In addition to helping us avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, history can also teach us that our pessimistic urges, when we believe that all is lost, have nothing original about them.
There was a time, soon after the euphoria that followed the end of World War II, when failure seemed certain and that the selflessness and sacrifices of the “greatest generation,” which had ensured victory of the “free world” against fascism, had been spent in vain. The early successes of the Soviet Union, starting with the detonation of its first nuclear bomb in August 1949 through the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957, added to the “loss” of China in 1949 and ill-starred beginnings to the Korean War in 1950, came as body blows that threatened to fell what just a few years before had seemed like an implacable force.
Soon, mass pessimism was taking hold of Washington and allied capitals, leading otherwise intelligent officials to inflate the Soviet threat with the so-called “missile gap” that put the West’s very existence at risk. Only years later would it become known that a gap did exist — in the US’ favor — and signs emerged that all along the USSR was plagued by contradictions and inefficiencies that imposed severe handicaps in almost every race Moscow engaged in against the West, be it in the military, ideological, social or economic sphere.
After years of waging a Cold War against an opponent that would ultimately become so heavy it would crush its fragile foundations, the West, self-doubts notwithstanding, proved it was resilient enough to wear out a giant that had long been thought could not be beaten. Not only that, but the West never allowed defeatism to discourage its constituents from continuing to fight for what it believed in.
Sixty years later, the West finds itself in a similar situation. Just as it did back then, pessimism pervades in the wake of a sweeping ideological victory. No sooner had the “end of history” been hailed by the West, than fears arose it would be made history, this time because of China’s seemingly unstoppable “rise.” Even the almighty US, the remaining superpower, now seemed incapable of standing up to Beijing, deflated and overextended as it was by two open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as if Korea and Vietnam had not been equally taxing on the national treasury.
This is not to say that the emergence of China does not represent a challenge to the international system. It does. However, its surfacing as a force to be reckoned with should by no means force the rest of the world into a stupor that allows Beijing to do what it wants, or to turn into liars liberal democracies that a few years ago had vowed, to quote a serving prime minister, never to sell their ideals to the “almighty dollar.” Knowledge of history, of the other dark periods in the recent past, should be sufficient to make us realize not only that we have seen all this before, but more importantly, that something can be done about it.
There is no reason why democracies should capitulate on human rights just because China’s economy is supposedly holding the whole world together, or that Beijing’s military has become so strong as to paralyze an entire region. That’s mostly a myth, a monster the West created out of its own fears. It had similar apprehensions about Japan in the 1980s; how risible those fears seem today.
The “China threat” looms large because through pessimism, the West has allowed Beijing — a Beijing that is endlessly wracked by insecurity, ironically — to get away with murder for too long.
The West has been there, and prevailed. Did it have assurances it would be victorious? No. However, democracies fought nonetheless. If history teaches us one thing, it is that there is no reason to think and act any differently today.
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