Portuguese political thinker Bruno Maçães’ sweeping new book History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America proposes that America may not be in decline but entering a dramatic new era of self-reinterpretation. Since the earliest settlers from Europe landed, Americans have been endlessly reinventing themselves in an ongoing theater of accomplishment that has often fascinated the world. That drama zigzags but some of its best acts may yet to occur. Critics of America often lament a blurring between fact and entertainment. But America’s self-generated story, from Pilgrims to cowboys to social media and reality television, has proven endlessly creative and adaptable.
You will enjoy my conversation with Maçães, full of expansive proposals about history, statecraft, nations and the future of humanity!
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, as well as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington, DC, and today I have the great pleasure of a transatlantic conversation with a Portuguese political scientist, author, and commentator, whose name I will not pronounce correctly, but he can provide the current pronunciation, Bruno Maçães, who is also a fellow with the Hudson Institute here in Washington, with whom we have a great deal of collaboration, and who has written an exciting new book called History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America. And there’s a quote in the book which I’ll approximate as “The age of nation building has ended. The age of world building has begun.” So, Bruno, what exactly do you mean by that? And tell us more about your book.
Maçães: Well, we can start there. The book has a lot of history, of course American history, but not only. The tradition of European liberalism and European enlightenment, that’s how the book starts. It has a lot about the contemporary moment; we have a couple of chapters on that. What does Trump mean, but he also has a chapter on foreign policy and that’s maybe a good place to start. I come out rather strongly against what I call the “new conservative imagination,” and that’s for someone my age, of course, 9/11 and what follows in the Iraq war were very important, you know. We were in college back then and I think it’s important even for people like Emmanuel Macron. I have a pet theory of mine that his way of looking at the world is very much based on those ideas of a clash of civilizations, in particular against the Muslim world. Well, I’ve sort of made my terms with that moment. I think it was a very misguided moment in American foreign policy for all sorts of reasons, and I think the origins of the current predicament in America go back to that a lot. And so, I came out in defense of a different proposition. I think I argue in the book, maybe in the UK edition, I changed it slightly in the US edition, that new conservatism was essentially the idea that the whole world is becoming like America, so one acting in a world that is in the process of being transformed. And what I defend in the book is that, well, the whole world is not becoming like America, but that’s a good thing. There’s something appealing about the idea of having different value propositions being defended in the world, and that’s possible. Of course, there are tyrannies and they have to be fought, but there are also different paths that are being tried in different parts of the world, and foreign policy should be the experience of discovering a world that is strange, that is different, that makes us think, not the experience of assuming that either these foreign countries are irremediably underdeveloped and so of no interest to us. And, you know, there’s some quotes back in those years where you hear about these people, they, I think even Joe Biden, said at some point during the Obama administration that Syrians had no commerce, no trade, they lived in sand huts in the desert, you know, in the desert you know. New conservatism is a certain way of looking at the world where everything is seen from our point of view. Everything is transformed into what concerns us and what we want to do. The different is assumed to be underdeveloped and of no interest and in a way being in on the way of becoming like us. Now what I defend in the book is a completely different way of looking at the world where you’re supposed to defend your interests, you’re supposed to bring about something like a balance of power but you’re not supposed to be interested in converting the whole world to your own way of seeing things. And I compare it in a way to our own ideals of what is a good society, what is a good society a society where the state leaves room for different ways of life but the state does have the role of providing balance and making sure that no way of life becomes dominant in a way that becomes a threat for all the others. So if we turn quickly to China you know I think a U.S. China policy should be a policy of providing balance making sure that China does not become a dominant power in many parts of the world with tragic consequences, but not a policy of attempting to transform China into a U.S. style democracy. I think this is now becoming impossible as a proposition precisely at a time where not even Americans are quite sure what a U.S. top democracy is, where many of these things are in turmoil and in flux. And so that idea which still came through in the negotiations in the trade negotiations, I don’t think so much Trump but people around him thought that you know the way to go was to impose a number of requirements on China that over time would bring it into a political economy that would be similar from the one we have in the West. I do think this has been discredited over the past 20 years, and it’s a peculiar form of ideological stubbornness to pursue on this path.
Tooley: Now if I understand your book correctly, it’s somewhat unfashionable in that it’s not a pessimistic book, and it sees that America’s role in the world is not necessarily irretrievably in decline but rather America has this endless capacity to reinvent itself and to produce a meta-narrative that other great powers lack. Is that basically accurate?
Maçães: Yes, even the current turmoil, let us let us call it that, I interpreted in the book as a process of transformation, as the birth pangs of something new. I see a lot of energy, dynamism in America today and some of the problems that are being addressed I see them less as disintegration or dysfunction or a form of dystopia and more as a rather energetic way of dealing with some of the problems that have been left over from the European tradition, from the liberal tradition, from the Enlightenment tradition, problems that, by the way, and this is where the book becomes rather personal, have been well identified by the tradition of political theory particularly in America, you know, going back to my twenties when I was studying political philosophy and then studying at Harvard. One reason I was so interested in America, I wanted to study there, was precisely that I saw this awareness and dynamism in the way liberalism was discussed in America that was not present in Europe anymore. And I think now we’re seeing some of the consequences of this these problems are now present in daily life, what one could call the tendency that liberalism has to neutralize and level ways of life where they lose seriousness and commitment. That’s particularly true in the case of religion. But what I do in the book is actually to call attention that this is not limited to religion. All this discussion over the past 34 years about the role of religion in the public sphere, about courts, about the way in which more traditional forms of religion including Catholicism have been neutralized and transformed by the liberal public sphere, and this has been, there’s a voluminous literature on this. But you could write exactly the same articles in the same books about technology and liberalism because actually the clash in the conflict and the impact that liberalism has on technology is very similar. There’s a way in which technology becomes less committed, less bold, less political, less ambitious, a way in which technology becomes more a consumer experience, and I think that’s the story of the last [so many years in] the U.S., where it’s all about sharing messages and pictures and videos. And this is a way in which liberalism has tamed technology that is quite similar to the way in which liberalism has tamed religion. I don’t know if you agree with this interpretation. But anyway many people would. The way liberalism has tamed religion over the past, I don’t know, let us say since the 60s, in particular, so it’s not a question about religion because I think coming out of that one thought, well there is this problem, there is this tension between liberalism and religion. But well, perhaps this is religion’s fault but in fact we see it everywhere in liberal society that this this tension exists. And now it’s very urgent in the case of technology because obviously what we have now is the question of whether China might be better prepared to develop the key technologies of the future than Western societies are. I’m particularly worried about Europe. But I think this is also a question in the U.S. in the sense that all this tension between the political regime and technology and all the obstacles that the political regime places in the way of technological development may create a situation where China would be better prepared for this. And we know from history that the regime that is better prepared to command the technologies of the future usually, not to say always, comes out on top.
Tooley: Well, speaking of technology many Americans like to complain about the blurring of reality and fact perhaps embodied in reality tv but also obviously present in social media but you don’t bemoan this blurring you in fact say it has a long history in American culture and in fact could be seen as a strength.
Maçães: That’s correct. So I spent the last week, I’m here in a quarantine, coming back from Switzerland to Portugal, and wanting to be responsible. So I’ve spent the last 10 days close here alone and watching John Ford movies. And you know John Ford is all about this, particularly The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but many of his other movies, so the idea of you’re not even very much aware of where the line between reality and unreality, the reality and fantasy lies, goes back in my opinion to the very origins of America. But now it’s so obvious, and that’s why I wanted to write the book, which is essentially about this and how to read it. It’s so obvious that, it’s almost, it’s become a mania and we saw this now with the possibility of the appointment to the Supreme court where the most likely candidate is now already being presented as belonging to a sect that has inspired The Handmaid’s Tale. And there’s already this passion and this race to transform the whole experience over the next 50 days into the greatest show on earth where there will be the history of Catholicism in America. There will be the survival of the American republic, there will be the most intense conflict between the two parties, a religious side that inspires the tv show to the point where I guess at some point over the next few weeks we might actually have entered the television show and left reality entirely behind. But you know it’s an example, but it’s present in every almost every aspect of American life, this enormous thirst for unreality fantasy for fiction in a way that is almost transformed reality into an afterthought.
Tooley: And so arguably that goes all the way back to the Pilgrims landing on our shores and reinventing themselves and establishing a new narrative.
Maçães: Right. I say in the book, I know you haven’t read the book yet, but there’s a page in the book where I suggest in a rather speculative way, you know, there are other moments in the 20th century where this is, I think, undeniable. But once if we’re talking about the beginnings it’s rather speculative. But there’s a page where I speculate that in fact you had this moment in the 17th century where in England there were many people, religious movements but not only though, interested in transforming British society fundamentally, to create space for religious freedom but also create space for economic opportunity. For people outside the great noble houses this was pursued in Europe through a very long difficult gradual process of social transformation that in fact we call the Enlightenment. To be brief, but the people who left for New England found a better solution. Just leave reality behind and build a new reality somewhere in the world. And I suggest in the book that this was almost like a form of destiny that with this original act became so imprinted in the American mind that it then became a solution to every problem. In the 19th century where there was a question of relations between labor and capital, the appeal of revolutionary moments and socialist and Marxist doctrine that in fact turned Europe upside down for many decades, it didn’t happen in U.S. And the reason seems to be, and on this even the early students of the phenomenon already suggested it, the reason seemed to be that there was this mechanism in place where you could just leave for the west and start your life, in you, if the oppression of the capitalist industrial system back in the in the east became too oppressive and too overbearing. There was always the possibility of leaving for what was essentially an imaginary world. So in fact the cowboy is a very, going back to my John Ford cupboard is quite interesting because at the beginning he was already an image of fantasy and imagination where you leave the real world behind and you create something new. And then he was reappropriated in successive waves of imaginative recreation by Hollywood by Disneyland and so on and so forth. This permeates American life I think from the very beginning until Donald Trump. And what is extraordinary about Donald Trump, there’s a video I edited, a movie trailer for my book, and it’s available on Twitter, and there’s a rally I think in Minneapolis, where Donald Trump actually says the following. He’s talking about the election night, the night he was elected to be president of the United States leader of the free world. And he says to his followers, there was the greatest night in the history of television. So he doesn’t say there was the greatest night in the history of the United States, he says in the history of television. I think extraordinary sentence that I think has to make you stop and wonder where we’ve gotten in America where really it seems that everyone is living in a television show which is trying to create the show that has the highest ratings that seems to be the point of the exercise.
Tooley: Is this an advantage for America in its ongoing strategic competition with China, this endless capacity to reinvent ourselves and to offer up a dramatic narrative to the world that perhaps the Chinese are unable to replicate?
Maçães: Right I think it could be. Changes are needed. You know what I describe in the book is not a finished process. I think as America transitions from what is essential an Enlightenment liberal regime to this virtual regime there will be changes in mentality, in ideology but perhaps also to some extent institutional changes certainly in foreign policy doctrine. So I do think what this could make possible is first of all there is an element of attraction and soft power. People are still fascinated by America. And what we’ve seen over the past few months is a mixture of fascination and horror. But the fascination has not been lost. But more importantly I think, so America starts to have a more sophisticated understanding of the relation between reality and unreality. I think it’s possible to have a view of the world where you’re not necessarily blinded by a doctrine that you believe to be universally true. And I think this is an obstacle for the European Union. It’s an obstacle for China as well, but America will be able to have a more ironic but also more tolerant, potentially more curious understanding of the world where it sees different ways of life, but different ways of life that can be brought together just as different ways of life are brought together in a great work of fiction. What one does need I think, this is still the role for the United States, and it’s a role that, it’s not going away, one still needs someone to bring order into what is becoming a very chaotic global system. But this may also be to the advantage of the United States. What I’ve seen over the past four years during Donald Trump’s presidency, this seems to be the way it works, well, that when the United States for example left room for Turkey to pursue its own image of the good, which Turkey, now I live there most of the time, it’s very self-confidently doing. But what happened was when the United States under Obama was trying to push Turkey into a certain direction, what happened was that Turkey very quickly rattled against this and starting to work rather closely with Russia. Under Trump, when Trump actually created the space for Turkey to pursue its interests, what happened was the opposite, that turkey very quickly became a counter power, counterweight to Russia both in Syria in Libya and potentially in other places. So I think once the United States understands the logic of this new kind of balance of power, once the United States understands that its mission is not to bring about a universal American empire and a universal U.S. style democracy, there will be enormous opportunities for the United States to continue to be the most powerful country on earth and a vital balancer between conflicting ideologies and powers. What is happening between China and India for example, now is it in the interest of the United States to try to transform India into a member of a U.S. led alliance and try to transform Indian society to make it more like America? Or is it in the interest of the United states to actually step back and allow India to become a real counterweight to China in Asia and the same for Japan and the same for Europe. I think that’s the role we need for the United States at this moment in time, which is obviously becoming chaotic, multipolar, disordered, exciting in the sense that we no longer have this single model that everyone is pursuing, the Enlightenment liberal model. We have many models. But I think we still need someone some actor to take up the role of providing a modicum of order to this codex symphony that is developing in the world in the 21st century.
Tooley: Bruno Maçães, author of History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America, thank you for as expected a very fascinating conversation.
Maçães: It’s a pleasure. Until next time.