The Breakfast Table

The Barrel of a Gun


I have to say that this was not the week I would have wanted to do the “Breakfast Table”–whatever thoughts you and I might have had about other issues are crowded out by the events in Kosovo. And I do not think of myself as an all-purpose pundit. I remember once (during the air phase of the Gulf War) seeing John Kenneth Galbraith making pronouncements on TV about the military situation, and telling friends that if I ever start pontificating in public about a technical subject I don’t understand, they should gag me. In other words, I have nothing to say about the awful news that isn’t totally obvious.

The one thing I can say that relates a bit to where we started is that our national mood of cheerful silliness–and of national self-congratulation–may just have ended. Barring a sudden collapse of will on the part of Serbia, there seem to be two possibilities: Either we will shame ourselves by accepting the elimination of Kosovo’s Albanians as a fait accompli (perhaps while continuing to throw bombs at Serbia now and then), or we will surprise ourselves by facing up to the reality that you can’t be a great power unless you are prepared to risk your own citizens’ lives. If we discover the strength of character to do the right thing, there is still the question of whether European nations will also be prepared to join in. Some good could still come out of this; but I am not very hopeful.

I found myself thinking a bit about a rather grim historical parallel to what is happening now. A number of people have pointed out that our current era–of free markets triumphant, the seemingly inexorable spread of global capitalism, general peace and (unevenly distributed) prosperity–bears some resemblance to the Belle Époque, to the late 19th-early 20th century. Both then and now it was common for sophisticated people to assert that commercial competition had succeeded the crude warfare of past ages; there was a bestseller by Sir Norman Angell in 1910, called The Grand Illusion, that declared war obsolete because it didn’t pay, and there have been innumerable books and articles in the last 10 years declaring that Star Wars has been succeeded by Trade Wars, that today’s rising countries aren’t interested in military strength because they are too busy making money, that America rules the world through “soft power,” etc. Of course, Angell’s prediction was a bit off; and it seems that cost-benefit analysis hasn’t persuaded Mr. Milosevic either.

Meet the New World Order; same as the Old World Order. Maybe power does grow out of the barrel of a gun, after all.