As NATO’s 50th-anniversary conference concluded, the paradoxical result of the Western triumph over communism was on public display in the ballroom of the National Press Club. Four European prime ministers and the President of the United States spoke about freedom and social justice from a perspective rarely occupied by leftish politicians during the final decades of the Cold War: They are in power.
And the irony, of course, is that their ascension has been due in large part to the vacuum created by the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Into that yawning black hole went not only the decrepit left-wing totalitarians, but also the right-wing ideologues whose movements now lack any unifying purpose. Reaganism or Thatcherism might have persisted without Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, but not without communism.
It was appropriate, then, that the NATO summit would provide a forum for a group of center-left leaders who are among the true beneficiaries of the trans-Atlantic alliance’s historic victory. Under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Prime Ministers of Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands joined Bill Clinton on the summit’s final day to discuss the wide-ranging intellectual effort to renovate progressive policy and politics that has become known as “the Third Way.”
Aside from the current emphasis on globalization and information technology, the notion of a “Third Way” between stagnant statism and cruel capitalism is not really new. Even the name has been heard before, way back in the early years of the Cold War.
So in its present vague incarnation the Third Way might be dismissed as just another exercise in spin, a slogan designed to enhance the electoral prospects of Britain’s Tony Blair or Germany’s Gerhard Schröder. But it is also true that the collapse of communism and the confusion of conservatism have provided the center-left with a chance for renewed relevance.
Massimo D’Alema, a former activist in the Italian Communist Party who now heads its successor, the Party of the Democratic Left, described the present moment succinctly. “The Third Way is the result of a crisis of ideologies,” the Italian Prime Minister said, “not the victory of ideologies.” He summarized the 20th century as a period of harsh conflict between “open, democratic societies that are very dynamic and competitive” but suffer from social injustice, and “other societies that achieved solidarity but at the cost of a heavy bureaucracy.” Speaking presumably from painful memory, he added that “the ideal of social solidarity has been accompanied too often by the fact of authoritarianism … We must find peaceful coexistence between solidarity and freedom.”
That is easy to talk about and hard to do-as Mr. Clinton’s own fitful and mostly failed attempts to reform health care and other basic features of American capitalism have demonstrated. In this country, the Third Way emerged as “triangulation,” an electoral tactic which resulted in the sell-out of the welfare reform bill.
Somewhat provocatively, the droll Mr. D’Alema also mentioned a word that has long been politically taboo in Washington. He noted that four of the five leaders on the dais “belong to a movement, the Socialist International … I’m aware that this word is somewhat sensitive here”-a remark that elicited knowing laughter from the audience-“and I can see that we have avoided pronouncing this word here.”
Replied Mr. Clinton with a broad smile, “I’m not sure I would have you here, Massimo, if I were running for re-election.” A similar sentiment suddenly may have gripped Al From, the Democratic Leadership Council’s president, whose corporate-funded organization has spent the last decade trying to purge “socialist” elements from the ranks of the Democratic Party, although he, too, kept smiling graciously.
“We should prevail over this fear of words,” said Mr. D’Alema when the nervous chuckles subsided, and he had a point. If the Third Way accomplishes anything, it will create a dialogue between Europeans and Americans about fostering enterprise and equality-with many proposals coming from officials of traditionally socialist parties that now dominate the continent. While “socialist” remains a term of abuse in the American lexicon, it may not be quite as effective a weapon for the right as it once was. Americans who look across the pond at the likes of Mr. D’Alema, Mr. Blair and Mr. Schröder are unlikely to perceive these modern, casual politicians as ominous commissars.
Meanwhile, some conservatives seem to be aware, however dimly, that their ideology may be fated for the same dustbin of history where Marxism-Leninism ended up. Against ferocious opposition from the far right, the Republicans’ leading Presidential contender appears to be groping opportunistically toward his own weak imitation of the Third Way. Or isn’t that what George W. Bush is trying to do with his chatter about “compassionate conservatism”?