Sept. 11: beginning of history?

March 1, 2002
The most powerful weapon in the American arsenal is the American economy.
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John Rhea

The most powerful weapon in the American arsenal is the American economy.

WASHINGTON — In his 1992 classic work, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama contends that the forces of capitalism, democracy, and technology have combined to change history irrevocably in favor of a rational global order that permanently precludes the failed irrational ideologies of the past.

Fukuyama, former professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax Va., and now an analyst with the Johns Hopkins University think tank in Washington, concludes that history has indeed ended because mankind no longer needs to seek an all-encompassing scientific formula for stable human relations. That's what Karl Marx (among others) tried to do, and the results speak for themselves.

While not without its detractors, Fukuyama's thesis has been supported in recent years by a wide spectrum of thinkers, including Princeton University astrophysicist Freeman Dyson in his 1995 lectures at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later published as the book Imagined Worlds in 1997, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow in a series of books, most recently Building Wealth, published in 1999.

This thesis is further supported by the results of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union collapsed because it was fundamentally flawed. Lacking democracy, it never fully achieved legitimacy and thus the willing participation of its citizens. Lacking a free market, it was unable to apply its superior technology outside the military sphere and thus achieve sustained growth.

In fact, I have long maintained that the principal reason for the Soviets' collapse was their inability to apply the famous experience, or learning, curve pioneered by the Boston Consulting Group in 1966. That rule states, as I am sure readers of this magazine know, that when cumulative volume of shipments of any product doubles prices must fall by 25 to 30 percent, thus creating new markets and, in the process, improving living standards.

The net result was a triumph of the democratic, capitalist West by a technical knockout when the other guys couldn't answer the bell for the next round.

The American diplomat George F. Kennan anticipated this result with his famous "containment" policy formulated in 1947 and implemented by then Secretary of State Dean Atcheson in what became the system architecture of the American response to the post-World War II Soviet threat. Simply stated, it meant patiently keeping our powder dry and waiting for the other side to self destruct. The Berlin airlift of 1948-49 is an excellent example.

What may make that situation different from today's post-Sept. 11 climate is that the Soviets and their allies, while indeed troublesome, were at least rational. They could see the handwriting on the wall and could act accordingly in their own best interests.

People who suicidally crash airplanes into buildings are by definition irrational. This raises the question of whether our response should be to abandon our past policy of almost smug patience and respond in kind with feverish activity of our own.

I think not. For openers, that means playing in the other guys' ballpark. It's also needlessly expensive and shifts essential assets from the civilian economy, which isn't doing all that well right now.

I have also long maintained that the most powerful weapon in the American arsenal — during the Cold War and today — is the American economy. I have felt more comfortable with President Eisenhower's efforts to curb the "military-industrial complex" than President Kennedy's exhortation to "pay any price to defend freedom around the world."

The latter struck me as something of a blank check, and I was never sure we had a sufficient balance in our account to cover that check. I don't think we can cover it today either.

I vividly remember the panic that set in after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. The resulting national trauma was probably comparable to what we're experiencing today. I was in my senior year at the University of Illinois and had just completed an astronomy course. I thought this first step into space was the most wonderful thing that ever happened in my life. I still do.

There's a useful lesson to be derived from that experience. Our response at the time was twofold: first to find scapegoats and then to launch a crash program of our own. The designated scapegoats were the nation's educators, and the focal point of the crash program was the Apollo effort to land a man on the moon during the decade of the 1960s.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, doubts linger about what the FBI and CIA were doing last Sept. 10. Yet we have mercifully not launched a witch hunt to identify who was sleeping on the job.

Crash programs are another matter. I think a policy of patience is imperative and that our plates are sufficiently full that there's no room on them for the "evil axis" of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

While the thesis of Fukuyama and others may be altered by the events of Sept. 11, I think they remain just as valid in broad outline as ever before.

The best analysis I've heard since then is from a speech that John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, gave at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December. I can't improve on what he said, so I leave you with his thoughts:

"Some have spoken of the need for a 'Manhattan Project' [the World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb] to satisfy the needs of homeland security," he said. "The analogy is wrong-headed. Cleverness is needed less now than a national will to use what we have to strengthen the infrastructure of our daily lives, to bolster public health systems, to equip properly our first responders, to use more effectively the information technology, the detection technology, the biotechnology that we already possess to render the way we live less vulnerable to what the military scholars call 'asymmetric threats'."

"We need to plan, and to carry out our plans," Marburger concluded. "And that is one of the functions of the Office of Homeland Security."

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