Monday, January 29, 2007

Book Review: Blessed Among Nations

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist, wrote a couple of books a few years ago called The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade and Globalization and Its Discontents in which he discusses one of the biggest expansions of globalization in modern times and the effects it has upon the world and the world economy. Stiglitz arguments are complicated and quite worthy. Stiglitz focuses on today's globalization effects, making lessons hard to digest.

Eric Rauchway's Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America (Hill & Wang, 2006) however, looks at a prior era of globalization, the first modern age of globalization, the period between the end of the American Civil War and the end of World War I. The lessons Rauchway describes should be required reading for modern American leaders. Rauchway, a professor of History at University of California-Davis, focuses on major subjects in the first modern era of globalization, a time in which the ties between America and the rest of the world strengthened and the work shrank.

Rauchway first looks at the movement of capital and people into and within America. The drive westward, driven in large part by European capital building railroads and native American's moving westward from the pressure of a massive wave of immigration, created a nation with a distinctly different outlook on domestic and foreign policy than most great European powers of the day. America's growth, spurred in large part by European investment and immigration from European nations, created a new great power with a radically different outlook on world problems. Coupled with the uniquely American governmental system with the Senate representing state interests, Rauchway leads us through some very different results of America's growth as compared to European powers.

Rauchway discusses the impact of the massive immigration during the late 19th Century upon the labor movement and welfare policies of the United States as compared to the rest of world. First, unique among great powers of the time, America witnessed immigration from a whole host of nations rather than the smaller number experienced by Eurpoean powers. With immigrants from Northern Europe and Southern Europe arriving at essentially the same time, coupled with movement of peoples from Eastern Eurpope and the rest of the world, America experienced the melting pot in stark terms.

At a time when most European nations were creating and implementing their proto-welfare states, American immigrants, as the working class, did not represent the same politicla force as the working class of other nations. Language and cultural barriers presented obstacles to cohesion as a class. Furthermore, the American govenrmental system, particularly the Senate, prevented the populous eastern states from dominating the welfare and immigration policy debates as the largely underpopulated Western states, with its population of displaced American workers, prevented the growth of welfare policies and forced some changes in immigration policy or at least stalemated some of the options presented with a European flavor.

Even today, many involved in the immigration debate, particularly the Bush administration, still see the immigration debate in teh same terms as the 19th Century West, as a labor issue.

Rauchway's examination of the age of imperialism provides an important glimpse into why America grew up so differently that Eurpoe. While European powers competed on a worldwide stage for the acquisition of territory and resources, and prestige, America did not need to look overseas for such things. With an interior empire to exploit and build, America did not need to spend large segments of its GDP on conquest and administration, leading to an explosion in American wealth. At the same time, European powers invested heavily in the growing American industry further adding to America's relative power in the global arena, a power completely out of line for the age of the nation.

While the descriptions of policy development and growth provide some interesting insight, Rauchway's ending conclusions have the most salience for today. Following World War I, the United STates was the only great power left who had not suffered catastrophic damage to both land and people. But instead of accepting that role and the importance of that role, America retreated within itself. At a time when it would have been possible to export American democracy with powerful results, the United States retreated, if not causing the Great Depression, certainly accelerating its arrival.

Today, the United States is the only superpower left standing. But if the isolationist/welfarist arguments of the Democrats now in power in Congress carry the day, the demise of the rest of the world may very well be assured. Europe already stands on the precipice and abandonment by the United States will surely be the push over the cliff the Continent does not need.

America's uniqueness has often been celebrated, indeed exalted, by American historians and politicians. But the uniqueness of America is as much a product of world influences as our unique historical and political development. At the end of the first age of globalization, America hunkered down inside ourselves. It took a worldwide depression and a second World War for America to once again rise to international promince. At the end of the most recent age of globalization, such a ostrich mentality will serve no one anywhere. Furhtermore, in the coming ideological conflicts, not understanding that any and all policy decisions, even ones obstensibly in domestic policy, have worldwide implications.

America is traditionally poorly prepared for conflict and often takes months, even years to respond adequately. Can we take that chance again?

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