Throwing down the ladder

There is something more to the US campaign in Iraq than the effort to bolster America’s security and economic status in a volatile international system: It is Washington’s conviction that it is on a transcendent mission to purge the world of evil and realize history’s natural conclusion – a benign world under American stewardship. Worse, America’s self-assured sense of historical destiny – in fact, a form of fundamentalism that the West so much detests in its enemies – lies at bottom theologically. Contrary to the rationalistic project of the Enlightenment, although this was in some way a secular version of Christianity, the neo-conservatives in Washington have taken the notion of God hostage to political expediency. As most of George W. Bush’s post-September 11 speeches imply, the US will overcome, for it has the blessing of God. «May God bless our country and all who defend her,» said Bush in his declaration of war against on Saddam Hussein. With or without divine sanction, Western liberalism is built on metaphysical foundations. We often hear Western theorists and politicians invoke God, reason, truth or history to assert the superiority of liberal institutions and to make universalist claims about Western values – a habit most famously crystallized in Francis Fukuyama’s grand narrative of the «end of history.» As the Iraq war demonstrated, similar theological or teleological claims are invoked in making the case for war. Echoing Islamic fundamentalists’ calls for jihad and portraying his country as the sole repository of benignity, Bush declared America’s historical mission to strike down the «axis of evil.» «Our responsibility to history,» he said shortly after the terrorist attacks, is to «rid the world of evil.» Looking for a meaning in history, however, is, as the political theorist John Gray writes, like «looking for a pattern in clouds.» The belief that Western liberal values enjoy a privileged status in history or some sort of universal moral authority is no more than a smug pipe dream, a hangover from metaphysics. Liberals should give up the search for foundations, the quest for some ultimate terra firma that sustains the superiority of the Western way of life. As the American philosopher Richard Rorty says, liberalism cannot be justified by driving its enemies up against an argumentative wall, forcing them to admit that liberalism has a moral privilege that their own values lack. Instead, liberals should shed their metaphysical pretensions and see the liberal way of life as a product of historical contingency. However, giving up the search for philosophical foundations does not mean that liberalism’s political project must also be abandoned. In fact, at the beginning of the 21st century there seem even more reasons for pursuing this project. As the community of liberal democratic states is willingly expanding, liberalism appears more vigorous than at any other time in history. It is not a coincidence that free, tolerant, secular and democratic states are also the most prosperous ones. Despite the imperfections of Western liberal states, no other political system has ever attained the level of economic well-being that these enjoy today. This success lies behind the West’s so-called soft power – that is, the power to lead, not by force and coercion, but rather by attraction and persuasion. It is the power to make other states crave what you crave. The West, and particularly the US, would be more effective if it served as a beacon, calling all stumbling states to imitate its successful example instead of imposing it on them by force. Exercising soft rather than hard power saves lives, money and time. It also spares the West from forsaking its tolerant, democratic ideals – a paradox that grows all the more self-destructive as America, the idea, is finding it increasingly difficult to survive the success of its military. Even humanistic ideas, as the disillusioned communists would be the first to agree, die when they are enforced in the name of some transcendent vision or God. Liberals should see their political system as a human construction and not as the product of some non-human authority. They should see liberal democracy as something they cherish and advance for the same reason that they expect others to want to embrace it. Because it works better for them than all other systems. This is a stronger genre of liberalism for it is based not on argument, but on solidarity.