America and world revolution
Date de publication: 25.08.2009
A well-dressed lady in Tehran sports the green emblem of the losing presidential candidate in Iran's elections during the so-called "Green Revolution", June 2009.
If confirmation were needed that Barack Obama’s foreign policy will retain the same philosophical assumptions that underpinned George W. Bush’s, it came quickly enough in the new presidency. Speaking to an economics college in Moscow on July 7, the new president said that the U.S. was distinguished by “a commitment to certain universal values.” He repeated the phrase twice more in the speech, then used it a day later with respect to the crisis in Honduras.
Obama had told the Russians that he wanted to press the “reset” button on the American relationship with Moscow. Perhaps his listeners did not expect him to use the term so literally: when you reboot a computer, it starts over exactly as before.
He did indeed sound like Bush who, on numerous occasions—perhaps most forcefully in the notorious National Security Strategy of September 2002—also avowed that the U.S. stood for universal, not American, values: “The United States must defend liberty and justice, because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere.”
Obama said almost identical things in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo the previous month. Indeed the two speeches, Moscow and Cairo, both given to students, followed the same template: first deferential praise for the great history and culture of the nation or religion being addressed (medieval Muslim learning, Russian novels); then references to the past and present divisions between them and America (Islamic terrorism, the Cold War and its legacy); and finally a conclusion about shared challenges, hopes for peace and cooperation, and above all sentiments about a “common humanity.” Obama used this very phrase in his televised address to Iran in March.
It may be unremarkable to hear a political leader invoking universal values or speaking hopefully about the future. But the tripartite structure of these speeches—which recalls the old Hegelian pattern of thesis, antithesis, synthesis—indicates a deeper philosophical assumption that is far more important than cheap emoting about the young. This Gnostic triad has wielded huge power over the political imagination for centuries, not least because it offers easy hope for a better world to come, inspiring Marxism and liberalism alike. All these unspoken assumptions came glaringly to the fore in yet another indication of Bush-Obama continuity: the reactions in both politics and the media to the unrest in Iran following the disputed presidential election in that country.
For a few days in June, there played out on our television screens exactly the same fairy-tale that had been so successfully peddled in Ukraine at the height of George W. Bush’s presidency . What was obviously a battle between two powerful members of the political establishment (in Ukraine, between an incumbent prime minister and a former one; in Iran, between an incumbent president and a former prime minister) was elevated to a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil, progress and reaction. In our TV depictions, the huge demonstrations in favor of the “bad” candidate were never portrayed as “the people,” only those in favor of the “good”one. The fact that, in both Iran and Ukraine, the “good” candidate had himself been powerful in the very regime his supporters were allegedly contesting was also overlooked.
The important parallels did not, however, lie in this use of identical political technologies, although we should not forget that for decades coups and revolutions have deployed them with remarkable monotony. They lie instead in the extraordinary enthusiasm with which people in the West greeted the events in Iran. Thomas Mann once wrote that support for Nazism could be explained by an outbreak of the collective sentiment, “We don’t want reality, give us a fairy tale instead.” This is the key to understanding the West’s love of revolutions, too. We want to believe that politics can and should be a story with a happy ending. Just as children seek reassurance in having the same story told to them over and again, we like to hear the tale about “the power of the people,” regardless of which unknown city the fable is set in.
The reason this fairy tale touches us so deeply is emotional. There is a strong sense in the U.S. that inside every Iranian (or Ukrainian or Georgian or Kyrgyz), an American struggling to get out. This is not because of a belief that Americans are better than other people but because of a conviction that America embodies the whole of humanity. As a nation of immigrants united under a constitution, she is, in Ben Wattenberg’s phrase, “a universal nation”—whence the “universal values.” Newt Gingrich expressed this with clarity in 1996 when he correlated the New Right’s love of a muscular foreign policy with its support for immigration, writing, “No country has ever had the potential to lead the entire human race the way America does today. No country has ever had as many people of as many different backgrounds call on it as we do today.” The love of revolutions abroad is therefore a reflection of our own ideas about ourselves and our societies.
Barack Obama seldom misses the chance to express this idea himself. There are many Muslim Americans, he tells his Islamic audiences, and there are Russian ice hockey players in Washington D.C., he says in Moscow. The world is interdependent and humanity is one. It is obvious that Barack “Benetton” Obama, a child of mixed race born in the U.S. almost by chance, who then grew up in Indonesia, himself embodies precisely this “universalism,” in the specifically cosmopolitan sense of the word. Small wonder that, like Bush, he is a convinced globalist: for all his seemingly redneck rhetoric, Bush also believed in the role of supranational law and institutions, fighting the Iraq War, for instance, on the basis that UN Security Council resolutions had to be enforced.
This is the political equivalent of the message expressed (ungrammatically) by John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace.” The key word is “imagine.” The concept of universal political values may have been the cornerstone of the Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment itself—which we usually think of as an eminently rationalist movement—was in fact hopelessly emotional and escapist. Marie-Antoinette’s construction of a fantasy milkmaid’s farm in that temple of the Enlightenment, the gardens of Versailles, was not an aberration: the king of the Enlightenment philosophes, Rousseau, based his understanding of the “noble savage” on fantasies about the state of nature gleaned from tales about natives in the Pacific islands. In his Discourse on the Sources of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau specifically says that his theories about the “state of nature” are not based on observed fact but on pure speculation, which is to say, imaginings. The “social contract” is not a contract at all: it is a myth.
The Enlightenment, whose children we all are, really believed that the wish is more important than the reality. Immanuel Kant, the greatest of all Enlightenment philosophers, raised this absurd thought to the level of a metaphysical system when he claimed that the only true reality was the categorical imperative—an abstract universally valid proposition that becomes real when it is willed. He did this because he thought ordinary reality was otherwise unknowable. The attraction of Enlightenment liberalism, therefore, is the result of a deep emotional need for a philosophical system that enables man to create a reality in a universe he does not understand and thereby to escape from the difficulties of the world by believing that everything will turn out all right in the end. Lacking a real belief in the afterlife, it also holds that the drama of human salvation is played out in this world, in history and politics.
The key horror from which this escapism allows relief is oppression. So deeply have our minds and hearts been penetrated by the myth of liberalism that we are in love with the image of a “horizontal” political order in which the people come together to elect a leader who nonetheless remains their equal. Any notion of “vertical” power is deeply anathema: how much more exhilarating it is to create reality by acts of will than to have to bend one’s mind to a pre-existing order. This is the very opposite of the traditional Christian model in which political power is wielded vertically: Christ says to Pilate, “You would not have any power over me if it had not been given you from on high.” But vertical power was never understood as dictatorship: quite the contrary. Rooted in God, the power of the prince is itself part of the basic structure of the universe, which it is the sole purpose of his sovereignty to protect. It is precisely because we have today lost any sense of sovereignty rooted in law and reality that we equate it with tyranny.
All this explains why Iran is specifically tantalizing. Uniquely in the Muslim world, Iran has an intensely vigorous political system that contains very strong doses of democracy. This is not something one can say about any other Muslim state, and it explains why the politics of Saudi Arabia or even Turkey leave us cold. Moreover, and more deeply, because it has no priesthood, Islam, and especially Shi’ism, is itself a fundamentally “democratic” religion comparable to Puritanism and other forms of Presbyterianism. There is no established hierarchy: the Koran must be read equally by all. Of course Allah is supreme and Islam demands absolute submission to him: on the face of it, this seems the opposite of the liberal model according to which the individual is subjected only to himself. But this very submission is egalitarian, creating a mass of individuals who are equal in their abstractness. Moreover, God’s will is just will, it has no correlation to natural order as in the Christian or Jewish tradition. Islam is therefore a profoundly voluntarist religion. Because Allah is absolutely transcendent and unknowable, he is like the Kantian thing in itself: mere command.
For this reason, globalists in fact have Islam as an objective ally. Both forces destroy the concept of natural order and of individual political communities (nations). Both claim to embody universal values. Perhaps it is no wonder that, as President Obama likes to remind us, Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Koran in his library.
This article appeared in The American Conservative on 1 September 2009.