Progress is inevitable?

January 02, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- A New Year's greeting implies hope for a better future, which in Western society is more than a convention. Pro- gress is a tacit conviction, but a mistaken one. There is no evidence that the future will be better. Why should it be?

That may be a gloomy comment on which to begin 1996, but it is a point which demands to be made. Political rhetoric in most of our countries is saturated with unanalyzed ideas of automatic progress -- trade means prosperity and peace; democracy is on the march worldwide; democracies do not fight one another.

Only ''tribalists, terrorists, organized criminals, coup plotters, rogue states'' and those who want to return to ''the intolerant ways of the past,'' stand against the march of progress. Since all of those (the list is provided by Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national-security adviser) are backward or ''rogue'' phenomena, they logically are simple exceptions to a general rule of progress.

The international scene at New Year 1996 is certainly an improvement on a year ago. The war in Yugoslavia is halted, or at worst suspended, as is the guerrilla war in Northern Ireland.

The murder of Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has provoked a decisive turn in Arab-Israeli relations, speeding Palestinian peace and also inspiring serious new negotiations between Syria and Israel.

The American Congress and administration may have shut down the government in a petty quarrel inspired by ambition and third-rate ideology, inviting the contempt of foreigners, but good will is still tenaciously at work in the great and potentially fatal American cleavage over race.

The New Year does not begin badly. Still, the social and economic condition of ordinary people in the Western democracies has been made increasingly fragile by the unregulated market. The great dream of European Union has darkened. The conflict of national interests in Western Europe is having more effect than at any time since the war.

Russia is deeply unstable. The senseless war in Chechnya has worsened. The Poles are on a self-destructive tack. A pernicious ethnic nationalism is influential in much of ex-Communist Europe, as well as in India and elsewhere in South Asia. Middle Eastern radicalism inspires dangerous new ideas in the West of wars of religion and culture.

It's bad everywhere

Japan's economic confidence has been overturned and its political and security policies placed in question. North Korea is ominously unstable. China persists in dogmatic despotism.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa slides toward anarchic violence and pandemic disease, its children turned into killers. In Liberia, an estimated quarter of the warlord bands' members are under the age of 15. Ethnic slaughter stalks Rwanda and Burundi. Zaire is a (white) man-made catastrophe.

Ex-British East Africa, once the pride of African liberation, experiences despotism and economic disintegration. Somalia is again a wasteland. In Liberia's Monrovia -- named for the United States' fifth president -- international volunteer agencies even have to collect the waste.

But is this not the ebb and flow of history? Perhaps; but ebb and flow is not progress. The record of the 20th century, compared to the past, is catastrophic. The 19th century invented revolutionary, ideological, nationalistic and peoples' wars. The 20th century practiced them with genocidal extravagance.

The 17th and 18th centuries' wars were limited and professional, concerned with dynastic interest in Europe and imperial advantage abroad. Their ''genocidal'' consequences for aboriginal peoples were mainly the result of disease, not industrialized murder, in the 20th century's style.

Still, surely there has been social progress. We today, in the advanced industrial countries, mostly live easier and more secure lives than our ancestors.

We possess the mechanisms of international community and international law -- at least when that law is respected, since the agency of its enforcement is hazy. Gen. Ratko Mladic, and Serbian presidents Radovan Karadjic and Slobodan Milosevic, seem in no great risk of the hangman, nor even of a progressive and rehabilitating Dutch prison.

I bring these sad things up in order to argue that whatever progress may be, it is not automatic, nor is mankind on some staircase to happiness -- as Marxist and other Utopians have always claimed. It takes work to make things better. It takes even more work to keep them from slipping back toward the abyss from which the 20th century was extricated only with great difficulty.

History will not hand over a happy New Year upon the mere presentation of our claim. Progress is an ambition, not a process. No Hegelian world-spirit or benevolent Lockean logic assures us the better world of our politicians' platitudes.

The truth is too cruel for that, although it is also consoling, in its way. The American historian Charles Beard, a radical in his youth and a conservative in his old age, was once asked what he had learned about history from a lifetime of study.

He replied: ''That when darkness comes, the stars begin to shine; the bees that rob the flowers provide the honey; whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad; and the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.''

In such terms, I wish my readers a happy -- a happier -- New Year.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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