“All the great things have been done by little nations.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

There is definitely less to Paul Kennedy’s new book than might appear on the surface of it. Preparing For the Twenty-First Century is an odd combination of old-fashioned doomsday alarmism, the modern lust for total planning, and the equally contemporary demand for a future free of risk and insecurity. It is also written in as bland and pedestrian a style as that of any journalist or public academic on this side of the Atlantic; if Professor Kennedy is a fair indicator, then the British hegemony in respect of the English language has gone the way of the British hegemony in respect of economics, which is to say it has been Americanized. Perhaps in the 21st century it will be Nipponized as well.

Whatever new ideas are in this book, I must have missed by inadvertent catnapping. Kennedy’s thesis is the already familiar argument that the so-called global economy, human mass migration, and environmental crisis are all factors in a process of transnational change that, in addition to being resistant to national control, have rendered the nation-state “the wrong sort of unit”—either too large or too small—to handle problems of historically unprecedented size and scope. These problems, what is more, cannot be dealt with by armed force, but only by international cooperation and a ‘”relocation of authority’ both upward or downward”—preferably upward, since Kennedy is clearly uncomfortable with the present assertiveness of the smaller units active in the world today, which he seems to find exemplified by the ethnic separatism of the Serbian nationalists and uncooperative elements within the republics of the former Soviet Union. He is a proponent of the European Community, since “the larger logic of historical change favors the integrationists” and “Europe surely has no real alternative to moving forward, seeking to create an influential and responsible entity capable of meeting . . . challenges collectively in a way that twelve or twenty separate nation-states simply cannot do.” The “profundity of international change,” Kennedy believes, “demanding new thinking and new structures, strengthens the position of those who argue that Europe simply cannot stand still.”

Professor Kennedy concedes that the nation-state is likely to hang around for a while, as it remains the “primary locus of identity of most people,” the “chief institution through which societies will try to respond to change.” Yet only such states as are willing to pursue “new thinking and new structures” will have a chance at being Number One—or Two, or Three, or Four—in the 21st century, a global status that Kennedy regards as both quantifiable and significant. The Professor’s Benthamite, pushpin-as-good-as-poetry bias is expressed by his deprecation of Britain’s willingness at the end of the last century to muddle through in accordance with national tradition rather than seek to retain its preeminent position in the world by aping foreign ones. If, in order to maintain an industrial edge over Japan, economic logic suggests the need for the United States to reorganize itself as a society of ant-people engaged in regulated calisthenics together, that possibility, Kennedy seems to imply, is worth considering at least so far as it is compatible with American values and customs: further, perhaps, since he goes on to inveigh against “fundamentalist forces, partly in reaction to globalization, gather[ing] strength to lash back, while even in democracies, nationalist and anti-foreign political movements gain ground—all of which hurts their long-term chances of ‘preparing’ for the future.” (One hundred thirty-two pages later, the author offhandedly remarks that “societies which possess technical and educational resources, ample funds, and cultural solidarity [my italics] are better positioned for the next century than those lacking all these strengths.”)

Of greater moral concern to Professor Kennedy than the relative standing of nations belonging to the First World is the relationship between them and the “developing” components of the Third World, whose future he (rightly) argues looks dismal indeed when one considers the appalling demographic and environmental problems confronting Latin America, Africa, the Near East, the Indian subcontinent, China, and Southeast Asia. Kennedy’s perception that the developed world continues to widen, almost exponentially and year by year, the gap between itself and the Third World countries amounts to the assertion of a law that the convoy moves only as fast as the swiftest ship, while laggards are left behind to catch torpedoes—an accurate, if regrettable, description of modern world history. His further argument, that the law must somehow be abrogated to permit the slowest vessels to catch up and then keep pace with the vanguard, is impractical, no matter how soundly based on moral and prudential terms. It is certainly true, as Kennedy insists, that “the environmental threat, like the threat of mass migration, means that—perhaps for the first time—what the South does can hurt the North.” It is also true that the professor from Oxford (today on the faculty of Yale) has, like everyone else concerned about the imbalance of wealth between North and South, no idea what might realistically be done to “solve” the “problem”—if in fact it is a problem. (As the late James Burnham used to say, “If there’s no solution, there’s no problem.”) The most likely conclusion to the current crisis in the Third World is mass starvation and endemic warfare, including the invasion of the Western and Northern countries by hordes of desperate, envious, and angry people from the Eastern and Southern ones. But who can say? And how can more of the maximization thinking characteristic of the modern and postmodern West rescue them—and us—from our shared cul-de-sac? It isn’t simply a matter of problem-solving.

Finally, Preparing For the Twenty-First Century is only the most recent of those many naive and rather silly books produced by a naive and shallow age. “In view of the speed and complexity of these changes, is any social group really ‘prepared’ for the 21st century?” Professor Kennedy wonders. Well, of course not. What social group was prepared for the 19th, the 13th, or—most importantly —the first? (And what historical significance ought a professional historian assign to the arbitrary concept of centuries anyway?) Similarly, he complains that politicians today are incapable of solving even short-term problems; yet when were they ever so capable? For Kennedy, any human or historical situation that is something less than the imaginable ideal is a “problem” about which we should all be worrying, and on which the bureaucrats who staff our modern macrogovernmental entities ought to be at work. Kennedy stresses the discrepancy between an integrated world economy and an unintegrated arrangement of national and regional governments, as well as of ethnic groups and cultures, without bothering to consider how surprising this differentiation should be. Yet history has never proceeded by plan and logic, only economics has (often enough to our great detriment). Need one be a philosopher to speculate whether the end of history might be the exposure of fundamental contradictions in human nature, by which man is forced at last to admit that he is not as a god, an omniscient and omnipotent being, final architect and arbiter of his fate?

Certainly the division between the First and Third Worlds suggests a radical, unmediated split between abstraction and nature, brains and genitalia. Professor Kennedy, echoing Wells and Toynbee, suggests that “global society is in a race between education and catastrophe,” and goes on to advocate the “reeducation of mankind” as the proper focus for global change. In fact, that reeducation began 2,000 years ago in what today is one of the most violent and crisis-ridden places on earth. Is it just possible that globally society is actually in a race between the Word and catastrophe? Such an hypothesis is not germane to Professor Kennedy’s book, the true message of which is the relentless secularization of Christian universalism.

While the nation-state has been historically compromised by both nationalism and statism, Professor Kennedy’s idea of it as an essentially reactionary and clumsy relic that has (almost) outlived its time seems extreme, to say the least. In particular, his observation—arresting on first reading—that national entities are either too large or too small to handle the problems of the contemporary world is vitiated by the enormous diversity in size, strength, and reach among the 170-odd members of the United Nations. Surely many of those are comfortably in scale with their present functions and responsibilities? If nationalism has in fact been the source of great evil in this and earlier centuries, the result of appalling use and abuse of the nationalist idea, surely the answer in the next century and probably in the foreseeable future of mankind is not to attempt to replace the nation-state with some other (perhaps worse) institution, but to redefine our expectations for it in the interest of curbing its more tyrannical and aggressive tendencies.

The theme of The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement With Israel, 1947 to the Present is the abuse of nationalism by over-assertion on the one hand and, on the other, by under-assertiveness. George W. Ball, an undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and his son Douglas have written a book responsibly critical of the ruthlessness with which Israel has operated from its inception and also of the supineness characteristic of the United States in its willingness to support ruthlessness in disregard of moral principle and of its own national interest. The Balls’ text is Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, in which the departing President warned against “passionate attachments” to other nations, resulting in an illusion of common interest where there is none; participation in quarrels not one’s own; concession of privileges not granted to others; domestic factionalism leading to the practice of “the arts of seduction,” public deceit, and unwarranted influence in the “public councils”; and the stigmatization of those unwilling to serve as “tools and dupes” of a foreign power. In the opinion of the authors, Israel since 1947 has qualified as the object of such an attachment, from which every one of the consequences foreseen by President Washington has subsequently flowed.

While the United States of course is no more responsible for the holocaust than 19th-century European Jewry was for the slaughter of the American War Between the States, its support of the new state of Israel was essentially an expression of compassion for Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. However, the American- Israeli lobby has never felt entirely secure with a policy based on mere emotion, and so it has preferred to emphasize instead Israel’s importance to the United States as a reliable ally blocking incursions by the Soviet Union in the Middle East. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the end of the Cold War, and the Allied victory (to which the Israelis did not contribute) in the Gulf War, the rationale for America’s paying enormous, unquestioned, and regular “tribute” to Israel no longer holds. Accordingly, the Balls propose that such tribute cease forthwith, arguing that Washington would be spared a very considerable drain on its impoverished Treasury while Israel, forced at last to be self-supportive, would benefit immeasurably from a burgeoning economy freed from statist and bureaucratic restrictions. Finally and most importantly, the United States would be acting in a principled fashion:

In the last few decades, America has progressively redefined its moral objectives; it now puts special emphasis on the elimination of colonialism, racial and ethnic discrimination; on the advancement of human rights; and on the removal of bars to economic opportunity created by inefficient state socialism. These newly prominent values have been given such priority in American policy that their distortion by our passionate attachment to Israel casts mortal doubt on the sincerity and credibility of our leaders.

While this passage shows the Balls themselves departing from Washington’s and the other Founding Fathers’ belief that the safest nation and the one that makes the best neighbor is the nation that minds its own business and eschews crusades to remake other countries in its own image (that the responsibility of a nation, in other words, is to be a nation, no more and no less), their account of Israeli mendacity, tergiversation, duplicity, arrogance, and recalcitrance toward its chief ally, friend, and benefactor underscores what for the United States must be the secondary indictment: the documented crimes and maltreatment perpetrated on the Palestinian people, whose portion of the original Palestinian mandate Israel seized by force of arms in the war of 1948 (what Israelis call their War of Independence), and Jerusalem’s absolute refusal to countenance the morally and politically justified demand for a Palestinian state. As the Balls plainly show, however, the cruelty and intransigence of Israeli generals and politicians have been equally balanced by the weakness and temerity of the American political establishment, which, with the exception of President Eisenhower who in 1956 forced Israel to withdraw her army from the territory it had seized during the Suez offensive, has talked principle to the Jerusalem government (and to the world) only to back down abjectly when its solicitations were rebuffed. As for the American people themselves, their negligence and passivity in regard to the Middle East can be excused only, as the Balls suggest, by the absence of a Doughty, a Burton, or a Lawrence from their literature and by their ignorance of Arab history and culture, which has been presented to them almost exclusively as a tale of barbarity and superstition.

It is interesting to read in the Balls’ book that Israel and the United States are currently suffering from a similar social, intellectual, economic, and political rot. If the contemporary American and Israeli brands of nationalism are the only ones available at the start of the 21st century, then by all means let us discard them directly into the maw of Paul Kennedy’s capacious and ever-yawning dustbin and follow the professor in his search for something new. Nations that are under- and over-assertive of their own and their people’s rights are respectively like too-slow and too-fast drivers on the freeway: the cause of historical pile-ups, and international catastrophe.


[Preparing For the Twenty-First Century, by Paul Kennedy (New York: Random House) 428 pp., $25.00]

[The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement With Israel, 1947 to the Present, by George W. Ball and Douglas B. Ball (New York: W.W. Norton) 328 pp., $24.95]