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The Post-World War II Era Is Over. What Now?

A conflict between inflamed populism and the ideology of global, technocratic empire.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Response
Sept. 12 2016
About the author

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. His books include Fighting the Noonday Devil and Other Essays Personal and Theological and, most recently, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society.


Yoram Hazony is right: the Brexit vote in Britain is a sign that the post-World War II era has come to an end. Another sign, this time in the United States, is the failure of the conservative establishment to prevent Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination; still another sign is the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton. All in all, the right-left contest that defined the postwar decades is being eclipsed by a politics in which establishment powers coalesce to fend off anti-establishment challengers.

In this new contest, a central and divisive issue is certain to be the role and future of the nation, Hazony’s main subject. Will we enter into the bright uplands of a prosperous, globalized fusion of civilizations managed by experts and guided by the high ideals of human rights? Or will we return to the dark days of xenophobic nationalism, war, and death camps?

To put it that way is, of course, tendentious—but this is how at least one side, the side of the establishment consensus, has long expressed it. Traumatized by the civilizational failure that ran from 1914 to 1945, postwar elites in the West consolidated around an interpretation that saw the cause of the disasters in nationalist zealotry. Especially barbaric were the gods of blood, soil, and Volk, but the larger problem was said to be the injection of a sacred significance into the nation’s public affairs. Among conservatives and some on the pragmatic left, Communist totalitarianism was seen as prey to the same dark disease. But in all quarters, right, left, and center, the postwar consensus held that nationalist and ideological fervors are a perennial danger. They threaten to burst into life, leading to violence, oppression, and systematic injustice.

The natural remedy was to de-sacralize public life. This meant encouraging weaker public passions, and shifting from the hot rhetoric of potential demagogues to the cool deliberations of experts. In America, the dominant liberalism of the 1950s claimed to be pragmatic and “post-ideological.” Yes, we needed to be united against the existential threat of Communism, and to that extent the cause of the nation did retain its quasi-sacred status, but less and less so as the decades wore on. Today, our elites are scandalized by the very mention of Trump’s anti-immigration stance. His summary statement of justification, “We either have a country or we don’t,” seems to them comically retrograde and simplistic.

The European situation has been different. There, understandably, the civilizational crisis of 1914-1945 was felt more acutely, and the desacralizing imperative correspondingly affected everything. The popular influence of postwar French existentialism is a salient case in point: a valiant effort to find meaning in world where no tradition, institution, or form of life was thought to provide a trustworthy inheritance.

In May 1968, the distrust burst into flames. “It is forbidden to forbid,” went the slogan of the rioting French students and workers in a paradoxical formula that perfectly embodied the desacralizing imperative: in plain English, everything goes. No more social authority; it is forbidden either to venerate or to renew the sacred foundations on which commands could once be issued or sacrifices demanded.

 

Given the desacralizing imperative of the postwar era, it can be no surprise that the moral and cultural repute of the nation has declined in the West, and with it the once vivid historical and poetic language of political leadership—what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.” Their place has been usurped by a technocratic empire of expertise, baptized in the holy water of human rights: the final, thin thread still connecting the political imagination of the West to the sacred.

But even that thread is breaking. A recent essay in Foreign Affairs by Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers, “The Fusion of Civilizations: A Case for Global Optimism,” outlines the main ambitions of the technocratic empire. That empire, write the authors, will promote “pragmatic problem-solving” in a “stable and sustainable rule-based order,” undergirded by a scientific, technological, and economic consensus that encourages the “fusion of civilizations” promised in their title. Theirs is a vision of perpetual peace, shorn of the preemptive demands of the sacred and organized around the principle of beneficent material progress.

A vision alluring to some, perhaps. Yet it is as unlikely to replace war, conflict, or the systematic trampling of human rights—indeed, it is just as likely to ignite them—as similar totalizing visions of the not-so-distant past. It is also a vision decidedly unappealing to many others in the West, as Hazony points out and as the Brexit vote and other political developments demonstrate.

A rebellion is mounting, one that commentators speak of as “populist” or “anti-establishment.” Hazony calls it a struggle over the international political order.

Yes, it is that, and more. Elites in the West regard it as a moral imperative—a civilizational duty—to resist the desire for renewed national identity. We must, they cry, prevent the return of Auschwitz! In fact, however, many in Europe and elsewhere are revolting because they wish to sustain their peoplehood, not in order to protect their self-interest or for the sake of economic growth, but simply because they stubbornly honor their national heritages, which they still regard as sacred.

For this reason, the conflict is likely to become more heated. The rhetoric denouncing the supposedly racist and xenophobic motives of the “populists” will get more and more shrill. In turn, as the stakes are raised, largely by establishment rather than by anti-establishment figures, a political crisis will almost inevitably ensue.

In that crisis, America is sure to play a leading role, for our nation remains at the center of the economic system, of international order, and of the moral projects of the postwar era. Moreover, the post-national future adumbrated by Summers and Mahbubani is the implicit ambition of the American political establishment, both right and left. Its instruments include multiculturalism and economic libertarianism, each a powerful agent of desacralization.

Even football players conform to the logic of the future envisioned by our establishment, as witness those players sitting or kneeling on the sidelines as the national anthem is sung, confident that their gesture of refusal will be interpreted as a sign of a higher, more progressive virtue. The ideals of America transcend America, the president himself assured us in approving the players’ gesture; the true American is loyal to something greater than mere nation. Perfectly suited to serve as the ideology of a global, technocratic empire, this way of thinking is likely to be at once post-American and America-dominated.

 

In his historical recital of the rise and fall of the national idea, Hazony overplays the modern rediscovery of that idea in what he calls a “Protestant construction.” In Christian history, the impulse to honor peoplehood is of significantly earlier vintage, being present in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages the political legitimacy of rulers depended on parallels drawn not to Roman emperors but to the kings of ancient Israel. Charlemagne’s pretensions to empire were immediately subverted by the logic of feudalism, which built up from clan loyalties rather than down from imperial ideology. Altogether, the lure of national loyalty runs deep in human nature.

Hazony is right, however, that our instinctual desire to live as nations was first taken up in the covenant between God and Israel and thereafter realized in the self-governing Israelite kingdoms. In the Bible, the nation of Israel thrives within the even more fundamental loyalties owed to God and family. There is no commandment to patriotism inscribed on the stone tablets given to Moses, and yet those very tablets serve as Israel’s constitution.

The biblical lessons here are crucial for our present moment, which is a dangerous one. The refusal of elites in the West to accede to the popular demand for renewed national loyalties not only will discredit those elites but could empower populism of a kind that can do a great deal of damage. A return of the sacred to political life might indeed inflame passions, especially when our perennial desire to give of ourselves in loyalty is denied its proper religious and familial expressions and becomes redirected toward political parties and platforms. In this respect, the consensus interpretation of the West’s civilizational crisis in the first half of the 20th century was not entirely wrong.

What the West needs is a restoration of the sacred in all of its dimensions. We do not need imperial governance; we do need patriotic solidarity; but we also need devotion to family and obedience to God, both of which protect the personal from the political even as they dignify it by providing the source of our civil liberties: the rights “endowed by [our] Creator.” A proper sense of God’s transcendence has also helped the West resist the temptation to universalize patriotic pride into world-dominating empire. World governance, both Judaism and Christianity urge us to recognize, is God’s affair, not ours.

The postwar era is ending, leaving the desacralized West face-to-face with two threats that interact in powerful ways. The first is internal: a transcendent universalism that would abandon the West for, allegedly, the sake of the West. The second is external: a colonizing Islam confident in its sacred mission. In response to both, surprising numbers of people are expressing an inchoate desire to be part of national projects that are honored for their own sakes. It’s a healthy impulse, and our job is to tutor rather than resist it.

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