Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale University.
In “The strongmen strike back,” Robert Kagan recounts how the emergence of “Enlightenment liberalism” roused the ire of an eternal authoritarianism. He presents America as the great liberal alternative to dynasties from the Hohenzollerns to despots such as Adolf Hitler. Eventually Kagan mentions the deep illiberalism of U.S. history, notably in its conservative traditions. But then it will not work to believe in an America, immaculately conceived in the spirit of universal rights, as the Enlightenment’s gift to humanity.
Kagan treats the authoritarian fashion today like a meteor hitting American liberalism — as if in this country, and in its foreign-policy priorities for the world, U.S. leaders had not routinely opted for a deeply selective freedom emphasizing the commercial liberties of property, contract and trade rather than a broader egalitarian liberation.
“In such times,” Kagan writes, “many people focus on liberalism’s shortcomings, the things it does not provide and the things it either weakens or destroys. The thing liberalism does provide — security of the individual’s rights against the state and the community — is easily taken for granted or devalued.”
But the point is that America has provided rights against the state and community for its citizens, and promoted them abroad so selectively as to cause economic crisis and massive backlash.
What is happening in Eastern Europe today is, in part, a consequence of the economic liberalization of the region that the United States made foremost after 1989 — even if, at times, it was little more than a smokescreen for a fire sale to Russian oligarchs, without whose role Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on power is unthinkable. Before Americans look out the window on a fallen world, the failure of history to end as they hoped should lead them to look in the mirror.
Kagan fears that the anti-imperialists on the left and “isolationists” on the right he opposes could, in response to this history, detach from world affairs altogether and allow the authoritarian tendencies the United States has helped breed to run further amok. But surely this isn’t an excuse for a return to American hegemony as liberal internationalists and neoconservative intellectuals helped make it, which is like asking people who added fuel to a fire to be redeemed when they say they have a plan to put it out.
As for the suggestion Kagan makes that the lure of authority, long underestimated, will remain strong because people want security, perhaps the answer is to think about how liberals themselves could help provide a better version of it.
Fortunately, liberals have some basis in their own tradition for such thinking. It starts with the insight that meaningful freedom depends on human security — including in economic affairs. President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it so well in 1944: “‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Not preaching the virtues of American freedom alone, but a broad and global program of economic fairness, will remain the best counter to authoritarianism here and elsewhere in the years to come.