Politics & Policy

Why Obama’s Whig History Is All Wrong

Waiting on the Winds of History (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Advances in human freedom are not inevitable.

‘The currents of history ebb and flow,” President Obama submitted this morning in Tallinn, Estonia. “But over time, they flow toward freedom.” This, it seems, is a favored formulation of our 44th president. Pontificating on the current state of the world, Obama is fond of chastising those actors who meet with his disapprobation by passively informing them that they are, in a cosmic sense, “wrong,” and that their behavior is incommensurate with the spirit of the era. The Islamic State, Obama has proposed “has no place in the 21st century.” Russia, meanwhile, is operating in both Crimea and Ukraine “on the wrong side of history.” At home and abroad, the president returns to this theme incessantly. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he likes to intone, “but it bends toward justice.”

This, I’m afraid, is so much wishful thinking — the product of a tragic, if popular, conflation of ideas. There is little wrong with an American president judging harshly the actions of foreign powers. All cultures are not equal, and the superiority of the West — and, within it, the Anglosphere — should be proclaimed as loudly and proudly as is tactful. But to acknowledge that an idea is virtuous is by no means to imply that it is regnant or that it is inevitable. Au contraire. Liberty as we understand it in the United States has been the exception not the rule — and its survival over the past three centuries the consequence not of happy foreordination but of the good guys in the world having enjoyed unmatched military and financial supremacy. Having known little else, the historically myopic will find it tempting to presume that our present global order represents the immutable state of nature. It does not. Just as the primary reason that the forces of liberty have prevailed since 1815 is that they have acquired and maintained unrivaled power, the relative peace and buzzing international trade that we currently enjoy is the product not of the West’s moral dominance, but of the prepotency first of the British Empire and then — after a seamless and invisible handover — of an ascendant United States. “Freedom will win,” the president said this morning in an egregious and curiously self-refuting phrase, “not because it’s inevitable, not because it is ordained, but because these basic human yearnings for dignity and justice and democracy do not go away.” What silliness. If freedom “wins,” it will be, as it has always been, because the free maintained the upper hand over the barbarians. Arcs and flows have bugger all to do with it.

Perversely, the false conviction that circumstances are destined always to improve typically leads to two diametrically opposed extremes. On the one hand, such expectations justify a certain passivity and lack of interest in events, for if we believe that, “over time,” the “currents of history . . . flow toward freedom,” then we must also believe that we might sit back in comfort and watch the tides take their course. Alternatively, the assumption can justify excessive and zealous coercion, for, if mankind is destined by historical currents to wind up at an arranged destination, it presumably can’t hurt if the state attempts to help it along. Anybody who doubts the wicked forces that can be unleashed by a widespread belief in predestination might take a moment to examine the determinists who ruined the 20th century. There is an abominable logic to fatalistic totalitarianism: Because the future has been prophesied, then all state action taken to accelerate the change must, by its nature, be good; all individuals who dissent, meanwhile, are by definition refusing to accept reality and are thus acting as “wreckers” and “saboteurs.” By this rationale did the Soviet Union justify its purges. Thus did Prussianism twice explain its mission. On this pretext did China take its ghastly leaps “forward.” A more limited form of this mistake, alas, made its way into America’s policy toward Iraq.

In the West, the optimists’ most common mistake is the conflation of Whiggism the philosophy and Whiggism the historical guide. Broadly speaking, a “Whig” — or, in America, a “republican” (note the small R) — is a man who sides with parliament in the centuries-old fight between the legislature and the king; who supports to a considerable degree the legal and civil toleration of eccentrics, non-conformists, religious minorities, and political dissenters; who privileges individual liberty and the rights of conscience over the whims of the mob; who favors social fluidity and opportunity and resists the rule of the landed gentry — the “country and not the court,” in the antiquated parlance; and who trusts markets and businesses more than experts and mandarins. In the United States, Whiggism has often had about it a more staunchly individualistic bent than elsewhere in the Anglosphere, having been imbued during the Revolution with an ardent spirit that has never quite simmered down, and having taken its intellectual cues more frequently from the radical John Locke than from the moderate Algernon Sidney. In addition to their historically pro-Roundhead sentiments, American Whigs have tended to elevate as their guiding principle the words of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution of the United States; to have considered democracy as little more than a useful but limited tool within a system that privileges the integrity of unalienable rights above all else; to contend that government, per the historian J. G. A. Pocock, represents the “principal source of corruption” in everyday life; and to have demanded that the laws be applied blindly to all and sundry, regardless of their station.

By contrast, the Whig interpretation of history, as described by Herbert Butterfield and his ilk, holds not only that classically liberal principles are virtuous and necessary but that their export and prevalence is inexorable: In other words, that History is the story of continual improvement, and that advances in human freedom are therefore inevitable. This, I would submit, is veritable nonsense — at its root, little more than a slightly less irritable Marxism. If human beings were, over time, becoming increasingly morally advanced and if their institutions were inching gradually toward perfection, we would expect to see a set of rather different books in our libraries — books, perhaps, that had the Western Roman Empire forestalling the Dark Ages and the liberal promise of the 20th century being fulfilled. In 1909, the British parliamentarian Norman Angell was so convinced that the growth of international trade had rendered both militarism and empire obsolete that he accused his skeptical countrymen of having succumbed to an “optical illusion.” Five years later, Europe and the wider world were ravaged by the bloodiest war in history. At its conclusion, Angell’s optimism gave way to another period of saccharine overconfidence — and one that was only smashed in earnest when tanks began to roll over sacred borders and human beings were herded into ovens. Later, while the siren’s call of “never again” still hung in the air, an evil empire descended across much of the world. In turn, its decline would be met with the pronouncement that History, once again, had come to an end. Talk is cheap.

’Twas ever thus. There have been approximately 200,000 years of what we generally regard as “human history,” and in less than 1 percent of those years has it been broadly agreed that it is not entirely copacetic to remove a man’s head because he refuses to pray to your favorite god. In Mesopotamia, a movement has arisen to question that principle in both theory and in practice. In Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin is auditioning enthusiastically for the role of Catherine the Great. In Israel, the ceasefire remains on a knife’s edge. At which point, one wonders, will it at last be safe to conclude that humanity’s inchoate “yearnings” have triumphed?


— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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