog-shrouded cities, soil erosion, and devastated forests are covering the earth. Reenforcing the first two revolutions, new technologies are replacing traditional work patterns with automated systems of production and communication. In the same way that industrial change promises displacement of workers by robotics at a time when millions of new jobs are required, agriculture can anticipate diminished opportunities for farm workers as biotechnology is introducing novel food products and food substitutes. Kennedy speculates about the effects such complex and interconnected changes will have on rich and poor nations alike. With two-thirds of the world’s population concentrated in the less developed countries in an age group 15 years and under, pressures for migration are likely to become irresistible. Yet the United States, Europe and Japan, faced with persistent economic decline and ethnic struggles, are determined to set limits to immigration.

George F. Kennan, author of the containment doctrine, appears to be writing about a different world. He throws a powerful spotlight on the elements of continuity that remain at the center of the world’s problems. He begins as the historian Frederick Burkhardt counseled, with man or human nature, described by Kennan as the cracked vessel. Man is the necessary starting point for all historical inquiry. Humanity is neither perfectible nor freed of the demonic side of its nature. Man staggers through life as best he can, often knocked off balance by the inner contradictions of the self. He sometimes reaches extraordinary heights but can never overcome, individually or collectively, the fissures between his animalistic and spiritual nature. As for governments, Kennan finds them an absolute necessity but morally neutral and dominated by the same self-regard and self-interest that marks the individual. Government’s most essential attribute is power, affecting relations with rivals and friends alike. Men exercise it at their peril, for it can lead to intoxication of the spirit and distortion of personality. Kennan quotes Henry Adams’ words that a friend in power is a friend lost. Those who exercise power assume a burden of sin so that the rest of us may be protected in our innocence.

While a believer in democracy and a system of checks and balances, Kennan doubts that democracy is the destiny of most of humanity. To those who warn that non-democratic systems are unstable, Kennan responds “so what.” We are not their keepers except when, as with Iraq, they overrun a neighbor or threaten a region. Nationalism for Kennan is the great emotional-political force of our era. He approves of nationalism as patriotism with its steady understanding of a country’s failings and virtues. Pathological nationalism with its pseudo-religious ceremonies is a disease of the human spirit leading on to the two great totalitarian movements of the mid-20th century.

Finally, Kennan carefully defines ideology as a system of secular thought about contemporary problems that can be a guide for public policy. His concern with ideologies is that they mislead mankind and provide false oversimplified guides for judging a nation’s intentions and actions. Much if not all of Kennan’s concerns are as appropriate today as in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are the threads of continuity that bind the present with the past.

The publication of the two volumes at almost the same moment in time offers valuable lessons for policymakers and the public. Americans are tenacious about seeing all the answers to their problems bound up in a single category. Progressivism, the New Democracy, a war to end wars, normalcy, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, Camelot, Morning in America, and a New World Order are each expressions of change or continuity but not of both. Especially in politics and in our view of international relations we tend to subscribe to one or the other, and we embrace politicians or pundits who personify continuity or change. Some use the words “conservative” or “liberal” to differentiate outlooks, and certain human tendencies are indeed deeply rooted in each person’s makeup and experience.

The great merit of the two works by Kennedy and Kennan is that reading them frees us from the illusion of either-or and leads us to recognize the need for a both-and approach to our problems. Kennedy’s subject is change, which he documents in exquisite detail. However he is too good an historian to overlook the role of continuity, as illustrated in the title of his first chapter “Prologue: Old Challenges and New Challenges.” Nonetheless, for Kennedy change not continuity is transforming the world; and trade, finance, and technology are creating “a single all embracing unit of activity.” Only political structures, national habits of thinking, and institutional arrangements are lagging behind.

This cultural lag, which a long procession of reformers has deplored only to find the forces of continuity reasserting themselves, is more portentous in the late 20th century. The population explosion is taking place in the less developed countries in one part of the globe and the technology explosion in the industrial countries, and this is a poor recipe for a stable international order. Kennedy takes note of a serious mismatch between the location of abundant resources, good health, and advanced technology and the concentration of younger age groups in poorer regions which makes likely a rapidly growing population in the absence of constraints. Population and novel environmental problems interact; and, whereas 60 years ago pollution was no stranger to the cities of Europe and North America, today the greenhouse effect and global warming are worldwide problems. Finally, the technological revolution is taking place in a world where millions seek jobs only to find that biotech farming and automated manufacturing may make them redundant. Global communication, which reformers predicted would assure international understanding has made rich and poor nations alike more conscious of their differences. How can societies better prepare for the challenge of the 21st century?

What is to be done? Kennedy begins his answer by noting the halting approach of traditional regimes in the developed countries. Measured by such indices as voter turnout, the public is losing confidence in governments and seems resigned to its fate. Two difficulties confront reformers. Demographic and environmental trends work against change. Even if population growth should decline 100 million in a decade, the difference at best would reduce population from ten to nine billion people sometime in the 21st century. With growing industrialization and more and more people, the most to hope for is a limited or proportionate decrease, for example, in rising greenhouse emissions. Moreover, significant results from the regulations of cars and factory emissions can’t be expected in less than 25 to 40 years. Whatever can be done to reduce global problems, responsibility remains with the states. Only they can enter into international agreements whatever one may say about the global village.

Kennedy goes on to assert that what is needed to solve the world’s problems is nothing less than the reeducation of humanity. Education, the role of women, and leadership are the ingredients of reform. In part, we require the retraining of workers whom technology has displaced, but the mission of education runs deeper. Education must help people understand how the world is changing, how different cultures see the need for change, and how a sense of world citizenship can help bridge the difference between cultures. Even more basic in Kennedy’s design for change is the role of women. Kennedy links female literacy, which is 6 percent in Somalia but 88 percent in Korea with lower birthrates. When education is available to women, family size drops sharply as marriages are delayed and women gain employment. Leadership that is willing to expend political capital on education and opportunities for women can slow down the trends that threaten the globe.

Once again Kennan is uncertain how much change is possible. He laments society’s obsession with equality and appeals for the celebration of diversity. He expresses dismay at the size of government, the bureaucracy, and migration to say nothing of our addictions to the automobile, advertising, television, and junk mail. Are these Mr. Kennan’s highest priority as he scans the world’s problems or should they be thought of more as “pet peeves,” some more serious than others? In turning to the question of what can be done, Kennan supplies the answer. Here he addresses more fundamental issues: the size of “monster” states such as the United States and making available political and diplomatic counsel of the highest order to the American government. For the former, he proposes that the country be divided into regions larger than most states but smaller than the United States. For the latter he recommends a Council of State, wise men from both the private and public sector drawn from the country as a whole and chosen for their experience and judgment.

What conclusion are we to draw from the recommendations of two of our most extraordinary intellectuals? How much hope can we draw from their proposals? Sadly enough much less than those who crave simple answers might wish. We are tempted to conclude that humanity’s problems are outrunning its ability to cope. Rather than blueprints for action, the task of our best minds is to help define the problem. Kennedy points to a world that may soon be upon us and offers reeducation. Kennan strives to make governance more manageable and foreign and public policy open to wise counsel. Thirty-six years ago a small group of national leaders led by Dean Acheson made a similar proposal for a council of wise men which another group of leaders rejected as being undemocratic. If our problems are as grave as the two authors suggest, the time may be approaching when to think the unthinkable may be required if this beautiful blue universe is to survive.

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