The Ideas that Conquered the World
By Michael Mandelbaum


All cultures have a tendency to either uphold or affirm their values as being superior to others. This isn't a proclamation of societal chauvinism; after all, most people who call themselves tolerant would probably be inclined to say that tolerance is better than intolerance. Most ideas that predominate modern Western society by and large have done so because they have proven themselves to be more enduring than other competing ideas. For example, it could be argued that Christianity is so popular because -- in its formative years -- it successfully beat-out other contemporary or near-contemporary challengers such as Mithraism or Zoroastrianism in the struggle for the soul of the West. Sure, there are Mithraists and Zoroastrians today, but they are the exception rather than the rule. This somewhat imperfect analogy helps in understanding the main thrust of the argument presented in Michael Mandelbaum's 2002 book The Ideas that Conquered the World. In another review of mine, I discussed what is sometimes referred to as the "Wilsonian Triad." In this book, Mandelbaum claims that this set of ideas is the standard by which the sovereign states of the world may be judged in terms of their respective sociopolitical orientations.

Key Concepts

There are many different ideas present in Mandelbaum's book that need some explaining or at least a little bit of fleshing out. Most aren't particularly complicated, but there's a good chance for misinterpreting his lexicon without understanding what he means by each word or concept.

  1. Liberal vs. Illiberal - This is the distinction that is the most important, especially because the implications of both words change with the context. Here's a catchy way of looking at it: for liberal, Kant, not Kerry; for illiberal, Robespierre, not Reagan. Of course, that's good as far as mediocre alliteration is concerned, but it's not particularly helpful to someone who isn't a big fan/student of political science or international studies. Mandelbaum means two things by the term "liberal." On the one hand, the two main schools of thought in political science are generally recognized as being the liberal school -- of which Mandelbaum is an obvious member -- and the realist school -- of which, say, Machiavelli was a member. Both groups have different interpretations of the nature of world relations, with the former generally believing that international actors (for simplicity, we'll call them "states") are driven by ideological concerns with the latter generally believing that states are driven by balance of power concerns. The other sense in which the term "liberal" is used is the one that we'll spend more time examining. In the broadest sense, Mandelbaum uses "liberal" to refer to states with democratically-elected governments, a free market economy, and a general tendency towards war aversion. The three concepts that were just mentioned are the three defining features of the Wilsonian Triad mentioned earlier, and they derive their eponym from the American President Woodrow Wilson, who heavily promoted these ideas at the Versailles Conference at the end of the Great War. These are the "ideas" in the Ideas that Conquered the World. By contrast (and by definition), illiberal states are those that lack these features in both domestic and foreign policies. And before we go any further, yes, Mandelbaum considers the United States a liberal country in this regard. This is the meaning behind the Kant/Kerry, Robespierre/Reagan remark: Kant's views on freedom, individualism, and property are the basis for much of what we call "classic liberalism;" Robespierre, on the other hand, eventually became a despotic figure with little respect for freedom, individualism, or property. By this standard, both of the two main political parties in the United States would be considered "liberal" (please do not /msg me with rants about how the Republicans/Democrats/Greens/Constitutionalists/Mugwumps are authoritarian syndicates bent on destroying personal freedom in the world).
  2. Core vs. Periphery - This is another important idea to Mandelbaum's system of thought and it's one that's been around forever. This is a familiar way of looking at the world: the Core is the region from which innovations in culture, technology, politics, philosophy, etc., usually originate, and it should be somewhat obvious at this point that the Core refers to the West; the Periphery, on the other hand, is the region that either imitates the advancements of the Core or disregards them altogether in lieu of their own ideas...the Periphery, by inference, refers to everywhere other than the West and it's safe to say that Mandelbaum views all Third World/unindustrialized nations as "peripheral" since he views early industrialization as a prerequisite for core status. It should not be surprising that Mandelbaum sees a not infrequent intersection between illiberal policies and a peripheral state of existence (although this is not by logical necessity always the case; Germany has always been part of the Core, but it was one of the most decidedly illiberal nations on the planet immediately before and during the Second World War).
  3. The Liberal Theory of History - The whole nature of this idea is somewhat difficult to explain in any reasonable amount of space, so a summation of the more salient points is in order. While the Liberal Theory of History is not based on the idea of historical inevitability in the same way as its Marxist competitor, this notion does a play a role in it. Perhaps more accurately, they share a common view of how the progression of history in terms of description rather than prescription. In essence, they both have the same view of things up until a certain point; in fact, Mandelbaum even quotes Marx verbatim to spell it out. Basically, the first significant progression in human society was the Agricultural Revolution. The exact timeframe for this is difficult to pin down for the obvious reasons (many estimates place it around 11,000 years ago), but it essentially represents the time at which humanity by and large gave up the hunter-gatherer paradigm and instead settled down to farm for itself in centralized areas. This gave rise to the land-based values of what Mandelbaum refers to as traditional society. Traditional society laid the groundwork for a variety of historical phenomena, including the notion of the city-state, the kingdom, and (most significant to our discussion) feudalism. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the traditional idea of land-based serfdom was displaced by industry. While Marx would contend that this merely recreated or worsened established serfdom, Mandelbaum asserts that it had the effect of jump-starting a whole series of liberal ideas regarding the nature (and importance) of the individual. This is the crux of the Liberal Theory of History: it is claimed that since free markets (or laissez faire capitalism) enable people to gain a larger stake in society by virtue of their economic contributions to it, they will demand a truly representative government in whose actions they will have a say...and, generally speaking, since populations as a whole are usually unwilling to go to war for offensive purposes, there will be a governmental drive to avoid doing so. Although Marx did not live to see the next phase of this progression, Mandelbaum says that industrialized modernity had its first test in World War I and that afterwards, industry precipitated conflicts between liberalism and illiberalism. He views industrialization as begetting two forms of totalitarianism: revolutionary communism and reactionary fascism. When the latter was defeated militarily in World War II by (mainly) liberal states, the former became the most obvious threat. The conflict entered into by liberal democracy and illiberal communism, of course, is the Cold War. Although generally less violent than World War II, the stakes during the Cold War were even higher owing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons amongst the various states of the world -- liberal and illiberal. As we are all aware, the Cold War ended and liberalism triumphed.


As it is, there's a whole lot of material to go over in Mandelbaum's book despite the fact that it runs only about 400 pages. The key concepts listed above are used to explain the world in terms of conflict and while most of his assertions seem fairly reasonable, some of them do not. The main problem is not the assumptions; rather, it's the conclusions. One thing that bothers me is the liberal/illiberal dichotomy. At times, he uses "illiberal" and "traditional" almost interchangeably and it's difficult to know what he really means. For example, is a state in Africa that is based on the autocratic rule of a chieftain that imposes collectivist farming illiberal or is it merely traditional? After all, there are few places on the planet that have not been exposed to his form of liberalism. Is the test for illiberalism based on the level of exposure that a society has had to liberal ideas and its response to them? Or are we to assume that it's merely a semantic issue of traditional societies immediately becoming illiberal once a liberal context has appeared? For how long was Russia traditional before it became illiberal? Where do you draw the line between the defining features of an absolutist Tsar and an authoritarian Communist Party Secretary? It's not so much that I object to a binary categorization, it's just the inherent problems of the utilization of it that irks me.

His Core/Periphery idea is less vexing, but similarly problematic. As I mentioned earlier, it's been around for quite some time and it has a certain ring of truth to it. But where do we put a country like Japan that was clearly peripheral for much of its history and then rapidly met up with (and in some instances, surpassed) the Core countries? It becomes a matter of drawing a line somewhere and consistently sticking to it. This is, of course, impossible.

Another problem with the book is the way in which it's written. Frankly, this book is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Now, obviously people who are not into world politics aren't going to want to read this book in the first place. Mandelbaum's writing is so laborious and redundant that it seemed less like four hundred pages and more like four thousand. I've never had a short attention span (after all, I played the original Warcraft when it first came out), but sometimes I felt like the only way I could maintain my sanity was by putting the book down for several hours and doing something more productive. This is obviously irrelevant to the arguments being presented, but presentation is highly important and this book doesn't have much of one.

Mandelbaum is also just a bit too optimistic in my view; he discusses the end of the Cold War as if it were the focal point of history and that it occurred several generations ago. By most standards, the Cold War ended in 1989 or 1991...either way, not even two full decades have passed and Mandelbaum is already heralding the triumph of liberalism over the forces of evil in the world. This is a bit like France declaring "ah ha, we've finally got those Germans!" in 1924. That's not to say I think there's a traumatic major war coming around the corner, but frankly I'm too skeptical to say there's not with any metaphysical certitude. Francis Fukuyama jumped the gun with his own Hegelian and Nietzschean (a combination sure to alternately offend and baffle almost everyone) "end of history" and I feel Mandelbaum has largely done the same.

On the plus side, however, most of the ideas in the book are clearly presented and despite (or perhaps in spite of) some stylistic issues are fairly easy to divine. Also, his notions about problems facing the world in the wake of the end of the Cold War -- terrorism, extracommunist hostility towards the West, nuclear proliferation, an extensive power vacuum, economic crises, Core-based political infighting, etc. -- are generally fairly accurate and astute.


All in all, however, this book is not one that I can recommend. It would have greatly benefited from a bit less proselytizing (since most of the book is spent trying to sell the reader on the Wilsonian Triad) and from a more stringent editor. Despite the fact that it won two fairly significant awards from respected publications (Washington Monthly and the Chicago Tribune), the Ideas that Conquered the World will not be of interest to the general reader or even to most politically inclined readers. It's an unnecessarily difficult read into concepts that deserve (or I would say demand) clearer and more effective elucidation.

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