by Bastoche | 3/23/2008 02:36:00 PM
Victor Davis Hanson has assessed the situation and come to the inescapable conclusion: Europe is in decline. He delivers this judgment, with his customary elegance and dash, in a recent interview, “The Future With Europe.” After the collapse of Communism, Europe, according to Hanson, was intent on transcending its centuries-old order of nationalistic competition and conflict. It therefore “diverged onto a secularized, affluent, leisured, socialist, and pacifist path” at the end of which lay a “heaven on earth.” In this paradise, the Europeans surmised, they would establish and maintain, on the basis of pure reason alone, a New Order of multinational peace and prosperity.

But the allegedly rational means that Europe chose to attain this utopia are precisely those that have infected and undermined it. Europe renounces military power—a renunciation that weakens its will and emboldens its enemies. Europe relies on a system of parental government—a reliance that infantilizes its citizens and coddles the shiftless. Europe celebrates material growth and gratification—a celebration that denigrates religion and scoffs at sacrifice. Far from constituting a formula for success, Hanson claims, these secular, socialist, Enlightenment ingredients make up “a prescription for disaster”:

When the individual believes in nothing transcendent, has no allegiance to a notion of nationhood, and believes nothing is worth sacrificing for, stasis sets in, lethargy follows, and an effete citizenry becomes as vocal in condemnation as it is impotent in matching deed with word.

Europeans, in Hanson’s view, have rejected the realm of the sacred and have committed themselves rather to a secular and multinational paradise that guarantees their material ease and wraps them in the comforting blanket of lifelong security. They reckon themselves in the vanguard of civilization, but these vanguard utopians espouse no ideal, either religious or nationalist, for which they will deny themselves their accustomed comforts or jeopardize their security. They have, as a consequence, within the confines of their overheated paradise, grown feeble and effete, and their debility is manifest in every aspect of their political and cultural life. The pomo theories of their leftist intellectuals have deconstructed tradition, interrogated power, and, in the process, neutered the European will. Subverted by its own intelligentsia, Europe now cowers in a perpetual cringe, morally incapable of standing up to its new and implacable adversaries. Correspondingly, Europe’s politicians dismiss the need for a potent military and deploy the inconsequential gambits of diplomacy when dealing with the ruthless connivers in Russia and the Middle East. Inevitably, Hanson says, Europe will reap what it has sown, and “the fountainhead of Western culture will slowly decline and whimper as it melts into a pool of irrelevance.”

Irrelevancy, though, is not isolation. Even though it is becoming an increasingly marginal participant in the world-historical conflicts that are already beginning to define this century, Europe cannot escape them. Already one of those conflicts, that between Radical Islam and the West, has infiltrated Europe’s multinational hothouse. Unfortunately but only too predictably, Europe, undermined by its postmodern allegiance to multiculturalism, thinks that it can defuse its conflict with Radical Islam by cravenly appeasing it. But the all-consuming hatred that infuses expansionary Islam cannot be appeased. In fact, as Hanson says to his interlocutor, “radical Islam hates you [Europe] even more than it hates us [America], because it considers you atheistic and weak, us thralls to Christendom, but strong.” Radical Islam, that is, not only hates Europe but despises it. The Islamists know that Europe, valuing nothing beyond its own comfort and peace, will be eager to appease their anger and truckle to their demands. On the other hand, while they hate America, Radical Islamists do not despise it. They know that America does not appease and does not truckle. Quite the contrary, America adheres faithfully to its Christian heritage, maintains its military strength, and has not lost its will to fight, and fight fiercely, those who threaten its interests and its honor.

The distinction is clear. While Europe descends into a morass of effete intellectualism and moral timidity, America maintains its manly spirit.

1. The Reality is Power

Though he does not share Hanson’s divertingly jaundiced view of Europe, Robert Kagan also finds in America an energy and manly spirit that differentiates it from its ally across the Atlantic. As I discussed in my last post, Kagan, in his book Dangerous Nation and in the article derived from it, “Cowboy Nation,” takes issue with the common conception that America, at least until the end of World War II, was an isolationist and peaceful nation, content to prosper and grow behind its two oceanic barriers and wary of getting itself entangled in the broils of a belligerent Europe. This conception, according to Kagan, far from having a solid basis in the historical evidence, is a myth. In Kagan’s view, America has always been an expansionist nation, driven to augment its physical territory and political influence by a singularly aggressive and militant spirit.

Kagan is, like Hanson, an idealist, but he is refreshingly frank and realistic about the American character and admits that throughout its history America has acted from motives that are far from idealistic. Like all other peoples, Kagan says, “Americans have sought power to achieve prosperity, independence, and security as well as less tangible goals.” Undeniably America has mobilized and asserted its energies in order to gain ends that are intangible and ideal. But for America, as for every other nation, securing the tangible ends of life always takes precedence. A nation’s prosperity, indeed its very existence, is founded on the territory and resources it commands, and since the world’s territory and resources are limited, nations must of necessity compete with one another to acquire them and, once acquired, to keep them. The nations that can deploy larger aggregates of power, both economic and military, will prove more successful in the competition. They will accrue more land and resources and be better able to secure their acquisitions from the envious grasp of others.

From its inception, Kagan argues, America has understood this simple and very Hobbesian fact: in a world of limited resources and deadly competition, a nation achieves and sustains its independence and prosperity by means of power, both economic and military. America, therefore, has consistently sought to augment its power and, with a singularly fierce and resolute energy, to use it in order to expand its territory and commerce. Kagan also and very realistically argues that nations, as they augment their power, rewrite their roles in the great geopolitical script of world competition. Their growing power, Kagan says, “increases their sense of entitlement and reduces their tolerance for obstacles that stand in their way.” Nations that grow in power, that is, do not allow it to fust in them unused. They recognize that increased power enlarges their scope of effective action in the world. And so they act. They intrude where they are not welcome and take what they do not own, and they sniff at the “obstacles” that stand in their way—nations that lack the power to resist their intrusions. The more powerful nations will thus and quite naturally use their increasing power to expand their domain of control at the expense of less powerful nations. Powerful nations, in short, become expansionist nations.

2. But the Ideal is Liberty

America, Kagan argues, is precisely such an expansionist nation. As its history clearly shows, it has striven relentlessly to expand its territory and the reach of its trade. But America, in overcoming, and at times violently, the “obstacles” that have stood in the way of its ambition, has not, like other expansionist powers—nineteenth-century Britain, say, or the Soviet Union—become an imperial or despotic power. And it has succumbed to neither the imperial nor the despotic temptation because, according to Kagan, “Americans have been driven outward into the world by something else,” by something more than material self-interest alone, by something immaterial and intangible: “the potent, revolutionary ideology of liberalism that they adopted at the nation's birth.”

Kagan understands that liberalism provided the necessary justification for America’s acquisitive urge, its self-interested desire to seize and defend ever growing tracts of land and pools of resources. Liberalism legitimated this materialistic, even rapacious impulse by arguing that the individual’s right to pursue happiness, including the pursuit of property and wealth, is a natural right, grounded in human nature itself, and as such cannot be unreasonably curbed. But while it is certainly the case that liberalism provided warrant for the release of America’s acquisitive energy, it also grounded America’s identity in a noble and far-reaching political ideal: autonomous self-government, in which the freedom of one implies the freedom of all. Thus, while legitimating America’s ambition to expand, liberalism rescued America from imperialism and despotism by supplying it with the irreducible value that has, since its birth, defined its identity as a nation—liberty.

It soon became obvious to observers both in Old Europe and in America itself that the revolutionary energies released in the new nation by liberalism, energies both material and political, real and ideal, had the power to transform not only America but the world. And while the material transformations were certainly disturbing, it was the potential for political transformation that provoked in Old Europe the most immediate disquiet. As Kagan puts it, liberalism elevated “the rights of the individual over the state--by declaring that all people had a right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness and by insisting it was the government's primary job to safeguard those rights.” The autocrats of Old Europe were not imperceptive: they clearly saw the threat implicit in this elevation of individual freedom over the power of the state.

In the liberal ideology, the individual has the inalienable right to preserve and protect that most intimate aspect of his being, his person, comprising both his body and his mind. By extension, the individual has the right to use the capacities of his body and his mind—his physical talents and mental skills—according to his own free and uncoerced choice. He has, that is, the right to pursue his happiness and acquire property as he sees fit, freely and unimpeded by coercion or constraint. And, finally, he has the right to preserve and protect that which he acquires as a result of his free and uncoerced endeavor, his property and his beliefs.

It is often the case, of course, that others will attempt to inflict harm on the individual’s body, thieve his property, or coerce him into thinking and behaving in ways that violate his free will. It is precisely to protect the individual from such coercion and harm that government is instituted and the rule of law sustained. Liberalism contends, however, that the state must avoid arrogating to itself goals beyond the protection of its citizens’ natural rights. It must, that is, affirm its limits lest it become itself coercive and begin to deprive the individual of precisely those liberties it was instituted to protect.

All too often, as history amply shows, the state, if left unchecked, becomes arrogant and unrestrained. It diminishes the scope of its subjects’ power and amplifies the reach of its own. The endpoint of this process is depressingly predictable: When the state has sufficiently magnified its power, its abuses and curtails the rights of its citizens. Liberalism therefore insists that the state must consistently be held in check, and one such check, an essential one, is provided by those whose rights the state was instituted to protect: The governed must be able to consent to their government. If the government proves ineffectual in its protection of liberties or, worse, begins to impinge on and reduce them, the governed have the natural right to remove it, by due legal process—free and fair elections—or, if necessary, by revolutionary force.

A further assumption of liberalism is that the natural rights and liberties of the individual—life, the free pursuit of happiness, the acquisition of property, and government based on the consent of the governed—are universal. Liberty does not apply to one nation or one people only. It rests on the foundation of human nature and as such applies to all peoples and all nations. “Such a worldview,” Kagan says, “does not admit the possibility of alternative truths.” The alternative truth to which liberalism stands unalterably opposed is the “truth” of Old Europe: autocracy and despotism. A government that deliberately seeks to curtail the natural rights and liberties of those it governs is by definition unnatural and must be revoked.

In the grand sweep of human history, the nation that first introduced this universal ideal into the world, the nation that first threw off the despotic encumbrance of Old Europe and claimed for itself the rights inherent in human nature, was, of course, America. But their nation, Americans knew, would not long stand alone as the one autonomous and self-governing nation in the world. Convinced that their own revolutionary success was a herald of political transformation around the world, Americans looked at Old Europe and saw an array of autocracies subverted by moral decadence and political illegitimacy. They knew that these creaky despotisms were “transitory,” historically ephemeral, and that history had already chosen their successor.

3. The Vanguard Nation

This “notion of progress,” Kagan says, this vision of liberty as an irrepressible force gradually undermining and toppling autocracy and despotism, “is a central tenet of liberalism.” Most Americans share the belief that liberty’s progress—the worldwide displacement of tyranny by freedom, of despotism by democracy—“is both inevitable and desirable.” To paraphrase Theodore Parker, the arc of history is long but it bends toward freedom, and Americans have always known that even though the worldwide struggle for freedom experiences delays and setbacks, the outcome of the struggle is preordained. “Because the rights of man were written ‘by the hand of the divinity itself,’ as Hamilton put it, that struggle could ultimately have only one outcome,” the victory of freedom and the defeat of despotism.

“It was a short step from that conviction,” Kagan says, “to the belief that the interests of the United States were practically indistinguishable from the interests of the world.” This compatibility between the interests of America and those of every other nation on earth was indisputable, since the value at the core of America’s national identity, liberty, was grounded in human nature and therefore universal. When this conviction—that the American ideal applied to all peoples and all nations—was joined to the driving energy and expansive spirit that animated American behavior, it was but another short step “to the belief that the United States had a special, even unique, role to play in serving as a catalyst for the evolution of mankind.”

America’s role as the catalytic agent of progress, according to Kagan, was always a passionately active one. Given their restless and uncontainable spirit, their thumos, Americans were never content to sit aloof and secure behind their oceanic barriers. During the nineteenth century, Americans expanded territorially across the continent and commercially across the globe, fervently intent on satisfying their material interests. But with the spread of American territory and American commerce went the spread of the American ideal. Given the liberal affirmation of both the acquisitive impulse and the democratic ideal, it could not be otherwise. At the same time that America’s expansive spirit served the cause of its material security, it served also the cause of liberty and democracy. Born into history as the embodiment of both material success and democratic self-government, America became the vanguard nation that, as Kagan says, would lead the other nations of the earth toward “the liberal democratic ideal” that is central to and “defines our nationalism.”

America has been able to serve as the world’s vanguard nation not only because it embodies the universal ideals of freedom and democracy but also because inherent in its national character is an unrivalled energy and spirit that throughout its history has brooked no obstacle, not to the expansion of its territory, nor of its commerce, nor of its liberal ideal. In the twentieth century that expansive spirit and commitment to freedom would be conjoined to something new: military might. And in good time was the conjunction made, for early in the twentieth century the Old European Order broke down, releasing as it did so not just the violent energies of war but new and malignant forces committed to godless ideals of domination and terror. These new ideologies, Fascism and Communism, constructed regimes that were vastly more illiberal and despotic than the Old World autocracies they succeeded—and vastly more powerful. And like every powerful regime before them, they were energetically expansive. America, with its indomitable will and military might, confronted and beat back the expansive threats of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But now, in the new millennium, Europe—the New Europe—is once again confronted by a force that threatens to halt the progress of liberty and institute a regress to despotism and tyranny. And this time the force that threatens freedom and democracy is not godless.

4. There is Spirit and Then There is Spirit

The New Europe, however, is confident that it knows better than America the most effective method of dealing with the fanatic threat of Radical Islam. America might be enjoying a unipolar moment of military predominance, but it is Europe—so Europe assumes—that is now in the vanguard of political progress. It has transcended the autocratic ambitions that produced imperialism and war and has become genially multiple: multinational, multicultural, multilateral. With its new multiplicity it has also become atheist, pacifist, and rationalist, and it is certain that, being now in the vanguard of a humanity moving towards global peace and prosperity, its new rational and nonviolent methods of dealing with conflict will overcome the threat posed by Radical Islam.

Europe’s confidence is misplaced and presumptuous, according to Victor Davis Hanson. The manly courage, the strong and dangerous spirit, that Europe needs to defeat the new Islamic threat does not, according to Hanson, derive from the self-involved prattling of secular rationalists. Spirit, rather, derives from belief in the great traditional ideals of religion, family, and nation. “Religious belief means transcendence,” Hanson says at the close of his interview, “or the notion you are living for something greater than yourself.” That something greater than the individual has two dimensions, spiritual and worldly. The spiritual dimension that transcends the individual is, of course, the source of the individual’s being, the Omnipotent Creator. The worldly dimension that transcends the individual includes both family and nation. The secular outlook, however, collapses the individual into himself and focuses his energy on the satisfaction of his physical and emotional needs. If the individual, smitten with self-love, values no ideal beyond his needs and their gratification he will, of course, devote his energy to no good greater than his own. “Atheism means this is it,” Hanson says, “so why have children, invest in your country, or sacrifice your health for abstractions like your country?”

The New Europe has rejected the transcendent ideals of nation and family and religion and has embraced in their stead the seductive reveries of a “postmodern relativism.” As a result, Europe finds itself bereft of will and manly spirit, anxious and irresolute, reduced to flinching in the face of the new Islamic militancy. The Islamic extremists, on the other hand, have no lack of energy and spirit because, unlike the New Europeans, they adhere steadfastly to transcendent ideals. True, these ideals—the ideals of a great religion—have been distorted by a grandiose and malignant ambition. But, unfortunately, it is precisely because they have been irrationally distorted that they instill in the extremists such zeal and passion. And that irrational passion will overwhelm with impunity the effete maneuvers of a rational and cosmopolitan Europe. Only a nation that has not rejected the ideals of God and country, the great ideals that raise us above our materialism and our egotism, can muster the spirit, the fierce motivational energy, needed to engage and vanquish the new Islamic threat. For Hanson such a nation does, thankfully, exist, and that nation is, of course, America.

Like Hanson, Robert Kagan argues that America, throughout its history, has been moved by a vigorous and remarkable spirit. But Kagan’s spirit is not the infinite and otherworldly spirit associated with the Christian religion. Kagan’s spirit is a thisworldly spirit, expansive and manly and incomparably dangerous—the spirit that the pre-Christian Greeks called thumos. Kagan knows that his celebration of America’s expansive spirit and of its dangerous and expansionist destiny calls into question some of the cherished tenets of the older conservative establishment, and later in this series I’ll return to his neoconservative vision and to the challenge it poses to traditional conservatism.

Next time, though, I’ll discuss Harvey Mansfield’s 2007 Jefferson Lecture in which he connects the Greek concept of thumos to “the central question in politics”: the individual’s sense of self-importance or honor. I’ll then examine the book in which, much more controversially, Mansfield connects the concept of thumos to the moral and political virtue that Aristotle called courage or, as the title of Mansfield's book translates it, manliness.

Crossposted at Daily kos and Politics and Letters

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Blogger Bastoche on 3/23/2008 2:50 PM:

Conservatism, it seems, has found a new convert: David Mamet. Mamet contrasts the “tragic” view of conservatism with the “perfectionist” view of modern social liberalism and finds the former more in accord with reality.

I’ll have something to say about Mamet’s distinction next time.

Kagan, meanwhile, in this morning’s Washington Post, dissents from the “wishful thinking” among those in the foreign policy elite who believe that trade and diplomacy will cajole the autocrats in Beijing into reforming their regime. In this view, the lure of economic progress will spur the Chinese leadership to institute reforms that will liberalize both Chinese society and Chinese politics. Kagan disagrees. “People talk about how pragmatic Chinese rulers are,” he says, “but like all autocrats what they are most pragmatic about is keeping themselves in power.” To what end, though, do the autocrats intend to put that power? Kagan suggests that they have in mind something larger than their own self-interest. Though in certain respects China is a postmodern 21st-century power (like Europe), in others, Kagan says, it remains “a 19th-century power, filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments….” And for Kagan, the great defining conflicts of this new century will be caused not by tangible matters of material interest but by intangible matters of nationalistic honor and pride.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/23/2008 3:51 PM:

Since a lot of the "nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments" of the US is historical (though more 20c than 19c at this point, unless you're counting internal divisions), Kagan's got a lot of nerve faulting China for having an historical conciousness.

In some ways that really gets at the heart of it, though: the neo-conservative view is an Enlightenment progressive view. Condorcet wrote "nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectibbility of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us. This progress will doubtless vary in speed, but it will never be reversed."

Clearly Hanson/Kagan believe that there are barriers to progress, mostly Islamic, but their forward orientation is quite complete, it seems to me.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 3/23/2008 6:18 PM:

That's very sad about Mamet -- he was a good guy. I wonder what makes people turn into right-wingers in old age? I really don't get it.

Good job skewering Hanson, too. I mention him obliquely in my latest piece, which will go up either at HNN or here in the next few days.


Blogger Bastoche on 3/24/2008 8:31 PM:

Ahist: The neo-conservative view is an Enlightenment progressive view.

The neoconservative view is certainly that—at least partly. It’s one reason for the fault line between the traditional conservatives (the paleocons) and the neocons. It’s also one reason that liberals like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack and Ivo Daalder can work with the Kagans, Fred and Robert, on foreign policy matters. And, finally, it’s one reason that Kagan can sometimes seem almost reasonable. For example, the idea that he and Daalder have put forward, the Concert of Democracies (also advocated by Anne-Marie Slaughter and G. John Ikenberry), seems almost Kantian in its approach.

Committed as he is, though, to the ideal of freedom and democracy, Kagan is also committed to the supremacy of American power. And there, of course, is the rub. His Enlightened liberalism has been leavened with a bit of “19th-century” Nietzschean will-to-power. Kagan and his co-conspirators across the ideological divide, the liberal interventionists, know that America’s power, at this historical moment, is supreme. And this shared viewpoint concerning America’s still unrivalled power is the basis of their new bipartisan consensus. They realize that America can no longer use its power unilaterally—hence the Concert of Democracies. But they agree that America must nonetheless restiffen its spine and project its power across the globe. If it doesn’t, autocrats in China and Russia will without hesitation project their own growing power, first regionally and then globally—to the detriment of both our interests and our ideals.

Those who want America to withdraw from the Middle East understand neither the complexity of the present geopolitical situation nor the reality of power. Our new bipartisan elite grasps the complexity of the former and understands the reality of the latter. They know that developments in the Middle East, in South Asia, in China, in Russia leave America no alternative: it must act in order to protect its interests and promote its ideals. It must, that is, project its power. And having learned from their mistakes in Iraq, the new elite can now serve America as prudent and effective guides.

Kagan might be right about the Chinese being motivated by pride and ambition and Nietzschean ressentiment. But so too is the new bipartisan elite.

Jeremy: Mamet doesn’t give us much to go on concerning the process by which he moved from what he calls “brain-dead liberalism” to cortically animate conservatism.

It seems that once he was a good liberal. He hated government, the military, and corporations, but thought that people in general were good. He now thinks that people in general are imperfect—sometimes even swinish—but not so imperfect or swinish that they can’t muddle through and solve local problems.

So he’s has come to the conclusion that government, corporations and the military aren’t really all that bad. They’re full of imperfect people, sure, and these imperfect people will reach imperfect solutions to the problems they face. But these solutions, though not perfect, are often workable. And in this imperfect world that’s all that we can be reasonably expect.

Conservatives understand this. They understand not only that human beings are imperfect but also that they are not perfectible. And so, when conservatives are in positions of governmental power, they do not meddle intrusively in people’s lives nor do they try to bring social problems to perfect resolutions.

Liberals, on the other hand, are guided by ideal visions of perfection. They do not think that people are perfect now, but they do believe that people are perfectible. And so, when they get control of government, they become intrusive and insist that solutions be not just workable but perfect.

Mamet thus comes to the conclusion that liberals are inherently idealistic and perfectionist—and far too intrusive when in control of government. Conservatives, on the other hand, are inherently realistic and imbued with a tragic sense of things and, when in control of government, far more willing to stay out of people’s way and let them work things out on their own.

I suppose that Mamet would now argue that the conservatives who involved America in a Middle East war were neither idealists nor perfectionists but a group of clear-eyed realists imbued with a tragic sense of the limits of American power.

He has a bit of historical catching-up to do, I think.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 3/24/2008 8:43 PM:

I'll put it less diplomatically than you: what a freak.