This essay is the last installment in a series published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, “The Pursuit of Liberty: Can the Ideals That Made America Great Provide a Model for the World?”
(Also in The American Spectator’s Pursuit of Liberty series: Victor Davis Hanson’s “Armies for Democracy,” Daniel Johnson’s “The Storks Are Landing,” Fouad Ajami’s “Liberty for Strangers,” Natan Sharansky and Rod Dermer’s “The Case for Freedom,” and Michael Novak’s “The Ebb and Flow of Global Liberty.” To read the first five essays in the series, please click here.)
America’s defense of liberty against the forces of a new Dark Age will require a return to the friendships and commitments that allowed her to prevail in every civilizational showdown since 1900.
“CAN THE IDEALS THAT MADE AMERICA GREAT Provide a Model for the World?” That was the question that The American Spectator and the John Templeton Foundation have posed to ten of the most sagacious thinkers of the Western world over the past ten months, under the overall title: “The Pursuit of Liberty.” The ten answers have been wise, thought-provoking, and essential reading for anybody concerned with this most fundamental issue of our time.
For will the ideals of 1776 — those that have so far actuated the most powerful nation in the history of mankind — survive and prosper in the next stage of our global story, or might we be truly heading for a new Dark Age? Could it be that today the combined forces of Islamic fundamentalist totalitarianism, Chinese neo-Communism, European anti-Americanism, rogue state nihilism, neutral state indifference, and — by far the most dangerous of all — our own doubts and disbelief in what we stand for, mean the slow eclipse of Western civilization? Might Barbarism finally triumph over Learning, Law, and Light?
In 1940 Winston Churchill warned of the way that the world would “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age” if the Axis powers won the Second World War. The danger is no less great today should the ideals that inspire the English-speaking peoples and their allies be defeated in the present War on Terror. The American Spectator and the estimable John Templeton Foundation deserve credit for their foresight in bringing together ten of our most distinguished commentators to discuss this central question of our age.
The left regularly denounces its opponents for being “knee-jerk,” “unthinking,” even “Neanderthal” right-wingers, thus assuming an intellectual superiority that on closer examination is utterly baseless. What better response than to publish the views of ten intellectuals who — although by no means are all on the political right — certainly do not conform to the left’s prescription for the future of the West, the politics of the pre-emptive cringe. Instead, this essay series is the written equivalent of the kind of lecture program that one would have loved to have attended at university, and at which there would have been standing room only.
IT BEGAN BACK IN SEPTEMBER 2006 with “American Exceptionalism” by James Q. Wilson, the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. Charting the ways in which the United States was profoundly historically different from any other country in the world, Wilson was nonetheless highly cautious about the extent to which her values could be successfully exported to the rest of the world, largely because she also exported, “to no collective applause, blue jeans, Big Macs, rock and hip-hop music, web-based pornography, and motion pictures that often celebrate violence and a shallow adolescent culture.” It was a thoughtful and sobering start to the series.
Next came “America’s Democratization Projects Abroad” by James Kurth, a senior fellow at Philadelphia’s renowned Foreign Policy Research Institute and the editor of its excellent journal, Orbis. Looking back over the century since Woodrow Wilson tried “to make the world safe for democracy,” Kurth saw some fine successes — Germany, Italy, and Japan post-WWII foremost among them — but foresaw serious danger were democratic elections in the Middle East and the Muslim world to bring Islamofascist governments to power. He also wondered whether democracy in China might not unleash centrifugal tendencies and secessionism, rather than enlightenment and liberty.
Norman Podhoretz hailed President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address as “A Masterpiece of American Oratory” in the November issue, describing it as a speech that was “wildly misunderstood.” Likening it to inaugural addresses from Truman, Kennedy, and even Lincoln, Podhoretz made a powerful case for Bush’s central argument, that American “vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” and that advancing the ideals that “created our nation” is “the calling of our time.”
Lawrence E. Harrison of Tufts University then addressed the cultural dimension of political, social, and economic development, which he argued persuasively, had been too long ignored because of its necessarily subjective nature. Because culture cannot be quantified in the precise way that electoral votes, troop movements, welfare budgets, and cash transfers can be, it has tended to have been left out of the equation, yet the cultural aspect of the present struggle was vital for the success of liberty.
February 2007 saw a characteristically forthright and stimulating contribution from the English philosopher (and American Spectator columnist) Roger Scruton, who perceptively argued that nationhood is a precondition of democracy and that the nation-state emerged in Europe as a solution to the religious strife of the Thirty Years War and was still the answer to many of the world’s problems. Because Europe’s belief in the nation-state was vanishing, he argued, “it would be better for America to build alliances with genuine and emerging nation-states — Japan, South Korea, Australia, India — than with the European powers.”
Daniel Johnson, one of Britain’s foremost conservative intellectuals, went one stage further. In perhaps the most passionate of all the essays, he argued that Europe ignored the increasing Islamicization of its large immigrant Muslim communities at its peril. Noting that the anti-American “rot set in” during the Cold War, when Europe for the first time failed to finance its own arms expenditure, Johnson also pointed out how post-imperial “disenchantment lies at the heart of Europe’s self-absorption.” America’s hopes and fears should be Europe’s too, he contended, and if Europeans refuse to support President Bush in his attempt “to halt the Islamo-Nazis in their tracks, then Europeans will have proved themselves unworthy of their ancestors at Thermopylae and Marathon.” In this powerful essay as in much else of his writing, Johnson laid claim to his father Paul’s mantle as being a modern-day seer.
Johnson’s philippic was followed in the April edition by “Liberty for Strangers: American Power and the Predicament for Arabs,” an equally sagacious contribution from Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He approached the issue from the Arab perspective, pointing out how popular were Fascist and Nazi ideas in the Middle East in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He also highlighted the central paradox that American liberals, who for so long had stood for liberty, now felt “it was a fool’s errand to take liberty to strangers,” whereas it fell to a conservative Republican president to try to do the right thing by the Middle East.
Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer, who in 2004 co-authored the hugely influential book The Case for Democracy, emphasized the horrors that lie ahead were the United States simply to turn its back on Iraq, and thereby “hand the enemies of freedom a great victory.” Of course, all non-democratic states in the world actively want the U.S. to be defeated in Iraq, because the days of their own repression will be numbered if she is victorious and democracy prospers there and subsequently elsewhere too. “Democracy in Iraq is possible,” the authors stated with commendable faith, “because so many Iraqis want to be free and because the leader of the free world has not abandoned them to face the enemies of freedom alone.”
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