“Ironically, and contrary to so many professed good intentions, Jews do most to advance the liberal idea when they stand up to their enemies on their own behalf, and least when they assume excessive guilt in the hope of political absolution, or camouflage the defense of Jews as a loftier cosmopolitan cause.” So wrote the celebrated Harvard professor Ruth Wisse in 1992. But her assessment is no less applicable to modern-day Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, who similarly engage in the common fallacy known as mirror-imaging. Though understandable, the propensity to project one’s psychological and cultural reaction-patterns on others, and assume they respond in similar ways, invariably misfires. People who welcome expressions of remorse, for example, may be over-eager to engage in goodwill gestures hoping to appease their enemies, expecting reciprocity.

This is wishful thinking on steroids. Most if not all of America’s enemies will no more stop hating it than will Israel’s, even if the Zionist state were to abide by every United Nations resolution. Maybe they would be impressed if it committed suicide, but probably not. Because at bottom, the enemies of both nations share an antagonism that no amount of kowtowing and breast-beating can erase. Israel and America embrace a system their opponents consider anathema. Like Israel, the American republic is based on Abrahamic principles articulated in the Torah, implicitly challenging the legitimacy of any government that repudiates them.  

The cluster of beliefs that underlie those principles is not easy to describe. The task becomes exponentially harder as ambiguities emerge through time.  “The liberal idea,” Wisse’s wise choice for describing the multi-layered conceptual wellspring of an affinity community bound by a covenant they vow to respect, is best captured in the Declaration of Independence. Such a covenant enfolds its members and their descendants, but others’ inclusion is anticipated and welcomed. It presupposes one overarching liberal idea, usually called “classical,” that of respect for all human beings. Predicated on personal responsibility, consisting of reciprocal rights and obligations, it thrives in a culture of empathy. 

Though not strictly an ideology, what was first described by Adam Smith as “the system of natural liberty” may well be labeled liberalism, if only to underscore the holistic conceptual reach of the liberal idea and its emotional hold, in a way that purely cognitive, rational philosophical categories cannot do. The problem with most political “isms” is the preponderance of passion at the expense of logic, which undermines most attempts at clarity. As fuzzy connotation overwhelms somewhat less ambiguous denotation, they are catnip for sophists. 

Anti-Americanism is a particularly interesting case. Of relatively recent origin, the unwieldy appellation is not to be confused with disliking any one thing about America, or even America as a whole, whatever that means. Anti-Americanist sentiment/ideology targets Americans in a manner comparable to traditional anti-Judaism, a curiously contradictory propensity to hate Jews because they are rich and despise them for being poor. So anti-American snobs detest Americans for being materialistic because they like spending, and too idealistic because they enjoy taking risks. In foreign affairs, American isolationists are accused of not caring about anyone else, but when Americans do engage, they are charged with imperialism. Go figure.

As ideologies, anti-isms resist refutation. “Americanism” is not a function of any particular set of government policies, for even when those change, which they frequently do, the antagonism persists. Which is not mere loathing: for while many people dislike the French in general and even in particular, there is no anti-Frenchism; nor, for that matter, anti-Irishism or anti-Italianism, despite the presence of signs a century ago, particularly but not exclusively in Southern states, expressing hostility against both those ethnicities. Antagonism directed against people qua members of a particular group varies with time and place, as do the rationalizations which serve as justifications. Call it tribalism if you wish, it comes down to this: my own is better than yours, now go away or suffer the consequences. 

But that doesn’t capture the heart of the matter.  Political scientist James Ceaser has it exactly right when he defines anti-Americanism as “the political religion of our times.” Writing in an anthology on the subject, in 2004, he found that “[o]n every continent, large contingents of intellectuals, backed by significant numbers in the political class, organize their political thinking on the basis of anti-Americanism.” Today, the situation is far worse. 

But what sort of ideology? According to the anthology’s editor, intellectual historian Paul Hollander, it refers to “a deep seated, emotional predisposition that perceives the United States as an unmitigated and uniquely evil entity and the source of all, or most, other evils in the world.” Intimately related to fear of modernity, it reflects “the belief that big corporations (capitalism) are in the process of extending their influence and power around the world, and that the United States, as the major capitalist country, plays a prime role in this undesirable process.” 

Anti-Americanism is thus an unmistakable symptom of hostility to Wisse’s “liberal idea.” Like antisemitism, a particularly identifiable, albeit heterogeneous, group is used as a foil to reify and concentrate resentment. The tactic is notoriously effective in forging political alliances, harnessing quasi-religious zeal couched in lofty-sounding ideals that help dispense with any additional justificatory arguments. 

No one understood this maneuver better than did the great George Orwell. In his underappreciated Notes on Nationalism, published in October 1945, Orwell seized the opportunity to fill the semantic niche created by a habit of mind that “is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject,” which we may describe as the anti-liberal ism. The essay is a masterpiece more relevant than ever.

Leery of coining one more neologism that ends up stillborn, he opts for the next closest thing: an existing dictionary entry in more-or-less-good standing, sanctified by common usage, which, however imperfectly suited for the new job at hand, is reasonably new and just vague enough to permit flexible redefinition through caveat and contextualizing. “Nationalism” seemed just right. 

The minor inconvenience that in Orwell’s usage it does not always, perhaps not even primarily, involve feelings about a nation in the usual sense of a race or geographical area, denoting instead a religion (or “church”) or class, he has to redefine it first:

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. 

And since any definition will become clearer when contrasted with a merely apparent and thus all the more misleading, synonym, he specifies that 

… [n]ationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. 

The difference is radical. “Nationalism… is inseparable from the desire for power,” and thus requires a careful designation of the target group or “nation,” something greater than oneself, as distinct from an alien “other” against which one must fight. Conveniently, it serves to both legitimize and camouflage personal ambitions for aggrandizement. “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige,” adds Orwell – purportedly “not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” 

If one expected a member of the notoriously egocentric intelligentsia to be among the least inclined to “sink his individuality” into anything, one would be wrong. After clarifying that the elite set includes Communist Party members as well as “fellow-travelers” and russophiles generally, Orwell declares that among them, “the dominant form of nationalism is Communism.” A former Communist himself, whose Socialist sympathies persisted long after abandoning all faith in the Soviet system, Orwell defines the term not as a slur, nor, McCarthy-style, a false accusation of Party affiliation, but as a general attitude: “A Communist looks upon the U.S.S.R. as his Fatherland and feels it his duty to justify Russian policy and advance Russian interests at all costs. Obviously such people abound in England today, and their direct and indirect influence is very great.” 

In particular, a Communist thus defined would follow Russian policy regarding America which had once again turned sour the brief marriage of convenience during World War II. After Joseph Stalin stated publicly, in February 1946, that “the war broke out as the inevitable result of the development of world economic and political forces on the basis of present-day monopolistic capitalism,” it was back to the old Marxist antinomies. Pro-Soviet nationalist/Communists, in Orwell’s sense, were thus necessarily anti-American.  This held true not only outside the United States – specifically in England, Orwell’s main target audience – but ominously, within.

Trouble starts once omelets are on the revolutionary menu, and the variously guillotined eggs scramble inside the frying pans of nationalism, yielding double standards. For “[t]he nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”  This is by no means limited to one side. Orwell reminds the reader, perhaps prematurely tempted to self-congratulate, that “[f]or quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald.”  Similarly, “those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles.”

Members of both camps will likely find fellow-nationalists in other areas. Thus “[m]any English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown.” And all nationalists “have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.”  

Closely related to this cognitive deficiency is the practice of moral equivalence, which presumes to set in balance often preposterously disparate iniquities. Notable among them is the practice of “‘comparative trivialization,’ as in comparing United States’ treatment of the prisoners in Guantánamo to the Nazis’ treatment of those they detained.” Abuses of Holocaust memory, in fact, have become increasingly common on the liberal-left, particularly in the last few years. In May 2019, for example, Congresswoman Rashida Talib mused on Yahoo News podcast: “There’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land, and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence, in many ways, had been wiped out.”  To which Aaron David Miller, advisor to both Democratic and Republican presidents, who is Jewish, could say only that the comparison was “highly arguable.”

Arguable, quite highly so, but seldom argued by increasingly many Americans, in particular Jews, who call themselves liberals.  As progressivism has taken over larger segments of the community, tikkun olam has served as a conceptual bridge, savvily camouflaged in both foreignness and religiosity to facilitate the transition. Who better than Barack Obama to explain how modern liberalism became all but indistinguishable from the Jewish conception of social justice: “Around the world, we can seek to extend the miracles of freedom and peace, prosperity and security, to more of God’s creation. And together we can continue the hard but awesome work of tikkun olam, and to do our part to repair the world,” declared the president in his Passover greeting issued by the White House on April 15, 2015. 

Nice words, but what did he mean? The president’s most important role is to keep the nation safe. What does “extending the miracles of freedom and peace” mean in actual practice?  Preserving those indispensable prerequisites for national survival is one thing. But did Obama’s decision to assist European efforts to bomb Libya so as to precipitate regime change end up “extending” either of those fine goals? Was that (and many other controversial foreign policy moves) part of the Founders’ plan in any way? 

Scholars have been split between those who argue that most Founders sought to stay out of foreign conflicts and those who see America as the shining city on the global hill. But no one denies that originally, in the eighteenth century, the one overarching foreign policy issue before the embryonic United States was sheer survival. 

For that was no time for isms. Once a peaceful resolution of their disagreement with the Mother Country proved illusory, and the Founders bravely declared independence, the signatories of the treacherous Declaration knew they faced execution. They also knew that they could not do it alone: for the colonists to win a war against the mighty British empire, allies were indispensable. Amazingly, defying overwhelming odds, the ragged colonists did win. The consummate diplomat Benjamin Franklin delivered France; John Adams overcame his emotional deficit and rose to the occasion, securing a hefty loan from the Netherlands; and George Washington put his prior military and intelligence experience to good use, demonstrating extraordinary strategic acumen. 

Since the Constitution places responsibility for foreign policy decisions in the executive and reserves appropriation of funds to Congress, the drafters demonstrated typical pragmatism in combining opposites. Though intending that a large a portion of the population should endorse the politicians’ decisions, the greatest latitude and ultimate decision is left to the commander-in-chief. The Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, alongside Wilson, his co-ideologue who later skillfully adopted the liberal label, both sought to spread the American vision of democracy as defined in their day by John Dewey: by people like themselves, elites who knew what was best for the people, which they both interpreted in expansionist terms. But if that was “internationalism,” neither used the word. It was thus described only retroactively, and most imprecisely.

As often happens with rhetoric, Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” was less influential for what it said than for what it precipitated: bringing the United States into a conflict that did not threaten its borders, seemingly for ideological reasons alone.  In that document, Wilson summarized those reasons:

What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression. All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us. The program of the world’s peace, therefore, is our program…

Should this be considered a fair description of what has since been called “liberal internationalism”? University of Sussex professor Beate Jahn explains recent developments: “Under the Bush administration in the early 2000s, the United States seemed to abandon liberal internationalism altogether. It replaced multilateralism with unilateralism, shunned its friends and allies, ignored international institutions, pursued an aggressive and illegal economic policy, and blatantly violated human rights.”  Others, notably G. John Ikenberry, disagree: “it is not liberal internationalism that is in crisis but rather America’s authority as the hegemonic leader of the liberal world order.”  

In an article Ikenberry co-authored with Daniel Deudney in 1999, the two professors argued that “the postwar order was created as a response to the earlier failures of both Wilsonian internationalism and the extreme realism of the inter-war period (and its economic blocs, mercantilism, hyper-nationalism, and imperialism).” The implication is that the new form of liberal internationalism is seen as no longer under American control but must be “multilateral.” No longer are international institutions to be “ignored” but deferred to, and the U.S. may no longer “blatantly violate human rights” with impunity. 

The change from pre-Cold War to the new version of liberalism, writes Beatte Jahn, amounts to a veritable crisis. “[L]iberal internationalists trace its roots to arrogant American foreign policies and view a reformed democratic internationalism as the solution.” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released a Working Paper by Ikenberry and Deudney recommending that “the United States should initiate a new phase of democratic internationalism based on the “pull of success rather than the push of power” that “deepens democracy globally, prevents democratic backsliding, and strengthens and consolidates bonds among democratic states.” Then-president Barack Obama would famously call this “leading from behind.”

Though he did not give it a name, president Obama implemented the new foreign policy of the left-liberals, which Elliott Abrams, Tikvah Fund board chairman, CFR fellow, and distinguished foreign policy official for several presidents, calls “an ideology.” Its essence was conveyed not by words but through Obama’s actions, which Senator George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, would have heartily endorsed. Writes Abrams:  

The ideas espoused by Obama “incubated” decades ago, and were most likely adopted back at Columbia University or in the Chicago kitchen of his friends of Weathermen fame, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn…. The enduring hold of that ideology is visible not only in his Iran policy but also, most recently, with respect to Cuba. There, too, he has reversed decades of American foreign policy, and has done so, as in the case of Iran, without seeking any deep concessions from the Castro regime. …. In both instances, Obama has acted not to advance American national interests but to make amends for U.S. policies and actions that he views as the immoral and retrograde detritus of the “cold-war mentality.”

It is difficult to overstate the stunning nature of this assessment: that a president would ever act in a manner designed “not to advance American national interests,” choosing rather to “make amends” for his country’s presumed sins, is predictably seen as a form of weakness and decadence. It is bound to embolden the nation’s enemies.

But in what way can internationalism be “democratic”? When the demos includes the whole world, what sort of krasis (Greek for “power”) can any one person wield? Ikenberry and Deudney attempt to clarify: “democratic internationalism,” as they see it, “would return liberal internationalism to its roots in social democratic ideals, seek to redress imbalances within the democratic world between fundamentalist capitalism and socioeconomic equity, and move toward a posthegemonic system of global governance in which the United States increasingly shares authority with other democracies.” In other words, its aims are “democratic” meaning property would be more equally distributed in a “post-hegemonic” (more homogeneous?) world order.

The authors correctly point out that “American liberal internationalism was shaped and enabled by the domestic programs of the Progressives, the New Deal, and the Great Society. These initiatives aimed to address the U.S. economic, social, and racial inequalities, create a free but efficiently regulated capitalism, recast the American state for an industrializing and globalizing world, and adapt the U.S. constitutional order and the pursuit of freedom to modernity.”  Those were golden days. Unfortunately, at present, “[a]mong democracies, the United States finds itself an outlier, as other democratic states surpass it on various measures of democratic performance like equity, opportunity, and institutional effectiveness.” History marches on while America lags ideologically behind.

Above all, it is deficient in equity. But equity uber alles is a tall order:

Tackling the maldistribution of wealth, income, and opportunity that has increasingly marked contemporary democracies requires reversing many of the policies of Reagan-Thatcher fundamentalist capitalism…. More specifically, the equity agenda requires the restoration of progressive income taxation and heavy taxation of large estates, and greater roles for workers and their unions in corporate governance.

Nor is the equity problem restricted to individuals, it also extends to states. The effort must be transnational, for “[c]losing the ‘democratic community gap’ will require building links between the United States and numerous non-Western democracies, as well as with longstanding democracies strongly committed to robust government promotion of social and economic equity associated with social democracy.” This requires a major reconsideration of America’s role in the world.

This so-called “democratic internationalism” is but the foreign policy side of America’s strategy coin, the other being “the progressive domestic program of renewal.” In all probability, argue Ikenberry and Deudney, in the foreseeable future “support for a new domestic progressive agenda will grow. However, this domestic political mobilization is necessary but insufficient to tame and regulate capitalism, given the scale and scope of the global capitalist system…”  What must happen is for the U.S. to go beyond “the hypercapitalist world, [for] only a wide coalition of democratic states can establish the common frameworks and standards for regulation, taxation, and growth.”

Once capitalism is “tamed” at home, the United States will be much more popular. “If progressives can succeed in turning domestic policy in the United States, they will find themselves in a world hospitable to their agenda, an enlarged democratic world with many potentially willing partners.” For that to happen, however, the U.S. must turn toward “multilateral problem solving and global governance.” Unfortunately, “[i]nternational cooperation seems to have succumbed to gridlock in multiple areas, such as the environment, trade, United Nations (UN) reform, and the global nonproliferation regime,” in no small measure due to U.S. recalcitrance. 

The new model of global governance differs somewhat from the original version which relied primarily on international organizations such as the U.N. and its agencies, as well as the World Bank, IMF, and others whose membership is restricted to state representatives. By contrast, “[t]he next generation of global governance will employ approaches that combine agendas of formal international institution building with complementary efforts and strategies from nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], networks of research institutions, local governments, and corporations.” Together they constitute a coalition of progressive so-called “epistemic communities,” which in plain English refers to elites consisting of academics, diplomats, and international bureaucrats. 

As all presume to speak “for the interests of the world’s poor” and the alleged good of “the people,” Hudson Institute Senior Fellow John Fonte concludes that “the global governance project” is at bottom “a grand ideological and institutional enterprise that promises to be of world-historical significance – an attempt to create new political forms above and beyond the liberal democratic nation-state.” True to form, those empowered to speak for “all” are the infamous vanguard, the intellectual ideocracy who know the real interests of the “countless thousands.” 

American University law professor Kenneth Anderson diagnoses this anything-but-democratic internationalism as a secularization, indeed perversion, of medieval utopian millenarianism in modern garb. It is, argues Anderson, “comprehensible only upon the religious worldview that boldly proclaims the good news of international organizations, differing from the view of the Psalmist – the ‘earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof’ the world, and they that shall dwell therein’” as goes the passage from Isaiah.  Except this time, scoffs Anderson, it is “the UN, that duly noted steward of the Lord, [who will] inherit the earth.” 

Poverty itself, claim the epistemic elites, proves incontrovertibly that the rich are violating the human rights of the poor whom they mercilessly exploit. Most NGOs, reflexively progressive, are especially prone to this form of reasoning, self-appointed ambassadors-without-portfolio for “the poor,” claiming to speak in the name of the “public” interest.  In an unpublished essay titled “After Seattle,” written in 2000, Anderson writes that the “elite media,” such as the Economist, have only exacerbated the problem by implicitly conferring special moral approval to this putative “international civil society.” Such bombast only reinforces the self-righteousness of organizations that are in no way accountable to anyone but their funders, whether government agencies or private donors with individual agendas, however well intentioned.   

Anderson charges that the “human rights movement is as a kind of secular religion… increasingly assuming the tone of (prosecutorial) authority and taking its international structures as grounds for the reform of recalcitrant nation-states within what might be thought of [as] the Holy Human Rights Empire.”  According to a 2006 report by the U.N. itself, the organization became an ideal conduit for progressivism: “social justice first appeared in United Nations texts during the second half of the 1960s. At the initiative of the Soviet Union, and with the support of developing countries, the term was used in the “Declaration on Social Progress and Development,” adopted in 1969.

Three decades later, it was solidly entrenched. Writes long-time human rights activist Aaron Rhodes in his 2018 book The Demise of Human Rights: “The early 1990s saw a worldwide resurgence of left-wing politics under a range of slogans providing cosmetic dissociation from Communism and state socialism.”  In the forefront were the self-styled “’human rights’ campaigns, promoting social and economic rights and asserting that civil and political rights by themselves are a recipe for exploitative, even racist capitalism.  But these were (and are) movements essentially advocating coercion in the name of human rights.”

Do words even matter anymore?  When internationalism is code-word for the new global authoritarianism, “human rights without freedom” the new anti-liberalism, and progress a millenarian euphemism for the apocalypse, we must turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Having reminded us that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday, adding that most “questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical,” what else can we do but come home from the semantic sabbatical and take a look at a reality that may escape the pseudo-educated woke but not the commoners whose common sense is still mercifully awake.

Headshot of Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon

Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her books include The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom, The Art of Peace: Engaging a Complex World, Soulmates: Resurrecting Eve, Why America is Such a Hard Sell: Beyond Pride and Prejudice, The Bloody Flag: Post-Communist Nationalism in Eastern Europe — Spotlight on Romania, Notes From the Other Side of Night, and three anthologies. She has published over two hundred articles and reviews on international affairs, human rights, literature, and philosophy, and has made frequent appearances on radio and television.