The Enlightenment and Regime Change Foreign Policy:

After two decades of costly U.S. military campaigning in Afghanistan—both in fiscal terms and in terms of bloodshed—the Afghan government has finally collapsed under the thumb of the Taliban. The ever precarious situation in Afghanistan (which has now required evacuation efforts by the U.S. government to rescue American citizens stationed at the U.S. embassy in the nation’s capital, Kabul) is the culmination of a disastrous foreign policy regime constructed upon certain dubious assumptions. At first, the United States intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 to punish the al-Qaeda terrorists of Osama bin Laden responsible for the 9/11 attacks and overthrow the Taliban regime that incubated them. By these measures, we succeeded in Afghanistan. However, what began as a relatively streamlined foreign invasion soon morphed into something far greater, far more ambiguous and fanciful, and much less achievable. We were to reorganize Afghanistan along liberal lines—to conform the nation to the ideals of liberal democracy, irrespective of its Muslim fundamentalist roots that are completely at odds with the general tenets of liberalism. Of course, this transformation never ensued, and the situation in Afghanistan worsened despite copious amounts of money and resources expended by the United States and countless young American lives lost.

I would submit that America’s failure in Afghanistan stems from a fundamental philosophical conflict that traces back to the Enlightenment. Perhaps above all, the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought to generate a philosophy that was not dependent on and was unattached to any particular social order and its values. It sought to discover, by the powers of unaided human reason, universal standards of political legitimacy unconnected to any specific customs and traditions by which they could all be judged. Accordingly, many Enlightenment philosophers relied upon a “state of nature” thought experiment, which purported to exhibit humanity’s natural tendencies outside of society. John Locke, “the father of liberalism,” utilized this idea of a state of nature (which he amended from his philosophical predecessor, Thomas Hobbes) to establish a universal standard of political legitimacy: free, rational consent. As Locke writes in his Second Treatise of Government, “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” According to Locke, individuals have certain inalienable rights that cannot be removed or limited without their consent. All government, since it entails the restriction of the freedom of the individual and their subjection to a higher power, requires consent if it is to be considered just and legitimate, and no alternative route can confer equal legitimacy to government. In brief, the origin of the state and its authority, for Locke, lies in a mythic contractual “Compact” among autonomous and independent individuals that exist in a realm of “perfect freedom” in the pre-political state and form a government for the sole purpose of further securing their freedom. The neoliberal justification for spreading liberalism to the whole of the world follows from the belief that we are quite capable of judging from the outside, as it were, different cultures and societies according to universal rationalistic standards like that established by John Locke.

The deepest irony, nevertheless, is that while liberalism was thought of as a natural order that arises among rational agents in conditions of perfect free choice—and, in turn, an ideology that need not be enforced or imposed—liberal regimes have not arisen and sustained themselves so innocuously. John Stuart Mill, a prominent philosophical liberal who wrote during the 19th century, amusingly concedes in his book Considerations on Representative Government that “inferior,” underdeveloped societies must first be subjected to imperial, despotic rule so they may become edified and primed for the practices of liberal democracy. So although tolerance is touted as among the highest of liberal principles, there is little tolerance extended to those who dissent in any way from the deepest commitments of the liberal worldview. Indeed, America has become a distinctive empire in the world that, unlike empires of antiquity, does not seek to impose itself upon recalcitrant peoples and nations while still allowing for the perpetuation of particular cultures but rather demands conformity to a single liberal model. (Consider the incidence of the LGBTQ flag at U.S. embassies in nations where such things are firmly prohibited.) A distinctive feature of U.S. foreign policy over the last half-century is a tendency to impose liberalism—by force, if necessary—on nations whose inhabitants view such an imposition as nothing more than a disservice and an outrage.

When they oppose such a view, it might be instructive for American conservatives to draw on an older tradition of American foreign policy bent toward non-interventionism in foreign affairs. This tradition was aptly defended by John Quincy Adams in his 1821 oration to the U.S. House of Representatives with the assertion that “(America) goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy… She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Here, the 6th U.S. President articulates the belief that America is a distinct nation with a particular geography, identity, people, culture, and history and cannot, therefore, be exported to the rest of the world. Instead, America can operate, at best, as an exemplary model for the global community. Although he lacks a rich intellectual tradition in America, Edmund Burke—one of the foundational thinkers of modern conservatism—made a similar point to that of Adams, albeit in different terms. Burke warned in his 1790 book Reflections on the Revolution in France of the “geometrical” (or abstract ideological) politics of the French Revolutionaries, who sought to impose on France from the outside a political order that had never existed there and had no institutional backing to support it. The collapse of such a “geometrical constitution” was, for Burke, virtually inevitable. In Burke’s eyes, no society can be effectively organized around a plan or goal since good politics is not imposed from the top-down but grows organically from the bottom-up. To enforce a political system in a place where it has never existed and cannot be reinforced is to create a crisis of legitimacy and undermine the social fabric. Yet, is this not precisely what we’ve seen transpire throughout America’s nation-building project not only in Afghanistan but across the Middle East? We mistakenly believe that we can assess all cultures and societies by the same universal principles. But this assumption has proven dubious in practice—the Enlightenment grossly overestimated the capacity of human reason. Attempts to restructure society according to rationalistic objectives have always created situations worse than the ones that initially needed to be remedied.

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