Despite the Marxist assertion that economic factors drive the forces of history, modernity offers a different response. Jacobins during the French Revolution argued that politics – understood as the quest for power – drives history. Here, too, history provides an equivocal response. It is in the warehouse of liberal dogma that if you have a democracy and a free market, the quest for historical justification is in the offing. Presumably these are the characteristics of a smooth running machine of state.
While politics and economics are certainly undeniably important in historical assessment, they in themselves are not the dynamic force in history. At the core of historical movement is what people believe, cherish, worship. The real test of history is over what a people are willing to sacrifice; on what are they willing to stake their lives.
In the tool kit of human aspirations is belief – what do you really care about. Some have written off culture assuming that technology will replace it as virtual reality subsumes what we hear and see, bending all things to our service. But redemption through technology is a chimera.
A society that does not believe in anything, but the latest Apple gadget is hostage to the totalitarian impulses of enemies. How does the United States – in the grip of relativism – defend itself against militant Islam that has a fanatical devotion to what it does believe? Ancient Rome, despite its superior armies and world-wide empire, fell to barbarians because it could not sustain a belief system.
Foreign policy is partially a matter of moving metaphorical chess pieces on an international board. At times, it requires rational judgment and hardheaded assessment. As Lord Palmerston noted, what counts for states in “interest.” That is true, as far as it goes. However, interest is determined by belief, by the will of national sentiment. The people must know why they are being asked to defend interests. They must have a stake in the outcome. They must be convinced the sacrifice is necessary.
After 9/11 President Bush said the nation is prepared to attack the perpetrators of this murderous attack on the United States. He also said, go about your business, shop in your malls; don’t let the terrorists change your life. His comments – even though the intent was clear – are mutually contradictory. It is impossible to be at war and at peace simultaneously. On the one hand sacrifice is needed; on the other, sacrifice is unnecessary.
In the Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne has his leading character say, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” The face of disinterest and relativism struggles against fanatical Islam. It struggles against a past in which most Americans understood what they were obliged to defend. Interests were laid bare after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Today these interests remain obscure.
What should, perhaps must, be recaptured is the “will of the dead,” of those who came before us and were united in building and sustaining a nation. British historian J.F.C. Harrison wrote: “The most enduring aspects of a social movement are not always its institutions, but the mental attitudes which inspire it and which are in turn generated by it.” The ultimate foundation for historical judgment is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. This sentiment emerges from tradition gathering up to create a civilization that the larger public seeks to defend.
A foreign policy that does not recognize this condition is rendered nugatory by the confusion in public opinion. How do you mobilize a public to defend itself, to stand by its liberty, when there aren’t any principles of national cohesion that have been imbibed? The barbarians stand at our gates and smile. We cannot define the enemy; we cannot ask for sacrifice and our will to fight is withering away. Is it any wonder American foreign policy is in disarray?
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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