Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
The Market for Sermons Isn't What it Was.
The West needs a new way of dealing with the Rest.
Not many tourists in Paris bother to go and see the Headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, although it’s just round the corner from the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, most people have only the vaguest idea what UNESCO does, apart from something to do with world heritage. Which is why it’s a surprise to look at its Constitution, and discover that its mission is, in fact, to bring peace to the world, and save humanity. If that sounds a little ambitious, it’s nonetheless entirely representative of a certain western conviction that political crisis, conflict and war are sparked by the sinful behaviour of individuals, and that repentance and correct thinking can bring peace, stability and honesty. This theory has never been able to explain actual real life events, but, for reasons I’ll go into, it has been very persistent. With the progressive undermining of Western economic and military power, though, it is probably about to depart from the international scene, with consequences that we can just begin to guess at.
As often with treaties, it’s the preamble to the UNESCO Constitution that is most revelatory. These paragraphs tend to be skipped by historians and given less priority by diplomats, but they reflect lots of things that the drafters really believe, even when they contradict each other. So here, the first thing we notice is that the governments of the states parties declare certain things “on behalf of their peoples." So what follows is understood to be you and me speaking, or at least our ancestors who were alive in 1945. What is it that we are supposed to be declaring? Well, first off:
“(S)ince wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
(These days the role of women in starting wars too has been acknowledged in various UNESCO documents.) But think about that for a minute. Is it really conceivable that, a few months after the end of WW2, signatories to the Constitution could genuinely believe that it was not governments, but ordinary people, who had brought about the apocalyptic events of 1939-45? And that it was therefore the minds of ordinary people that had to be acted on, if there were to be no more wars in the future? That the hatred felt by the Italian people for France, which emerged from nowhere during 1940, obliged Mussolini’s government to occupy part of that country after its defeat by the Nazis? Or that a suddenly conceived set of hatreds for such countries as Britain, Greece and Yugoslavia, sent Italian troops to war against those nations? Or that this hatred disappeared almost overnight in 1943, and was replaced by feelings of animosity towards Germany? Well, we learn that
“ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause … of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war.” So it’s us, the “peoples of the world” who, by our ignorance, are the cause of wars. This is partly because the recent War was
“made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races.”
The remedy for this is that we should be better educated, by “unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and … the free exchange of ideas and knowledge … and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives.”
In other words, if we had all been better informed about other nations, better educated and less stupid, we would not have brought about the War in the first place. Now, let’s try to be fair to the drafters. At the end of 1945 there were a million other things clamouring for attention. The talk was all about peace and security, and any initiative that did not promise those was going to have a tough time attracting support. So it was pretty much inevitable that an initiative for international cultural cooperation would have to clothe itself in the lineaments of the prevention of war and the preservation of peace. Nonetheless, there are a couple of implicit assumptions worth noting here, since they have formed part of the mindset of western political elites and professional and managerial classes ever since.
First, the political elites of the 1930s, who had bought the War about, did not, in general, lack knowledge of “other peoples.” They took their holidays abroad, travelled abroad on business, and might well have spent part of their lives in other countries. The preamble was not a nostra culpa, not a rueful recognition that they should have been better informed, but a complaint about ordinary people being ignorant and stupid. In this initiative, and in many others that followed under the auspices of European institutions, the emphasis was on the education, or if you prefer the thought reform, of ordinary people. There was no suggestion that ordinary people should themselves travel or experience things: rather, education by their betters would inform them of how things really were. And so began the modern rituals of town-twinning, educational exchanges, sports competitions, international symphony orchestras and the like, which, although very largely aimed at the better-off, were intended to somehow trickle down and affect the thinking of the masses.
The other point that comes very clearly out of the Preamble is the traditional elite fear of the masses being swayed by propaganda. Here, the example of Nazi Germany was thought to be fundamental. The German people had been driven mad by propaganda, it was thought, turned into hate-filled automata carrying out the will of the Führer. So it was essential to reform the minds of the masses so that they would never fall victim to such diabolical practices again. In fact, the actual effectiveness of Nazi propaganda has been massively over-estimated both then and since. Goebbels would certainly have won international PR awards at the time had there been any, but studies of public opinion in the Third Reich have long shown that his propaganda was by no means as effective as was once thought.
All of this reflects the western concept of what conflicts are about, and why they happen. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Liberalism doesn’t really understand conflict, and Liberalism has been the default western ideology for most of the period since 1945. Given that war is itself irrational, it was argued, some kind of terrible irrationality must have seized the people of Europe (or some of them anyway) during those years. In turn, somebody, or bodies, some evilly inspired figures, must have been at the origin of this irrationality. And so we arrive, by stages, at the developed theories which typify the way the West sees conflict in the world today. It should be said immediately that these theories are normative and a priori, not an attempt to explain actual conflicts in history. Indeed, requests for supporting historical evidence tend to be irritably dismissed: that’s not the point.
Conflicts begin because of individual bad actors. They may be (and often are) “authoritarian” rulers, or just “extremists” of some kind. They “oppress their people,” and often start wars as a diversion from resistance to their internal repression. Sometimes their behaviour is so extreme as itself to provoke resistance and conflict. They are opposed by “moderates," and if these moderates could only take power, all would be well, or at least much better. These national leaders may be the same as, or confused with, or somehow connected to, domestic “entrepreneurs of violence” who “exploit grievances," that are (cough) “sometimes partly justified,” to start wars, and profit from them.
The West therefore sees conflict originating in personalities: not surprising since Liberalism is, after all, about individuals and their struggles, not historic forces. In the end, conflicts are not “about” anything, really, except misunderstandings and individual human wickedness. Conflicts can be avoided, or ended, if certain people can only somehow be replaced, and men and women of goodwill brought together. After which, popular education is required to undo the harm done by extremist ideas. By the same token, leaders who adopt, or appear to adopt, western values, must have undergone a fundamental internal transformation that means that their societies will be more stable and less prone to conflict. Leaders are thus key in guiding the masses. Indeed, the Africa Commission, chaired by the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair some fifteen years ago, eventually decided (or said anyway) that the real overarching problem with Africa was the poor quality of its leaders. They needed to do better. (Now, without suggesting that the general quality of African leaders is any higher than that of leaders elsewhere, it is true that, in order to be alive at the end of the year, many African leaders have to resort to measures that the chaplain at Mr Blair’s public school would not necessarily have approved of.)
This individual-moral approach applies at all levels, therefore, not just narrowly to conflict. Corruption, for example, on which an entire essay could perhaps be written, is conceived as primarily an individual moral failure to be good, a personal weakness that can be corrected by exhortations to good behaviour and “training.” Thus we see (and I have seen) a Police Colonel whose salary is rarely paid, and who needs to steal to feed his family, despatched on a week-long “anti-corruption” course, perhaps in Sweden, or Canada, all expenses paid and a generous per diem, lectured on how to be good and honest, and how to catch his own staff when they are cheating. And he goes back to find he’s still not being paid. Corruption, of course, is a systemic and normative problem, and its extent depends on the surrounding culture and the example of others. But this is too complex an analysis for a system of thought built on individual moral failings.
Since this kind of approach is doomed to failure, and has a disabling effect on western policy, it is reasonable to ask why it is pursued so relentlessly. There are several reasons, but the one I want to concentrate on here results from the obsession with personal moral factors sketched out above. If people would only change … If only men and women of good-will could be brought together, couldn’t a solution be found, for example, to the Palestinian problem? Well, if your ancestors drove my ancestors out of their village, and you now live in what would have been my house, what do we do? Either you or I can live in the house, but not both of us at the same time, and it will be the stronger that decides. The incapacity of the Liberal mind to recognise both what conflicts are actually about, and how much of the actual disposition of the world is based on force, leads the West to prefer those who seem “reasonable” and “moderate” to those it sees as “extremists,” because they have good hearts. It’s hard to remember now how much attention was lavished at the time on the Peace Women of Northern Ireland, on Bishop Abel Muzorewa rather than Robert Mugabe in Rhodesia, on Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi (holder of the French Order of Merit among dozens of other international awards) rather than Nelson Mandela.
Why, then, is the West so obsessed with individual moral issues in this way? I think it has much to do with its Christian cultural and intellectual heritage. Now this is a vast subject, so I’m just going to dip a quick toe in the shallowest possible end of the issue. Let’s see. Traditionally, religions emphasised ritual and behaviour. The Greek and Roman gods demanded certain things, and you did well to follow their commands. In the ancient world, gods were local and limited, and it was normal to honour the local ones wherever you found yourself. (There are still echoes of this attitude in the earlier books of the Old Testament.) In this kind of culture, as with many others then and since, including Confucianism and Taoism, it was essentially behaviour that mattered. There was no question of “belief”: indeed, it’s been argued that asking whether the Greeks “believed” in the existence of their gods is essentially pointless. They did what was customary. Likewise, from Aristotle to Confucius, philosophers talked about practical behaviour, not what people inwardly felt.
Christianity changed all this, with its emphasis on the personal and the interior, on what went on in the heart. St Paul famously affirmed that “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity (agape) it profiteth me nothing.” This was a completely new way of thinking. Belief was key, and precisely what you were required to believe was critical, because getting it right was the key to salvation, just as doing all the right things with the wrong set of beliefs was fatal. Thus the importance of dogma, and the readiness of Christians to fight each other over such things as the doctrine of the Real Presence, for example. These things really mattered. Christianity spread originally through the conversion of individuals, and its later rituals—notably the Catholic use of Confession— tried to ensure the policing of belief as well as conduct. But it was the coming of Protestantism, with its emphasis on justification by faith, that really gave birth the ideology through which the West has interacted with the rest of the world over the last few centuries. Protestants regarded salvation by works as impossible, since it was unthinkable that miserable, sinful human beings could ever do anything worthwhile. Good works were therefore required of the Christian not as a precondition for salvation, but as a proof that salvation had already been granted through faith. When the London Missionary Society began its work two centuries ago, it sent out missionaries utterly sure of their own virtuous status and of the correctness of their beliefs, to convert others to a state of blessedness and therefore virtuous behaviour.
Some would argue that little has changed, and the missionaries have become the NGOs, while the colonial administrators, with whom they were often at odds, have become the staff of Development Ministries. (There have been studies tracing these linkages in families over several generations.) This is why the massive expansion of the British and French Empires in the late nineteenth century was supported and encouraged by forces that had previously opposed imperial ambitions. Liberals in England (heavily influenced by evangelical Protestantism) as well as secular Radicals and Socialists in France, backed what we would now call “humanitarian intervention” in Africa, especially in pursuit of the final suppression of slavery, both within the continent, and with the dying Ottoman Empire.
In a secular age, it is accepted that modern liberalism has taken over these habits of thinking in a somewhat altered form. Like Christianity, Liberalism is a universal and universalising creed, pre-destined to triumph everywhere in the world. Like Christianity, it demands a fundamental change in the way the world is viewed: from society to the individual, from cooperation to competition, from a reliance on the past to faith in the future. As a universalising creed, Liberalism underlies the norms exemplified in the OECD Constitution. In Liberalism, as St Paul might have said, there is neither man nor woman, neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor Greek. All are simple, interchangeable rational economic actors. This is why the Europe of Brussels is anonymous; without history, without culture, without traditions, without languages other than Globisch, without inherited collective identity, and, ironically, even without religion. This is why the Euro, uniquely in the world as far as I know, features banknotes with abstract designs, and no references to history and culture at all. History and culture are dangerous, because they could be misused by the wicked to stir up conflict among the ignorant. Thus, the teaching of history has been discouraged, except for collective histories at a high level of abstraction, teaching about the evolution of Liberalism itself, and a fixation with the most negative elements of the history of one’s own country.
Ironically, this attempted creation of an OECD mindset has been achieved in part, but among elites, not ordinary people. The last generation or so has seen the creation of new, de-culturised European elites, moving freely from country to country, speaking English and perhaps one more language other than their own, working in international organisations, multinational companies and NGOs, largely uninterested in history, even that of their own country, uninterested in culture except that which comes from the US, and assimilating and expressing the same sets of a priori assumptions about the world. This tendency is typified by the ERASMUS scheme, which allows well-off students from one country to spend time at a university in another. It’s a powerful tool for the creation of a pan-European ruling class, and a favourite example of those who are trying to create a post-historical Europe. A few years ago, the long pedestrian walkway that connects the two halves of Montparnasse station in Paris was covered in adulatory publicity for the scheme as the symbol of European integration and future peace. There were photographs of attractive young professional couples from different countries who’d met at University in a third country. I often wondered what an immigrant from, say Portugal or Poland, transiting the station at six in the morning after a night spent cleaning the offices of such people must have thought of the idea.
But this is the class through which Europe increasingly interacts with the rest of the world, (and of course it has its analogue in the United States as well). It is ideologically homogeneous, very sure of itself and its ideas, and keen to do good and lead others down the path of virtue. Until recently, it has had undisputed, massive financial, military and political power at its disposal to try to do so.
All this was and is quite unlike previous Empires, which had mainly just demanded obedience from their subjects. The Ottomans offered financial and professional career incentives to their subjects to convert to Islam, but if they didn’t, they were left alone, provided they didn’t cause trouble. And the actual process of conversion seems to have been purely formal. Even in the Cold War, in the many countries to which the Soviet Union provided aid, Marxist-Leninism was taught, and the brighter students sent to study in Moscow, but this was essentially an influence strategy, not an attempt to change inner beliefs. As empires expanded and contracted over the centuries, as zones of power and influence came and went, the invader or the occupier generally sought just pliant individuals who would do what they were told. Only western Liberalism over the last couple of centuries has sought out the pure in heart.
This has led to enormous practical problems for the West, and for western-influenced international organisations. There’s space to list just two. One is assumptions about local actors. The West seeks full-hearted intellectual participation in its initiatives: “ownership” is the usual word. We want to believe we have convinced people and changed hearts and minds, and the locals reason that, if that’s what Whitey wants, we’ll give it to him, since there’s money and power involved. And then when we’re not looking, they betray us: they come out as “extreme nationalists” or “reactionary ideologues” or something, because it’s more advantageous at that point to put on a different skin. And we react like jilted lovers.
The other is that, by extension, we don’t know how to actually get things done. We mistake Liberal habits of mind for universal rules, and we assume that we can gently persuade people of the superiority of (let’s say) multi-ethnic political parties. But we may be working in an environment where threats and bribery of have always been the order of the day. Local actors may be used to inclining before those with more power, and being rewarded for so doing. You want me to organise a multi-ethnic political party? Fine, it’ll cost quite a bit, what’s your budget? In the days, many years ago, when I was associated with sterile efforts to bring a bit of peace and security back to Bosnia, we would sometimes sit around debating how much it would actually cost to do that properly, in comparison with the billions that were being wasted. The consensus, as I recall, was the equivalent of about five million dollars, which would bribe the right people for a long enough period of time. Meanwhile, here’s the latest telegram from Sarajevo: in this election, apparently, unlike the previous seven, the multi-ethnic parties are poised for a real breakthrough. They told us so themselves.
But this is changing. As I’ve suggested before, the Ukrainian conflict, like Covid, has demonstrated (rather than brought about) a change in the international balance of power that has been under way for some time. From the end of the Cold War, the West and the international institutions dominated by its thinking were effectively a monopoly: that is to say they were the sole providers of economic aid and practical assistance to states that needed them. It hadn’t always been so, and during the Cold War skilful rulers of small states could play East and West off against each other. For perhaps twenty years, that wasn’t possible, and, like a town with only one bank, small states were forced to go to the only source of help.
The best that can be said of western approaches is that they were not always very subtle. They relied on the recycling of ideas and practices with minimal recognition or even knowledge of local circumstances, and on an inflexible conviction that they were right. This applied even when ideas changed: a decade or so ago, some African countries were threatened with having aid cut off if they did not repeal laws against homosexuality. To which the same countries acidly replied that these same laws had been introduced by the British themselves in the Colonial era.
Rather than go into more depth on weaknesses that are well known, let’s just observe that new actors in Africa (and in the Middle East and Latin America) lack the ideological rigidity of the West. This is often trivially criticised as “letting authoritarian leaders get away with human rights violations”: that dog-eared vocabulary again. But what it really is is a sensible policy of doing things out of mutual interest, without trying to convert the natives to new ways of thinking. There are reasonable misgivings, for example, about Chinese policy in Africa, but excessive ideological fervour is not one of them. As a number of African decision-makers have wearily remarked: “When the Chinese come we get an airport, when the West comes we get a sermon.” Perhaps the age of sermons is over, as western power and influence declines.
And ironically, one reason why western influence has declined is that messianic Liberalism is very bad at understanding and interpreting the behaviour of other cultures in general. If western leaders had actually heeded the words of the OECD Constitution, they might have spared a little effort to find out what things were really like in China, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Russia or Ukraine, instead of trying to impose their own understandings. So in the end, the West, by grim historical irony, is probably the main victim of its own messianic Liberalism.
So what happens now? Well, I’ve had a message to say I’ve used up my allocation of words for this week. I’ll come back to that question next time.