We are living in a world undergoing a massive transition. Like all transitions, it won’t finish in a few years nor in one generation. Its movement is the slow turning of enormous gears in the hazy distance, creaking like tectonic plates. And before this emerging framework can be named and formalised, much water must flow under the geopolitical bridge.
Right now, the game of nations – in which the objective for all players is to keep the game going, not so much to win as to avoid loss, because the alternative is war – is playing out in the artificial countries of Syria and Iraq. Civil war is not as dangerous as interstate war, but the risk of this particular conflagration spilling over into more powerful territories is ever-present.
These tectonics aren’t explained by news reports. No, right now, news is noise. And the latest bellicosity from Saudi Arabia promising to send ground troops into Syria or the decorative Syrian ceasefire agreed to in Geneva this week are the geopolitical equivalent of a chess player briefly grasping a pawn before returning his hand to a pensive chin.
Chess is a good analogy here because this column operates from a specific model. First is the reality of the US as an empire. Second is that the nation state and Western economic institutions dominate the ordering of human society. Third is that neither of these dynamics are permanent and require consistent reinforcement lest they be overridden by more tenacious ideas.
But only by describing the philosophy of the ruling class of the US can we fully understand Washington's “humanitarian imperialism”. In comparison to ancient imperial projects, this one is remarkably less brutal. But it does have its own high death count. Consider how any government not following Washington's script of Social Justice, Peace, Equality and Community are forced on pain of financial rejection or military intervention to conform. Don't they know? Democracy is for their own good…
From Washington’s perspective, peace means the victory of righteousness. Both factions of US politics are entwined around this philosophy. President Barack Obama is only the latest in a long line of US leaders since the 1960s to form his policy decisions from this philosophy. People call the script various names, but the most common is “progressivism”.
It is a direct descendent of John Calvin’s postmillennial eschatology, delivered to Plymouth Rock by Puritan Christians. Seen in this light, it would be a mistake to say secularism and atheism are synonyms. When Friedrich Nietzsche said “God is dead”, he was really asking: “what did you replace Him with?” Connecting natural human rights to the Bible is not hard at all. All the central tenets of progressivism are interchangeable with mainline Calvinism.
Indeed, the “organised US Protestantism's super-protestants” (yes, this is a direct quote) created a “new programme for a just and durable peace after World War II” with a handful of goals outline in a March 16, 1942 Time magazine article. Those goals include:
• Ultimately, “a world government of delegated powers.”
• Complete abandonment of US isolationism.
• Strong immediate limitations on national sovereignty.
• International control of all armies and navies.
• “A universal system of money...so planned as to prevent inflation and deflation.”
• Worldwide freedom of immigration.
• Progressive elimination of all tariff and quota restrictions on world trade.
• “Autonomy for all subject and colonial peoples”
Here, then, is the basics of mainstream Washingtonian philosophy. Perhaps philosopher John Gray was correct to point out that political progressivism is simply Christianity without the supernatural. A post-Christian modern religion, retaining all the disruptive and dangerous antecedents of its great-grandfathers’. Washington is in the business of building God’s kingdom on earth. The city-on-a-hill vision is a continuous tradition from John Winthrop to Mr Obama.
Today the problem is not this hallowed script, but its internal contradictions. On the one hand, progressivism wants its good news to reach every corner of the world. After all, an empire cannot function without an overarching ideology.
On the other hand, a major vertex of progressivism is social justice and cultural autonomy for any and all ethnic groups. Which is fine in theory or when governing a single nation state, but entirely destructive when maintaining an empire - humanitarian or otherwise. Cultural autonomy in the Middle East is now dealing with the question: what if people don’t choose democracy?
And so we circle back to Syria. Mr Obama has struggled to lucidly explain the State Department's foreign policy. Only by looking at the enormous, slowly moving gears and understanding US philosophy can this grand strategy become clear. The strategy dictates that the US cannot police all parts of the globe simultaneously, it must rely on local allies to secure their regions. This is fundamental for any imperial project.
But this transition is encountering friction. When Washingtonian progressive elites demand the destruction of foreign hierarchical political structures in favour of decentralisation, a mature empire would know it needed a safety net. Should the US send its army (Iraq/Afghanistan) or stir up unrest (Arab Spring/Iran), it should always be with the maintenance of empire in mind. But progressivism is a utopian philosophy, and not a very good imperial philosophy.
This is precisely why the young philosophy of US progressivism is insufficient for the realities of the geopolitical chessboard. It may one day develop into a functional imperial philosophy, but presently it is immature. But the US is a young empire and its pendulum has a wide arc. What it doesn't understand is that the glue for holding an empire together is peace through security.
Encouraging local allies to prosecute the Syrian civil war is a mature strategy, sure, but it is not being coupled with the grand strategy of empire. The danger the US now faces in this transition to mature empire is the potential for deep insecurity in the Middle East, spilling outwards. Left to rot for too long, Washington may struggle to overcome this and maintain its much more important philosophical hegemony over the wider “international community”.
In any conflict between X and Y, there are three paths to peace. X can prevail, Y can prevail, or X and Y can agree to leave the battle lines where they are. If Washington decides who occupies X or Y, then to give up that prerogative by using a contradictory ideology creates a vacuum. And as we can see in Syria, others will be drawn into that vacuum at dizzying speeds. It is more difficult to repair than to maintain an empire, Washingtonian elites should remember that.