The French, as always, have a word for it: the more things change, the more they are the same.
Looking around the world just now, one has to take that into account. After the cataclysmic destruction and rehabilitation of World War II, we would have thought that patterns of political life were so changed forever that nothing of the old would remain. That’s true, of course, to a certain degree.
But looking around the world just now, you will excuse old men from seeing much, in some instances far too much, which is the same.
With all the blood spilled in Europe and in Asia– over 60 million people killed, about 3% of the 1940 world population (estimated at 2.3 billion) – it would have seemed that old patterns were completely destroyed. Yet a look around the world some 60 years later suggests the opposite.
We might begin with European anti-Semistism, that unreasonable but merciless hatred of the Jews. True, there has been a change: except for the 400,000 or so Jews who live in France – and who are now rapidly emigrating for just this reason – The Holocaust destroyed the bulk of European Jewry, the six million lost souls. But the themes continue and we now have anti-Semitism without Jews, proving once and for all how nonsensical is this hoary Western sin.
Then there is European nationalism, which brought on the centuries of dynastic, religious and nationalist wars in one of the most sophisticated regions of the world. European economic and then political union was to finally end all this. And while we may not be facing warfare among the European nationalities, we are again seeing an effort to form a union falling apart from many of the same old ailments. Moscow’s Ukrainian aggression suggests even war may not be that far away.
Of course, the problem at the center of the European political conflict for generations was the overwhelming and always growing strength of a Germany, late to united but always hovering over the European scene. That, we were led to believe, would no longer be the case with a federal Germany dedicated to democracy and having given up its goal of unification with an Austria whose existence and neutrality would be subsumed in a united Europe guaranteed by the major powers. But one problem stalking the Europeans today is again the overwhelming strength, this time with an emphasis on the economic factors, of a strong Germany. Having exported part of its wealth to its neighbors on credit, it is now being forced into billcollecing – not an enviable role. And it is one that again puts Germany’s strength and power, seemingly threatening, against the center of European speculation as the united construct at Brussels shakes loose.
Pearl Harbor, it seemed, had decided once and for all the argument over America’s participation in world politics, a disputed role going back to The Founders. The success of U.S. arms in World War II not only preserved the world from Nazi barbarism and Japanese colonialism, but it placed Washington at the center of world’s disputes as arbiter and conciliator. But with the access to power – rather inexplicably – of a young and inexperienced historian-manqué as a “transformative” president, the old argument is back. The call of Donald Trumpet may not be called “isolationism” but it bears all the hallmarks of the all the old arguments updated with 21st century figures against what used to be called :”interventionists”, those who see an undeniable dominant role for the U.S. in world affairs.
One could go on with this analysis, of course. But the point is all too obvious. The question is, of course, what does it mean? Karl Marx, quoting the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that “xxx all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.xxx” True enough, when we observe some of those playing out these old roles now, we see them as buffoonery. But the sad part of any commentary must be that we will have to try to work our way to some sort of solution of all of the issues, as we have done in the past.