Policies Based on Illusion

by Bruce S. Thornton

City Journal

The great historian of Soviet Russia, Robert Conquest, once wrote something about the dangers of naïve diplomacy that I’m reminded of daily. “We are still faced with the absolutely crucial problem of making the intellectual and imaginative effort not to project our ideas of common sense or natural motivation onto the products of totally different cultures,” Conquest observed. “The central point is less that people misunderstand other people, or that cultures misunderstand other cultures, than that they have no notion that this may be the case. They assume that the light of their own parochial common sense is enough. And they frame policies based on illusions. Yet how profound is this difference between political psychologies and between the motivations of different political traditions, and how deep-set and how persistent these attitudes are!”

America’s 30-year struggle with Islamic jihad has been defined by just this sort of failure of imagination. Yet the diplomatic pathology has much deeper roots, and reflects a larger set of assumptions about human and state behavior going back to the Enlightenment — what we can call utopian universalism. In this view, all peoples are essentially rational and want the same political and social goods, particularly personal freedom and material prosperity. If they behave irrationally or destructively in seeking other goods, blame this on the fact that they have not yet been educated to their true interests. They remain mired in ancient superstitions, particularly those of religion, ethnic loyalties, and nationalism. Yet in time, the progress of knowledge, technology, and global trade will sweep away these impediments to happiness.

This vision of human identity lies behind the idealistic internationalism that dominates inter-state relations in the West. The same global progress that has led to international law, international courts of justice, and transnational institutions like the United Nations will, it’s widely believed, eventually liberate people from irrational loyalties and violence. Diplomatic discussion and engagement, predicated on a global “harmony of interests” and mediated by transnational organizations, will replace violence as the means for resolving conflict.

Far from universal, however, these ideals reflect a particular history — that of the West — beginning in ancient Greece and Jerusalem and developed further by the Romans and Christianity. They have become globalized mainly by Western power and dominance. Nor does the history of the past two centuries support the narrative of steady progress away from the use of force in interstate relations. Within the West itself, this “moralizing internationalism,” as historian Corelli Barnett calls it, was exploded by the carnage of the twentieth century, in which nationalist and ethnic loyalties, incoherent political religions like fascism and Communism, and finally a renewed religious fanaticism have created mountains of corpses.

The critical intellectual error in this utopian view is the assumption that because all peoples are capable of desiring goods such as freedom and prosperity, then these goods will trump all others. Yet people pursue multiple goods, and can desire even conflicting goods at the same time. As Michael Novak has written, there is “universal hunger for freedom,” one that all peoples can satisfy with the right political values and institutions. But people and nations have other “hungers” as well: to follow God’s will, to get rich, to acquire power and prestige, or to take revenge on an enemy. If we dismiss these goods and national interests as mere illusions from humanity’s benighted past — ghosts to be exorcised by material prosperity or education or diplomatic engagement — then indeed we will construct policies based on illusions, policies doomed to fail and thus compromise our security and interests. Diplomatic engagement demands an effort of imagination to recognize these motivational goods, no matter how strange or repellent, rather than dismiss them or subordinate them to our own.

This failure of imagination in international relations was apparent long before our current conflict with modern jihadism. World War I demolished the pretensions of nineteenth-century internationalism, whether socialist or liberal democratic. Yet despite that lesson, the Allies created the League of Nations, the ineffectuality of which was clear long before the rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler manipulated masterfully these delusions about universal goods, especially the desire for peace, and used the diplomatic “engagement” at Munich to take another step toward his aim of an Aryan empire. And as Conquest has chronicled, an expansionist Soviet Communism was abetted by the delusions of Cold War diplomacy predicated on false assumptions about Soviet motives.

Munich in particular illustrates the dangers of projecting one’s own motives or goods onto an aggressor. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain failed to imagine that Hitler and the Germans, fired by revanchist passions and the lust for recovering lost prestige and power, were eager for conflict and had spent most of the interwar period preparing for it. Worse yet, this ignorance of true motives puts one at a disadvantage when dealing with an aggressor, who can conceal his aims under the pretext of diplomatic negotiation (as Hitler did), thus buying time and misdirecting his adversary by the duplicitous endorsement of ideals he knows are important to the West.

Despite the examples of these historical failures, we have made the same mistakes in our conflict with Islamic jihad, starting with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Rather than attempting to understand the religious motives of Islamic jihadists, which they clearly articulate and link to their reading of traditional Islam, we reduce them instead to our own secularized, materialist beliefs. In the West today, religious faith is often dismissed as a Marxist “opiate” or a Freudian “illusion,” a mere compensation for more significant material causes such as education, economic advancement, or political freedom. Religion is trivialized into a mere lifestyle choice or source of private therapeutic solace. Shaped by these prejudices, we assume that Islam functions similarly for Islamists as Christianity does for today’s Christians, and so cannot be the prime mover of their murderous deeds. Thus we refuse to believe that, in the twenty-first century, a major world religion could serve as the primary motivating force for jihadists around the world.

Such has been the failure of imagination plaguing our encounter with violent jihad. Armed with these reductions of the Islamist cause to our own prejudices and ideals, President Obama has attempted to “engage” the Islamic world with a diplomatic outreach predicated on American guilt — as if sufficient American penance will dissuade jihadists from their religious fanaticism. Yet for all of the efforts at a new beginning he made during his speech last year in Cairo, for all the “extended hands” and solicitous letters to Iranian leaders touting their religion and civilization, Obama has reaped little but contempt. Iran continues its march toward nuclear weapons. As it has in the past, the failure of diplomatic imagination has blinded us to our enemy’s motives, leading us, as Conquest warned, to “policies based on illusions” — and putting our national security at risk.

©2010 Bruce S. Thornton

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