Economic and political destabilization ranked high on al-Qaeda’s list of strategic objectives in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington, DC. In addition to killing nearly 3,000 innocent people, the attacks immediately inflicted over $80 billion dollars in damage, sent the airline industry into a tailspin, and forced the United States to undertake the economic burden of a long war. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda failed to seriously destabilize the American economic and political systems. The current economic crisis, however, could foster critical mass not only in the American and world economies but also put the world democracies in jeopardy.
Some experts maintain that a U.S. government economic relief package might lead to socialism. I am not an economist, so I will let that issue sit. However, as a historian I know what happened when the European and American economies collapsed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The role of government expanded exponentially in Europe and the United States. The Soviet system, already well entrenched in socialist totalitarianism, saw Stalin tighten his grip with the doctrine of “socialism in one country,” which allowed him to dispense with political opposition real and imagined. German economic collapse contributed to the Nazi rise to power in 1933. The alternatives in the Spanish civil war were between a fascist dictatorship and a communist dictatorship. Dictatorships also proliferated across Eastern Europe. In the United States, the Franklin Roosevelt administration vastly expanded the role and power of government. In Asia, Japanese militarists gained control of the political process and then fed Japan’s burgeoning industrial age economy with imperialist lunges into China and Korea; the first steps toward the greatest conflagration in the history of mankind … so far … World War II ultimately resulted. That’s what happened the last time the world came to a situation resembling critical mass. Scores upon scores of millions of people died.
Could it happen again? Bourgeois democracy requires a vibrant capitalist system. Without it, the role of the individual shrinks as government expands. At the very least, the dimensions of the U.S. government economic intervention will foster a growth in bureaucracy to administer the multi-faceted programs necessary for implementation. Bureaucracies, once established, inevitably become self-serving and self-perpetuating. Will this lead to “socialism” as some conservative economic prognosticators suggest? Perhaps. But so is the possibility of dictatorship. If the American economy collapses, especially in wartime, there remains that possibility. And if that happens the American democratic era may be over. If the world economies collapse, totalitarianism will almost certainly return to Russia, which already is well along that path in any event. Fragile democracies in South America and Eastern Europe could crumble.
A global economic collapse will also increase the chance of global conflict. As economic systems shut down, so will the distribution systems for resources like petroleum and food. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that nations perceiving themselves in peril will, if they have the military capability, use force, just as Japan and Nazi Germany did in the mid-to-late 1930s. Every nation in the world needs access to food and water. Industrial nations — the world powers of North America, Europe, and Asia — need access to energy. When the world economy runs smoothly, reciprocal trade meets these needs. If the world economy collapses, the use of military force becomes a more likely alternative. And given the increasingly rapid rate at which world affairs move, the world could devolve to that point very quickly.
The United States is at the epicenter as the world edges toward critical mass. And the ship of state appears rudderless. The current crisis is as much one of leadership as economics. This is the time for statesmen to come to the fore. So far, political leaders, anxious to preserve and to advance partisan agendas, have engaged in behavior bordering on the infantile. Whether or not men and women of selfless character, statesmen devoted to the preservation of the nation and its precious but always fragile democracy will emerge, remains unclear. But it is clear that if our leadership fails at this critical juncture, the fate of our nation and the world lies in the balance. At this point of critical mass, while rife with politicians, we are impoverished for leadership.
Dr. Earl Tilford, a fellow with the Center for Vision and Values, resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is working on a history of the University of Alabama in the mid- to late 1960s. He holds a PhD in history from George Washington University and served for thirty-two years as a military officer and analyst with the Air Force and Army. From 2001 until May 2008, Dr. Tilford taught history at Grove City College.