We have forgotten the power of religion and misjudged the pace of the forward march of history.
This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a thought-provoking and insightful essay by Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. Mr. Sacks argued that the West will not defeat the Islamic State (IS) unless and until we acknowledge its religious foundation and “[w]e . . . put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism.”
As Mr. Sacks succinctly stated: There is a “blind spot in the secular mind.” The West essentially stopped fighting religious wars in 1648. We’ve moved on. But the rest of the world has not. With every atrocity they commit, IS and al Qaeda claim that they are carrying out their religious duties under their intolerant and militaristic version of Islam. Today, “the West doesn’t fully understand the power of the [religious] forces that oppose it.” We see the world through the prism of reason rather than religion.
Although Mr. Sacks focused on the inability of the secular world to understand the staying power of militaristic religion, his essay touched on a larger and related theme that has characterized the West’s struggles since the end of the Cold War: We saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a triumph of Western values that ushered in a “new world order” among responsible nations. The values enmeshed in this new order included: integrating the global economy; increasing superpower cooperation, particularly through the UN Security Council; emphasizing the rule of international law; reducing reliance on military force to resolve disputes; and de-emphasizing the ideological struggles among nations.
In 1991, we moved on, just as we did in 1648. The rest of the world, however, either didn’t get the memo, or put the parts it didn’t like in the circular file. Today, the West doesn’t fully understand (or is willfully blind to the fact) that the rest of the world has not abandoned ideological struggle, the use of force to resolve disputes, or Machiavellian international politics. We continue to see international relations through rose-colored glasses — the prism of the forward march of history. Indeed, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize partly because he celebrated the new world order in his 2009 Cairo Speech: “[H]uman history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” We consistently fail to consider this hypothesis in the cold light of day.
In 2005, Vladimir Putin made it clear that Russia did not fully subscribe to the new world order when he called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century.” Three years later, Russia invaded Georgia, as if to prove President Putin’s point. Nevertheless, the West continued to pursue economic integration with Russia, which joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August 2012. Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea, fomented war in Eastern Ukraine, and aligned with Iran while dropping bombs on opposition groups in Syria that are supported by the U.S. For ten years, President Putin has enjoyed playing the part of a modern “Prince” engaged in an elaborate game of geopolitical chess. Incredibly, the West is seemingly shocked by every Russian transgression and the fact that President Putin isn’t seeking our approval for his actions. In just the last week, the Obama Administration has complained that this is “not how responsible nations do business.” The West clearly has a blind spot for Machiavellian machinations.
Russia’s newest ally – Iran – does not subscribe to the new world order, either. It is the epitome of an ideological nation, and it consistently undermines global stability. Over the past 24 years, Iran has built a clandestine nuclear program, sponsored Hezbollah and its terrorist acts, and engaged in proxy conflicts across the Middle East. Today, the West is hoping that the nuclear deal, if fully implemented, will be the first step in bringing Iran into the fold, even though Iran’s leadership has publicly rejected the idea of a larger rapprochement. Not only has Iran, like Russia, telegraphed its rejection of the new world order, but you can judge a country by the company it keeps. Nonetheless, the West is busily preparing to reestablish commercial ties with Iran. We see what we want to see.
China is also a part-time participant in our new world. In 2001, China was admitted to the WTO. Since then, it has exacerbated international territorial disputes, built potential military bases on islands and reefs it does not necessarily own, and launched (or at least sanctioned) serious cyberattacks on U.S. government and commercial databases. And China has done all this while explicitly telling the U.S. that China wants a “new model of great power relations.” As if to dispel any confusion whether its “new” model is the same as the West’s “new world order,” China recently launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – an unmistakable signal that it does not fully subscribe to the Western financial order. As with Russia, the West seems surprised every time China engages in conduct that does not conform to post-Cold War norms, even though China has repeatedly signaled that it has no intention of doing so. Vice President Biden recently reminded China that “responsible countries” respect international sea lanes and do not “disregard diplomacy” or “use coercion and intimidation to settle disputes.” We are willfully blind.
The West’s inability (or unwillingness) to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be, is increasingly dangerous.
As Mr. Sacks argued, if we do not acknowledge and confront the religious dimension of IS, we cannot defeat it: There are “[p]assions at play that run deeper and stronger than any calculation of interests. Reason alone will not win this battle.” In other words, if we are to defeat fanatical Islamic terrorism by robbing it of the recruits that it needs to survive, we must first acknowledge that our enemy does not share our secular world view. We cannot win hearts and minds of potential al Qaeda and IS recruits by advocating for “freedom” and “democracy” when these “are the problem[s] against which [these groups] are fighting.” By standing in the shoes of IS and al Qaeda and their Muslim recruits, we can clearly see that we will win the battle of ideas only if we enlist the world’s great religions in a concerted effort to emphasize that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common history and common values. As Mr. Sacks so eloquently put it: The West must lead a global effort to “raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the game of the God of peace, and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.” We need to recognize that secular values and rhetoric are not sufficient to counter the allure of what Mr. Sacks referred to as “altruistic evil.”
The West must also recognize that the forward march of history proceeds at a snail’s pace, and that not every country is marching in lock-step. Our unwavering belief in the new world order is misguided, even when we believe the stakes are relatively low. Our faith in progress is viewed by others as weakness. It has emboldened our adversaries and undermined our security.
By repeatedly reminding Russia to act like a responsible nation over the past decade, we have undermined our own strategic interests. The U.S. and Russia are now in competing military positions in Syria with a non-trivial risk of actual collateral conflict. The West also faces a worsening refugee crisis and a resurgent Assad regime. And if we fail to finally acknowledge that Russia is not a responsible nation, our unrewarded faith will further embolden President Putin, perhaps leading him to provoke a conflict on NATO’s Eastern frontier. Regrettably, the “inevitable failure” President Obama predicted in Cairo may be ours, rather than Russia’s.
The same dynamic presents itself with China. Our reminders regarding responsible nation behavior have failed to prevent the cyber theft of highly sensitive data on millions of government employees. Like the chance for real conflict with Russia, this is a “very big deal from a national security perspective.” Here too, the failure is ours.
The “new world order” that we trumpet does not yet exist. The West needs to stop pretending that it does. The world is, unfortunately, still occupied by powerful, self-interested nations that have not forsaken conflict, military force, unilateral action, or ideology. Western values have not been widely embraced in a world full of enlightened nations, and history has not yet imposed its penalty on nations for their failure to do so. The question now confronting the West is whether it will fill the void, actively promote stability and security, and impose its own meaningful sanctions on those nations that do not adhere to our norms. If we do not, we will continue to struggle in an increasingly disorderly and dangerous world.