Reality has many levels, even in politics. Newspapers, and the media generally, are famous for highlighting obvious and therefore superficial events. In the minds of busy people, these events are here today and gone tomorrow. If reporters in the “fourth estate” of the media try to be profound, they usually discuss current policies.
At another level, think-tanks, the “fifth estate” in the American polity, usually look somewhat deeper by studying changes in entire institutions of society. They are trying to influence the unseen, infrastructural balance of power and its impact on the underlying agenda that controls policies.
Long range global forecasters must look still deeper into the realm of underlying ideas and ideologies, particularly those that lie beneath the level of consciousness, because whoever can best influence or manipulate or control the premises of individual and community thought can set the agenda by leveraging the ultimate power in history.
The terrorist use of weapons of mass effect in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, was a spectacular and horrible event, but initially few people could grasp or predict what it all might mean. Attention focused on casualty counts and on speculation about who did it. Within weeks, however, think-tanks, particularly those independent of the Republican Party, began to question whether America’s entire set of financial and economic institutions had adequately addressed the growing wealth gap that seemed to accompany globalization and fertilize the seeds of radicalism. Others began to question whether America’s institutions of police power, both at home and abroad, were adequate to handle the new era of asymmetrical warfare, when the poor for the first time could use modern technology to attack its inventors.
Students of intra-civilizational dynamics and inter-civilizational clash eventually began to explore the roots of extremism in all religions and civilizations, because terrorism growing out of hatred and even a drive for self-destruction goes far beyond the realms of economics and politics, as does also terroristic counter-terrorism. Why did fringe Muslims resort to the mass annihilation of innocent people in the name of justice and jihad, when virtually all Islamic scholars condemned this as hiraba, which is the worst crime imaginable and the opposite of classical jihad. Clearly commitment to justice was not the motivation behind 9/11, despite Mao Tse Dung’s famous assertion that justice comes out of the barrel of a gun.
The underlying question of “why” is ontological, that is, who are we as human beings, both the terrorists and their victims. One might ask the same question of some counter-terrorists. And it is epistemological, that is, how does one know oneself from the “other.” At bottom, it is really a metaphysical question of identity. Thomas Merton defined one’s identity as the destiny that God has selected for oneself, but one is free to deny.
George Washington committed his life to the destiny of America as a moral model for the world, but he was not at all sure that the Great American Experiment would succeed. Rousseau’s benignly utopian view of human nature was certainly unrealistic, but the malignant catastrophism of Hobbes, who claimed that brute force is the only meaningful force in human life, might be closer to the truth.
The beginnings of introspection during the first couple of years after 9/11 have raised the questions what is America, who are Americans, and are we losing our identity after 9/11 or taking on a new identity previously unknown.
Americans have always prided themselves for their success in creating a single nation out of diverse people from all over the world. This has always been the national purpose, e pluribus unum, one out of many in the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But now there are grounds for global forecasters and students of civilizational dynamics to ask whether the traditional contrasts between the two major parties are giving rise to two Americas, e pluribus duum, or even to three or more, e pluribus pluribus, as the Republican Party itself may be undergoing a transmutation.
I. The Perils of Primacy
The implosion of Communism in the Soviet Union at the end of the penultimate decade of the twentieth century, resulting primarily from its spiritual bankruptcy, transformed the world from a duopoly, or what Henry Kissinger praised as a stabilizing condominium of power, to unipolarity. This “unipolar moment,” as Charles Krauthammer has phrased it, introduced a global system with one superpower, no significant major powers, and many minor powers. The global dominator had the power for the first time in human history to resolve its choice of important international issues alone, and no combination of other states had the power to prevent it or even any hope of ever doing so.
This may read like a megalomanic’s dream, but the facts to support it are impressive. They were laid out in Stephen Brooks’ and William Wohlforth’s lead article, “American Primacy,” in the July/August, 2002, issue of America’s foremost policy journal, Foreign Affairs.
Looking at the “standard components of national power,” we may start with the military. They write, “The United States is poised to spend more on defense in 2003 than the next 15-20 biggest spenders combined.” Referring to the even greater superiority in quality of weapons, Brooks and Wohlforth note that growth of “… the massive gap in spending on military research and development (R&D) [is accelerating as] the United States spends three times more than the next six powers combined … and more than Germany or the United Kingdom spend on defense in total.”
During the Cold War, the United States sacrificed 85,000 American lives in order to maintain its reputation for resolve, because deterrence in the nuclear age was the essence of survival. Contrast this with today. In its three most recent wars, Gulf War One, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, American casualties were practically nil, and total victory was achieved in a matter of weeks. Until a few years ago, even the goal of zero casualties in war was unknown in history. And most significantly of all, the United States purchased this preeminence with only 3.5 percent of its gross national product (GNP). This “ideal” world, of course, may not survive a perhaps dawning era of universal proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, triggered ironically by U.S. planning for an attack on Iraq in order to enforce the global status quo.
By the second standard measure of national power, the United States is almost equally impressive. The United States economy is twice as large as its closest rival, Japan. China’s turn at great-power status by any index is still far in the future. Even optimistically, its mainly agricultural economy will still be less than half the size of America’s by the Year 2020, partly because the United States spends more than twenty times as much on technological development. The GNP of its former ally in the erstwhile global condominium, Russia, is now less than that of Italy, and, despite Prime Minister Putin’s bravado and BP’s $6,000,000,000 investment in Russia’s oil industry, seems to be going nowhere. The Arab world is coming from nowhere and shows no signs of going anywhere soon. Its combined gross national product from other than oil and gas exported abroad is less than that of Spain.
Furthermore, this gap in the production of “real” national wealth is growing, or at least was prior to the deficit spending triggered by the war against terrorism. In 1999, the United States attracted more than one-third of world inflows of direct foreign investment, and it continued to denude much of the world of its most creative and ambitious scientists and entrepreneurs. The attractiveness of emigration to America for the world’s intellectual elites is heightened by the fact that in this same period U.S. expenditures on R&D nearly equaled those of the next seven richest countries combined.
Demographics, as a standard measure of national power, linked to its other indices of power, reinforce America’s prospects for increasing dominance. During the 1990’s, the U.S. population increased by 32.7 million – a figure equal to more than half the current population of France or the United Kingdom, whereas the other advanced industrial countries generally face an absolute demographic decline.
Certainly there were great powers of the past, but none excelled across the board, and certainly never without any close rivals. Brooks and Wohlforth point out that, “Today, in contrast, the United States has no rival in any critical dimension of power. … The recent tendency to equate unipolarity with the ability to achieve desired outcomes single-handedly on all issues only reinforces this point; in no previous international system would it ever have occurred to anyone to apply such a yardstick.”
In the world of realpolitik politicians may rant and rave for effect against city hall, but most believe that they can not actually buck the establishment and survive for long. Witness Putin’s “geopolitical sprint” after September 11th, 2001, toward Washington and the de facto move even of Germany to accommodate American foreign policies, regardless of how distasteful they may be to the governmental leaders and how unpopular locally. The perhaps budding regionalization of the world, whereby countries in a given region may want to deter, contain, or police their own rogue states in order to keep the United States out, is currently only at the discussion stage. And the world’s strategists may collectively decide that the risk of leakage to non-state actors from the necessarily universalized state access to weapons of mass destruction is greater than the risk of submitting to a global police force based in Washington.
The major peril of such American primacy consists in the temptation to use such power unilaterally, simply because one can. As Lord Acton famously put it, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The greater the power, the greater the need to exercise it in order to maintain the status quo, and the greater the temptation to do this by increasing one’s power indefinitely.
The hope is that America’s police power can buy security as America inevitably becomes the lightning rod for extremist reaction to the injustices of the current status quo, including America’s unilateral projection of unlimited power. Any obsession with security, no matter how politically popular it might be domestically, can compromise freedoms both at home and abroad, and it can undermine international cooperation in addressing the global problems that the United States cannot address effectively alone, including the probably never-ending task of countering both rogue-state and non-state terrorism.
Equally threatening as a result of any radical nationalist exploitation of American primacy in the world, might be the disintegration of the American consensus on ultimate values and on our historical perception of our very identity: who were we, who are we, and, for better or worse, who might we become.
II. The Perils of “Progress”
Long-range forecasters have been looking more closely at the question whether globalization, as presently configured, plays a role in creating a climate conducive to the alienation and desperation that leads to terrorism. Globalization can be a cure for such desperation, but only if it can reverse the rapidly and vastly growing disparity of wealth in the world. Awareness of this disparity, which amounts to economic injustice, impels some alienated intellectuals to generate the terrorist paradigm of thought and action as the only solution.
The world is growing immensely in material wealth, and the chief beneficiary is the United States. The danger of collectivist statistics on progress in gross material welfare is that they ignore the relatively adverse impact of such progress on individual persons, and, indeed internationally, on entire nations.
Let us look at the facts of American economic hegemony and at the extremes in concentration of wealth both within America and the world, because the widespread perception of economic injustice threatens not merely global stability but America’s moral leadership. Restoring such leadership may be the single most important key to America’s genuine and lasting role as a superpower, as well as to its very survival as one nation under God.
The facts are readily available in professional journals around the world, but the deeper meaning in terms of economic institutions and underlying premises of thought has usually been ignored. Consider:
1) “The wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans grew an average $1.44 billion each from 1997-2000, for an average daily increase in wealth of $1,920,000 per person ($240,000 per hour or 46,602 times the U.S. minimum wage). See www.forbes.com
2) The pay gap between top executives and production workers in the 362 largest
U.S. companies soared from 42:1 in 1980 to 475:1 in 1999. See “Executive Pay
Report,” Business Week, April 7, 2000, p. 100.
3) The financial wealth of the top one percent of U.S. households now
exceeds the combined household financial wealth of the bottom 95
percent. See Edward N. Wolff, “Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership,” a
paper for the conference on “Benefits and Mechanisms for Spreading
Asset Ownership in the United States,” New York University, December
4) The share of the nation’s after-tax income received by the top one
percent doubled from 1979-1997. By 1998, the top-earning one percent
had as much combined income as the 100 million Americans with the
lowest earnings. See Congressional Budget Office Memorandum,
“Estimates of Federal Tax Liabilities for Individuals and Families by
Income Category and Family Type for 1995 and 1999,” May 1998.
5) The top fifth of U.S. households claims 49.2 percent of national income
while the bottom fifth gets by on 3.6 percent. See www.census.gov (Table H-
2). Between 1979 and 1997, the average income of the richest fifth
jumped from nine times the income of the poorest fifth to fifteen times.
See The Economist, June 16-22, 2001.”
The Federal reserve’s triennial report at the end of the Year 2002, which is a primary source for such statistics, not only confirmed the above gaps in both wealth and income, but recorded that the growth of the gaps accelerated during the period 1999 through 2002, despite the downturn of the economy that began in March, 2001.
The facts are equally devastating globally:
1) “Eighty countries have per capita incomes lower than a decade ago. Sixty countries have grown steadily poorer since 1980.
2) In 1960, the income gap between the fifth of the world’s people living in
the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest countries was 30 to 1.
By 1990, the gap had widened to 60 to 1. By 1998, it had surged to 74 to
3) Three billion people presently live on $2 or less per day, while 1.3 billion
of those get by on $1 or less per day. With global population expanding
80 million each year, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn
cautions that, unless we address the “challenge of inclusion,” thirty years
hence we may have 5 billion people living on $2 or less per day.
4) Two billion people suffer from malnutrition, including 55 million in
industrial countries. In three decades, neo-liberal globalization could
create a world where 3.7 billion people suffer from malnutrition.
5) In 1999, the world’s 200 wealthiest people had a net worth of one trillion
dollars, having doubled it from $500 billion in 1995.
6) In Indonesia, 61.7 percent of the stock market’s value is held by that
nation’s fifteen richest families. The comparable figure for the
Phillipines is 55.1 percent and 55.3 percent for Thailand. See Stijn
Claessens, Simeon Djankov and Larry H. P. Lang, “Who Controls East
Asian Corporations?” Washington D.C.: The World Bank, 1999.
7) According to this source , with help from its global regulatory agent, the WTO World Trade Organization), neo-liberalism is evoking a future where a handful of the world’s most well-to-do families may pocket more than 50 percent of [the expected additional] $90 trillion in financial wealth.
What is the solution to this manifest injustice? Can there be any solution unless it comes from American leadership? And what would American failure in moral leadership do to its survival as a nation?
The solution is simple in principle. Reagan once said that the only solution to Communism is to make everyone a capitalist, so that the average American would earn more from dividends from participatory ownership in his place of work than he would from his labor. Reagan rejected the labor theory of value, whereby wealth allegedly is produced by human labor not by tools or capital. This was true a few centuries ago, but no more. President Reagan believed fervently that if individually owned private property in the means of production is the key to economic justice as a universal human right, then capital ownership must be universal.
In practice, the solution to the injustice represented by the above facts requires institutional reform. But of what kind? Revolutionary theoreticians in the 19th century wanted to expand the power of government. They invented the paradigm of governmentally owned and managed socialism as a substitute for private property. This was popular for almost two centuries because the “man in the street” equated and confused it with compassion.
The advocates of what the socialists derogatorily called “capitalism” were just as morally sensitive as was Karl Marx, and just as committed to justice, but also equally naïve. Today even the barons of economic globalization, such as those who gather every year at Davos and congregate at such fora as the Aspen Institute, the Bohemian Grove, and the Renaissance Weekends, are beginning to recognize that there has to be a third way to avoid the evils of doctrinaire economics in order to reduce the headlong rush toward enormous concentration of enormous wealth without destroying the system that has produced it.
The stability of peace requires a just order based on both economic opportunity and political self-determination rooted in recognition that the highest sovereignty resides in the human person immediately derivitive from God. In a world of private enterprise and free trade, the key to justice is expanded and widespread capital ownership. Without progress in facilitating equality of opportunity in the means of acquiring wealth, there can be no real political democracy or self-determination worthy of the name.
The paradigm of the free market based on private ownership of the means of production managed through the “invisible hand” of “economic efficiency” will work only if we reform the institutions of money and banking that maintain a monopoly of credit in the already wealthy. The existing limitations in access to credit produce concentrated ownership, and this, in turn, leads to concentrated political power, because political and economic democracy are interdependent.
This concentration of economic and political power is part of America’s problem, particularly because the current monetary and economic infrastructure in the era of so-called globalization is causing the “haves” increasingly to leave the have-nots behind. Those who do not share the vastly increasing global wealth are envious. In fact, socialism is based on envy and on demonization of personal self-interest. But, the injustices that alienate people are caused not by greedy or evil people. They are caused worldwide by defective societal institutions.
The only solution is not to fly planes into tall buildings but fundamentally to restructure the entire system of money and banking in order to broaden capital ownership and thereby avoid the need to steal from capital owners by governmentally mandated re-distribution of wealth. The current legal system promotes monopolization of credit by exclusionary methods of finance based on past wealth as collateral rather than on pure credit from future profits. We need a global revolution in access to credit through such mechanisms as the Employee Stock Ownership Trust (ESOP) so that wealth is distributed during the production process not afterwards in derogation of property ownership. And we need to eliminate the Federal Reserve discount system of creating money for productive enterprises, so that in a two-tier system the money created by the government for them, but not for consumers, is interest-free.
We need to shift from loans to so-called Third World governments in favor of investments in employee-owned enterprises. Investing is better than lending, because lending at interest is a powerful concentrator of wealth. For those who believe that “small is beautiful,” return on investment in locally-based, private enterprise, with substantial employee ownership and provision for automatic divestment of foreign ownership out of profits, is the best way to promote business integrity and economic independence. For those who believe that “big is better,” the “statism” inherent in reliance on governments to manage the use of money from abroad undermines the opportunities that multinationals can offer to democratize capital credit by facilitating the entry of local ownership into global corporations, with the consequent benefits of spreading know-how and superior access by locals to global markets.
The hopes of millions of people throughout Eastern Europe were dashed a decade ago as privatization of individual companies to their employees was discouraged. In Poland, more than fifteen percent ownership by workers in the factories where they worked was decreed to be illegal. The rationale, given by former World Bank president and Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was that reliable international investment, and effective international policy, requires concentration of power at the top.
Reagan’s evil empire is still out there. Nowadays it may be an amorphous but still targetible Al Qa’ida, but tomorrow it may be a hundred al qa’idas with no leadership because none will be necessary to accomplish the common goal of indiscriminate destruction. The choice is whether to work constructively “within the system” or to adopt Marie Antoinette’s motto, apres moi le deluge, and let the radicals destroy it in a global frenzy.
We must understand not only where terrorists are coming from, but where they are going, and where we are going in response. Our task is not merely to stop evil, which can’t be done, but to promote good, which can overcome it. This has always been the American way.
The question now is whether we are entering a new era when the American way is no longer truly American? Institutional reform requires revolutionary thinking equal to the revolutionary thought that began the Great American Experiment. Americans may soon be forced to examine all their basic premises and ask how the major parties can best address the new problems of the 21st century in a way that will preserve America’s destiny as the shaper of a global civilization based on order, justice, and freedom?
IV. The Issue of Faith-Based Conservatism
President Bush is enormously popular at home in America, but seems unable to get his message across to the rest of the world. In his acceptance speech at the Republican nominating convention in August, 2000, he clearly stated his undoubted, personal top priority. This is compassionate conservatism, which came to be embodied in his Faith Based Initiative.
As a born-again Christian, he is convinced that God has called him to help the poor and marginalized in America. Unfortunately, he has had almost no support from his own political party in pursuing this initiative. Even at the nominating convention, applause became enthusiastic only when one speaker brought up the subject of cutting taxes. As a successful politician, who rolls with the punches, President Bush therefore has essentially dropped the whole idea of the faith-based initiative in domestic policy, except to the limited extent that it can be implemented through executive action.
But, President Bush has not abandoned faith as a pillar of policy. His religious commitment is now clear in his consuming drive to combat evil in the world, though he does not like to emphasize this too publicly. The attack on America’s symbols of global financial and military power on September 11th, 2001, has convinced him that God is calling him to save America and the world from the growing forces of evil. His initial, gut-reaction was to call for a world-wide crusade, requiring attacks on as many as sixty different countries in the world. This was almost immediately hushed up as counterproductive in assembling support for his unilateral initiatives against the new evil empire.
President Bush’s current faith-based initiative in foreign policy is to attack Iraq as the new leader of the evil empire. But, this has not sold well even at home, and is ridiculed elsewhere in the world. He attempted to salvage his compassionate conservatism by announcing on January 3, 2003, to the troops at Fort Hood, Texas, heading for Iraq that the objective of any war against Iraq is to liberate an entire people from tyranny.
President Bush is quintessentially American. He represents America almost as well as did President Reagan, and both were phenomenally popular for this very reason. President Bush represents the tensions between idealism and pragmatism that gave rise to the American Revolution and to the world’s only constitution that has survived for two centuries.
V. The Roots of American Political Division
Few people abroad, especially Muslims, have the in-depth, historical and philosophical background to understand where George W. Bush is coming from, and where other similar presidents will come from in the future. Even President Bush himself may not be aware of his roots.
In order to understand President Bush, one must go back to the fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties as rooted in their opposing views of human nature.
The Democrats are ideologically “liberal,” which means that they generally trust human nature as being naturally good, particularly if given the right environment. This is the ideology behind the faith-based initiative in domestic politics.
This faith in human nature is also why liberals want all governance to be determined by majority vote as the highest authority. One can argue that this, of course, eliminates the higher authority of God and can subject minorities, as well as everyone else, to the rule of the mob as manipulated by an elite. The fear of mob rule, as evidenced in the French Revolution, explains why America’s founders condemned democracy, designed a constitution to avoid majoritarian absolutism, and announced that their Great American Experiment was a republic.
The essential appeal of modern liberalism, as articulated recently by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, is its appeal not only to faith in one’s fellow human beings, but to one’s instinctive desire to commit one’s life to something beyond oneself. This was why both President Reagan and President Bush appeal to both liberals and conservatives.
It might seem, of course, that most Americans must be liberals by this definition. What then is a conservative? And why have they gained the high ground in American politics to the extent that at the beginning of 2003 some pundits speculated that Washington had acquired a permanent Republican establishment?
The Republicans, as ideologically “conservative,” do not trust humans to be good, even in the best of circumstances, which is why they want a working system of checks and balances and representative government, as distinct from the direct vote. The Republicans are constitutionalists, which means that they are committed to restricting the power of the people for the sake of good government. For the wealthy, of course, this also has some obvious advantages, because it helps them make laws and maintain an entire financial infrastructure designed to facilitate the unlimited accumulation and concentration of wealth.
President Bush’s policy, announced at the Chicago Economic Club on January 7th, 2003, to eliminate taxes on dividend earnings would be a breakthrough for economic justice if it were combined with equally bold policies to restructure the American system of money and credit as a means to tilt against the increasing gap between rich and poor in America and around the world. He has proposed half a policy. Now he needs the other half. Otherwise, he will merely reinforce the inequities of the status quo. Even in a democratic system of governance, especially a populist one, this failure to change can eventually produce instability and chaos, which is precisely what the Republicans want to prevent.
The average Joe in the street understands this. Why then does he vote Republican? What is in it for him? Of course, perhaps he hopes to get rich himself, so why knock the system. The answer, however, lies much deeper in the realm of ultimate values that transcend narrow self-interest.
America is the most religious nation on earth. Awareness of God and of human responsibility to a higher divine authority gave rise to the Great American Experiment and sustains it even today. Only the Republican Party can claim legitimacy as the party of the religiously committed.
Republicans argue that no system of free people can survive unless it is based on divine guidance, since the selfishness of man makes reason alone unreliable as a framework for morality. This is why the Founders wanted religion in a generic sense to suffuse and guide all political and social life. The liberals tend to fight religion by attempting to revise American history in order to eliminate the crucial role of religion at the root of everything truly American. The average American clearly wants to keep Church and State separate, but not religion and the public square.
The intra-civilizational dialogue in America is rooted in beliefs about human nature. This debate is the only framework in which one can understand where President Bush and his policies are coming from.
One might say that the Democrats take a somewhat Rousseauian view of human nature. Rousseau theorized that primitive man was essentially good, and that the good society can evolve only from a return to this pristine era. The Republicans, on the other hand, take a somewhat Hobbesian view. Hobbes wrote that human beings are fatally flawed, that life is short and brutish, and that human beings require an authoritarian government, even a tyranny, in order to be constrained to do what is good. Of course, these extremes are not American, but the debate between these two ends of a spectrum is.
One might argue, to the contrary, that the Democrats are the ones who do not trust human nature, because liberals are said to believe that only the government, not the people, are qualified to make good decisions affecting people’s lives. In America, the liberal Democrats have never openly espoused socialism, but their mentor and guru, Franklin Roosevelt, taught them that a big, “benevolent” federal government, funded by sizeable taxes, is the way to achieve both justice and socio-political stability. If the stereotypical Democrats had their way, the federal and state governments would create more and more regulations until life finally became fair.
The problem is that liberal Democrats can go to extremes in their secular reliance on human reason and social environment. The subjective definition of “fair,” propounded by big government, can produce injustice and result in anarchy and chaos. The Republicans, on the other hand, can go to extremes in their “religious” reliance on what can become a police state in an attempt to overcome the anarchy and chaos that always threaten any society.
We can reduce the difference between the two parties perhaps to the question of power for what? The Communist legal system in the Soviet Union and China called for the use of governmental power proactively to promote what the elite for their own ideological purposes considered to be good. This contrasted with the Anglo-Saxon legal system, or so-called Common Law, which viewed government as a power to be used sparingly and only negatively to restrain evil, not to impose anyone’s possibly utopian vision of what is good. In the heritage of America’s Founders, individual liberty is valued not only as one of the highest goals in itself but as a means to guard against the imposition of any religious or secular ideology incompatible with the “flaws” resulting from free will in human nature.
VI. The Revival of Traditionalist Thought
The crisis of September 11, 2001, and the identification of Iraq as a source of immediate threat seemed to have triggered at least the beginning of some deep introspection leading to a search for a common American identity and a common vision.
This seems to be true particularly in the Republican Party. Like any political institution, it is not a monolithic whole, any more than is the Democratic Party. There has always been what is called the “traditionalist” core of republicanism, which in its various manifestations has been called “paleo-conservatism” and “cultural conservatism.” In recent years, it has been relatively moribund, and the neo-conservatives would like to keep it that way. Essentially, traditionalism enjoins respect for the wisdom of the past. This is central to all the world’s major religious traditions and to the religious spirit of America’s founders. They all call for a balance among order, justice, and liberty.
The modern scholar of traditionalism, Russell Kirk, wrote in his epochal The Roots of American Order: “The good society is marked by a high degree of order, justice, and freedom. Among these, order has primacy: for order cannot be enforced until a tolerable civil order is attained, nor can freedom be anything better than violence until order gives us laws.” He emphasizes that, “It is not possible to live in peace with one another unless we recognize some principle of order by which to do justice. … The higher kind of order, sheltering freedom and justice, declares the dignity of man. It affirms what G. K. Chesterton called ‘the democracy of the dead’ – that is, it recognizes the judgements of men and women who have preceded us in time.”
Of course, modern liberals might scoff that Russell Kirk merely is justifying societal governance by “dead, white males.”
The task of the traditionalist is to maintain balance among these three ultimate goals of human governance, so that one does not over-emphasize any single goal as a false god.
Justice in all the world religions, and especially in classical America and classical Islam, encompasses all three of these politically ultimate purposes. The basic paradigm of traditionalism is that order, justice, and freedom are interdependent. When freedom is construed to be independent of justice, there can be no justice and the result will be anarchy. When order is thought to be possible without justice, there can be no order, because injustice is the principal cause of disorder. When justice is thought to be possible without order and freedom, then the pursuit of order, justice, and freedom are snares of the ignorant.
All the Founders of America agreed that justice can have no meaning except as an expression of the law of God, as derived from both divine revelation and natural law. Secular and subjective concepts of justice, as evidenced both in the French Revolution and in its Communist and Nazi progeny, always end up in the denial of human dignity and freedom.
The balance worked out in the American system of governance between order and liberty required many centuries of preparation, and it has survived despite two centuries of challenges from extremists. These extremists have failed because the mores or customs of Americans, rather than the ideologies of utopian theorists, have controlled the political process. Americans traditionally have preferred the path of patience, practicality, and compromise, perhaps because traditionally they have relied on God more than on themselves in the pursuit of their national purpose.
VII. The American Balance in Jeopardy?
Obviously, both liberals and conservatives can go to extremes, and extremes are almost always dangerous because they compromise other values. Before 9/11, such dangers were largely contained, precisely because American traditionalism was shared, at least in practice if not in theory, by both of the major political parties. But, we now live in another world, both at home and abroad.
First, in domestic policy, we are facing a trade-off between protecting America against foreign terrorists and compromising the civil rights of people who legitimately either visit or reside in America. Counter-terrorism measures undoubtedly can justify some compromise in civil rights. The question is how much can be compromised without threatening the entire American system. At what point do we start down the road to the police state and the totalitarian nightmare of “1984”?
In foreign policy the balance has shifted toward unilateral initiatives to maintain order at the expense of cooperation with the international community. Many commentators warn that current American foreign policy threatens to become a classic example of the police state obsession, whereby the Administration ignores the potential for cooperation among persons and nations in the common interest, as in international institutions like the United Nations. The U.S. Congress has rejected even the possibility of universal justice coming from the new International Criminal Court, despite all the protections worked out over the course of decades in order to make it politically acceptable. Since real American leadership relies on trust in America’s intentions, any moves that suggest abandonment of the rule of law tend to reduce American power in the world to coercive command, which in the long run of human history has always proved to be tenuous.
In the current crisis environment, the U.S. government seems to be afraid to address or even mention the need to overcome chronic injustices in the world economic system. Evil is ascribed to bad people, rather than also partly to unjust conditions ignored or even caused by U.S. financial, political, and military policies. In American foreign policy, justice in the sense of what Catholic scholars have called “moral theology” and Muslim scholars call the maqasid al shari’ah or universal principles of jurisprudence has never been a key word. Now it is non-existent. In President Bush’s state of the union address in January, 2003, he used the word, but only in the form of a threat that Saddam Hussein would soon learn what American justice means. This myopic blindness is equivalent to his father’s plaintive reference to “this vision thing.”
In the meantime, most of America’s intellectuals, and virtually all intellectuals elsewhere in the world, have tried to remind American policy makers of the facts of life. America’s second most influential policy journal, Foreign Policy: Global Politics, Economics, and Ideas, in its issue of January-February, 2003, presents the views of leading moderate liberals focused on the theme: “Five Wars We’re Losing: Why Governments Can’t Stop the Illegal Trade in Ideas, People, Drugs, Arms, and Money.”
Principled or so-called “paleo” conservatives, otherwise known as “traditionalists,” fear that President Bush is betraying the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence, which in Thomas Jefferson’s introductory wording calls for “a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind.”
Elsewhere in the world, the feeling is even stronger. In December, 2002, Anatol Lieven’s article in the London Review of Books on the ascendency of radical nationalism notes that the Republican Majority Leader in the House, Dick Armey, called for the “transfer,” also known as ethnic cleansing, of Palestinian Arabs to beyond the borders of historical Palestine. Reflecting a nearly unanimous conviction of intellectuals around the world, Lieven writes: “The dominant groups in the present Administrations in both Washington and Jerusalem are realists to the core, which, as so often, means that they take an extremely unreal view of the rest of the world, and are insensitive to the point of autism when it comes to the character and motivations of others.”
Perhaps the most charitable explanation would be that President Bush is a compassionate conservative who has been hijacked by reactionary conservatives and radical nationalists, together often branded simply as neo-conservatives, in a unique alliance with Evangelical millennarians, to pursue imperialist policies totally incompatible with his natural instincts.
Some have expressed fears that the United States is on the way to becoming not a mere superpower but what Joseph S. Nye, Jr. in his The Paradox of American Power last year called a “hyperpower” driven to global aggrandizement under the cover of alleged threats to the survival of human civilization. One might well ask, is America at a great and awful hinge moment of history, when the governing premises of its policy architects are launching an emerging and irreversible trend with fateful portents both for itself and for the global future?
VIII. A New American Empire?
This trend may be seen in the evolution of thought in Henry Kissinger, who for almost half a century has been the quintessential guru of America’s permanent foreign policy establishment, and is a past-master in forecasting the winning side in policy debates and co-opting the winning position as his own. In one of his most important position papers, entitled “What Kind of a New World Order,” published in The Washington Post of December 3rd, 1991, to consolidate the lessons of the January 26th counter-attack against Iraq, he updated his “balance of power” concept, originally designed for the bi-polar Cold War with the Soviet Union, to call for orchestrating a balance of six regional centers of power in support of high priority global issues. In this policy paradigm, each region would be permitted one nuclear power to police its own region, for example, India in South Asia, Russia in Central Asia, Israel in the Middle East, each responsible collectively to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction beyond these six core countries.
A decade later, on August 12th, 2002, Kissinger updated his grand strategy in The Washington Post under the title, “Our Intervention in Iraq: How a Preemptive War Could Lead to a New International Order.” The gist of this new strategy was that controlling oil prices and hunting for weapons in Iraq were mere tactical objectives in a much bigger game. The ultimate objective of an American attack on Iraq was to serve as the first step in establishing a new international legal framework to legitimize preemptive attack against any sovereign nation that from the American perspective could be classified as a rogue state and was on the way to acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The urgent need to attack Iraq as soon as possible was not merely to overcome the “self-deterrence” caused by fear of Saddam’s use of chemical-biological warfare in response to an American attack, but to use the attack “to define a comprehensive policy for America and for the rest of the world.”
The old international law, he said, first established at the Treaty of Westphalia after the Thirty Years War in 1648, sanctioned the use of force only in self-defense against actual, not potential, threats. He stated that, “the new approach is revolutionary,” and is essential because “the terrorist threat transcends the nation state. This is the intellectual basis of President Bush’s recently adopted concept of ‘unilaterally determined preemptive self-defense’.” Among public figures, Kissinger was almost alone in this position paper by singling out Israel as a reason for the new doctrine.
Even this statement, however, required explication only half a year later after Germany and France did not seem to get the point and therefore were on the verge of rendering themselves and NATO and the United Nations “irrelevant.” Therefore, on February 10, 2003, in a new position paper in The Washington Post, entitled “Role Reversal and Alliance Realities,” Kissinger stated clearly that American policy in the era of post-9/11 is to impose an American empire on the world and that all of America’s allies better wake up and shape up to this reality.
No longer would the United States rely on a balance of regional powers, and especially not on the role of each core state to police its own region, because the United States no longer needed to balance anything when it could rule directly by its sheer military and economic might. He stated, perhaps for the first time, that the United States had made a grievous error in failing to support the British and French empires when Nasser challenged them in 1956 by nationalizing the Suez Canal. The fundamental error, he says, came from American naivete in trying to resolve the conflict “with methods essentially of conciliation,” and from the error of insisting that “recourse to force was admissible only in strictly defined self-defense.” This failure to support America’s allies effectively ended their empires. Now he says that the shoe is on the other foot.
In this February 10th position paper, Kissinger admits and in effect apologizes for America’s stupidity, and concludes that it is now the turn of the Europeans to support the new American empire. “Otherwise,” he asserts, “The credibility of American power in the war on terrorism and in international affairs will be gravely, perhaps irreparably, impaired.” He chastises Germany and France for showing “an amazing lack of understanding of American realities.” Of course, Kissinger’s chutzpa, and that of the Republican Administration, in insisting that others recognize the inevitability of the new American global empire is precisely why efforts to use an attack on Iraq as the first step to impose it has run into so much opposition.
The threat of terrorism to a newly vulnerable America prompted Vice President Cheney on February 19th, 2002, at the Richard Nixon Library and think-tank in Yorba Linda, California, to call America’s policy of global offense “the defining struggle of the 21st century.” Most alarming for some observers, including the ultra-pragmatic Europeans, is the openness of some who promote the new American agenda. More open even than Henry Kissinger, who is notorious for pooh-poohing morality in anything, has been the “hottest item in town,” Robert D. Kaplan and his newest book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos.
This brilliant apologia for scrapping morality and ideals and anything that might interfere with the imposition of American imperial power comes garlanded with effusive praise by Henry Kissinger, Newt Gingrich, two former secretaries of defense, Perry and Cohen, as well as the former Director of the National Security Council, Bob (Bud) McFarlane, who for years has been the gray eminence behind American policy toward Afghanistan and his protégé, Karzai. According to Ken Ringle’s article in the Washington Post of February 21, 2002, entitled “Oracle of a New World Disorder,” Kaplan’s book has taken Washington by storm and is required reading for all policymakers and their staffs.
As early as March, 2001, before 9/11, Kaplan spent an hour with President Bush to brief him on another of his books, published in 2000, entitled The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. Kaplan says that he has sold his pagan prescription by convincing the president that the world faces a “Lord of the Flies meltdown,” that America’s dominance is tenuous, and that “the most important moral commitment for America is to preserve its power.” Some observers claim that Kaplan is a one-man Ministry of Truth, the evil force in Orwell’s novel, 1984, which imposed mind control so that all citizens believed that “War is Peace” and thereby made war a permanent state of being.
Perhaps from his experience in the Israeli army for a year in 1980, Kaplan writes that “our moral values … represent our worst vulnerabilities.” Translated into Bush-speak, this means that civilian casualties can be seen as a necessary by-product of the war against evil, because the greater goal is to drive the barbarians away from the gates of the civilized world. In the prologue to his book, The Coming Anarchy, Kaplan quotes Thomas Hobbes: “Before the names of Just and Unjust can have any place, there must be some coercive power.” He adds, “Physical aggression is part of being human.” Bud McFarlane calls this book “an intellectual tour de force expressing the enduring relevance of ancient principles.”
The new element in the world, according to Kaplan, is that barbarians have exploited a global ideology – Islam – to give them a bottomless pit of recruits and allies in a global war that has now struck at the heart of the empire.
Doomsday paranoids see in America a twenty-first century Ghenghiz Khan, who murdered eight million people alone in Persia and Iraq, then a sizeable percentage of the total population. Less alarmist people see merely a worrisome trend and are waiting to see the results of an American attack on Iraq and any stages three and four. No-one can doubt, however, that awareness of America’s sudden vulnerability to inchoate global forces of chaos has triggered a crisis. A crisis mentality has forced opinion elites and even the man in the street to question whether America can survive intact as the nation envisaged by its Founders.
The future is always unknown, but especially now at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Will a clash of civilizations worldwide produce a clash within America, so that one nation out of many, e pluribus unum, will fracture? And if so, what will replace it?
Can a third force of revolutionary American traditionalism bring out the best in all political parties, so that together they can rebuild a restored American identity? If so, can Americans lead similar forces around the world to bring a balance of order, justice, and freedom as a new global framework for thought and action?
VIII. Or is it All Downhill from Here?
An alternative scenario has been presented in the new book, The End of the American Era, by a professor international relations at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, Thomas Kupchan. Writing immediately before 9/11, he proposes a new theory of historical change to chart America’s role in the 21st century. He addresses the flaws of Francis Fukuyama’s best-selling The End of History by forecasting that the unilateral impulse will serve only to guarantee the primacy of both civilizational clash and geopolitical rivalry, perhaps beginning with a clash between America and Europe.
In his inimitable way, one of America’s foremost Islamic scholars, Professor Khaled Abou el Fadl, presents an analogous forecast by reflecting on the decline of the great Islamic civilization many centuries ago. In his essay, “The Orison,” in The Minaret of December, 2002, Dr. Abou el Fadl refers to the universal civilization produced by the great Islamic intellectual pioneers: “Once all the roads led to this kingdom, and all the worlds came from here. Once, the roads were open and welcoming – once, intellects and souls fluttered through the air of its mountains, the soil of its flowers, and its underground streams. Once, this was the abode of human conscience, the guard of the intellect, and the adornment of unbounded beauty. Once it was the point of radiant convergence for all human souls. Taught by a magnanimous Divine Unity and a singular essence of beauty, it defied the dogmatism of boundaries. It was the asylum of the intellects, but it is now a lost realm drifting at the edges of our memory obfuscated in the numerous folds of our contested identities.”
He continues, “The foundational element upon which all goodness and beauty is built is a dignified and just humility, for both degradation and arrogance are states of extremes. Dignity and humility are nourished by strength, but poisoned by power. … Are we dwellers in the ruins of a dead civilization bewailing the lost memories, or are we the inventive architects of history? Are we the refuse of bygone historical experiments, or are we part of the timeless truth etched in the conscience of humanity?”
IX. Chto Delat? What to Do?
Muslims, like members of every minority group in America, want to shape their own future, but they can do so effectively only by helping to shape the future of all Americans. Instead of relying on reactive tactics of special-interest pleading, Muslims should expand their vision to pursue a proactive strategy of cooperation with traditionalist persons of all faiths in order to develop the U.S. moral leadership envisioned by America’s revolutionary founders.
The power of a traditionalist movement requires more than lobbying organizations designed to confront the existing power structure, more than think-tanks created to wage war at the intellectual level, and even more than academic institutions capable of shaping the premises of thought that ultimately control all public policy. Real success can come only from reliance by large organized communities of people on the power of God.
Muslims may prefer to see their task as infusing the framework of justice inherent in shari’ah thought in order thereby functionally to “Islamize” America. Or they may see their task at a higher level as “Islamizing” America in the sense of heightening the awareness of tens of millions of Americans to the love of God. Every religious group will use its own terminology. The most important common denominator for cooperation among traditionalist peoples of all faiths is their common recognition that one can carry out the divine purpose for humanity only by relying on God.
Every sacred scripture reveals the same wisdom in this regard. In the Qur’an we read:
Allah creates what He wills. When He has decreed a plan, He but says, “be,” and it is (Surah Ali ‘Imran, 3:47). Also Surah al Nahl, 16:40, and Miryam, 19:35, “Kun fa yakun.”
And the [the unbelievers] plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah (Surah Ali ‘Imran, 3:54). Also Surah al Anfal 8:30, and Al Rad, 13:42.
Say: “Oh Allah! Lord of Power, You give power to whom You please, and You strip off power from whom You please. You endow with honor whom You please, and You bring low whom You please. In Your Hand is all good. Verily, over all things You have power” (Surah Ali’Imran, 3:26)
The best case scenario for shaping the future is ideological in the good sense of an open national discussion. It envisages what enlightened Muslim scholars call the revival of spiritual and intellectual jihad, designed to address issues of conscience in both domestic and foreign policy by focusing on causes rather then merely on effects. It focuses on the inner rather than the outer, on the spiritual dynamics of change rather than merely on their result in current events.
The “grand strategy” of Islam and of all faith traditions should rely therefore on the spiritual and intellectual jihad, the jihad al akbar and the jihad al kabir, rather than on the jihad al saghir or lesser jihad of employing physical force. It focuses on the power of paradigms and ideas in shaping human affairs in the hope and prayer that, in future decades and centuries, peace through justice will become a paradigm whose time has come. As the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer once noted, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”