Opinion writer November 7, 2011

Last month, the Financial Times announced on Page One that Volkswagen “will become the world’s biggest carmaker this year . . . [and] replace Toyota in the industry’s top spot.” This was bad news for other automakers, I suppose, but it was definitely bad news for the Arab Spring, not to mention those commendably idealistic Americans who would like to sell democracy, as well as jeans, to an indifferent world. Every VW barrels right through American presumptions.

I was a delightful 4-year-old when World War II ended in 1945. Even though I was not much of a newspaper reader back then, I would still like to believe that if anyone had told me that in my lifetime Germany and Japan would rule the auto world, I would have screamed for my mother. I was clearly in the presence of a crazy person.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

Picture this: Atomic bombs had leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tokyo had been incinerated. Japan had lost about 3 million combatants and civilians. Its infrastructure was gone. Germany was in a similarly miserable shape — more than 4 million military and civilian deaths. It, too, had been utterly destroyed. What was left, factories and such, was being dismantled, Lego-style, and shipped to the Soviet Union. So, too, were scientists.

The destruction of Germany and Japan was absolute. Tranches of young men, the traditional human building blocks of a nation, were gone. Resting in so many military cemeteries are dazzling innovations, sorrowful poems and wonder drugs galore. There, too, are brilliant political ideas and awful ones as well -- but the point is that beneath Flanders Fields — an earlier war, I know — much genius lies.

And yet what accounts for the Financial Times’ story? Culture, that’s what. Don’t ask me to define the term, but it is something within us individually and something collectively within a nation or people. It is about all that Japan and Germany were left with — no oil or gas, that’s for sure. It explains why Germany, dismembered in a vast and horrendous population exchange, and the eastern sector of it mismanaged for years afterward by knuckleheaded communists, is now Europe’s preeminent economic power. Germany may no longer be uber alles, but it’s definitely uber quite a bit.

The role of culture is often slighted. It makes us uncomfortable. It suggests racism and bigotry and cuts against the admirable liberal notion that we are all the same and can, with enough money, do better. So the zeitgeist around the Arab Spring is of great hope: Now that the nasties are gone, the Libyans and the Egyptians and, soon, the Syrians can be like us. Great importance is attached to cellphones and Twitter and other social media, and great attention is paid to the non-representative leader who is fluent in Googlespeak — as if putting an iPhone to the ear reverses polarity so that east becomes west. To utter the cautionary word “culture” is to utter an obscenity.

But the Egyptian revolution is turning out to be a counterrevolution instead — another military regime not all that different than the one that in 1952 sent King Farouk into a challenging exile of gastronomic and sexual excess. Democracy seems more and more unlikely. Something similar is probably in store for Libya, which, like Egypt, has never been a democracy and exhibited its handicrafts by apparently murdering a POW named Moammar Gaddafi. Should Bashar al-Assad depart either his nation or this life, Syria, too, is unlikely to be anything other than a military dictatorship. As for Iraq, the minute the last U.S. soldier is gone, scores will be settled.

The unwillingness to take culture into account explains why Iraq and Afghanistan have become such quagmires. The late Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan, used to repeat the word “corruption” in the manner of Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz saying, “The horror! The horror!” To root out that sort of corruption would take nothing less than a change of culture. It can be done, but over many years and not certainly by bullets alone.

Cultures change. But glacially. It is no accident that the south of Europe — Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal — is extending a tin cup to the north. It is no accident that Arab countries are mucking up democracy, and it is no accident that Japan and Germany have the No. 1 and No. 2 carmakers. The FT was right to play that story on Page One. But it wasn’t about cars. It was about culture -- the most important story of our times.

cohenr@washpost.com