Daniel T. Rodgers revisits what “everyone knows” about a famous sermon and a famous metaphor.
I am honored and grateful to read the responses to my article commemorating the anniversary of World War II. I thoroughly expected my respondents to accuse me of alarmism because I warned that “We are at risk of remembering World War II by fighting its sequel, teaching the war’s lessons by reliving them, and remembering its mistakes by recommitting them.” To my great alarm, none of them have. In 2020, great power war is no longer “subrationally unthinkable,” as John Mueller argued it was in 1989.
Though my article appeared in August, I wrote the draft in April. Since April, nothing has decreased my alarm and much has increased it. In May and June Chinese and Indian military forces exchanged fire over their massive disputed border, coming the closest to war since their 1962 conflict—only now they both have nuclear weapons. Also in June, China passed a new national security law on Hong Kong, cracking down on protests, ending the last vestiges of liberalism, and strengthening the Communist Party’s grip over the port city’s substantial economic resources.
In July, we learned of a possible economic and security agreement between China and Iran, another step forward in the slow emergence of a bloc among authoritarian, anti-American states. Over the summer reports surfaced that Russia has been offering bounties to Taliban fighters who kill American military personnel, while the UN reported that the Taliban has maintained its links to al-Qaida and even offered them secret security guarantees upon the U.S.’s scheduled withdrawal. On the subject of American withdrawals, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdrawal 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany, bringing the U.S. presence—and its deterrent against Russia—to its lowest level since World War II.
In the spring quarter, the US economy shrank at its fastest rate ever, including during the Great Depression. In May and June the US suffered its worst bout of civil unrest in fifty years. Amidst it all, the coronavirus is still spreading throughout the nation.
I warned of rising authoritarianism, international aggression, economic collapse, ideological extremism, and the absence of global leadership. Even in just the last few months, virtually everything is worse and nothing is better. It is unfashionable to warn of doom because, somehow, the world always keeps turning. But sometimes it keeps turning while millions of people die and billions are impoverished and oppressed amidst preventable, stupid catastrophes because the enemies of freedom advance and its defenders lack all conviction.
The discussion that unfolded in the responses was mainly about who to blame for our current predicament. Most want to blame elites, globalists, and neoconservatives. Daniel McCarthy, the editor of Modern Age, is at pains to highlight the nationalist, patriotic, and religious underpinnings of American power of old and to warn against the crusading liberal idealism that he believes led to foreign policy failure in the post-Cold War era. He pleads for us to recognize the importance of “limiting one’s commitments to those that matter most and structuring secondary commitments in support of the primary objective,” a sentiment with which I agree, having written my last book about it. McCarthy’s argument is not really with me, but with an imagined, archetypal neoconservative who aims to hitch American policy to pure liberalism and ride it to world peace, even if it takes him down the road to global war. Whether such a figure ever actually existed is unclear, but McCarthy has captured the zeitgeist well in choosing his target. Everyone loves to hate the neocons.
McCarthy thinks that we have collectively misremembered the lessons of World War II. “The war became a fable whose moral was the indispensability of liberal global leadership,” when, in fact, “Patriotism was stronger than liberal idealism,” and “Faith and nationalism won the Cold War.” Religion played an especially important part: Americans were “fighting not a secular war for liberalism but a war to save Judaeo-Christian civilization” and “Until the end of the Cold War, the West retained a strong sense of its Christianity.” Mark Tooley, in his separate response, also highlights the religious and spiritual dimensions of America’s foreign policy.
McCarthy is right that patriotism and faith were far more widespread and acceptable in the 1940s than they are today and that some kind of nationalism was pervasive and even healthy. But he misses a key point. Germany and Japan were nationalist too. The important distinction was not between nationalists and “globalists” (whatever they are) but between the racial nationalism of Germany and the liberal nationalism of the allies. Liberalism was not the sole ingredient in the Allies’ success, but it was the vital distinction that gave them the moral high ground. That does not turn World War II into a simplistic morality tale, but it does explain why postwar policymakers rightly made liberalism the keystone of their Cold War propaganda and their domestic reforms.
Recovering nationalism at the expense of liberalism—as we seem uncomfortably close to doing today—is as dangerous as liberalism without a love of country. McCarthy is echoing the arguments of the contemporary nationalist wave sweeping the world, echoed by scholars and writers including Yoram Hazony, Rich Lowry, and R.R. Reno (and anticipated by Samuel Huntington). In this view of the world, something called “globalism” exists and is bad, while other things called “nations” are good but threatened. This is its own simplistic morality tale, one that has had a remarkably swift and successful career in the past five years. The argument predates Trump and Brexit, of course, and has roots in popular reaction to the war in Iraq (more accurately, the defeat in Iraq) and the 2008 recession. But the speed with which their view has become conventional wisdom should give us pause. McCarthy rightly complains that not every year is 1938. I agree, and would only add that neither is every year 2003.
Gregory Schneider, a professor of social sciences at Emporia State University and a scholar of American conservatism, has a similar agenda as McCarthy’s. “The United States in its unipolar moment in the 1990s, threw away the victory it sustained in the 75 Years War against communism and fascism, and instead embraced the role of global policeman, of enforcer of international order and democracy.” Some of the recent trends I highlighted, such as the rise of nationalism, are not warning signs of impending danger to him, but signs of a healthy reaction against the dangers of globalism: “What we have is a natural backlash against a global economic order which has produced safety and security for elites, and economic insecurity for the majority of Americans.”
Oddly, then, Schneider repeats and even expands on many of my concerns about the rise of China. China’s rise has come at the expense of the hollowing out of the American manufacturing sector. Schneider rightly warns that Xi Jinping is focused on the “economic and military strengthening of China” and—despite Schneider’s opening claim that my “past is prologue” argument is overdetermined—claims that Xi has set his country on a course that “will lead to conflict with the West.” In our shared assessment of the threat from China, it is hard to see where we disagree.
Our disagreement, I take it, is probably in the solutions we would prescribe. Schneider, like McCarthy, sees dangers in liberalism and internationalism, seeing them as unfit to meet the challenges of the contemporary security environment. As do I: Schneider acknowledges that I am “critical of this new liberal internationalism,” before, one paragraph later, confusingly accusing me of “embracing a hard-edged liberal internationalism.” Perhaps Schneider is picking up on my attempt at moderation: trying to avoid the excess of pure liberal internationalism, but also the excess of its pure opposite, nationalism. The difference is that Schneider and McCarthy seem to want to swing the pendulum all the way across the median, clear to the other side. That, I think, presents a classic case of repeating history after suffering amnesia about it.
The liberal international order remains one of the best, most cost-effective tools we have for combating the rise of China and the emerging coalition of anti-American authoritarian powers. Schneider himself correctly argues that “Our policy now should look to the developing nations in Asia, as well as Japan and Australia and Taiwan, as a balance against China.” It is hard to understand how we should do that while throwing out the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, threatening to pull troops out of South Korea, publicly criticizing our allies and expressing admiration for Xi, and concluding meaningless summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Rather, we should reinvest in the liberal international order. Liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security, an engine of American prosperity, and a tool of American influence.
The Excesses of Anti-Liberal Rhetoric
I confess to being at a loss to respond to Titus Techera’s essay. Techera, the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation, wants to use my essay as a springboard for his own concerns about the incompetence of America’s elite. So far, so good. I would only suggest that if one has a college degree and is writing five-thousand-word essays in a highbrow web magazine about history and philosophy, one is part of the elite. The oddest part is that Techera does not refute my argument so much as acknowledge it as he ambles by.
Miller hopes to save liberal internationalism, a doctrine he admits has dominated American—and therefore world—elites since 1945, by separating the two terms and turning it into a kind of ‘conservative internationalism.’ But what powers has he, or anyone, to make words into realities? He doesn’t say. Meanwhile, reality is troublesome.
This is clever, in the way that rhetoric entertains long enough to distract the mind so as not to think too closely. He asks, “But what powers has he, or anyone, to make words into realities?” as if the problem were my hubris, that I had dared speak words about how reality might be different. But if none of us can turn ideas into realities, why write or speak ever again? We write so as to persuade, and thus prompt action, and thus change reality. The power lies in our will to act, which I, at least, still have. I advocate conservative internationalism as a set of ideas that would be a better guide to action in the future. “He doesn’t say,” how to change reality, as if someone has asked me, and I had been caught, embarrassed and dumbfounded, in my thoughtlessness. Actually, I have a lot to say on the subject of turning thoughts into reality via the messiness of policy, having worked and written in this field for two decades: he is free to ask me anytime. “Meanwhile, reality is troublesome,” as if he were the first to realize this profound truth.
Techera writes sentences full of foreboding that imply his unique wisdom. “What if it was a mistake to believe the heirs of the great liberals would live up to the expectations of 1945? This is the secret doubt haunting our elites.” But there is nothing secret about it. Elites like me have been churning out books by the dozen for two decades lamenting America’s foreign policy failures and proposing possible reforms. Every presidential candidate campaigns on the premise that the previous party screwed everything up and we have to start afresh. Techera darkly hints that we’re hiding, shamefacedly, our own doubts. We hide nothing: we argue, publish, tweet, campaign, and bicker about it year after year.
Techera’s essay reminded me of nothing so much as Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” essay. That essay was an exercise in rhetoric that gave expression to attitudes—especially grievance and despair—more than to logic or history. Such attitudes increasingly dominate our public discourse. In different ways, Techera, McCarthy, and Schneider all give voice to attitudes, stances, and postures that define our era in increasingly angry, embittered tones. The elites messed up. Nothing is going right. Liberalism is to blame. They told us nationalism and socialism were bad. Maybe it is liberalism that is bad and the other ideas deserve reconsideration.
Techera gives the game away when he decries liberals who are “spitting on decent regimes like Hungary and Poland,” while ignoring the genocide in China and celebrating antifa at home. Techera is doing two things here. First, he is following Patrick Deneen by equating “liberal” with “progressive” (who actually are the ones cheering on Antifa), and damning the former by association with the latter. Doing so enables him to assert a stark duality: you’re either a weak-willed, unpatriotic liberal, or you are one of the few sane ones who see the world as it really is. And what is sanity? Techera’s definition of it seems to appear in his other move, of holding up Hungary and Poland as “decent regimes,” two nations who, in the name of defending “national identity” have set the pace for undoing democracy by undermining the rule of law, violating their own constitutions, crushing independent media, demonizing immigrants and Muslims, eroding the independence of the judiciary and, in Hungary’s case, simply voting democracy out of existence in March. If this is what Techera thinks is a “decent” regime, I welcome his contempt. Plenty of (classical) liberals like me recognize the different dangers presented by China, Antifa, and Hungarian-style nationalism all at once. Techera’s argument amounts to a cheap form of whataboutism. The death of Hungarian democracy? Well, what about Antifa?
I’m heartened by his concession that “Sobriety about liberal arrogance does not mean we should destroy or burn down the vast liberal international institutions.” But he concludes with a litmus test: “If our elites hate American Christians more than they do the rulers of the Chinese Communist party, we are in terrible peril.” Why Christians, specifically? Are our elites allowed to hate non-Christian Americans? He might reply that it is because Christians are currently the target of elite scorn and persecution. But his invocation of Hungary and Poland is not reassuring. It is precisely their nostalgia for Christendom that is driving their nationalist assault on democracy. If Christian power or Christian nationalism defines the right wing and becomes the only alternative to progressivism, then yes, we are in terrible peril, because neither progressivism nor nationalism are fully committed to classical liberalism, to upholding the norms of a free and open society.
Keeping the Faith
I appreciate the contribution from Mark Tooley, with whom I collaborate on Providence Magazine. I see his response as a supplement, filling in a gap in my argument and providing some details were I was necessarily broad. “As the Western powers were increasingly uncertain about the validity of democracy in the world, and perhaps even for themselves, the Axis Powers seemed by contrast confident and dynamic,” Tooley writes. I think this is exactly right. Tooley provides the religious background that explains some of this loss of confidence, and agrees that this is another area in which the current day troublingly echoes the past. “America and the West are spiritually somewhat where they were in the 1930s.”
But the solution for Tooley is different than for Techera: not Christian power, but Christian hope. Tooley does not counsel a return to some idea of America as a “Christian nation,” or the replacement of progressivism with nationalism. He also avoids the error of the progressive left; he does not counsel a bloodless, rootless, secular creedalism of liberty qua individual autonomy. That, too, is a dead end that cannot and will not restore American confidence. For Tooley, “If America is to sustain a world order in which democracy is safe and helps prevent calamitous military confrontation with authoritarians, it will need to leaven its fears with love and faith,” which I think implies faith in our ideals, in our fellow man—including our allies—and in the possibility of ordered liberty in this world. To which I can only say, amen.