A World Unlocked

"We make our vision, and hold it ready for any amendment that experience suggests. It is not a fixed picture, a row of shiny ideals which we can exhibit to mankind and say: Achieve these or be damned. All we can do is to search the world as we find it, extricate the forces that seem to move it, and surround them with criticism and suggestion.... Too far ahead there is nothing but your dream; just behind, there is nothing but your memory. But in the unfolding present, man can be creative if his vision is gathered from the promise of actual things."

—Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery

It is a conceit of new publications that their appearance coincides with an historic change. By good fortune, ours does.

A year ago, when planning this journal, we conceived it as an effort to renew the sense of political possibility that had faded in an era of fiscal gridlock and conservative sway in America. But that sense of possibility has now already been unlocked by distant events. The revolutionary awakening of Eastern Europe and collapse of communism create a new political opening for Americans as well as for Europeans. For more than forty years, while the shadow of Soviet power fell over Eastern Europe, the shadow of nuclear war among the great powers fell over the entire world. Deterrence was the foundation of our security; a coexistence of hostile camps seemed the most anyone realistically could hope for. Containing the Soviet threat provided the overarching purpose of American foreign policy even in remote comers of the earth. We bore a great burden, and we paid a great price.

Yet until recently, regardless of any arms agreements or other accords we might negotiate, there was no real prospect of ending the East-West division itself. The conflict could be managed for better or worse; it could not be eliminated. Even the pundits in recent years who saw an end to the Cold War generally envisioned only a softening of relations between the communist bloc and the West. Few took seriously the possibility that in our lifetimes the Cold War might close with the crackup of the communist bloc.

As we write, events are still moving too fast and unsteadily for anyone to speak confidently of the fate of revolution and reform in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The turmoil is far from finished, and the memory of tanks in Tiananmen Square is still too vivid to ignore the risks of sudden repression. Moreover, as the upheaval progresses, it opens up new potential for explosive conflict. The blood was scarcely dry on the streets of Bucharest before it began to flow in the streets of Baku.

But whether its future course is violent or peaceful, this great storm has forever altered our picture of the world. It is now impossible to speak of the "communist bloc" or "communist movement" without being ironic or making a reference to the past. The bloc is shattered, and the only movement among communist parties is rapid decomposition. For years it appeared as if political uncertainty beset only the West; the communist world seemed frozen. But the theater of uncertainty has moved steadily east in recent years, first to Poland and Hungary, then to other Eastern European states, and finally to the Baltics and other restless republics in the Soviet Union. Western leaders who only yesterday were warning against the outward projection of Soviet power now ask themselves whether they want to see the Soviet Union disintegrate.

There is no comparable precedent in living memory for the developments we are passing through. The collapse and discrediting of fascism in the 1940s came about through defeat in war. Many other regimes have fallen in this century, but compared to the collapse of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe, none had such wide repercussions on global politics or such deep significance for the history of ideas and ideologies. For a century, communism has virtually owned the idea of revolution. But as a revolutionary ideology, it is now a spent historical force; as a system of domination, its survival depends on the failure of new revolutionary movements. A revolution literally means a turning around -- and so we have. In a fitting bicentennial, the revolutions of 1989 have been liberal democratic revolutions, demanding free elections, a free press, limits on arbitrary arrest, rights of religious conscience, and other civil liberties. The people of Eastern Europe have once again reminded us how precious those freedoms are.



IN THE UNITED STATES, conservatives seek to appropriate communism collapse as their own victory. Some who said in the early 1980s that it was impossible for communist regimes to change now say, in hindsight, that it was inevitable; still, they claim credit for bringing it about. But neither American rhetoric nor our defense budgets forced the Russians to break down. Soviet communism is falling victim to its own endemic failures: the suffocation of initiative and innovation, the inability to allocate resources efficiently, imperial overstretch in Afghanistan and the ensuing disillusionment at home. Even so, the Soviet leadership could have chosen the path of the Chinese. The crucial factor in unleashing these events -- though, clearly, not in propelling them forward -- was a change at the top of the Soviet Union that no theory predicted and no external power could have produced.

American conservatives interpret the failure of communism as validating their specific brand of laissez-faire economic policy, as if all forms of activist government, even in a liberal democracy, were equivalent to autocratic central planning. That, however, is a dangerous and mistaken equation. The collapse of communism does demonstrate the virtues of political pluralism and market economies. But in recent decades, when the peoples of Eastern Europe peered over the Iron Curtain into Austria, West Germany, and other countries to their west, they did not see the unreformed capitalism of the nineteenth century that Milton Friedman would like to restore. They saw modern social democracies that combine political freedom and individual rights with economic growth and security. They saw countries that have kept in check not only the potentially despotic power of the state, but also the potentially destructive power of the market. These twin achievements are the basis of the West's appeal, and they are interrelated. Democracy without economic security is not secure itself.

While conservatives want to claim the most credit for the collapse of communism, they also want to make the least of the opportunity. And no wonder: The right has used the threat of Soviet expansion to great political advantage; the implosion of Soviet power now confronts conservatives with a problem of justification. It is not simply a matter of justifying the level of defense spending the United States has reached as a result of the 1980s' buildup that was premised on Soviet expansionism. The larger problem is justifying the conservative conception of our national security. America now has another agenda on which its security depends: to rebuild our nation's strength by investing in the capacities of our economy and our people.

That agenda requires the creative use of government for common purpose. The 1980s served as an experiment in a peculiar brand of conservative policy that achieved massive budget and trade deficits while preaching the virtues of savings, investment and budgetary balance. The economy kept growing because of the unintended Keynesian stimulus, not for the reasons supply-siders gave: We did not save or invest more, much less balance the budget, and the military buildup soaked up technological capacities that might have made the economy more productive. Most neglected of all have been the sources of growth that require productive public spending, particularly infrastructure, education, and training.

A world unlocked from great power confrontation offers America historic opportunities to make up lost ground. Over the coming decade the peace dividend should not only free up revenue; it should release physical and human resources, particularly scientific talent, long tied up resources will not be available tomorrow, but they will be freed for reinvestment if we stand, as some now suggest, on the verge of what may be the biggest demobilization since World War II. In the success of that conversation, we all share a great stake.

The struggle to define post-Cold War America is just beginning to take shape. Some on the right are already talking of "perestroika" tax cuts to keep up the pressure against any new public spending. More cautious conservatives want a slow decline in military expenditure with savings dedicated to bringing the budget into nominal balance (which could mean large real surpluses with sharp deflationary consequences).

The alternative is a program of increased domestic investment, aimed at reclaiming people who have been written off and renewing the resources and endowments that conservative policies and casino capitalism in the last decade have neglected.

After a decade of celebrating the private virtues, we need to remember that our system depends equally on the vitality of our public institutions and public life. If there is one unfortunate effect of recent events, it is the tendency of some Americans to take the collapse of communism as an occasion for complacent self-congratulation. We ought to take it as an opportunity for a political as well as economic self-renewal. The health of democracy in America, after all, is not good. The relations of politics, money, and the media have deformed our traditions. Cynicism about politics is pervasive; "politician" and "bureaucrat" are virtually terms of abuse. Voter turnout has fallen to a level that ought to be a national embarrassment. Yet many of those who bray loudly about the virtues of democracy abroad seem utterly indifferent to its condition at home.

National renewal cannot mean that we tend quietly to our private gardens or retreat into an inward-looking economic isolationism; there is no escape from the world's continuing dangers. Terrorism remains; so does the threat of nuclear proliferation. But today there is a greater promise of freedom and security for more people on this planet than at any time since before World War I. When the Berlin wall came down, the euphoria extended clear across the Atlantic. And well it should have: this season of liberty affects us all. On the threshold of the next century, the American prospect is not gray with foreboding. The world's new realities are our renewed possibilities. But to realize those possibilities will require imagination, a sense of history, and hard thought. That, in a nutshell, is the reason why we are here.

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