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A Jacobin in Chief

Exporting the French Revolution to the world

Ever since 9/11, the president of the United States has been urging the use of American power to spread the allegedly universal principles of “freedom and democracy” throughout the world. On his recent European tour President Bush solicited the support of Europe in this cause, saying, “our ideals and our interests lead in the same direction.”

What that direction is had been tellingly indicated just a few days earlier by Condoleezza Rice. Speaking in Paris, she said that the founders of the American and French republics were inspired by the same values, a statement that implied common origins in the same revolutionary spirit. Though historically wholly erroneous, this view was consistent with the ideology that the administration has enunciated. It should by now be obvious that, in his foreign policy views at minimum, the president of the United States is no conservative. He is a Jacobin nationalist.

Inspired, guided, and supported by the ubiquitous neoconservatives, President Bush has adopted and fostered an ideologically charged missionary spirit that bears a striking resemblance to that of the Jacobins who led the French Revolution. The principles of “freedom and democracy” are to be promoted around the world by virtuous American power. The French Jacobins, too, saw themselves as virtuous champions of universal principles, “freedom” and popular rule prominent among them.

After the president’s inaugural address, his ensuing news conference, and his State of the Union address, no doubt can remain about how he views America’s role in the world. To advance freedom and democracy is, he said, “the mission that created our nation.” At the news conference he added, “I look forward to leading the world in that direction.” In the State of the Union speech he pointed to “the road of Providence” and said, “we know where it leads: it leads to freedom.”

The neoconservatives have transformed the old American exceptionalism, which counseled isolation from the world, into an assertive, ideologically intense nationalism, whose smugness seems to know no bounds. The president has long asserted that America’s values are for all people. “There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise. And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others.” In the State of the Union address he claimed, “we live in the country where the biggest dreams are born.” He and America are called to enact the will of Providence.

That a particular leader or country could be identified with God’s purpose is a notion alien to the mainstream of the Christian tradition, which insists that humans are fallen beings. Their knowledge is, at best, imperfect. Though statesmen, like others, should try to make room for the spirit of God by trying to purge themselves of tainted motives, not even a person of pure motive could in the infinitely complex reality of politics claim to have discerned God’s will for the world. None of this has deterred the president, who exhibits just the kind of pride against which the older western tradition—both classical and Christian—warned.

“Freedom” and “democracy” can mean radically different things. The president, his secretary of state, and their neoconservative idea-men have connected them with the Jacobin faith. The French Jacobins were followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued, “man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” For men to be liberated, inherited societies and beliefs had to be destroyed.

The French Revolution was an attempt to enact his ideas. The Jacobins dealt harshly with “evil,” guillotining conspicuous representatives of the old order and employing a general ruthlessness that culminated in the Terror. To France was assigned the mission of liberation. Europe and other parts of the world were thrust into protracted war.

In 1980, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, used the phrase “fire in the minds of men” as the title for a book about the revolutionary faith. This faith would unsettle the entire Western world and eventually spawn the Communist Revolution of 1917. In his second inaugural address, the president used the same phrase, “fire in the minds of men,” not to reject this impulse, which is what would be expected from a conservative, but to help define America’s pursuit of freedom. He could not more clearly have aligned himself with Jacobinism. One wonders whether the president or his speechwriters understand that, rhetorically at least, he has adopted a faith that created some of history’s most monstrous regimes.

Today communism has collapsed, but another universalist ideology, the new Jacobinism, has taken its place. A difference between the French and the new Jacobinism is that the latter has chosen not France but America as mankind’s savior.

In a large number of speeches and statements since 9/11, the president has made clear that he considers armed world hegemony necessary to America’s mission. At the inauguration, the massive security—involving some 30,000 secret service agents, police, and military personnel—and other telltale symbolism signaled the invincibility and willpower of the United States. Here was installed an American emperor, but one far more powerful and far more ambitious than any Roman counterpart. Neo-Jacobin ideology can be seen as the perfect justification for American imperial power.
Praising the president’s inaugural address, neoconservative foreign-policy analyst Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post that America should pursue timeless “universal aspirations.” Fighting terrorism was “too narrow, too limited” as a “paradigm for American foreign policy.”

After the implosion of the Soviet Union, the neo-Jacobin neoconservatives argued that America should use its status as the lone superpower to spread its principles. They demanded “moral clarity” in U.S. foreign policy. Good stood against evil. After 9/11, Bush became their chief spokesman. He committed the United States to what he calls “the global democratic revolution.” The war against Iraq, he said, was “the first step” in that revolution. There has been not even a hint in the president’s recent speeches that the Iraqi debacle and the tens of thousands of dead and maimed have made him question his own virtuous nationalism.
Rarely has an ideology been so strongly entrenched in a country’s opinion-molding establishment. Especially with regard to foreign policy, the new Jacobinism is strongly represented in virtually all leading American media outlets. In the press, this is particularly true of the Wall Street Journal, but the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report all give it more than a hearing. Among the opinion magazines, the Weekly Standard is its main voice, but on foreign-policy issues at least, it also dominates formerly more conservative magazines like National Review.

In the commentariat, neo-Jacobin thinking is today challenging an older, more diffuse and less vigorous liberalism for pre-eminence. It is omnipresent in the think tanks, especially those emphasizing foreign policy and national security. Its brain-center is the American Enterprise Institute. On television, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel pushes the neoconservative foreign-policy line most conspicuously and reliably, but it flourishes on all the networks and major cable channels. By presenting itself on the radio waves and elsewhere as a form of kick-butt Americanism, neo-Jacobinism has also acquired millions of foot soldiers among flag-waving Americans.

What goes curiously unnoticed is that, despite their label, the neoconservatives think of themselves as representing a progressive, revolutionary force. The America they champion is not the America of history with its deep roots in a European and English past. In theory, they have constructed their own America, which represents a radical break with history.

“To celebrate America is … to celebrate revolution,” writes professor Harry Jaffa, a leading disciple of Leo Strauss, whose admirers are spread throughout the Bush administration. The American Revolution in behalf of freedom may appear mild “as compared with subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, or elsewhere,” Jaffa notes, but “it nonetheless embodied the greatest attempt at innovation that human history has recorded.”

Another leading neoconservative, Michael Ledeen, who first came into view as an advisor on national security in the Reagan White House, openly portrays the America with which he identifies as a destroyer of existing societies. According to Ledeen, “Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day. … Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions. … [We] must destroy them to advance our historic mission.”

Some of the most prominent neoconservatives caught the revolutionary spirit when they were still Marxists, and despite their “second thoughts” they still harbor a deep desire for remaking the world according to a single model, their model. One of the reasons they are now fond of capitalism is that, like Marx, they conceive of it as an effective destroyer of traditional elites and societies.

According to Irving Kristol, the reputed godfather of neoconservatism, today’s United States is “ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear.” His son William insists that for America vigorously to promote its universal principles abroad, it must have great military and other governmental might. The old conservative suspicion of strong, centralized federal government must be abandoned. According to the elder Kristol, it has been the role of neoconservatism “to convert the Republican party, and conservatism in general, against their wills,” to this new conception of government.

To call people who are attracted to the new Jacobinism “neoconservatives” reveals profound confusion. Modern conservatism was born in opposition to Jacobin universalism. The father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, was an English liberal, a Whig, who was very friendly to the American colonists; he thought they had strong traditional grounds for challenging king and Parliament. What Burke argued passionately against, by contrast, was the French Revolution and Jacobin thinking, which he saw as expressing an unhistorical, tyrannical spirit and an importunate desire for power. Burke warned specifically against “liberty” in the abstract.

Like Burke, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution associated liberty with particular inherited traditions, limited, decentralized government, checks on power, self-restraint, moderation, and a willingness to compromise. Jacobin “freedom,” by contrast, justifies unchecked imperial power.
That is the “freedom” for which George W. Bush has become the most prominent advocate.


Claes G. Ryn, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, is chairman of the National Humanities Institute and the author of America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire.