Western liberal ideas aren’t guaranteed to prevail, and comforting myths breed complacency.
Central to the West’s idea of its modern historic supremacy has been the comforting myth that we have prevailed because of the superiority of our ideas.
Might in the end can’t overcome right, we think. The brute force of tyranny and totalitarian terror can succeed for a while—even a long while—but eventually, the human yearning for freedom and justice has an inescapable logic. It is not so much that right will always overcome might, as that being “right” confers on us a power that is mightier than any dictator could ever muster.
This is a geopolitical version of Whiggish history, the idea that the world is evolving on some great hidden trajectory toward liberty, democracy and enlightenment. “The arc of the moral universe . . . bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it.
But what if it doesn’t?
Looking back, not only to the last century or two but to earlier epochs, history can seem more like a random walk through periods of progress and retreat, light and darkness, civilization and tyranny, than a straight arrow aimed at freedom and peace.
In the 16th century, more than 2,000 years after the citizens of Athens had been meeting to make policy, spend public money and elect leaders in the form of government that gave us the word “democracy,” the city and its residents cowered under the heel of a distant ruler, a subjugated outpost of a vast foreign empire.
The Roman Republic may not have been democratic in our understanding of the term, but its constitutional order and many of its institutions served as templates for the modern American republic. Yet it was soon enough replaced by imperial rule that, while it retained the trappings of republicanism, was for centuries a personal autocracy that was in turn eventually replaced by barbarous chaos.
You could argue that the almost innate sense we have that justice and freedom will prevail in the end is merely the most recent example of winners’ history: that the world as it exists is the product of the military and strategic victory of the U.S. and its allies in World War II and the Cold War. We won. So in our telling of the story we insist that there was something inevitable about the ultimate righteous triumph of freedom. Our confidence is so complete we even declare that history is over.
But history is alive and well, and as unpredictable as ever. It turns on hinges. Time, chance and the application of human genius or folly can—for long periods—supersede vast impersonal forces. If Adolf Hitler hadn’t invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, there’s a reasonable chance that most of Europe would today be preparing to celebrate the centenary of the thousand-year reich (though when you witness the anti-Semitic demonstrations across European cities taking place right now, you could be forgiven for wondering whether many of those countries didn’t embrace some Nazi values after all).
The impact of the so-called soft power the U.S. exercised during the Cold War was critical to our success—and in that sense the idea that values, as well as simple force, can be historically determinative isn’t wholly wrong.
But the power of our example would never have been enough without the example of our power. In the absence of sustained military commitments, strategic engagement and repeated sacrifice, there was nothing guaranteed about the victory of our ideas.
We need to remember that truth as we survey the world today. Not since the worst days of the Cold War, perhaps not since the 1930s, have we faced such a combination of threats to our freedom and prosperity, to our very existence. A touching faith in the supposed universality of our ideals and the inevitable rightness of our cause won’t save us.
A modern de facto alliance of tyrannies—we might call it an axis of evil opportunism—advances across the globe. China, Russia, Iran—and you can probably add, if only because of the sheer malevolent volatility of its leader and its possession of weapons of unfathomable destruction—North Korea.
They don’t see the triumph of the West and its values. They see a weakened and declining West, an America at odds with itself over its identity and its leadership in the world, a nation enfeebled by deepening self-doubt, widening division, widespread mistrust, timid leadership, institutional paralysis and soaring debt. They see, as we have seen this last week, a culture—in the media, educational institutions, public discourse—that increasingly does their work for them, willfully propagating falsehoods that advance their cause, always eager to attribute evil to us and not to our enemies.
If there is one benefit we can draw from the atrocities we have witnessed by Iran’s proxy Hamas in Israel this month it is this: It is a heart-stopping reminder of what is at stake, a brutal warning that we take for granted what we have earned and what we have fought for at our own peril.
It isn’t our values and our ideas that may ensure we prevail in this struggle, but the terrifying recognition of how fragile those values and ideas are.
Appeared in the October 24, 2023, print edition as ‘The Enemies of Freedom Are Deadlier Than Ever’.