A copy of New French Thought: Political Philosophy I picked up on Friday contains this timely passage from Mark Lilla’s introduction, describing Continental European politics after the French Revolution:
In every country there could be found a counterrevolutionary party defending Church and Crown and hoping to restore their authority; opposing them was an equally determined party wishing more radical forms of democracy or socialism to accomplish what the French Revolution had already begun. As time passed the two parties shared little apart from their hostility to liberalism, but this was enough to marginalize it …. In nineteenth-century Europe, liberalism progressively became a partisan or party label rather than a term employed to describe a type of modern regime. It is true that by century’s end, France, Italy, and Germany had managed to construct constitutional regimes that were “liberal” in a great many respects. But this was only accomplished by balancing illiberal political forces delicately against one another, not by making Europeans into liberals. In America and Britain the ground rules of liberal politics were generally agreed upon, while on the Continent they were the result of bitter compromise that left almost no one satisfied. What later would be called liberal “political culture” was absent, and few thinkers promoted it. And by the early years of the Second World War all these quasi-liberal governments had vanished.
With Egypt in the throes of political violence and Russia under fire for its treatment of homosexuals, it’s worth remembering that liberalism is historically an exceptional thing, for the longest time almost identical with the politics of the Anglophone world. Nor is it coincidental that liberalism took firm root in Western Europe only after a world war that ended with the United States effectively occupying and reconstructing half the Continent—a fate not all, but more than enough, Western Europeans were happy to embrace as an alternative to what the Soviets were doing to the east. Lilla notes what forever embarrasses those philosophers who like to believe that the life of reason is above particularities of place and time: namely, that the philosophies characteristic of these different regimes were forms of “philosophical nationalism.” The very Westernness—really Anglo-Americanness—of liberalism guarantees that it will be forever foreign to Egyptians or Russians. That’s not to say these and other peoples can’t have liberty, or at least stable and regular government, but it will be on their own terms and may involve a degree of “bitter compromise” and “balancing illiberal political forces” that we Americans cannot begin to appreciate.
At the outset of the Iraq War there was a lot of dreamy nonsense coming from Western intellectuals about how American military power would plant liberal democracy in the sand of the Middle East, where it would flourish as easily as in postwar Europe. And if you thought otherwise, you must be a racist. The superficiality was little short of criminal on the part of our chattering classes: the nations rebuilt by America after World War II not only had a glimmer of liberalism, or at least representative government, in their traditions already—a glimmer suppressed, as Lilla indicates, by much darkness—but they tended to have had advanced, robust economies, and they had just had just suffered the total defeat not only of their regimes but of their peoples and cultures. The Germans and the Japanese were prepared to abase themselves, and they knew full well what price they would pay to Stalin if they didn’t join forces with the Anglophone West. An independent Europe wasn’t an option in 1945.
Iraq’s people never knew such political annihilation; indeed, thanks to American force, Iraqi factions were freed to engage in hard politics—of the kind that involves bullets as well as ballots—for the first time. The situation was as different from that of postwar Western Europe as could be: politically, philosophically, economically, religiously, strategically, in every regard.
This is worth bearing in mind as America looks on with horror at events in Egypt and Syria and with gnawing apprehension at Putin’s Russia. Whatever happens in these places, Anglo-American-style liberalism is not in the cards, and the more that liberalism appears to be an exceptionally Anglo-American philosophy and practice—a point that our moralizing only reinforces—the less appeal it will have among people whose experiences, to the extent they are like anything else at all, are more akin to those of the French Revolution and its aftermath than to those of the Glorious or American revolutions.
Extra: Let me sharpen a few points for the sake of clarity. Some of the factors that correlate, at a glance, with liberalism taking root in a given country are: a.) pre-World War II attempts at reform in a liberal or at least parliamentary direction, b.) defeat during World War II, c.) occupation and reconstruction by the U.S. after World War II, and d.) alignment with the West rather than the USSR during the Cold War. The latter three points are closely related, and my argument is that World War II and the Cold War were the vectors for “liberalization,” in the sense of making other political orders resemble those of the English-speaking world. This is quite a bit different, however, from saying that U.S. military force was the primary ingredient: the kind of total defeats that Japan and most Continental European states experienced during World War II amounted to much more than just regime decapitation; the peoples themselves were exhausted and ready to accept alternatives offered by outsiders. The looming Soviet threat also made alignment with the U.S. and its world order more attractive than it otherwise might have been—I tend to buy, for example, the argument that fear of the Soviets had as much to do with Japanese surrender in World War II as the atomic bombings did.
Turkey, Scandinavia, and South Korea all fit some of these criteria, and these aren’t the only factors that can contribute to the growth of liberalism: a certain kind of civic culture is tremendously helpful as well. There’s at least one country which developed a kind of liberalism quite independently of all these factors, namely Switzerland, and over the last 30 years other states—in Latin America, for example—have been developing stable, broadly liberal regimes, albeit with varying degrees of difficulty. None of that should cause one to overlook the unusual strategic history (World War II and the Cold War) that led to liberal regimes becoming global models in the first place. Absent that history, it’s not clear that places like France or Germany would have opted for the regimes they have today. (And that’s not to say they would have been less, or more, free: just that their ideas of freedom might be at wider variance with American priorities.)
Anglo-American liberalism did not emerge overnight either; it too was the product of contentious and bloody historical experience. But by the turn of the 18th century, the fundamental questions about the British regime had been largely settled: Parliamentary supremacy was established, and while full religious toleration and a broad franchise were a long time coming, the kinds of questions that remained open for France after its Revolution—shall we have royal absolutism, communism, liberalism, fascism; an established church or state secularism?—were closed after England’s Glorious Revolution and never arose in a very intense way thereafter. This is putting it bluntly, and one can nitpick: maybe the Jacobites really were a regime threat in 1745, though my point would be that while France had a series of republics and empires and restored monarchies, the basic character of Britain’s regime was stable.
Egypt and Russia both have their own liberal traditions, but whereas France’s precarious liberalism won the lottery in World War II, things turned out otherwise for Cairo and Moscow, and if even France might not have wound up as it is had it not been for the outcome of World War II, I don’t have high hopes that anything will strengthen liberalism’s hand in places like Russia or Egypt. The identification of liberalism with Westernism or Americanism is a complicating factor: whereas American power (as an alternative to Soviet Communism, it must be remembered) may have facilitated the stabilization of liberal regimes in Western Europe during the last century, I suspect a distinctly non-American “liberalism” is the only kind that has the best chance in many places today. What a liberalism that isn’t Anglo-American or even Western might look like is a question too big to consider here, but one that has to be addressed sooner or later.