The Return of Politics, At Last

Finally, someone says what I’ve been thinking for some time now: Liberal democracies are not the end of history.

It’s time we stopped this liberal-democratic wet dream and confront the reality of international relations: namely, liberal-democratic values and the strategic maneuvers that they demand are not universal.

The Robert Kagan article that I’ve just linked is a well-written, nuanced analysis of America’s position in the international order today. You don’t have to agree with all of its conclusions to see that it’s a well-written, well-argued piece of thinking.

Although the article is couched mainly in a neo-realist IR framework, I agree with its central contention: that America must act strategically if it is serious about preserving the liberal-democratic ideas that it so values–in essence, a neo-realist prescription on how to go about achieving a normative goal, i.e., preservation of liberalism in the international order.

This requires America to finally give up the dream that the world will be shaped in its image, that any deviance from liberalism is not likely to be temporary but long-lasting due to cultural and historical differences. America must realize that no country will automatically open its borders and markets and suddenly turn liberal and embrace America with welcome arms. Rather, it must recognize and acknowledge the fact that illiberalism has a long tradition and cultural rootedness, that there are nations and cultures that will never deem liberalism legitimate.

In other words, America must recognize that liberalism and its values are not universal, transcendent values, but rather values that must be protected and fought for if one truly believes in them. This requires giving up the liberal-democratic Utopian dream brought about by the end of the Cold War, and it requires thinking in very strategic terms about what to do with nations and cultures that resist liberalism (China, Russia) and who might even seek to destroy it (fundamental Islam).

I wholeheartedly agree with this thesis, because I have never thought that the defense of normative values, by necessity, require those values to be fundamental and transcendent. All that matters is that the political community decides that they must be protected. This requires giving up any and all claims to privileged epistemological and ethical justifications of those values, which is something that America will have extreme difficult to do, since we are a country founded on the belief that God gave us the imperative to create the world in our image.

It means, at last, politics has returned, because politics operates based on the assumption that there is no consensus on what fundamental truths are. Politics is the struggle to realize certain visions, themselves derived from normative values held by the political community, by different political communities and actors. It has just been that historically speaking, such normative values are almost always couched in terms of fundamental truth and universalism, whether it’s God, Reason, and most recently, Capitalism.

I welcome this fragmentation of values, and the consequent fragmentation of the international order, for such a fragmentation can finally shake America out of its sense of moral superiority and thus shock it out of complacency and smugness. The fact that values cherished by Americans are now under attack requires America to finally engage in vigorous, active international politics: that is, engaging in struggles of power in which the stakes are nothing less than American identity as a whole.

This to me is the beauty of politics, and also that which makes politics the highest calling: because to engage in politics is to engage in a serious, passionate defense of one’s values and their authenticity by using one’s personal vigor and strength. Beyond simply a struggle for power, politics is the struggle for power that is anchored by a core set of beliefs for which one should be willing to pay the highest price for if one is truly sincere in his belief.

This necessarily means an increase in risk and instability in both an individual, national, and international context, because the stakes are nothing less than the integrity of identity of an individual or a state. This means that there will be intense struggles as beliefs clash, and it means that one must be prepared for such struggles, and if necessary, die for them.

So America must realize that its cherished liberal values won’t defend themselves, that the world is not going to roll-over and embrace the kind of Thomas Friedman politico-economic Utopia of open markets and rule-of-law. Most of all, America must realize that it must assume the burdens of defending its core beliefs and all the danger, risk, and instability that comes with such a defense.


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