In August 1990, George H.W. Bush met Margaret Thatcher in Aspen right after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The pair resolved not to allow Iraq’s “naked aggression” to stand, and it did not. This was how the West was supposed to work — and how, sometimes, it did.
Today the U.S. and Great Britain scarcely govern themselves, never mind shape world order. Theresa May, who as prime minister resembles Thatcher in no respect other than gender and party, just suffered the worst parliamentary defeat in nearly a century over her Brexit deal. Donald Trump, who as president resembles Bush in no respect other than gender and party, presides over a shuttered government, a revolving-door administration, a furiously divided nation and a mistrusted and mocked superpower.
The West is now rudderless. To be rudderless puts you at the mercy of elements.
The elemental forces of politics today are tribalism, populism, authoritarianism and the sewage pipes of social media. Each contradicts the West’s foundational commitments to universalism, representation, unalienable rights, and an epistemology built on fact and reason, not clicks and feelings. We are drifting, in the absence of mind and will, toward a moment of civilizational self-negation.
When did the drift begin? Probably in 1989, when Francis Fukuyama published his landmark essay “The End of History?” and a decade of democratic complacency took hold. Why worry about the health and fate of liberal democracy when its triumph was inevitable and irreversible? Why teach the benefits of free markets and immigration — or the dangers of socialism and nativism — when history had already rendered a verdict?
And why do the tedious work of preserving the foundations of free government when it is so much more interesting to reinvent it?
Complacency breeds heedlessness. Liberals were heedless when they wrote off moral character as an essential trait of a good presidency. Conservatives (like me) were heedless when we became more concerned about the state of democracy in Iraq than in Iowa. Liberals were heedless when they embraced identity politics without ever thinking it could also be used against them. Conservatives (again, like me) were heedless when we downplayed the significance of the populism and scaremongering infecting the movement via talk radio and Fox News.
The heedlessness occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, too. European integration is a blessing; integration without genuine democratic accountability and consent isn’t. Similarly, immigration is a blessing; immigration without assimilation is a curse. Two generations of European leaders allowed the former without requiring the latter, and then airily dismissed public discontent as politically insignificant and morally illegitimate.
Now they are living with the consequences.
As for Brexit, the 2016 decision by 52 percent of the British electorate to leave the European Union over the vehement objections of the 48 percent (details to be hashed out later, if ever), must surely count as one of the worst considered in the island’s storied history. But not as foolish as the decision by former Prime Minister David Cameron to put a foundational question up for a popular vote — just as he had put another foundational question, the independence of Scotland, to a vote two years earlier — without seriously considering the consequences of things going the wrong way.
The problem here wasn’t a failure by Cameron and the “Remain” camp to make a stronger case for staying in the European Union, or to read the polls better. It was a philosophical failure — a failure to understand that the purpose of representative government is to save democracy from itself. I now find myself vaguely rooting for a hard Brexit, on the theory that lasting lessons are only learned the hard way.
Or not. Bad typically begets worse, and a hard Brexit will most likely accelerate every other fissiparous and dangerous trend in British politics: a new push for independence by Scotland and possibly Northern Ireland and Wales; a greater chance of NATO-skeptical, anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister; Britain’s extended absence as a meaningful and active presence on the world stage.
What about the United States? Among many conservatives I know, the view of Trump is that chaotic management, clownish behavior and ideological apostasies are irritants, not calamities, and prices worth paying for deregulation, tax cuts and conservative courts.
Really? These same conservatives spent the past 30 years preaching the importance of judgment, good character, and respect for institutions in the person of the president. They were right. What will they say when they find these attributes missing in the person of a president whose policy preferences and political affiliation they don’t share?
The West is not adrift in placid waters. With limited resources but ruthless methods, Vladimir Putin has gone about undermining democracy from Kiev to Kansas. With equally ruthless means and far greater resources, Xi Jinping has raised the banner of efficient authoritarianism as the preferred model of 21st century governance.
What does the West have to say in its own defense? Who does it have to say it? And who will fix the rigging and reset the rudder in time for the next squall?
— Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.