Liberalism as Imperialism

An anti-Brexit protester waves a European Union flag near the Houses of Parliament in London, June 8, 2018. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)
The dogmatic utopianism of elites on both sides of the Atlantic is not without its costs.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is adapted from Mr. Hazony’s latest book, The Virtue of Nationalism. It appears here with permission.

My liberal friends and colleagues do not seem to understand that the advancing liberal construction is a form of imperialism. But to anyone already immersed in the new order, the resemblance is easy to see. Much like the pharaohs and the Babylonian kings, the Roman emperors and the Roman Catholic Church until well into the modern period, as well as the Marxists of the last century, liberals, too, have their grand theory about how they are going to bring peace and economic prosperity to the world by pulling down all the borders and uniting mankind under their own universal rule. Infatuated with the clarity and intellectual rigor of this vision, they disdain the laborious process of consulting with the multitude of nations they believe should embrace their view of what is right. And like other imperialists, they are quick to express disgust, contempt, and anger when their vision of peace and prosperity meets with opposition from those who they are sure would benefit immensely by simply submitting.

Liberal imperialism is not monolithic, of course. When President George H. W. Bush declared the arrival of a “new world order” after the demise of the Communist bloc, he had in mind a world in which America supplies the military might necessary to impose a “rule of law” emanating from the Security Council of the United Nations. Subsequent American presidents rejected this scheme, preferring a world order based on unilateral American action in consultation with European allies and others. Europeans, on the other hand, have preferred to speak of “transnationalism,” a view that sees the power of independent nations, America included, as being subordinated to the decisions of international and administrative bodies based in Europe. These disagreements over how the international liberal empire is to be governed are often described as if they are historically novel, but this is hardly so. For the most part, they are simply the reincarnation of threadworn medieval debates between the emperor and the Pope over how the international Catholic should be governed — with the role of emperor being reprised by those (mostly Americans) who insist that authority must be concentrated in Washington, the political and military center; and the role of the papacy being played by those (mostly European, but also many American academics) who see ultimate authority as residing with the highest interpreters of the universal law, namely, the judicial institutions of the United Nations and the European Union.

These arguments within the camp of liberal imperialism raise pressing questions for the coming liberal construction of the West. But for those who remain unconvinced of the desirability of maintaining such a liberal empire, the most salient fact is what the parties of these disagreements have in common. For all their bickering, proponents of the liberal construction are united in endorsing a single imperialist vision: They wish to see a world in which liberal principles are codified as universal law and imposed on the nations, if necessary by force. This, they agree, is what will bring us universal peace and prosperity. Ludwig von Mises speaks for all the different factions when he writes:

The greatest ideological question mankind has ever faced . . . is . . . whether we shall succeed in creating throughout the world a frame of mind . . . [of] nothing less than the unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions, if the prerequisites of peace are to be created and the causes of war eliminated.

Although Mises states the demand for an “unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism” by every nation and every political institution in the world in stark terms, the aspiration he expresses represents what is by now an entirely conventional liberal standpoint. Dogmatic and utopian, it assumes that the final truths concerning mankind’s fate have long since been discovered, and that all that remains is to find a way to impose them.

I do not mean to say, of course, that every liberal is dogmatic and utopian in this way. Especially in Britain and America, the views of many liberals are still tempered by other factors: by biblicism, by nationalist recognition of the variety of human societies, by a humbling belief in God, by a historical empiricism and a moderate skepticism that in English-speaking countries used to be called
“common sense.” All these things are still palpable with certain Anglo-American liberals. But as the opponents of liberalism have been vanquished one by one, and universal liberal empire has seemed to come within reach, these mitigating factors have fallen by the wayside, leaving a dogmatic imperialism as the dominant voice within the liberal camp — a voice that has rapidly taken on the worst features of the medieval Catholic empire upon which it is unwittingly modeled, including a doctrine of infallibility, as well as a taste for the inquisition and the index.

I would like to focus for a moment on this last point. One of the most striking features of public life in contemporary America and Europe is the way that the Western nations are now afflicted by public-shaming campaigns and heresy hunts whose purpose is to stigmatize and render illegitimate one or another person or group of people, opinion or policy, that is perceived as having the ability to mount any kind of meaningful resistance to liberal doctrine. Much of what has been written about these campaigns has concentrated on the deterioration of free discourse in the universities, where official and unofficial censorship of the professorate’s opinions — including their views about Islam, homosexuality, immigration, and a host of other subjects — has become commonplace. But the universities are hardly the principal locus of rage against the views now deemed inappropriate. Much of the public sphere is now regularly visited by campaigns of vilification that were until recently associated with the universities. Indeed, as the scope of legitimate disagreement is progressively reduced, and the penalties for dissent grow more and more onerous, the Western democracies are becoming one big university campus.

These increasingly insistent demands for conformity to a single universal standard in speech and religion are the predictable outcome of the transition away from the Protestant construction of the West, with its fundamental principle of national independence and self-determination. This principle, had, after all, mandated a diversity of constitutional and religious standpoints within the order of nation states, which entailed a toleration of profoundly divergent views: Catholics had to tolerate the existence of Protestant regimes, monarchists had to tolerate republican regimes, and rulers concerned with tightly regulating their subjects’ affairs had to tolerate regimes affording more extensive liberties — and in each case, the reverse was true as well. This formal grant of legitimacy to political and religious diversity among the nations then became the basis for the toleration of dissenting communities within the state as well. To be sure, not every individual felt comfortable living in every country. But there did exist the possibility of negotiating special provisions to accommodate dissenting communities, so long as they were willing to support the state and refrain from seeking a radical revision in national customs. And if one did not want to agitate for such revisions, there was the option of relocating to a neighboring state where one’s views would be accepted or even embraced.

Under a universal political order, by contrast, in which a single standard of right is held to be in force everywhere, tolerance for diverse political and religious standpoints must necessarily decline. Western elites, whose views are now being aggressively homogenized in conformity with the new liberal construction, are finding it increasingly difficult to recognize a need for the kind of toleration of divergent standpoints that the principle of national self-determination had once rendered axiomatic. Tolerance, like nationalism, is becoming a relic of a bygone age.

The calumnies and denunciation heaped upon the English public and its elected leadership in the wake of Britain’s determination to seek independence from the European Union are an unmistakable warning to the West as a whole. From the point of view of the liberal construction, the unification of Europe is not one legitimate political option among others. It is the only legitimate opinion to which a decent person can subscribe. The moral legitimacy of Britain’s vote for independence was thus the unrelenting theme of political and media figures decrying the vote: It was alleged that only the aged supported exiting the European Union, thereby disenfranchising the young; or that only the uneducated had supported it, thereby diluting the say of those who really do know better; or that voters had meant only to cast a protest vote and not actually leave Europe; and so forth. These angry pronouncements were then followed by the demand that the British public’s preference be repealed — by a second referendum, or by act of Parliament, or by closed-door bargaining with the Europeans. Anything, so long as the one legitimate opinion should prevail.

The alarm and trepidation with which European and American elites responded to the prospect of an independent Britain revealed something that had long been obscured from view. That simple truth is that the emerging liberal construction is incapable of respecting, much less celebrating, the deviation of nations seeking to assert a right to their own unique laws, traditions, and policies. Any such dissent is held to be vulgar and ignorant, if not evidence of a fascistic mindset.

Nor is Britain the only nation to have felt the sting of this whip. America is hardly immune: Its refusal to permit the International Criminal Court to try its soldiers, its unwillingness to sign international treaties designed to protect the environment, its war in Iraq — all were met with similar outrage both at home and abroad. Such outbursts have long targeted Israel, whether for bombing Iraq’s nuclear facilities or for constructing housing complexes in eastern Jerusalem. Eastern European countries, too, have been excoriated for their unwillingness to accept immigrants from the Middle East. Moreover, similar campaigns of delegitimization, in both Europe and America, have been directed against the practice of Christianity and Judaism, religions on which the old biblical political order was based, and whose free exercise has usually been protected or at least tolerated by Western national governments. We have seen attempts, especially in Europe, to ban such Jewish practices as circumcision and kosher slaughter in the name of liberal doctrines of universal rights, or to force liberal teachings on sexuality and family upon Christians and Jews in the workplace and in schools. It requires no special insight to see that this is only the beginning, and that the teaching and practice of traditional forms of Judaism and Christianity will become ever more untenable as the liberal construction advances.

There is a sense today throughout the Western world that one’s beliefs on controversial matters should no longer be discussed openly. We are now aware that we must think a second and third time before acting or speaking as though the Protestant political order were still in place. Genuine diversity in the constitutional or religious character of Western nations persists only at mounting cost to those who insist on their freedom.

Yoram Hazony is the president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and the director of the John Templeton Foundation's project in Jewish Philosophical Theology.


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