Foreign policy is only one among many areas where liberal modernity displays its novel understanding of freedom as autonomous will to power. A similar voluntarism dominates everywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom. Still and all, foreign policy as practiced by the United States, especially in recent decades, nonetheless enjoys a special distinction. The chaos engendered by its voluntarist will to power is painfully obvious.1
In response, two prominent scholars have recently mounted a critical analysis of America’s drive for hegemony and the relation of this effort to liberalism. I will not attempt here a comprehensive review of their recent books on the subject, which cover a lot of ground. I do, however, wish to draw attention to certain themes in their analysis, insofar as these themes disclose an important but not obvious contradiction at the core of liberalism.
Liberal Critiques of Liberal Foreign Policy
John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago international affairs scholar and prominent international relations realist, has sharply criticized liberalism as a guide to U.S. foreign policy practice. Unlike other recent philosophical critics of liberalism, such as Patrick Deneen, he for the most part endorses liberalism—at any rate, he approves of liberalism as the most appropriate foundation for the U.S. domestic political order. In foreign policy, however, Mearsheimer makes clear in his just-published The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities that a universalized liberal rights culture is neither wanted in, nor appropriate to, every foreign context. Such universalization, he notes, is a longstanding practice in liberal thought, which can be traced all the way back to John Locke.2 Mearsheimer makes a point similar to that made earlier by John Kekes: he contends that liberal rights culture must at times rightfully take a backseat to other concerns—for example, the maintenance of peace in multinational states where deep-seated animosities between rival ethnicities might otherwise cause havoc, as well as in other contexts.3
As a philosophy of human nature, liberalism presents itself as a mixed bag for Mearsheimer, getting some things exactly right and other things exactly wrong. The liberal thesis that we humans are above all individuals is false, if only because, being interested before anything else in our own survival, we of necessity hew to the norms of society—in effect, the nation—to which we belong. It is our best means of survival.
On the other hand, liberalism is correct when it insists that there are no universally agreed upon principles concerning the good or, as Mearsheimer puts it, “the good life.” Nor is reason much help in this regard. Reason, claims Mearsheimer, teaches us to doubt and to question, but rarely if ever gives us firm guidelines about what is good. Liberal values, among them the enjoyment of a certain autonomy from the state and from others so that we may live out our own separate conceptions of the good, suit us in the United States, and we should continue practicing them. (Mearsheimer here points approvingly to Burke.) On the other hand, the attempt at foisting our liberalism on other nations—though it might, from Mearsheimer’s realist perspective, be a good idea if it could work—should be stopped, because it simply will not succeed and will just end up bankrupting us and further eroding our own liberal freedoms.
Another recently published work on liberalism and foreign affairs is David Hendrickson’s Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition. Hendrickson, a professor of political science at Colorado College who has written extensively on the thought of the American founding fathers, shares Mearsheimer’s sharp critique of America’s quest for global hegemony, but denies that this quest stems from American liberalism. For Hendrickson, if we would but return to the original sources of liberalism, this would incline us toward peace and self-limitation, and also to a renewed practice of the liberal virtues of balance and pluralism.
Hendrickson cites, in this regard, the words of founding father James Madison, who wrote that America’s purpose should be to seek “by appeals to reason and by its liberal examples to infuse into the law which governs the civilized world a spirit which may diminish the . . . calamities of war, and meliorate the social and beneficent relations of peace.” Thomas Hobbes, Hendrickson points out, contrary to his reputation for bellicosity, counseled that individuals should follow a version of the Golden Rule (“Do not that to another, which thou would not have done to thyself”). What is more, Hobbes’s recommendations for individuals (that they should seek peace whenever possible, that they should keep agreements, and that they should not declare hatred or contempt for others) apply, or should apply, equally to the liberal state in its relations with others, Hendrickson believes, although he acknowledges that Hobbes, in Leviathan, “does intimate that these laws of nature are inapplicable to the relations among states” in the “absence of a coercive power.”4
Possibility versus Reality
I largely agree with the policy recommendations and, especially, the historical analysis both Mearsheimer and Hendrickson provide regarding U.S. foreign policy practice and its multiple disasters. Their overall policy direction is clearly an improvement over what we currently have, and recent American foreign policy would have been better had either of these men been calling the shots. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. I fear, though, that such improvements would too much depend on their individual qualities and gut-instincts, and too little on the adequacy of their overall concept, the basic concept of liberalism.
Hendrickson finds a sense of restraint that is there, from the very beginning, in the writings of liberal theorists, especially John Locke, whose version of the state of nature indeed assumed peace and the beneficent rule of “natural reason.” But, as I hope to help clarify in what follows, drawing mainly from the writings of philosopher David C. Schindler, there is a sharp dichotomy between the moral and the ontological orders in liberal thought. To put it more plainly, what liberalism says “should be” or is “recommended” often clashes with what liberalism says things are. The latter wins out in the end, not because of ill intent, but because existence trumps morality.
Mearsheimer, for his part, despite asking some profound philosophical questions about liberal anthropology, ends up, on my reading at least, backing himself into the full acceptance of a liberal immanentism or positivism, which has no convincing rebuttal to the quest for hegemony other than the pragmatic supposition that it probably won’t work.5 Furthermore, his account of human motivations strictly in terms of the quest for survival is paradigmatically liberal. It places his account squarely in the camp of both Hobbes and Locke’s state of nature, with its assumption that the individual is born as an autonomous creature anxious for security. In addition, the problematic liberal understanding of individual rights—of what they are—is borrowed directly from the state of nature: it is precisely this pre-social quest for survival that justifies, for the founders of liberalism, the taking of any action “freely” so as to secure that autonomous survival. This means that, having ostensibly rejected liberalism’s individualist premises, replacing them with society’s primacy, Mearsheimer’s account of human motivation, along with his positivism, makes this difference far less sharp than it would be otherwise, if not indeed moot. Its spirit, at any rate, is still individualist.
As for the contradiction in liberalism to which I earlier referred, it can be summarized as follows. Mearsheimer, as we have seen, finds liberalism to be the source of America’s flawed foreign policy, whereas Hendrickson sees that same foreign policy as a stark departure from liberal values. What is noteworthy is that this contradiction is present already in liberalism itself, and therefore, in a sense, both are right. Liberalism, on the level of possibility, represents the most far-reaching peace imaginable. Liberalism, as it actually operates in practice, creates fragmentation and discord.6
As David C. Schindler demonstrates with particular clarity, this confusion of the actual with what is potential (but not real) goes to the very heart of what liberalism is. Its reconception of freedom as power, according to a logic we cannot unfold in detail here, requires a kind of double action, whereby abstractions—for example abstractions about universal human equality (which is not only never realized, but which is in principle unrealizable)—parasitize on reality while simultaneously divorcing active, political man from that same reality.7
The result, David Schindler notes, is that modern politics
tends to become a system that is indifferent to the substantial quality of the souls that constitute it, and so it necessarily takes the form of the extrinsic manipulation of forces. On the “inside,” modern liberty is formless; while on the “outside” it is nothing but (mechanical) form and negotiations of power.8
And yet, crucially, within the psychological and spiritual framework of liberalism, the individual can still assure him or herself, in all such situations, that “I am free”—indeed, probably freer than anyone ever before. And so can the liberal system, or the liberal state.
The promise of liberal freedom, on the level of potentiality and in the realm of appearances, is infinite. This “possibilistic” side of liberal voluntarism generates its unbeatable attractiveness. The unfettered will has unfettered possibilities, so long as these possibilities are subjective, or private (and therefore not politically real). To be sure, this same will is also unfettered so long as it fits like a glove into the utilitarian logic of the very real liberal marketplace, oriented not to form but to profit.9
Liberalism as it expands exhibits a dual character, like liberal freedom itself. Concern for international law and for peace, for example, always exists as an ever-present potentiality. In the realm of actuality, meanwhile, unfortunate exceptions are continuously necessary. This confusion between the actual and the potential imparts to liberal voluntarism its unparalleled ability to expand and dominate, including by transforming, from within, societies that still stand partially outside of it. Consideration of the state of nature will further sharpen this same point.
Equality and the State of Nature
Hendrickson, as noted earlier, reads Hobbes’s state of nature in an optimistic spirit. Despite the well-known war that characterizes it, Hendrickson reminds us that even Hobbes urged every person to nonetheless follow the Golden Rule. Locke, at first glance, provides us with even greater grounds for optimism: even his state of nature is peaceful. Locke also tells his readers that love of one’s fellow man is the moral ideal.
Upon closer inspection, though, the state of nature, for Locke, remains “naturally” peaceful only so long as no one infringes upon, or even hints at infringing upon, the property or the person of someone else. The state of nature as Locke describes it works to promote peace in a “community” of Robinson Crusoes. But this theoretically peaceful state of nature (no actual community, after all, is composed of perfectly isolated individuals) slips into a real state of war, Schindler notes, with startling ease and in the flash of an eye. Someone even hinting at “enmity” towards someone else suffices already for all hell to break loose—in effect, to justify taking the most extreme preventive measures in one’s own defense.
The anarchic quality of the state of nature means that the individual’s freedom to enjoy freedom requires regulation for it to exist at all. Continues Schindler:
“The reason I need to affirm a limit to my field of action is not first of all because limit is itself freedom, but rather because it is an unavoidable implication of restraining the action of others in my regard. The fence that I build to keep you out ends up also keeping me in . . . if freedom is formless in itself, there can be no freedom without external regulation, but the very intrinsic limitlessness of freedom means that there is likewise no principle of constraint for regulation [emphasis added].10
Note what is going on here. The limitless freedom of the state of nature, precisely because it is hypothesized as a formless, and therefore anarchic power, is immediately acknowledged by Locke to be impractical, and in its place comes an order regulated by laws which, precisely because freedom is boundless, may likewise be boundless in their own legal pretensions. The fictive character, the unreality of the state of nature, is precisely what allows Locke to affirm moral obligation “not simply in the ‘raw’ sense as desire for self-preservation but in the more genuinely ‘just’ sense as an obligation to preserve all human beings as far as possible. But this is never anything more than a possibility. . . .”11 Traditional morality, in other words, is vigorously affirmed in a realm—the state of nature—that turns out to be essentially divorced from reality. This is very reminiscent of the actual practice of America’s (voluntarist) foreign policy described by Mearsheimer and Hendrickson, a practice which persistently contradicts its overt declarations of fealty to various moral obligations (restraint, law, peace, etc.).12
The state of nature, for Locke as for Hobbes, is a realm where every individual is equal at some level and has rights. But again we find that adherence to the theory divorces us from reality, because in reality we are always and from the beginning in relationships. To affirm equality as what is defining, Locke must abstract from the relationships. It is not equal dignity that Locke affirms, but actual numerical equality—our equal potential to use those powers that are our wills and reasoning abilities. Again, the reality must be ignored in order to affirm this at all, given human differentiation in talents, stations, and cultural contexts. By abstracting from all of this, Locke’s sense of order can only be one “produced through the equilibrium of equal forces acting on equal objects.” Why does this mean that the establishment of any relations between persons becomes a disruption, a “disequilibrium,” as Schindler insists? Because any real relationship necessarily gives rise to a unity within which there is an abiding difference: it is impossible to have an order where everyone is “the boss,” just as it is inconceivable to have a family consisting only of children.
But it gets worse. The state of war, present already in the state of nature, never in fact disappears, even after establishment of the famous social contract. Community, to exist, must be recognized as, and really exist as, an intrinsic good and not as something to be used simply for other, extrinsic ends. And yet, in Locke’s conception of civil society—which largely remains our own—the only real point of the contract is the defense of my property, and each individual is at liberty at every moment to abrogate the contract if some better means of protecting that property should arise. The result is depressing indeed:
in Locke, there is never any community in reality, but only in appearance. Social bonds have no substance, but are rather shared illusions, the strength of which depend on the force of the individual wills that agree to share them . . . it is not even the case that people have to conform to the order of law; they need only appear to conform, which means they must seek to keep others from perceiving a threat to their safety. The main energy of government is spent on keeping people from appearing to be threats to each other, and from appearing, itself, to be such a threat.13
Within the liberal voluntarist order, the substance of social relationship is hostility, though its appearance wears a smile.14
But this indeed transforms everything. A political order built on such a voluntarist foundation is necessarily alienated from all the forms of human life—whether it be the form of the family or the form of the city or of the state or of the world as a whole—because freedom as power has no form.15
What Kant calls a “good will,” impelled by a sense of fairness and duty, may allow a liberal society to experience prosperity (think Denmark). All such forms, however, will now be the result of what amounts to voluntarism: things are what they are because, in that moment, they are willed. But a family that is the product of the will alone is no longer a family at all. It becomes at best something contractual, held together purely extrinsically. And the same holds true for all the other basic political forms. Political life becomes hollow and insubstantial—a circling of the will upon itself—and for just that reason permanently restless.
Freedom so understood directly translates into a revolutionary movement well beyond anything previously conceived. Indeed, such a political liberalism is of its very nature a revolutionary power, both in the philosophical and also in the specifically international relations meaning of the word.16
The Empty Circle of the Liberal Will
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in their most recent critiques of U.S. foreign policy,17 call for the creation of fresh institutions to create a new generation of thinkers who will replace the status quo order based on liberal hegemony. This is an excellent idea. Mearsheimer and Walt wish to see such new institutions oriented toward geopolitical realism and their preferred strategy of “offshore balancing.” Ultimately, however, such a rethinking will need to take place within the framework of a more fundamental philosophical critique of the present moment than is offered by realism alone. In the absence of such a rethinking, strategies such as “offshore balancing” risk taking on the character of a mere technical fix.
In The Great Delusion, Mearsheimer states that he prefers a liberal political order for himself, but he avoids asking, or answering, the question as to whether a philosophically liberal political order is good as such. Within a pragmatic framework, there is no need to do so—after all, it suffices to note that the policy of liberal hegemony cannot succeed in any case. But what if it could? Should it? Would it be good if a political order that sidesteps the question of the good reign supreme in the world?
Hendrickson, for his part, is nostalgic for an earlier liberal order. He points to the moral intent of liberalism’s founders to buttress his claims. But, as the above has demonstrated, this is the very problem with his approach. In liberal theory, the ideals of peace, reasonableness, and even fraternité exist in the realm of a potentiality, a possibility that need not be actualized, and in the end serve a rhetorical function for the voluntarist order that liberalism spawns.
One could counter that the liberalism practiced in the United States in the past differs markedly from what is practiced today, and one would be right.18 Even for some years after World War II, there were no doubt a great many communities in the United States similar to the Winsted, Connecticut, mill town described by Ralph Nader in his autobiographical The Seventeen Traditions. From the perspective of today, Winsted seems a veritable utopia. Nostalgia is nonetheless not justified for the following reason: Classical liberal modernity is in fact the middle historical term between two waves, or vectors, moving in opposite directions. Where they intersect we see an apparent balance, a “golden age” of liberalism where both possibilistic freedom (power abstracted from form) and concrete goodness appear to be in harmony. But they never were. That is why we need a political concept that is fundamentally other than what Locke and his fellow travelers bequeathed to us.
International theorists, whether realists like Mearsheimer, or those of more “idealist” schools, typically emphasize that the problem of international politics relates to the structure of the system as such. This is the standard view in the field of international relations, and I agree with it. Yet, whereas most theorists today believe that structure is determined by the overriding feature of anarchy, the above considerations may allow us to rethink this assumption. Isn’t anarchy, at least in some significant measure, a product of liberal modernity itself?19 Precisely because we are indeed social creatures, and not, most fundamentally, individuals, the human world also exists at the international level as a society. The archetypal security dilemma is a product of separate states imitating the assumption of liberal anarchy, an assumption that is only partially justified by ineradicable human evil (as Kekes would have it);20 after all, there is nothing uniquely unsocial about international society, and therefore the problem of evil is not uniquely definitive for the foreign affairs context.
Before dismissing the above as naïve, consider the following: The assumption of the ineradicable evil of man is freely applied by voluntarist sophistry to other states—and lately the favorite object of that sophistry has been “Putin’s Russia”—but when these same voluntarist practitioners turn their gaze on themselves, or on their own nations, the problem of ineradicable human evil miraculously disappears. The reasons for this are too obvious to require explanation, and have to do with the instrumentalization of reason itself by voluntarist politics.21 The strong point of realists like Mearsheimer is that they see through the hypocrisy of liberal moralism. The weak side is that they have no response to the voluntarist “triumph of the will” that ignores its own hypocrisy.
But nothing constrains us to proceed within the suffocating boundaries of this shortsighted game. A return precisely to reason—of the non-instrumental sort—along with making more constructive use of the mimetic structure of international relations, opens up the possibility of a reversal of the security dilemma—the building of trust. Equally useful would be to draw on Schindler’s rediscovery—or at any rate renewed appreciation—of the German idealist understanding of freedom as being, in a certain sense, an expression of right form itself (an approach already well-articulated by Schiller).22 True form, like an artistic work, has intrinsic limits, such that freedom, form, and limit merge into a single, expressive whole. And since all the great civilizations—certainly including Europe, Russia, China, India and the world of Islam23—have the intellectual and cultural capacity to engage with these ideas, they should all be involved in the conversation. (This presumes, of course, a sufficient recovery from liberalism that these “civilizations,” including our own, can deeply reengage with their own roots—no small feat.)
Mearsheimer is absolutely right when he states that, in order to engage in diplomacy, even foes must show some respect for one another. As we have seen in recent years, the extremes of American voluntarism have made it impossible for such respect to be accorded. This is obvious in the case of the U.S. treatment of Russia (an absence of respect that long precedes the allegations of Russia-gate), but America is by no means unique. Russia’s leadership can be equally Machiavellian, as can France’s, England’s, and so on. Tit-for-tat is an endless game. The question is how to end it.
Marx’s insight into capitalism, as Simone Weil grasped, was flawed not in his judgment that capitalism reduces men to playthings in the hands of profit, but in his assumption that this was something unique to capitalism.24 But the problem of capitalism is the same as the problem of power as such. The message already of The Iliad, as Weil’s superlative essay about it makes clear, is precisely that it is force itself that rules men, and not men force. The problem presented by liberal modernity is that now the logic of power threatens to become inescapable, because the liberal vision of freedom as power and will as autonomous circularity has replaced any notion of the good that might form the basis of mutual understanding.25 The message of the Christian Platonic tradition of which Schindler (like Weil in France, and Solovyov in Russia) is a representative, is that freedom and reason are both dependent for their very reality on the good; if the good is made a mere option or, say, something strictly for after the defeat of the next invented enemy, as in the case of Robert Kagan26—then freedom and reason become illusory chimeras, and liberal politics becomes a trap with no exit.
Strenuous efforts will be deployed—are already being deployed—to taboo public inquiry into the nature of this trap, and to tar the thinkers who raise such questions by identifying them with liberalism’s declared and always abundant enemies. A power that is only power fears philosophical questioning lest its emptiness be exposed. That is why our “free society” is so rarely able to question what liberalism is; and this is also why liberal freedom can be so aptly described as an empty circle. It is a circle we must muster the courage and wisdom to move beyond.
This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published April 10, 2019.
2 John Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 110.
3 John Kekes, Against Liberalism (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1998). For Kekes, the defect of political liberalism is one of wrong emphasis. Liberalism fails to properly balance the virtues of autonomy and its associated values against other human needs, such as peace, order, moral education, environmental health, etc., which may often conflict with autonomy. Following Schindler, my critique differs from Kekes in that I see the problem with liberalism as tied to its misunderstanding of the meaning of freedom and the nature of the will, and its consequently inadequate anthropology.
4 David C. Hendrickson, Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 98–99.
5 If we are all fundamentally seekers of survival, and we know nothing objective about the good, then there is no intrinsic reason we should not conquer the world. Mearsheimer too quickly accepts at face value the liberal public declaration that the purpose of its wars of choice, for example in Iraq, Libya and (I would emphatically add) Syria, hinges on the expansion of liberal democracy to these spaces. From a pragmatic survival point of view, it would be equally rational to pursue the fragmentation and destruction of unitary states that are not obedient to the hegemonic power, while pragmatically declaring that the purpose was for the good of everyone concerned, the facts of the matter be damned. What is more, if we have no way of knowing objectively what is the good, in other words, of knowing in common something (though not everything) about the nature of the good, then this means that Mearsheimer’s rejection of individualism is essentially superficial. An aggregate of persons each seeking their own survival is not a society, but a pragmatic arrangement at best—in effect, it is precisely the understanding of man and society which gave rise to the liberal state in the first place: the mechanical arrangement of individuals whose assumed self-seeking natural state of autonomy—individualism—requires the Leviathan. Only an actually existing, and therefore shareable real good can create a social unity—I should say a human social unity.
6 Even though liberalism’s account of itself is that it uniquely fosters peace, the fact remains that throughout its history liberal America has fought war after war, and continues to do so today. What is more, on the domestic level the United States finds itself once again in such an extreme state of fragmentation that there is increasing talk of a new American Civil War. Of the several recent articles on this subject, of particularly interest is Michael Vlahos, “We Were Made for Civil War,” The American Conservative, October 29, 2018. For Vlahos, such a “war” need not be of the military kind, and yet “the historical consequences of a non-military American civil war would be just as severe as any struggle settled by battle and blood. For example, the map of a divided America today suggests that division into functioning state and local sovereignties—with autonomy over kinship, identity, and way of life issues—might be the result of this non-bloody war . . . [leading to] de facto national partition—without de jure secession. . . .”
7 D. C. Schindler, Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 13–127. The following passage gives only the flavor of a much more detailed argument laid out in the pages noted: “To interpret ‘justice and charity’ essentially as the preservation of a respectful distance between individuals is to presuppose that for individuals to be related is for them to enter into competition with one another, in a way that is indistinguishable from Hobbes’ total war. If nature is a state of order, freedom and peace only as an abstract potentiality, then reality is disorder. And reality is unavoidable” (87). The alternative to liberal autonomy, which it is the burden of Schindler’s entire book to set forth, is a symbolic order which paradoxically embeds autonomy within heteronomy, and thereby makes autonomy itself finally possible, because it now participates in Being instead of revolving in the empty circle of autonomous will. On the empty character of liberal autonomy, see also Pierre Manent, La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2018), 73.
8 Schindler, 177–178.
9 Money is of course the quintessential representation of possibility without actuality, the identification of freedom with pure power abstracted from anything else.
10 Schindler, 82.
11 Schindler, 84.
12 Cf. Paul Grenier, “Rescuing Diplomacy in an Age of Demagogy,” Consortium News, Dec. 9, 2014. (https://consortiumnews.com/2014/12/09/rescuing-diplomacy-in-an-age-of-demagogy/ ) This essay’s formatting and punctuation was damaged by a massive hacking attack on the entire news-site, from which attack complete recovery proved impossible.
13 Schindler, 120.
14 Schindler, 85.
15 An ironic continuation of this same theme of liberalism’s universal transformation of whatever it touches, including the family, may be found in the life trajectory of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It was while writing his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, that Tolstoy began his temporary return to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. What is more, he wrote his great novel dedicated, as he put it, to the “idea of the family,” after learning Greek and reading Plato, which likewise had an impact on his novelistic concept, both in its philosophical profundity and in its artistic form. Soon afterwards, however, Tolstoy rejected the Church and embraced Kant. The result, to my mind, was the decline of Tolstoy as an artist, as evidenced by the incomparably duller reflections to be found in his Confessions and subsequent novels and philosophy. Years later, Vladimir Solovyov, in his masterpiece Three Conversations, took to task both Kant and his spokesperson, the late Tolstoy, for their reduction of the good to the individual’s will, now viewed by them as subject to a reason that is autonomous from the source of the living good, and for their reduction of Christ to a dead letter “rule”—in effect, a moralism as opposed to a living being. I am indebted to my wife, Dr. Svetlana Grenier, for pointing out to me the influence of Plato on Tolstoy, though she bears no responsibility or blame for the further conclusions that I have drawn on the basis of this example.
16 Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–22 (London: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 2–3.
17 Mearsheimer and Walt argue for a “counter-elite” and a “countervailing set of organizations and institutions” that can challenge and replace the existing liberal interventionist consensus. See James Carden, “Why Liberal Hegemony? Three New Books Make the Case against a Failed Grand Strategy,” Nation, November 12, 2018.
18 I hope it is obvious that I by no means want to single the United States out as liberal—liberalism is today the global norm. The United States is special only in having been founded by the liberal voluntarism which increasingly is omnipresent world-wide.
19 Adrian Pabst and John Milbank make precisely this point, and indicate counter-examples from pre-modern Europe and Christendom, in their The Politics of Virtue (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), 318–27. To mention Christendom today is, of course, very shocking. Historians such as Glenn Olsen and Matthew Dal Santo have emphasized that most political orders throughout much of human history have been based on a complex interrelationship between the sacred and the profane—it is peculiar to the liberal age to have made of the sacred something purely private.
20 Kekes, 23–45.
21 Paul Grenier, “Russia-gate as Symptom: The Crisis of American Community,” TELOSscope, September 7, 2018.
22 See David Schindler, The Perfection of Freedom: Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel between the Ancients and the Moderns (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 49–110. Similarly, Russian political theorist Boris Mezhuev has proposed what he terms civilizational realism as a means of finding a political settlement beyond great power conflict. A civilization, for Mezhuev, is self-limiting already by simply being this particular civilizational form, and not another (Cf. Boris Mezhuev, “In Russia, It’s the Realists vs. the Ethno-Nationalists,” The American Conservative, May 10, 2017.) It is worth noting that Schiller and the German idealists have had a profound and continuing impact on Russian intellectual culture.
23 See especially Adam Webb, Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2015), which provides concrete historical examples of fruitful dialogue, and mutual acknowledgement and respect, between the deepest practitioners of differing civilizations and religions.
24 Simone Weil makes this point explicitly in her “Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression,” and then deepens it considerably in her The Need for Roots. See also Pierre Manent: “The fact is that Marx is mistaken. Profit, not religion, is the spirit of this spiritless world where one must overwork in order to live: the commercial society.” (The City of Man, 105).
25 This confusion about the good, which is inherent to liberalism, was nicely illustrated when U.S. presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) was recently interviewed by the TV personality Stephen Colbert. On the heels of a back-and-forth about US interventionist wars that have caused enormous havoc in the Middle East, Colbert asked whether or not she agreed with his statement that the United States, “however flawed” is a “force for good in the world.” Gabbard replied: “I do agree with that. My point is that, in order to be a force for good, we must actually do good. . . .” (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, CBS, March 11, 2019.) Precisely this difference, which Gabbard has, perhaps naively, brought to the surface, is what liberalism occludes.
26 Robert Kagan’s “The Strongmen Strike Back,” (Washington Post, March 14, 2019) is hardly the only illustration of this liberal need for enemies, even on the level of theory. Two years earlier, Kagan’s approach was explicitly recommended by Prof. Robert Keohane, who is often referred to as the most influential international relations scholar in U.S. academia. As I noted in my “Russia-gate as Symptom” (note 21), Keohane and his coauthor’s response to America’s internal divisions—despite explicitly pointing to the domestic origins of those divisions in economic inequality—was to identify external enemies. Keohane and Jeff D. Colgan aver that America needs to develop “a national narrative, broadly backed by elites across the ideological spectrum, about ‘who we are’—one built around opposition to authoritarianism and illiberalism.” Our present day’s disunity, the authors continue, is in part a symptom of “the fall of the Soviet Union [which] removed the main ‘other’ from the American political imagination and thereby reduced social cohesion in the United States.” (Jeff D. Colgan and Robert O. Keohane, “The Liberal Order is Rigged: Fix It Now or Watch It Wither,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2017, 40).