Western culture is deservedly exceptional. No other tradition has given the individual such security, freedom, and prosperity.
The Athens-Jerusalem mixture of Christian humility (and guilt) and the classical Socratic introspection combined in the West to make it a particularly self-reflective and self-critical society, in a way completely untrue of other traditions.
Unprecedented Western leisure and affluence also have given Europeans and Americans a margin of error, in the sense of the material ability to indulge in ethical critique of themselves without existential danger.
But self-proclaimed moralists also developed habits of ethical nitpicking. Here I do not just mean the more recognizable jingoism so common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, today progressive global strutting showcases how magnanimous Westerners are and how they can afford to remain disengaged and nonjudgmental.
If in the 1880s Victorians could dress up conquered and dethroned Zulu King Cetshwayo in British tweed and parade him around the liberal parlors of London, today we can psychoanalyze why thugs and murderers abroad are mostly misguided, and thus without Western guidance and empathy understandably become nihilist.
Such liberal self-moralizing is never termed chauvinistic or culturally arrogant, because its practitioners are so often liberals who want all others to become as liberal as themselves. Nonetheless, many of our current tensions in the world result from our enemies’ dislike of our smug sense of moral superiority.
Lecturing Egypt to respect a “largely secular” Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral win means that the U.S. is safely distant when one-election/one-time Islamists dismantle the process that brought them to power and seek an Islamic state.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, as a champion of Western rationalism and British fair play, was convinced that he could persuade Adolf Hitler to play by Europe’s post-Versailles Marquess of Queensberry Rules. The more Hitler violated the Versailles accords, rearmed, militarized the Rhineland, gobbled up Austria and dismembered Czechoslovakia, the more Chamberlain redoubled his efforts to convince Hitler of Europe’s shared interest in peace and friendly relations instead of a Neanderthal return to Verdun and the Somme.
And Hitler’s reaction?
He not only interpreted Chamberlain’s magnanimity as contemptible weakness to be exploited, but also was goaded on all the more by Chamberlain’s smug scolding. After giving away the proverbial European store, Chamberlain still managed to enrage Hitler by his nagging sense of sober and judicious British sportsmanship. Hitler seemed enraged by Chamberlain’s condescending invitations to grow up and join the mature statesmen who had learned from the Great War and were invested in the new League of Nations.
Hitler certainly did not appreciate Chamberlain’s concessions to Germany to ensure peace: “If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers.”
Rarely has such a kind man been more hated by a monster. During Hitler’s last days in the Führerbunker, he praised the mass-murdering Stalin (who had killed over three million Wehrmacht soldiers) while still harping on the scolding Chamberlain.
Vladimir Putin is many things—thug, probably a murderer, and of course a kleptocrat —but he is not a mere classroom cutup. In the words of the detached Obama, Putin is “bored”: “I know the press likes to focus on body language and [Putin’s] got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the classroom.”
Putin may look ridiculous bare-chested, posing in front of wild animals and the like. But then again the same can be said of Obama himself, when he puts on his cap backwards, emerges from the courts in a T-shirt and offers a hip sort of thumbs-up sign—as if he is cool enough to be a vicarious inner-city hoopster.
Is not Obama channeling his inner Putin when he invites a rapper to the White House and declares his song the president’s “favorite”—on an album whose cover shows young African-American men drinking champagne in celebration over the corpse of a dead white judge in front of the White House?
Obama further dismissed the Morlock Putin with, “My sense is that’s part of his shtick back home politically as wanting to look like the tough guy. U.S. politicians have a different style. We tend to smile once in a while.” But to the non-West, Eloi Obama pretentiously showing our solidarity with the “other” by glorifying a rapper’s misogynist and racist lyrics—or describing a patched-together Radio Shack contraption as teenager Ahmed Mohamed’s genius clock—is just as showy and grating.
Suggesting that the leader of a vast country with a nuclear arsenal is somehow unsophisticated and prone to his emotions—unlike a mature and worldly Western president who need not pull such stunts—may be true, but it does nothing other than poke the tiger from behind bars that may not be as secure as they seem.
Another of Obama’s unfortunate condescensions is to analyze why a particular leader made what is by Western humanitarian standards an unwise mistake. Obama explains how foolish it is for Putin to jump into the Middle East, or irrational it is to get tied up in Ukraine.
Indeed both interventions may prove Russian quagmires. Yet Putin thinks his real bullying firms up support at home as a leader unafraid to cross U.S. boundaries. By bombing his enemies and helping his murderous friends, Putin also believes he accrues moral capital in an amoral world whose currency is quid pro quo self-interest.
Putin assumes that the global community is not postmodern as Obama thinks, but premodern — and will think twice about suffering the fate of Georgia, Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. For all its pretensions of UN piety, a savage world usually aligns with the strong and shuns the weak, albeit dressing up that realpolitik with the necessary Davos-like euphemisms.
Does Obama thinking pulling out of a stable Iraq and boasting of his skedaddle made his stature soar in the world? Does Obama think that his hundred-some scolds on Guantanamo Bay and endless promises to close it down “within the year” win him respect from ISIS or Iran?
Obama assumes that everyone looks at the world in the manner of a 21st-century Western progressive, properly schooled at the Ivy League, and glib in all the latest progressive catchphrases like “smart diplomacy” and “lead from behind.” But alas they do not. The world does not work according to the pretensions of the upper-middle-class community organizer. Putin has quite different objectives than promoting peace, ensuring that his people have universal healthcare up to Western standards, or spreading democracy in the Middle East. To suggest his aims are misguided by our standards is naïve and pretentious. The point is not to caricature Putin’s suicidal behavior or sermonize on how counter-productive it is, but simply to be strong enough to deter it, for our sake and that of our friends.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are likewise condescending on Iran. Each time Iran has missed a deadline since 2009, taken a hostage, committed a terrorist act through a surrogate, helped subvert an Arab government, issued an existential threat to Israel, promised to make unending war on the U.S., led a “death to America” rally, or made a crude military move in the vicinity of a U.S. military asset, Obama and Kerry haves contextualized the act as if theocrats were juveniles letting off steam. Apparently Americans are too sophisticated to get alarmed over the antics of less mature, more emotional regimes that do punk things like send missiles near aircraft carriers or make American detainees kneel on camera.
Yet Iran is only emboldened by the administration’s patronizing tsk-tsking and so doubles down on its provocations. It becomes even more emboldened at being psychoanalyzed when it sees no deterrent to further aggression.
Angela Merkel displays the same cultural arrogance. Her suicidal immigration policy threatens German women, creates lasting security issues for the German nation, and is deeply resented by Germany’s irate neighbors.
Merkel presses ahead, as if her own sense of superior Western tolerance will win over the immigrants, educate backward Germans, bring Europe up to her moral standards, and remind the Middle East that while they kill and drive away their own, Germany accepts and nurtures them.
Unfortunately, migrants themselves have utter contempt for Merkel. They mock their hosts all the more so when Germans preen by lecturing them on being a diverse tessera in the wonderful emerging multicultural mosaic or providing them self-help cartoons on how not to defecate in showers or swimming pools. And those back in the Middle East feel that if Germany is stupid and arrogant enough to take such risks—well, then it deserves to take even greater risks.
If the Obama administration cannot keep speak softly and carry a big stick, then at least it should keep quiet—and quit egging on those it cannot or will not deter.