Politics & Policy

The Technocrats’ New Clothes

Climategate, the Icelandic volcano, the Greek meltdown — suddenly the bureaucratic Masters of the Universe don't look so omnipotent.

In the last year, many of the dreams of an emerging international elite have imploded — and this, in a new century that was to usher in a regime of global liberal ecumenism.

The lies and academic fraud of Climategate reminded us that it is almost impossible for even disinterested scientists to fathom the complex history of global climate change. But it also — and more importantly — reminded us how Western universities have turned into rigid medieval centers of intolerant orthodoxy. Our new academic monks, in their isolated sanctuaries — cut off by grants, subsidies, tenure, and cadres of obsequious graduate students from the grubby efforts of others to stay alive — have for years breezily issued all sorts of near-religious exegeses and edicts about the public’s ruination of the planet. We lesser folk were supposed to find salvation through installing windmills and junking our incandescent light bulbs under the tutelage of wiser overseers.

#ad#Meanwhile, in the last few weeks, nature did what no human industry had ever quite done — shut down much of European airspace with a huge toxic cloud. But the mess was not a DuPont emission, or soot from Eastern Europe’s network of coal plants, or any such man-caused disaster, but the work of a prosaic volcano. The ensuing economic chaos and toxic air pollution were accepted with a shrug in that they were natural and had nothing to do with Halliburton.

Another dream — the European Union — is also imploding. Beneath the hysteria over Greece is a simple truth: All the capital that Germany piled up over the last 20 years through its export-driven economy was never really there; it must now be forfeited to those who borrowed from Germany in order to buy from Germany. In some sense, if a taxi driver in the Peloponnese drove a Mercedes beyond the reach of most Americans, it was not because of his capital-creating productivity, but rather because of his country’s ability to lure the Germans into lending Greece euros at nearly nonexistent interest.

For decades we were lectured about the EU’s nuanced practice of “soft power,” and we were told how life was at last good when one garnered cradle-to-grave government entitlements, retired early, and expected American arms to protect and German money to subsidize the collective borrowing binge. Apparently because Europeans did not drawl and go to church, we were supposed to believe that they had reinvented finance, and loans could be floated rather than paid back.

In 2009, the vision of the new Obama administration was European: foreign-policy triangulation, government takeovers of private enterprises, higher taxes, more entitlements and public workers, and always more “them/us” class-warfare rhetoric from members of a technocratic guardian class who had played the very system they were now to oversee. Apparently Obama’s high-level appointees — from Timothy Geithner to Van Jones — thought they were our versions of Brussels bureaucrats, who could say and do anything with no need to worry about popular reaction.

Then came the Greek meltdown. The music of this parlor game stopped, and all the poor players standing — German banks, anonymous bondholders, EU technocrats, Greek politicians and public unions —  lunged for the far too few seats.

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What are we left with? At best, a slow devolution to something like the original Common Market of northwestern European nations, a strengthening of NATO (to keep America in, Germany down, and Russia out), and loud diplomacy to stop the rising European tensions — all too reminiscent of 1939 — that seem to hinge on unresolved historical grievances, cultural stereotypes, and the old north/south, cold/hot divide.

Here in the United States, we will have a last chance in November to brake before following the European bus into the abyss. Who would have thought, a mere year ago, that the theme of 2010 would be: How lucky is Turkey that it has not been accepted into the European Union!

#ad#Aside from the passing of messianic environmentalism and European utopianism, we are also seeing the unraveling of Obama’s reset-button foreign policy, announced to such fanfare in January 2009. It was apparently predicated on the assumption that much of the tension in the world was caused by George W. Bush’s United States, and therefore could be ameliorated through apology, retrenchment, dialogue, public self-critique, and criticism of prior presidents.

So add it all up: the Al-Arabiya interview, the Cairo speech, the distancing from Israel, the euphemisms like “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters,” the politically correct banishment of any anti-terrorism phraseology associated with Islam, the repeated announcements of the closing of Guantanamo and the trying of KSM in New York, the strange case of Attorney General Eric Holder, who can call his own fellow citizens “cowards” but not associate radical Islam with recent attempts by Muslims to kill those fellow citizens en masse — and we get Syria supplying terrorists with missiles, Iran ever closer to a bomb, and the largest number of terrorist attempts inside the U.S. over the past year than during any other twelve-month period since September 11, 2001.

Indeed, a trait of this administration is to speak far more harshly of fellow Americans than it does of our enemies: Arizonans vote to enforce federal immigration laws, so the administration offers them up to the Chinese as an example of American civil-liberties violations. In our morally equivalent world, a government that would enforce laws against those who entered the country illegally is not all that different from a government that not long ago killed more than 40 million of its own.

If Europe is our model of soft power; if Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other autocracies are the moral equivalents of democratic Israel; if it is not radical Islam that empowered a Hasan, an Abdulmutallab, or a Shahzad; if Iran can be reasoned with to abandon its nuclear agenda; and if Russia can be flattered into acting responsibly — then the world suddenly does not work in the way it has in the past 2,500 years of civilization.

What is common to all these disillusionments — the intolerance and dishonesty of environmental extremism, the European Union crackup, and Barack Obama’s renewal of Jimmy Carter’s failed foreign policy? They all can be traced to a global Western elite that in its intellectual arrogance confused late-20th-century technological progress with a supposed evolution in human nature itself. Heaven on earth was to be ushered in by those who deemed themselves so wise and so moral that they could remake civilization in their own image — even if that sometimes meant the end of disinterested research, basic arithmetic, and simple common sense.

– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor, most recently, of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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