The ideals of the revolutions in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and even Bulgaria owe much to the American model, with its combination of political freedom and an economic system that seems to guarantee an ever-rising standard of living. It is important to recognize that it is a version of American political democracy, and not Japanese discipline or German efficiency, that the new leaders of these countries say they are striving for. Whether and how they will succeed is impossible to predict; their struggle will be long and may not always be peaceful. It is worth examining, however, whether the American system is all that they think it is, or whether they are seeing the light of a distant star which, some time ago, may have ceased to shine so brightly.
Clearly, military power is no longer the ultimate test of influence in the world. As the Soviet Union struggles simply to survive, the main competition for the US is no longer communist ideology or military expansion, but European and Japanese financial and economic power. The so-called American century lasted barely twenty-five years. We are still, in many ways, the richest and most powerful country in the world. However, since the mid-1970s, the competitive position of many of our industries has steadily eroded, our position as the world’s largest creditor has turned into the world’s largest debtor, and our dependence on foreign capital has become worrisome to many. It is ironic that, as one country after another seeks freedom from foreign domination, our own economic independence is more and more constrained as a result of our needs for borrowing.
Americans are smug in claiming that “we beat communism.” To some extent, the strength and steadfastness of the western Alliance account for the recent changes; but if the command economies have failed, our own experiment with the free market and a deregulated economy is far from a success. Communism destroyed itself because it is philosophically and psychologically untenable and economically unworkable in the modern world. In many ways, communism was defeated by people who believed in the ideal possibilities of both democracy and the “social market” rather than by the American reality; the real question for the US is whether it can become what these countries think it is.
First, as these Central European countries are striving to do, we should have a real multiparty political system. At the least, we should have two functioning political parties. This is no longer the case today. I have been a Democrat ever since I came to the US in 1942, at the age of fourteen, from Occupied France. There was never any question in my mind whether to support FDR, Truman, Stevenson, Kennedy, or Johnson. They stood for what I believed in: internationalism, the defense of freedom, equality of opportunity, fairness in the distribution of wealth. The Republican party, it seemed to me, was a party of the status quo, of isolationism, and of the simple, unadulterated pursuit of wealth.
Today the political choice,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.