Editor’s note: Read part three here.
As described in Part 3, the concentration of political power in the hands of the state is an evolved accouterment of modernity, but it is not part of modernity’s essential definition. The modern state system, however, which goes back to Westphalia, really is quintessentially modern precisely because it embraced all three parts of the Enlightenment formula. The system reflects individual agency in the symbolic “keyed” form of the juridical equality of all sovereigns in the system. It embraced secularism among states if not necessarily within them from the very beginning: Westphalia itself was based, remember, on the rule Cuius regio, eius religio. And it embraced an idea of progress, among other ways, in the invention of international law, which looked ultimately to create an international society near-comparable in civic order to that present within individual states—something like Kant’s “perpetual peace” with any luck at all. The West’s idea of progress was also expressed broadly through the implicit doctrine of developmentalism—the idea, in simple form, that whoever developed the land to make it prosper could lay claim to it—which helped to justify the “white man’s burden” rationale for colonialism.
The modernity of the state system thus both reflected and reinforced the three essential elements of the modern inside the polity—as of course was also the case the other way around. Now all of that arguably seems to be falling apart. One must not exaggerate, so let’s take the evidence carefully and in sequence.
The essential condition of the state system is that the constituent units control their territory such that no challenger to the system can arise from within. The rise of al-Qaeda, however, and later ISIS, to positions of prominence as a problem set clearly marks a major intrusion of non-state actors into the liberal international order. They challenge system definition and maintenance just as the barbarians challenged the international system of Pax Romana. They also qualify in Frank Fukuyama’s “end of history” language as “driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claims to supersede liberalism,” as does the ideology of the foremost Muslim revisionist state: Iran. Radical Islam today, just as normal Islam five centuries ago, may have scant chance of setting up a globe-spanning replacement system for the state-based Westphalian one, but the challenge is on the table, the floor beneath it is bloody, and the end of the conflict is not yet in sight.
At the same time, Europe—the seat of the Westphalian concept—has vacated its space and disabled itself, a weakness lately punctuated by the June 23 British vote to leave the European Union.1 And it remains to be seen if America is sufficient, more or less by itself, to compensate for Europe’s absence.
The European system was the first in history theoretically open to all the world’s people, on the condition that those peoples accepted its benign procedural rules. Had it not been for the morally misguided depredations of colonialism, it might have been more successful than it was at attracting sincere imitators. The European Union’s philosophy of construction was similarly open-ended, and at the beginning a vision of democratic constitutionalism animated all its parts. But its building plan was faulty, and its vision could not overcome the parochialism of most of its member-states. So by allowing a series of easy half measures it created structural contradictions within in the economic, social, political, and foreign policy spheres, and so noisome did these contradictions become that trying to sort them out ended up displacing any common sense of purpose. Just keeping the ship afloat and moving distracted all attention from its putative destination.
For most of the post-World War II period, the gradual decent of the European Union into a quotidian management morass lacked geostrategic consequences because of NATO and U.S. protection. But when the Cold War ended and American attentions regrettably strayed too much to other parts of the world, the Europeans were too out of practice, too satisfied, and still too divided to compensate.
Worse but inevitable, perhaps, the EU’s massive expansion to the east during the 1990s and beyond further complicated the internal dynamics of decision-making just at a time when the decisions needing to be made began to impinge on truly existential issues: who exactly would control the money, the guns, and the borders. Those decisions were not made, just fobbed off, as the pride of making Europe wider distracted energies from making it deeper. Slowly the geopolitical frame of reference returned and began to impinge upon the EU bubble. And now Europe’s problems within have become so acute that there is little attention left, not to speak of military capacity, to address effectively external security concerns. And note: Europe’s vulnerability as states and as a suprastate is as much or more due to malevolent non-state actors empowered by state weakness elsewhere in the world as much as it is by other states.
Had the Europeans kept their vision foremost, perhaps, as many prophesied, the European Union could have become a soft-power beacon to the world at large and become a truly new kind of great power. But the multiple messes the bad building plan created conveyed a rather different message to the world, and instead of Europe once again becoming an oracle of freedom and progress abroad, it became an example of a self-righteous and feckless muddle.
So we are seeing today not a broadening acceptance of longstanding European principles and procedures from beyond the West, updated and newly garbed by the European Union in the postwar era; we are seeing instead the pouring of displaced populations from it into Europe’s lap in another, spectacular manifestation of multiple and serial-causal state prostration. Europe is no more so optimistic and no longer manifests an idea of progress, at least not for itself. It has instead become proudly adept, as Owen Harries once put it, of “managing decline.” Even Britain, of all places and what is temporarily left of it as of this writing, now produces prominent thinkers who scorn the very idea of progress as a delusion.2
Then there is China. China seemed to accept the Western-wrought international order for a good while during its post-Mao era rise. But it is no longer clear that it does, or really ever did. The Chinese now note that they were not present or consulted when the Western world order was drawn up, and that constituent parts of that order repeatedly humiliated China. This happens to be true.
Moreover, traditional Chinese views of international order are not compatible with the European Westphalia system in which all sovereigns are juridically equal, a precept most Chinese find bizarre. Nor has Chinese society ever ratified the idea of individual over communal agency, which must precede the rise of rule of law over rule by law. Chinese cultural views are hierarchical, not egalitarian—and going on seventy years of formal communism has not changed their Order-of-Heaven orientation to historical development. In the Confucian tradition orders are to be obeyed from the top down—and that goes among societies as well as within them. So China’s rise, too, represents a negation of modernity on the interstate system level.
And Russia, which was never fully integrated into the modern West—if by West we mean, as we should, the integrated layering of the classical Greco-Roman heritage, Western Christendom, and the Enlightenment—today also challenges the Westphalian international order. It not only failed to install a liberal order at home after Communism, but today it looks to Dostoyevsky and to Orthodoxy as it once again imperially violates the sovereignty of its neighbors—first Georgia, then Ukraine, and who knows which country will be next. Russia’s assault against the Westphalian procedural order is plain, as is its regime’s support for Iranian revisionism via Syria as a means to weaken the order-giver of the system, the United States.
In short, the main bastions of Enlightenment liberalism in the world—Europe and the United States—are either unable or unwilling to use their power and reputation for system maintenance, and, shibboleths of “liberal internationalism” notwithstanding, normative principles do not have a life of their own separate from the power and reputations of the main state actors that advocate them. This is the difference between a proper understanding of the relationship between constructed social realities and the empirical bases to which they ultimately correspond and a deficient understanding of that relationship.
Meanwhile, all three main revisionist state challengers—China, Russia, and Iran—not to speak of non-state challengers such as the nefarious network of salafi Sunni Islamist groups, are actively anti-liberal in one way or another. Indeed, this trio, though not in tight league with each other, is arguably even more illiberal in basic outlook than the fascist challenge of the 20th century. It is certainly more so than communism ever was, communism being at the least a bastard child of the Enlightenment insofar as its belief in progress was concerned.
The Internal Dimension
This reminds us that challenges to the modern liberal international order existed before our own time, and that challenges can be turned back. Napoleon is a complex yet admissible candidate for a challenger, even in a way that World War I was not. Twentieth-century Western fascism and communism, as already suggested, were too. But all of this occurred within a Western-wrought and sustained order and, as noted, the defenders of liberal principles were strong—strong enough even to prevail.
Today’s circumstances differ in three ways: the challenge is largely and increasingly non-Western in origin; the defending elites of the liberal order are of questionable skill and will; and a main reason for that concerns changes inside Western societies. Put a bit differently, if the modern liberal international order is greatly weakened, it has been weakened as much by Western inanition as by anti-liberal agitation, for inside the West the hallmarks of Enlightenment liberalism are eroded. This matters ultimately in a democracy, for it is unrealistic to expect a postmodern nation to feel much loyalty to a merely modern state’s foreign policy thinking.
Modernity’s decay within the West is a complex and contentious subject whose analysis is best left for another time and place. Suffice it to say for now that the Enlightenment precept of individual agency has become splayed out between a negating and determinist identity politics in the public realm and an extreme, dysfunctional individualism in the cultural sphere. This extreme individualism comes from both ends of the ideological spectrum: from the market fundamentalism of the Right and from the “expressive individualism” of the Left.
This cultural individualism is not neutral as regards its effects on politics. To the extent that it is also a hedonistic individualism—and it certainly is to a considerable extent—it is politically demobilizing. When a culture’s traditional sexual taboos somehow morph into food taboos, and when it is able to convulse itself over bathroom etiquette for a slice of population representing less that 0.3% of the total even as yawning public policy crises are left unremarked, something has gone wrong. Aldous Huxley’s remark from 1946 is worth recalling: “As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase.”3
As for secularism, in America it has morphed from “no established church” to a multifaceted attempt to drive all religious sensibilities from the public square. This effort has proved divisive and fragmenting in American society, and hence polarizing in American politics. If it succeeds in due course in making the traditional Abrahamic moral code into a synonym for racism, oppression, and so-called structural violence, it will place an unbearable burden on the constitutional foundation of American liberalism. The operating system, so to speak, of the Abrahamic moral code is composed of intermediating communal religious institutions, which need the state only to stay out of the way and let the self-regulatory balm of those communities generate virtue and the social trust that is its cumulative outcome. A Rawlsian moral code has no such operating system within society; the state itself is the only available institutional means to apply the code, and that runs directly against the grain of a self-limiting liberal constitutional order.
As for an idea of progress, the belief in creative freedom, and the optimism that goes with both, let us only note that Western scientists themselves, who used to be the avatars of progress and optimism, have largely turned into environmental doomsayers and genetic determinists. The West today, and even the United States amid the West, is no longer optimistic.
Thus from the outside and from the inside modernity is coming apart at its seams. These trends are not irreversible, and to worry about the decay of modernity is of course nothing new: Nietzsche was on that case 130 years ago, after all. But for the time being, at any rate, the upshot is that there is simply no precedent for any set of U.S. foreign and national security policies in modernity’s absence. The quintessentially modern postwar order has become insolvent, as evidenced by 911 and following related challenges, by the Russian trashing of the settlement to the Cold War, by the post-Lehman Brothers economic collapse, by paralysis in the face of the centrifugal malevolence of the Syrian civil war, and most recently by Brexit. But Western elites have interpreted each of these disasters as one-offs unrelated to each other. By so doing they have demonstrated their unfitness to be in charge of anything of significance.
That is why, in part at least, it has become possible for major U.S. political parties to vault candidates to or near the top who have no idea what they are talking about—don’t even know, for one example, that the United States possesses a nuclear triad. For we now live in a time of general flux and disorientation with regard to world politics on account of the downkeying and ideological decay of modernity.
These foreign policy novices, as ignorant and in some cases as dangerous as they are, have smelled a vacuum of credibility. No strategy that assumes the preponderant power of states and a broadly shared set of liberal assumptions about how states interact will work in the absence of the systemic parameters we have grown used to. The frame is breaking down, the intersubjective metaphors that have enabled the system to work are no longer as widely shared, and people everywhere are starting to call attention to the passé artificiality of the whole arrangement. We face downkeying heckling on a near galactic scale. And that, in short, is why so many of us have this gnawing, unsettled sense that something is awry, but cannot seem to put our finger on what it is.
Well, my finger is now put, and it’s up to readers to say whether it touches down in the right places. Even if it does, we are still left with figuring out where all this points us? No one can say for sure. Panic is certainly to be avoided; for all anyone knows, the elements of modernity may make a comeback when the alternatives being tested today all come up short of expectations, hopes, or both. Hobbes and Locke may be the last men standing. If so, then conventional strategic analyses—especially the rare farsighted ones—calling, for example, for realignment or a new concert of great powers may be using the right formula after all.4 But if not—and I suspect not—then these kinds of analyses will one day also be judged guilty of having committed category errors.
All one can say is that we probably need to change our questions in order to find answers that can help us develop successful policy going forward. But to do that we American fish first need to better understand the water we’re swimming in. That could prove a slippery task.
1See Charles Hill, “The End of Modernity,” Defining Ideas (Hoover Institution), January 7, 2016. This section follows but seeks to detail Hill’s brief analysis.
2For example, John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Farrar, Giroux & Straus, 2007).
3“Foreword” to the 1946 Harper & Row paperback of Brave New World, p. xiii.
4I refer here to Henry Kissinger’s World Order (2014) and Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Toward a Global Realignment,” The American interest (July-August 2016), among but few others.