The Outline of History

If the history that you learned in grammar school and high school was anything like the history that I was taught (but failed to learn for reasons I’ll explain some other time), it was a history in which Rome was the heir of Athens, England was the heir of Rome, the United States was the heir of England, and every event since about 1920 took place as a response to an American action or because America failed to act. I might have thought that after all these years no American believed that any more but in reading Lawrence Summers’s op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, I realized that the view is alive, well, and influential.

In that op-ed Dr. Summers sketches history from 1914 to the present, attributing World War I, World War II, the Viet Nam War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union primarily to American calculations or miscalculations. He culminates this highly America-centric view of history with what is, essentially, a pitch for world government:

I would suggest last that history teaches that no individual nation can be a guarantor of the stability of the system. It is only through the cooperation of nations, through the establishment of institutions, through the legitimacy that comes from convocation and dialogue, that firm and clear lines can be drawn and that others can be enticed in.

I can only surmise that Dr. Summers is now campaigning for the post of Minister of Finance of this hypothetical world government. If you don’t believe that’s what he’s getting at, allow me a question. Why does the world need a “guarantor of the stability of the system”. Stable systems don’t require guarantors. Only inherently unstable systems do.

Not only would I suggest a different interpretation of history, I’d suggest a different interpretation of the forces that underpin history, the forces that give history its impetus:

  • States have interests and act to further those interests.
  • The interests of states are often determined by the personal interests of their most powerful people.
  • Consequently, the interests of states will inevitably be understood very imperfectly and may not further states’ actual interests at all.
  • Also as a consequence of this, the people of most states don’t have a great deal of interest in the welfare of the people of any country other than their own (and only the welfare of their own people to the extent that it furthers their own welfare).

I would also add that government is only possible under one of two conditions:

  1. Shared values
  2. Overwhelming, crushing force

The world is barely ready for city government let alone world government.

11 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    Ideology? Religion? Ego? The mental instability of rulers? Randomness? Events simply flying out of control? Hubris?

    The interests of states are often determined by the personal interests of their most powerful people.

    That seems inconsistent with point #1. There is no “state” in most cases, there’s just a man. Very often a nut who has gotten hold of a nutty idea. If there’s just a man or a man’s regime, why even pretend it’s about the interest of the state?

    How was World War I a state or states acting in their interests? It was a generation of men who had set up a chain of dominoes without even realizing what they were doing. When it all came falling down they kept the fun going for four years on the strength of national ego, not national interests. When it ended the victors imposed terms they knew full well – because they’d been told by anyone in a position to know – would hurt them and their country almost as much as it did the losers. They did it anyway. Interests? No, ego, a need for moral ascendency, an emotional thirst for revenge.

    The rest of the 20th Century was to a great degree defined by Hitler, Stalin, Tojo (and pals) and Mao Tse Tung, none of who acted in the interest of a state.

    My reading of history would lead me to a very different conclusion: that history is driven by the irrational beliefs and emotional needs of a population or a man, quite often in ways that are directly destructive to the rational interests of the state.

  • Ideology? Religion? Ego?

    Those are all interests, Michael. Mistaken interests are still interests. Does madness exist? Of course. I don’t think it’s the primary motive force behind historical events and I challenge you to demonstrate that it is.

    Hitler, Stalin, Tojo (and pals) and Mao Tse Tung, none of who acted in the interest of a state.

    Or course they did. They also completely conflated their own interests with the interests of their states. If you don’t think that Hitler or Stalin believed that they were acting in the best interests of Germany or the Soviet Union, something I think is obvious, I’m not sure how I could convince you.

    Dismissing actions with which you disagree as insanity may be comforting but I don’t think it aids in an understanding of events. All of those you list were quite sane however evil they might have been.

    I also think that it leads you to the false conclusion that we were fighting Hitler rather than the Germans.

  • BTW, there’s nothing particularly outrageous in what I’m saying, Michael. I’m just echoing Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Kant. People pursue the good.

    Unless I misunderstand what you’re saying, you hearken back to a much earlier understanding: the world is controlled by evil spirits.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I harken back (and forward) to man having a sinful nature.

    If the interests of the state can be identical to the interests of whichever man holds power, I think state interests becomes a useless term. Stalin pursued Stalin’s interests. You don’t purge virtually every experienced officer from your military in 1941 – after you’ve seen the blitzkrieg, for crying out loud – out of concern for your country’s interests. You do it out of paranoia and twisted ideology.

    You don’t use your limited rail stock to ship Jews to Dachau when your hard-pressed army is crying for materiel in the national interest. Hate, ideology, madness, not cool, calm interests. Nor do you massacre civilians who have begun by welcoming you as a liberator, as Hitler did during Barbarossa. That’s ideology, not interest.

    History is the lust for power, greed, pride, hate, resentment, blundering stupidity and only on rare occasions involves a rational assessment of interests.

    So, I’ll cite Jehovah and Jesus as my sources on the sinful nature of man, Nietzsche on lust for power as prime motivator, the Founding Fathers as my co-religionists in the belief that man cannot be trusted to behave rationally but will likely abuse any shred of power he comes into, and throw in Otto Von Bismarck as my example of the futility of imagining that man and his actions can be contained within a rational interests-based international paradigm.

    Well-fed, well-taught and well-governed, man can behave well. But give him any excuse and out come the machetes and the machine guns and the gas. That applies equally to the little guy and to the great leader.

  • PD Shaw Link

    “How was World War I a state or states acting in their interests?”

    All of the states believed they would win, or felt that the consequences of not acting were too great. The First World War is a great novel, perhaps written in Russian — all of the state-actors are credible and act within the framework of their character and experience, but when the pieces unfold all together, the result was none to their liking.

  • Guarneri Link

    ” the Founding Fathers as my co-religionists in the belief that man cannot be trusted to behave rationally but will likely abuse any shred of power he comes into”

    And yet Sir Michael consistently supports the most corrosive device ever created to facilitate concentration of power for the benefit of the few: large government. Obama and the Comcast deal anyone? Its called irrationality.

  • michael reynolds Link


    It would be so great if you’d read just a little history. Just a teensy bit. You could start here:

    It’s a fun little story all about how great laissez-faire capitalism is.

  • steve Link

    We know the problem with too little government, we have third world failed states to show us that problem. We know the problem with too much government. We had the fascists and communist governments to show us that problem. We are now just arguing about where we should be in between.

    On topic, I think your summation of history was what I was taught, except the part about the US being responsible for everything. That seems newer and a mostly neocon belief, though the liberal interventionists share it selectively also.


  • TastyBits Link

    @michael reynolds

    … Nietzsche on lust for power as prime motivator …

    It was not a lust for power it is a will to power. A being wants power first over its self and second over that which can affect its self. Emotions are separate from power.

    NOTE: Nietzsche is far too often quoted out of context. “God is dead” refers to Christians killing their God, but you need to read it in context to understand what he is saying.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I agree as to the start of the war. Where they ceased any pretense of acting in the interests of the state was in the continuation of same. By 1915 they knew it was a war of attrition. The Germans tried to overcome the demographics with technological innovation, especially the use of poison gas. But all sides knew this war was annihilating the very regimes, the very societies they set out to defend.

    So why didn’t they get together in Switzerland and work it out? The war started by accident (short-hand term) but it could have been stopped by design. It wasn’t. Millions more died. They knew they were killing what they meant to save, kept going anyway. Why? Pride, lack of imagination, inertia, careerism, a bunch of things that have a lot to do with human weakness and nothing to do with any rational notion of interests.

    It was not the starting of the war that destroyed old Europe, it was its continuation, the sheer scale of death and horror. All of which could have been stopped had the participants considered their actual interests.

    By mid 1863 the Confederacy knew it would lose and that the slave economy was done for. Kept fighting. By 1941 – before the US even got into the war – the Nazis knew they would not take Russia, and they knew that their only chance of surviving was if they could get the Allies to turn on Russia. Kept dropping bombs on England anyway. Japan knew they couldn’t beat the US and gambled on us suing for peace. When we failed to sue for peace, they knew they wouldn’t win. Kept fighting anyway.

    Interests do not drive history, humans drive history, and humans are assholes.

  • Andy Link

    I would also add that government is only possible under one of two conditions:

    1. Shared values
    2. Overwhelming, crushing force

    True is most cases, but I don’t think those two conditions are mutually exclusive.

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