Kaplan: A specter is haunting the world, the specter of non-universalism

(Update, December 27: I’ve copied the Kaplan article below and added my running commentary.)

From his days writing long portentous pieces on global politics and ethnic issues at The Atlantic, I had thought of Robert Kaplan as a centrist liberal with realist leanings. I was wrong. In a Wall Street Journal article, “The Rise of Toxic Nationalism,” he shows himself to be an all-out universalist ideologue. Every political and cultural movement not in conformity with American- and European-led globalism he characterizes as “blood-based,” “extreme,” “fascist,” “skin-head,” etc. Thus the only alternative to the EU is “extremism”; and if Russians oppose Islam, it’s because of “race-hatred against Muslims.” And so on. The piece reads like an SPLC Hate-Watch applied to the entire globe: either you’re a universalist liberal, or you’re a hater. That the editors of NRO linked this hyper-liberal article is further indication of how far that magazine has strayed from any outlook that could be remotely called conservative.

Here is the article, with my interspersed comments:

Western elites believe that universal values are trumping the forces of reaction. They wax eloquent about the triumph of human rights, women’s liberation, social media, financial markets, international and regional organizations and all the other forces that are breaking down boundaries separating humanity.

Tragically, they are really observing a self-referential world of global cosmopolitans like themselves. In country after country, the Westerners identify like-minded, educated elites and mistake them for the population at large. They prefer not to see the regressive and exclusivist forces—such as nationalism and sectarianism—that are mightily reshaping the future.

Take Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011. Western journalists celebrated the gathering of relatively upper-income Arab liberals with whom they felt much in common, only to see these activists quickly retreat as post-autocratic Egypt became for many months a struggle among the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist Salafists—with the Coptic Christians fearing for their communal survival.

Though secular liberals have resurfaced to challenge Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, do not be deceived. The military and the Muslim Brotherhood both have organized infrastructures. The liberals have only spontaneous emotion and ad hoc organizations. An Islamist-Nasserite regime-of-sorts is likely to emerge, as the military uses the current vulnerability of the Muslim Brotherhood to drive a harder bargain.

Egypt and the Middle East now offer a panorama of sectarianism and religious and ethnic divides. Freedom, at least in its initial stages, unleashes not only individual identity but, more crucially, the freedom to identify with a blood-based solidarity group. Beyond that group, feelings of love and humanity do not apply. That is a signal lesson of the Arab Spring. [LA replies: I am stunned by the ideological crudity of Kaplan’s thought. In his view, either there is a Western-led universalist order in which all distinct nations and cultures are dissolved, or there are merely “blood-based solidarity groups” which deny the humanity of all non-members of the group.There have been non-universalist Western nations for many centuries; did they all deny the humanity of people of other nations?]

An analogous process is at work in Asia. Nationalism there is young and vibrant—as it was in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Asia is in the midst of a feverish arms race, featuring advanced diesel-electric submarines, the latest fighter jets and ballistic missiles. China, having consolidated its land borders following nearly two centuries of disorder, is projecting air and sea power into what it regards as the blue national soil of the South China and East China seas.

Japan and other countries are reacting in kind. Slipping out of its quasi-pacifistic shell, Japan is rediscovering nationalism as a default option. The Japanese navy boasts roughly four times as many major warships as the British Royal Navy. As for Vietnam and the Philippines, nobody who visits those countries and talks with their officials, as I have, about their territorial claims would imagine for a moment that we live in a post-national age.

The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map. The same drama is being played out in Syria where Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds are in a territorial contest over power and control as much as over ideas. Syria’s writhing sectarianism—in which Bashar Assad is merely the leading warlord among many—is a far cruder, chaotic and primitive version of the primate game of king of the hill. [LA replies: Kaplan is concerned that this new nationalism has no higher ideal, is just playing king of the hill. He doesn’t realize that when people are presented with a choice of either national dissolution in a univeralist order or crude nationalism, they will pick the latter.]

Nationalism is alive and thriving in India and Russia as well. India’s navy and air force are in the process of becoming among the world’s largest. Throughout most of history, India and China had little to do with each other, separated as they were by the Himalayas. But the collapse of distance by way of technology has created a new strategic geography for two big nations. Now Indian space satellites monitor Chinese military installations, even as Chinese fighter jets in Tibet have the possibility of including India within their arc of operations. This rivalry has further refined and invigorated nationalism in both countries.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s nationalism is a large factor in his high popularity. President Putin’s nationalism is geographical determinism: He wants to recreate buffer states in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, like in the old Soviet Union. So he does everything he can to undermine the countries in these regions.

Western elites hope that if somehow there were truly free elections in Russia, then this foreign policy might change. The evidence is to the contrary. Race-hatred against Muslims is high among Russians, and just as there are large rallies by civil-society types, there are also marches and protests by skinheads and neo-Nazis, who are less well-covered by the Western media. Local elections in October returned a strong showing for Mr. Putin’s party. Like it or not, he is representative of the society he governs.

Nor can Europe be left out of this larger Eurasian trend. A weakening European Union, coupled with onerous social and economic conditions for years to come, invites a resurgence of nationalism and extremism, as we have already seen in countries as diverse as Hungary, Finland, Ukraine and Greece. That is exactly the fear of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee, which gave this year’s award to the European Union in order to make a statement against this trend.

Fascists are not about to regain power anywhere on the Continent, but the age of deepening European integration is likely behind us. Get ready to see more nasty and thoroughly frightening political groupings like Greece’s Golden Dawn emerge across the Continent. [LA replies: Again, the only alternative to the evil EU in his mind is “nasty and thoroughly frightening” fascist movements. He cannot conceive of the nation-state as a natural and sensible way of ordering human affairs.]

We truly are in a battle between two epic forces: Those of integration based on civil society and human rights, and those of exclusion based on race, blood and radicalized faith. [LA replies: Again, the only choices are the “integration” of mankind, i.e. global government, which is good, or “exclusionary” rule by blood and race, which is evil.] It is the mistake of Western elites to grant primacy to the first force, for it is the second that causes the crises with which policy makers must deal—often by interacting with technology in a toxic fashion, as when a video transported virtually at the speed of light ignites a spate of anti-Americanism (if not specifically in Benghazi).

The second force can and must be overcome, but one must first admit how formidable it is. [LA replies: So the Western universalist elites must remake mankind! What all peoples want—to have their own land, their own distincct way of life—is not acceptable, and the Western elites, e.g. G.W. Bush, the neocons, the EU, must force all humanity to change its ways so as to conform to the Western univeralist ideal.] It is formidable because nations and other solidarity groups tend to be concerned with needs and interests more than with values. Just as the requirement to eat comes before contemplation of the soul, interests come before values.

Yet because values like minority rights are under attack the world over, the United States must put them right alongside its own exclusivist national interests, such as preserving a favorable balance of power. Without universal values in our foreign policy, we have no identity as a nation—and that is the only way we can lead with moral legitimacy in an increasingly disorderly world. Yet we should not be overturning existing orders overnight. For it is precisely weak democracies and collapsing autocracies that provide the chaotic breathing room with which nationalist and sectarian extremists can thrive. [LA replies: He fails to see that Western universalism, by demanding that the nations of mankind commit national suicide, assures that the nations will react so strongly against universalism that they will reject ALL universalist values and become tribal. He is blind to his own extremism which provokes the opposite extremism.]

Mr. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, and author of “The Revenge of Geography” (Random House, 2012).

- end of initial entry -

James P. writes:

Kaplan complains that “universal values” are only prized by elites in other countries, not the great mass of common people, and that “universal values” are being “rolled back” in country after country around the world. It is astonishing that these facts do not cause him to reach the elementary conclusion that his so-called “universal values” are obviously not universal at all. Indeed, he makes a good case that the truly universal values are nationalism and sectarianism, i.e., what he calls “regressive, exclusivist forces” and what normal people call the perfectly natural feeling that you should care more about your own country and your own people than about others.

He writes,

“Without universal values in our foreign policy, we have no identity as a nation—and that is the only way we can lead with moral legitimacy in an increasingly disorderly world.”

He described “universal values” as the negation of national identity; according to him, “universal values” are the forces that are “breaking down boundaries separating humanity” and promoting “integration based on civil society and human rights.” Thus, he is in effect saying, “Without the negation of national identity, we have no identity as a nation.” Apparently, what defines us as a nation is our hatred of all nations, including our own. How reassuring that this evil, nihilistic, and futile dogma is the basis of our foreign policy.

LA replies:

That is exactly what liberals believe. For example, how many times has a liberal or mainstream conservative said: “If we stopped allowing Muslims to immigrate into this country, the terrorists will have won,” meaning that the terrorists will have accomplished their goal of destroying America. Meaning that if America defends itself by excluding its mortal enemies, it is actually destroying itself. Or, “If we stopped Muslim immigration, we would be as immoral as the terrorists.” (I heard the editor of a conservative magazine use exactly those words at a dinner in 2006). Or, as Mayor Michael R. Bloombrain puts it, our failure to admit far more non-European immigrants than we are already admitting is “national suicide.” Liberals reverse reality, and call their reverse-reality the one and only truth to which all mankind must conform.

Daniel F. writes:

The end of your last comment in this thread, about how liberals typically reverse reality, reminds me of an unpleasant exchange I had with my Obamanite brother last week. I forwarded to him an Iranian state media press report hailing the then-expected nomination for Secretary of Defense of the egregiously Israel-hating beltway hack former Sen. Charles Hagel. In response, he delivered a tirade about Obama’s general wonderfulness, and asserted that to scuttle the Hagel appointment based on Iran’s support for the man would be giving Iran a “veto.” In other words, ruling out a candidate supported by our enemy, based on the enemy’s support for that candidate, would constitute a victory for the enemy.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 26, 2012 11:15 AM | Send

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