In his 2002 State of the Union address President Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” and expressed his resolve to meet any threat they might pose to the United States. This phrase, obviously meant to echo Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” two decades ago, was coolly received at home and abroad, and the President has not emphasized it since. Yet we would be unwise to forget it. While rhetorical overreach in the wake of last autumn’s terrorist attacks may be understandable, the hollowness of the President’s formulation betrays a strategic disorientation that merits examination.
This disorientation affects all Western governments today and not just the United States, although ours is certainly the most consequential. It arises from the fact that the political language for describing the international environment remains rooted in the distinctive experiences of the twentieth century. The birth of the fascist axis, its defeat partly through democratic mobilization and resolve, the postwar spread of the Soviet empire, the gulags and concentration camps, the genocides, the espionage, the nuclear arms race—these are the political phenomena for which the century is today remembered. Already we are beginning to see that this was not the whole story, that other developments—such as decolonization, the integration of world markets, the technological shock of digitalization—were also revolutionary. Conceptually and rhetorically, however, the twentieth-century confrontation with totalitarianism still sets our intellectual compass.
The term “totalitarianism” first entered the English language in the 1920s after Benito Mussolini popularized it in Italian, referring in his speeches to “lo stato totalitario” and “la nostra feroce voluntà totalitaria.” The word then gained wide currency after the Allied victory in World War II and the onset of the cold war, and was used as a general noun describing both fascism and communism, and distinguishing them from earlier forms of tyranny. Hannah Arendt was only the most prominent thinker to maintain that fascism and communism had given birth to a genuinely new type of political regime, for which new concepts and standards were required. Historians and political scientists alike have debated the concept ever since, as well as related terms like authoritarianism, dictatorship, absolutism, autocracy, praetorianism, sultanism, patrimonialism, and others still more arcane. But in the public mind the concept of totalitarianism remains firmly planted.
However adequate one finds that concept for describing fascism and communism, the fact is that the phenomenon it once referred to has all but disappeared. A ghostly, emaciated version of it still exists in North Korea, and one can argue about the degree to which the term still applies to, say, China or Cuba, but elsewhere the main institutions of totalitarian rule—charismatic leadership, a mobilizing ideology, relentless surveillance—have broken down, leaving in their wake a piebald map of tyrannical regimes that harm their own people and threaten their neighbors in very different ways. But what are…
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