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Whatever Happened to the ‘Zeitenwende’?

Delayed, not denied.
January 23, 2023
Whatever Happened to the ‘Zeitenwende’?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris on January 22, 2023. (Photo by BENOIT TESSIER / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BENOIT TESSIER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A long time ago, I interned for a summer at the Hudson Institute (which was then actually located near the Hudson River, in Croton-on-Hudson). I worked as a gofer for the institute’s cofounder, the defense theorist and social analyst Herman Kahn, and would sometimes attend his talks to various groups. These talks were usually accompanied by a presentation with slides that featured some striking facts and quotations, upon which Herman would dilate.

One of the most striking of these quotations was from John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” As I recall, the slide featured these two paragraphs:

We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

Writing in the first year of the Great Depression, Keynes argues against the economic pessimism of the time, making the case that future generations would continue to progress in wealth. But he goes further than that, raising the prospect that at some point the necessities of toil and labor will be overcome by advances in industry and technology, and “thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Keynes, a perceptive and intelligent student of human nature, was well aware that such a transition to an age of plenty wouldn’t be unproblematic. In fact he makes that point at some length—so much so that one wonders if Keynes really believed we’d ever get to enjoy the times of plenty he forecast.

But even before considering the problems of affluence, Keynes insists on the stern warning that it will take a long time—a century of hard work, he says—before mankind reaches the moment when it leaves hard work behind.

“But beware! The time for all this is not yet.”

This passage from Keynes came to mind on Friday as I watched the failure of the German government, in the latest round of talks at Ramstein Air Base, to agree to provide tanks to Ukraine, or even to allow other European nations to export German-made Leopards.

Jeffrey Gedmin and I had returned from Berlin a week before, and written an upbeat piece published here, “Toward a True Zeitenwende,” arguing that maybe a much-to-be-desired future had arrived or was arriving. We thought the signs pretty clear and the chances pretty good for a decisive pivot by Germany—and others—away from the complacency and timidity of the last two decades. We also thought the Biden administration was sufficiently invested in a true Zeitenwende—a turning point in policy—that it would go the last mile to make sure Germany came through by providing some Abrams tanks from our own stockpiles.

In other words, we wrote as if the Zeitenwende were clear and present, and its promise would be followed up by real action.

We were a bit too confident. We overestimated both governments, the rapidity of their turn, and the vision and decisiveness of both Olaf Scholz and Joe Biden. We’d met with many younger Germans and other Europeans in Berlin, and that may have misled us. They seemed to have embraced the moment. We assumed their elders had done so as well.

So we were wrong—at least in the short term. Or at least we were early.

But there is good reason to believe we weren’t fundamentally wrong.

After all, we noted in our piece that there would be zigs and zags, hesitancies and even retreats, in embracing the new responsibilities and new opportunities of the moment. History may yet judge Germany’s recalcitrance at Ramstein as merely a zig or zag on the path, a hesitancy but not a turning back.

But the failure of Ramstein is a useful reminder that the real world throws up many obstacles to promising developments. And sometimes the obstacles stop those developments. Too many zigs and zags and you veer off the road. Too much hesitation can dissipate all momentum.

Thus the importance of Keynes’s admonition: “But beware! The time for all this is not yet.” The time to celebrate a turning point toward freedom and liberal democracy and away from autocracy and brutality is not yet. A true Zeitenwende remains very possible, but it has not quite arrived. And it’s not inevitable. It might not happen.

And such a failure would be devastating for Ukraine, for Europe, and for the United States, and very, very discouraging about the prospects for freedom and civilization in the twenty-first century.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.