HANSON: Back to the 20th-century future

The 21st looks a lot like the chaos of the past

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We may be in the era of Facebook and fracking, but 2013 is still beginning to look a lot like the cataclysmic century we just left behind.

More people probably died in the wars of the 20th century than in the battles of the prior 2,500 years combined. The bloodiest century saw the rise of fascism, Nazism, communism and jihadism.

Capitalism almost collapsed during the Great Depression. What followed was a Big Government antidote not unlike our own experience after the panic of 2008.

The end of most colonialism and imperialism was also a 20th-century development. So was the rise of modernist and postmodernist culture, along with civil rights, feminism and nationalism.

No wonder that despite the promise of the 21st century, we keep trying to make sense of the past 13 years by looking back through the lenses of the previous action-packed 100.

Take the present chaos abroad. The rise and new assertiveness of China is eerily like that of Japan in the 1930s.

Japan also once tried to adopt Western-style industrial capitalism without consensual government. For a time, that nation grew rapidly.

The rising sun of Japan felt slighted by the supposedly weak and corrupt twilight Western powers after World War I. America and its European allies were not willing to grant Japan regional influence commensurate with its rising global power. What followed was a decade-long Japanese war in Asia.

Does the same depressing lesson now apply to China? Can Beijing square the circle of capitalism without democracy? Can it have much of the world’s cash without the world’s largest military?

Will China, like 1930s Japan, resent established Western powers to the point of another war in the Pacific?

The situation in Syria seems a lot like the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Almost every regional power and world superpower is flooding Syria with either weapons, troops or both — Iran, Hezbollah, the Gulf sheikdoms, Russia, Europe and the United States.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is a sort of Francisco Franco-type thug, propping up his fascist effort with foreign arms and troops. If Syria follows the Spanish blueprint for a wider war, what follows will be even worse.

Talking loudly while carrying a small stick became infamous in the last century, after the British capitulation to Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938. The same sort of “peace for our time” complacency characterizes Western sanctions in response to Iranian nuclear proliferation.

It is eerie how most responsible nations loudly condemn Iran’s race to get a bomb, but they are just as reluctant to face down Iran as the early 20th-century democracies were to confront Hitler before he became too powerful and confident. Once again we are understandably unsure whether the bad choice of using force now is preferable to the nightmare of using even greater force later.

The wobbly European Union was based on the same 20th-century idealism that once launched the League of Nations and the United Nations. And Europe seems to be following the same tired script of the 1930s. Weak democracies are once again offering moral lectures to rising powers while disarming.

The 20th century’s “German problem” was supposed to be a distant memory, but a reformed and democratic Germany nevertheless is once again earning both the envy and fear of its weaker neighbors.

Like 1938 Britain, most of the European Union has no clue how to prevent German economic dynamism from eventually leading to military and political dominance. In early-20th-century fashion, the volatile European street is swinging from hard left to hard right.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is as authoritarian as ever. As in the last century, Israel and the Palestinians still have no peace. Brazil still has unlimited but never-realized potential. Argentina remains the same self-destructive mess. The Arab Spring ended in the same old Middle East chaos.

The 21st-century United States is in a 20th-century fit of depression — with the decline of America the same cultural motif.

In the 1930s, fascism was purported to be more efficient than American democracy. Then Nazism was said to create more idealistic and disciplined citizens.

After World War II, the new communist man was announced as the wave of the future.

Then came the superior 20th-century model of postwar “Japan, Inc.”

Next was the all-powerful European Union.

The ruthlessly efficient Chinese juggernaut followed and seemed destined to outpace 20th-century America — which was suffering everything from stagflation to a shortage of oil.

But once more, 21st-century America is confounding its critics by reinventing itself as it did last century.

The United States may soon become the world’s largest gas and oil producer. Food exports are booming as never before. American brands from iPhones and Starbucks to Google and Twitter flood the world.

To find answers for this chaotic young century, just look back at the past one.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His new book, “The Savior Generals,” has just been released by Bloomsbury Press.

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