Politics & Policy

North Atlantic Community, European Community

Part II: What is causing the recent cleavages?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a speech delivered for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003. Part I appeared Wednesday (here) and Part III will run on Friday.

BRATISLAVA — In recent years, nonetheless, several sources of new cleavages have opened up. I am not certain I understand these, but let me offer three or four hypotheses.

First, Europeans today have a far weaker belief in the nation state, and have begun to idealize large collective entities, such as the United Nations and the European Community. They are willing to cede sovereignty from one to the other, and in the process to give up a great many safeguards of local democracy. To Americans, in fact, it seems that Europeans revere bureaucrats, in the larger collective, the more so. They certainly pay lavish salaries to countless ranks of them. In addition, the Europeans seem not to be preoccupied with checks and balances, the division of all powers, and other auxiliary precautions, in the protection of liberty from its customary and traditional sources of abuse. Europeans seem relatively passive before their political elites. Europeans even seem to cry out to their elites: “Abuse us!” In other words, to American eyes, Europeans, after all their bad experiences, still seem innocent about concentrations of power. Europeans seem not to believe in original sin, or in the pervasiveness of evil in the hearts of men, for against these they arrange so few protections.

Second, on a planetary scale, Europeans seem to hold that the world is populated by Kantians, eager to accept resolutions after hearing speeches in the UN. The UN Security Council passed seventeen such resolutions for Saddam Hussein, as if they actually expected him to be swayed by patient argument, and then they were miffed not to be able to make it eighteen.

By contrast, Americans do not have much faith in Kantian reason or the rationality of collectives and tyrants. The schoolmaster of the Americans is not Kant but St. Augustine, the teacher both of Aquinas and of eighteenth-century Protestant divines in America. Augustine was more keen to detect the ways in which humans abuse power, even twist reason itself. Robert Kagan has mistakenly asserted in Of Paradise and Power that Thomas Hobbes is the teacher of the Americans, but Hobbes was far too cynical, and a lover of illiberal Leviathan. The American master is Augustine, whom Kagan ignores. Augustine urges Americans on toward the City of God, the “shining City on the Hill,” while simultaneously warning them against their own inveterate inclinations to sin. Hobbes depresses the spirit; Augustine inspires and arms it. From St. Augustine, the Americans get both their realism and their optimism.

There may be a third reason for the screeching anti-Americanism in Europe, although I sense myself walking on shakier ground. Could it be that some Europeans hate America for not accepting the rationality of the European view of the world? By designating terrorism as “evil,” and by designating three states that support terrorism [Iraq, Iran, and North Korea] as “the axis of evil,” President Bush flew directly against the worldview of the Europeans. They want rationality, he pointed to the irrational components in Iraq, Iran and North Korea. They want peace at the lowest possible cost, while he was not willing to wait until the terrorists again struck New York or Washington. They want collective security, he had observed what happened in Rwanda, and in the French unilateral intervention into the Ivory Coast, and in the Russian into Chechnya. European elites use the language of bureaucracy and collective negotiation, Bush used the language of Christianity. That language deeply offends secular Europeans. There seems to be great resistance to Bush precisely because he is visibly religious. (Bill Clinton used religious language at least as often as Bush; but perhaps that didn’t worry Europeans because they didn’t think he meant it. Meanwhile, Bush’s religious language may worry Europeans precisely because he does believe it.)

In any case, America is far more religious than Europe, both more Christian and more Jewish. In America, a great number of political and intellectual leaders — yes, and journalists — are serious about their Judaism or their Christianity. As Americans, they feel quite comfortable in expressing that seriousness. In America, from the beginning religion has normally been on the side of liberty, and liberty on the side of religion. We never faced the ancien regime that led so many European lovers of liberty to reject religion outright. We did not experience on our own soil the rise of aggressive atheism under Nazis and Communists.

In short, as Niall Ferguson has suggested, it may be American religious seriousness that still leads us to work so hard and with such discipline (Max Weber), and to have high morale, and a deep conviction about the rightness of supporting liberty around the world (Tocqueville). For certain, it is our sense that each woman and each man is made in the image of the Creator that leads us so to emphasize creativity, invention, and enterprise in each sphere of life. As Judaism and then Christianity have taught us, it is the vocation of every woman and man to create — to add to this world before our deaths what was not here at our births. Each American should be creative.

It is one of the ironies of our times that nearly all of the values that America holds most dear derive from Europe, even though today’s Europeans no longer hold them. For instance, all those lessons about Judaism and Christianity mentioned above Americans did not find here in America waiting for us. Just the opposite, they came with the Bibles that were carried in our grandparents’ steamship trunks, and in the lessons they carried in their heads and their hearts from Europe to America.

The public buildings of the United States reflect Greece and Rome. The influence of the Enlightenment — the English, not the French or the German Enlightenment — is reflected in our terse classic speech, such as that of our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and other basic documents such as The Federalist. But the deepest impress on America’s soul is biblical realism — a sense of the glories possible to man, chastened by a sense of the pervasiveness in all circumstances of human wickedness and weakness. In our youth, we thought we learned these lessons from Europe. In our maturity, we are surprised that Europe has “outgrown” them. We think these lessons would be useful for Europe to relearn.

We had also thought we learned our “whiggism” and our “liberalism” from Europe, from Scotland to be precise — from moral sense philosophers such as Francis Hutchison and Adam Smith. By the whig tendency, we mean the love for civil and political liberties, along with respect for tradition, experience, the local, the unspoken, the tacit, and the religious dimension of life. By the liberal tendency, we mean the commitment to economic liberty as well as political and civil liberties. In combination, the whig and the liberal tendencies see liberty as the bright red thread which furnishes to human history its central line of institutional progress.

Liberty in this sense is not given, it must be earned. Indeed, it must be learned through hard practice, repetition, trial and error; it must be learned through suffering, failure, and even death. Liberty in this sense means self-government, that is, the conquest of the self. Self-government, in turn, has both a personal, private dimension and a public, institutional dimension. To extend true liberty in both dimensions exacts a high price in vigilance and sacrifice. Liberty is in its own way the way of the cross. It is not won by wishing, but by wagering on it all that one has, by dying or being willing to die. “I regret,” said Nathan Hale at his death early in the War of Independence, “that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Through such men, the rest of us enjoy today our institutional liberties.

In this sense, Americans do not fear death. We are still, though much besieged, a culture of life. The critic may reply scornfully, But what then about your practice of abortion, the least restrictive on earth, or your tolerance in half your States of the death penalty? Well, to the best of my knowledge, the American people have never voted for abortion in any jurisdiction. Every time the issue comes to a popular vote, abortion loses. It is the American Supreme Court that (illegally, many of us think) has imposed the abortion regime on the people. As for the death penalty, circumstances in America are not the same as in Europe, and what seems reasonable in one continent may to many seem otherwise in another. The laws under which people live are properly their own choice. (It may be that on many issues, such as the death penalty, popular opinion in Europe is much the same as popular opinion in the U.S., despite the fact that in Europe the laws are far more closely controlled by the political elite than is possible in the U.S.)

To resume, I believe it descriptively accurate to state that Americans stand out among our allies as noticeably optimistic, active, vigorous, and not afraid to take chances. Failure does not affright us. Many great ventures succeed only after the learning that takes place through multiple failures.

In all these ways, George Bush after September 11 has been an exemplary American, not at all afraid to trust in liberty and to roll the dice of history for very high stakes. There were a huge number of ways in which the war in Iraq might have gone wrong. A sudden, swift victory was by no means assured. Oil wells might have been sabotaged, pipelines emptying unchecked into the Persian Gulf. Israel and Kuwait might have been bombed. Resistance might have been universal and fierce beyond all previous experience. The small American force — much lighter and smaller than twelve years earlier, and moving without the long weeks of preparatory bombing that marked 1991 — might have been surrounded and captured. Bush risked not only his Presidency but the credit of the United States military forces for many decades to come.

Can it be that, precisely for his daring and vigor, he is hated by a different stripe of men?

I hasten to point out that Bush is by choice a man of the American West, and that nearly all American Presidents of the last fifty years have been from that part of America, the most religious, biblical part, the Bible Belt of the South and the West. Let me count them off: Lyndon Johnson from Texas; Richard Nixon from California; Gerald Ford — the exception — from Michigan, in the oval office not by being elected but by succession as Vice-President; Jimmy Carter from Georgia; Ronald Reagan from California; George Bush the First from Texas; Bill Clinton from Arkansas; and George Bush the Second from Texas. The center of gravity in American politics has moved to the part of America that is least like Europe, the vigorous American West, and wise Europeans will want to take that into account.

— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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