Crisis focuses the mind like few things, and often times out of periods of crisis we see new ways of thinking that come together in genuine and surprising ways. Few would have imagined we were at the dawn of a new world configuration at the end of World War II. In the ashes of the Peloponnesian War, Plato wrote what would become the greatest single work of political philosophy. And so in our current moment of “crisis,” Robert Kagan offers an illuminating take on the history of “liberalism.”
I use “crisis” and “liberalism” advisedly because what his recent piece in the Washington Post does give us is a window into a current narrative—popular amongst many in our universities, intellectuals, and elites—about the political moment we are in. Kagan himself has long been an interesting writer on foreign policy, but his recent programmatic essay in the Washington Post seems to be particularly illuminating as a barometer of where many in our foreign policy class are: despair. Elliot Cohen, in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, also tells a dark story about America’s foreign policy future, though their differences are not insignificant. Both however take a very positive view of America’s post-WWII role as guardian of world order and lament its apparent loss—an assumption I find premature. But back to Kagan.
What is also noteworthy about Cohen and Kagan is that both hail from the neoconservative wing of the foreign policy establishment that has fallen out of favor in the Republican Party and electorate with the election of Donald Trump. The election of Trump is a significant contextual point to keep in mind with many folks in the foreign policy community who rail against Trump and his policies. This is not merely intellectual disagreement with Trump’s “America First” foreign policy or his erratic and mercurial style. There is a strong personal antipathy toward Trump in part because Trump denounced many of the policies neoconservatives have held dear, including democracy promotion and defense of the Iraq war.
As I read Kagan’s piece, I could not help but try to read between the lines because the history offered in the essay was, to be quite frank, just not very good. It’s history in the service of an agenda. Kagan does an admirable job of laying out his own views of the world, but it’s highly questionable that the story he tells us about the rise of liberalism is defensible on historical grounds. It’s Whig history on steroids. In fact, reading Kagan’s rather Manichaean history of liberalism reminded me of another popular writer who has been trading in a similar narrative. Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now presents the clear narrative of the enlightenment and Western history as the triumph of reason against the irrationality of religion and other anti-progress forces.
But Kagan’s story still illumines, and it is one we should pay attention to because many in our foreign policy establishment are the most apocalyptic about America’s future in the global order. Since they are publicly influential, we should listen to them even if we should not take their stories too seriously.
The story Kagan treats us to is the triumph and tragic decline of liberalism that doubles as a salvation narrative, though he is adamant that it is not. Like all salvation narratives, we need to set up the evil and sin that we are saved from. For Kagan, the great Satan of Western history is “authoritarianism.” The Gospel of Matthew prefaces the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with a prophecy from Isaiah: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” We in the West were living in darkness and dwelling in the shadow of death until the great liberal light dawned upon us and we threw off our chains! “We don’t remember what life was like before the liberal idea,” Kagan reminds us.
“Traditional society”—a synonym for “authoritarianism”—“was ruled by powerful and pervasive beliefs about the cosmos, about God and gods, about natural hierarchies and divine authorities, about life and afterlife, that determined every aspect of people’s existence. Average people had little control of their destiny. They were imprisoned by the rigid hierarchies of traditional society—maintained by brute force when necessary—that locked them into the station to which they were born. Generations of peasants were virtual slaves to generations of landowners. People were not free to think or believe as they wished, including about the most vitally important questions in a religious age—the questions of salvation or damnation of themselves and their loved ones.” Kagan goes on for a while in this way sounding like a Lutheran preacher hammering the law into his congregation’s conscience so that they will be driven to the Gospel.
No doubt “traditional society” was not terribly tolerant and was plagued by many of things that Kagan recounts, but it was not simply some totalitarian nightmare. Far from it. Kings and aristocrats were quite weak throughout most of the medieval period. Peasants often lived in legal autonomy from lords and kings, and it was only as centralized control of large geographic regions in the late medieval period began to crystallize in certain parts of Europe that peasants lost this autonomy. One could say the “progress” and growth of state administrations was more the cause of the limitation of peasants than “religion” or some other boogieman.
What is striking from Kagan’s tone and words is how little he understands people. Many, if not most, people found great purpose, meaning, and joy in the societies in which they lived in these “traditional societies.” Kagan can hardly name one positive feature of that “dark age,” but in failing to do so he only shows how narrow and self-referential his story is. Community matters; culture matters; religion matters; family and history matter. The liberation of the individual—the tired story we hear throughout the piece—was never the primary thrust of liberals. Many liberals have and do value religion, culture, and tradition and were not opposed to it. Kagan’s category of enlightened liberal may accurately reflect contemporary liberals, but it does not describe the impetus or views of so-called liberals throughout Western history, many of whom valued and cherished many aspects of “traditional society.”
Kagan’s views end up sounding very similar to Patrick Deneen’s view of liberalism as a coherent monolithic project of individual liberation. The actual history of liberalism is far more interesting and messier.
Most disappointing in the piece is to find out that I am an authoritarian, someone who would call himself a “liberal” (small L) and wants to see much of the world order built over the past 70 years preserved and reformed. But Kagan seems incapable of seeing the criticisms of liberalism or internationalism as anything but heresy or authoritarian or anti-liberal. This is an incredibly reductionist view of the world, and his lumping together of everybody who does sign onto his extreme secular reading of salvation liberalism will only hurt his cause.
It’s a strange way to engage people with whom you disagree but might be sympathetic to your position. Progressives have more or less perfected this mode of argumentation—maximal black and white descriptions of the world joined to maximal reductive descriptions of other people who don’t agree with them. It’s a recipe for heat and not light. Does Kagan want to understand why people like Yoram Hazony are resonating in our current context? He seems unwilling to consider that there might be something to learn from these “authoritarians,” but if he did he might, paradoxically, find an ally in the cause of preserving and securing liberal democracy and the rules-based order it helped build.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Robert Kagan speaking at a Brookings Institution event about his book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations on March 12, 2018. By Brookings Institution, via Flickr.