The Future of History

In today’s What I Will Miss About President Bush feature from the Times Week in Review, Ari Fleischer offers this: “I’ll miss President Bush’s moral clarity. The president’s critics hated his willingness to label things right or wrong, and the press used to bang me around for it, but history will show how right he was.”

This is a concise expression of the surprising philophical commitments of American foreign policy operating under the influence of the finest minds of movement conservatism. Those commitments, which Fleischer makes clear, whether he knows it or not, are Kantian, indeed textbook Kantian. We Martian Americans have had some fun with those naive Kantian lawyers running things in Venutian Europe, but this Kantian legalism is positively realistic compared to the Bush administration’s foreign policy moralism, which is much closer to the metaphysical foundation of Kantian idealism.

Here are Fleischer’s two Kantian moves: First, celebrating that “moral clarity” we used to hear so much about. Kant, too, thought the statesman could not justify departing from the categorical requirements of morality for the sake of realpolitik. But the problem with “moral clarity” as a virtue in foreign policy is that it is, almost by definition, indifferent to outcomes. There is no way to ensure outcomes in global politics that accord with “moral clarity.” Therefore, second, Fleischer directs our attention not to Bush’s concrete achievements, but to “history,” which “will show how right he was.” Kant does the exact same thing, directing our attention to large-scale History in order to deal with the complications of reconciling morality and the messy realm of foreign affairs. What is the mechanism that will take us from actions based upon moral clarity to the “history” Fleischer speaks of, in which Bush is vindicated? One must ask because we don’t seem to be heading there now. To put it another way, why might we think the world is consistent with the clear moral purposes of the Bush administration, rather than a morass of incompatible interests that will tend to confound all or nearly all well-intentioned actions? Because the world seems to be perverse and frustrating in this way, in its particulars, there must be something about it in its general tendencies, in History, that is different, that wants the same moral outcomes that George Bush wants. What is that? And what is the principle or method that gets us there – the mechanism, the “middle term,” in Kant-speak – to this morally realized History.

Kant, being the greatest modern philosopher and a freak of systematizing and consistency, had a solution. It is a good and even beautiful solution when viewed from within the terms of his own philosophy, but it has certain drawbacks from the standpoint of the statesman. Kant’s solution is: Imagine a different world, where moral purposes can be realized, a world governed not by blind causality but by an overarching moral purpose. And when you’re confronted with a moral choice, take solace in the possibility that that there is this moral cause governing the world that your individual moral choice can link up with. This is indeed part of moral reason: It’s as if moral consciousness, in venturing in to the world and finding it indifferent and hostile, draws back and, as a matter of course, composes Book II of The Critique of Judgment, on the spot, in order to give itself a home.

But does the statesman have this option? He may well take it, if it’s the best way of selling his policies, to his country and himself. Bush has certainly done this. But, still, it is inevitable, and admirable, that in a liberal democracy certain ideals that deviate from realpolitik would be generated in foreign affairs (as well as a tendency to describe the merely venal and realpolitikal in self-congratulatory ideal terms). I think the greatest failure of conservative foreign policy intellectuals has been their refusal to oversee this relationship. They bought into the language of “moral clarity” rather than continually testing the relationship between the administration’s moral claims and, well, reality. (I have a hard-to-prove theory that it was something quite domestic that effected the idealist turn in conservative foreign policy thinking: the culture war. Suddenly, after The Closing of the American Mind, we had a strong sense of what the greatest enemy was: relativism. And the conclusion to the Cold War seemed to elevate this anti-relativitism from a cultural to a global mission. It was, after all, Reagan’s moral clarity vis-a-vis the Evil Empire etc. etc. etc. About which more perhaps later sometime.) In any case, its seems that conservatives have taken the wrong lessons from the Cold War. It seems that moral clarity works as a way of strengthening resolve in a long, largely defensive battle, such as we had against the Soviets, and works less well when we’re trying to orchestrate moral outcomes through our own agency. (This is a Kantian insight, too, that categorical morality is, in its nature, negative, defensive.)

But I don’t bring this up merely to mock President Bush and his foreign policy apparatus, and their media defenders, for their gauzy and dangerous moralism. Maybe, shy of an underlying moral telos in history, there really are discrete mechanisms in human affairs that operate, behind the backs of individual actors, to actuate morally desirable tendencies and outcomes. No one person decided to bring down communism and erect decent pro-western democracies upon the wreckage of its empire. But it happened, as if spontaneously. Polical developments in the arc from Japan to India have been less tidy, but perhaps even more improbably hopeful.These things make it seem like maybe the world wants to be liberal-democratic-pro-American, in its very nature. Maybe History is doing this work already, without us knowing it.

Or maybe it isn’t. Or maybe History has done everything it can, and it needs us to do the rest, or it needs us to realize that there is no “rest,” that it’s realpolitik from here on out. Maybe the History that has ended is the one that created the tide of democratization, and we’re in a new History now, which requires less recourse to moral clarity and more recourse to just seeing clearly, not our morals, but our world.