Book Review: The Ideas That Conquered the World

The Ideas That Conquered the World
By Michael Mandelbaum
PublicAffairs, New York, NY, 2002

The Ideas That Conquered the World was published with some fanfare in 2002, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I can’t remember how long it’s been sitting on my Five Foot Shelf of unread books. Reading it more than a decade after its publication, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought it might be horribly dated, completely overtaken by events.

I was wrong. If anything the book is actually prescient in some areas and its triumphalism, while present, is fairly balanced.

But before I dive into all that, what exactly are the ideas that conquered the world?

Peace, democracy and free markets.

Now it doesn’t take more than a few nanoseconds glancing at the headlines to find exceptions to all three of these ideas. In fact, reading the news might lead you to believe they’re the exception not the rule. So it would be easy to conclude that the author, Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American Foreign Policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, is wrong or just plain nuts.

Except Mandelbaum isn’t claiming peace, democracy and free markets are universal. He’s claiming they are victorious. Even if not fully practiced or realized everywhere, they have, with the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War, defeated all competitors. No serious alternatives exist in the world today.

The Cold War, Mandelbaum points out, was a battle of systems and ideas. In that sense it was profoundly different from both World Wars, and really from most other wars which were traditionally fought for territorial gain. The Cold War was a battle between liberal and Communist ideas. Communism lost. No other system stands today as a viable alternative to the liberal ideas of peace, democracy and free markets. 9/11, horrific though it was, actually confirms that victory because neither Al Qaeda nor even radical Islam more broadly pose an existential threat to the West the way Communism did.

I wouldn’t do the book justice trying to summarize Mandelbaum’s arguments so I’ll just highlight some key points I found really interesting or insightful.

Historically speaking, peace, democracy and free markets actually developed in the reverse order. Markets came first with the Industrial Revolution and burgeoning international trade. To ensure continuing prosperity and economic growth, laws were required to provide for property rights.

“Property rights are individual rights that involve things that can be bought and sold. The rule of law came into being largely to protect them.” p. 270

Property rights led in turn to constitutionalism, the idea that there should be limits on the power of government, starting with limiting its power to take property (i.e. to collect tax) and later adding limits on its power to interfere in political and civic activates. In other words, property rights led to political rights, and eventually to suffrage (“No taxation without representation”) and popular sovereignty.

It turns out you need both popular sovereignty and limits on government power for democracy to firmly take root. We see plenty of examples today, like Egypt, where having the former without the latter causes democracy to fail.

Mandelbaum credits Britain and France with essentially inventing the modern world. The Industrial Revolution in Britain created rising standards of living and drove the first great wave of international trade liberalization. The French Revolution re-introduced to the modern world the ancient Greek idea of popular sovereignty.

Markets and democracy led to peace as the preferred method for international relations. The Industrial Revolution reduced the value of land as a means of producing wealth and thus reduced the benefits of territorial conquest. It used to be that the test of legitimacy for any government was protecting its sovereign borders. Today, governments rise and fall on whether they can deliver prosperity (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) So there’s less incentive for nations to go to war, and a much higher cost of doing so. The idea of common security provided by NATO and the European Union and its predecessors emerged as a better way to preserve peace than precarious balance of power arrangements of the past.

This leads to one area where I disagree with Mandebaum. He argues the expansion of NATO eastward after the fall of Communism was a blunder by the West, especially the United States, because it excluded Russia from the blanket of common security spread over Europe. Instead, it heightened Russia’s sense of exclusion and encirclement. But the alternative sounds like appeasement to me. I think it’s nearly impossible to say whether leaving the nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltics out of NATO would have made a lasting change in relations with Russia. More importantly, those countries certainly had no desire to remain a buffer zone, they wanted to join NATO.

On the other hand, writing in 2002, Mandelbaum was eerily accurate in his remarks about the Ukraine.

“Still, the possibility of post-Yugoslav-style conflict in Ukraine remained. Clumsy treatment of ethnic Russians by the Ukrainian government, or radically better economic conditions on the Russian side of the border, had the potential to produce secessionist sentiment. … The Ukraine-Russian border was one of the potential flashpoints of the post-Cold War world.” p. 139

Interestingly, Russia has recently moved to reduce tensions along its border with Ukraine and to tamp down the activities of pro-Russian separatists. One reason suggested in this article on vox.com (Obama’s strategy of letting Putin hang himself is working) is that Russia has become quite integrated with and dependent on the global economy since the end of the Cold War. Sanctions and jittery global investors withdrawing capital are exerting noticeable pressure on Russia to exercise restraint in Ukraine. I guess Michael Mandelbaum must see this as confirmation of his ideas.

If the book were being written today, I suspect Mandelbaum might pay more attention to the role the Internet and communication technology are playing in helping to knit the global economy even more tightly together. And I hope he would give much more focus to climate change and environmental concerns, which he only just mentions, as potentially destabilizing factors. States may be less likely to go to war purely for territorial conquest these days, but they might take up arms to protect supplies of fresh water or other precious resources. Maybe the idea of common security would have to be expanded to include not just military but also environmental security.

One thing I wasn’t expecting from The Ideas That Conquered the World was the sweeping review of the last two hundred plus years of world history the book provides. If you want a primer on world history since the Industrial Revolution, this book is a great choice.

Mind you, the book isn’t exactly light reading. The style is quite academic in places and often uses a conditional form like this admittedly extreme example referring to international cooperation:

“Whether it would prove to be good enough to cope with these problems in the twenty-first century is a question to which only the history of that century could furnish an answer.” p. 398

Don’t let that put you off, though. If you’re interested in the history of the modern era, or perhaps looking to understand the origins of some of today’s important trends or conflicts, or maybe even seeking some reassurance that our civilization is not about to collapse, The Ideas That Conquered the World is both relevant and rewarding.

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