Michael Kimmage, The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2020). 373 pp. $23.99.
SEATTLE’S CAPITOL Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) and Athens’ upscale Kolonaki district are so remote that only a globe-spanning event could pair them both in a single news cycle. Earlier in June of this year, the anti-American rage that saw woke activists burn U.S. flags the world over was precisely that event.
With the November U.S. presidential elections right around the corner, one can be excusably absorbed by the domestic stakes in our ongoing culture war—cue CHOP’s lawless mayhem. Yet in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a portrait of America as an irredeemably racist nation has taken hold worldwide, which reminds that the nation’s foundational promise was never meant to exist in a vacuum. Violations of that promise—whether or not Floyd’s death turns out to be one—are bound to ripple globally, for they too violate America’s mission to act as a global beacon. That mission demands that liberty and equal rights turn out successful experiments at home, so that they may inspire the Earth. There’s a succinct appellation—though quaint and politically taboo—for the belief in a path for mankind to reach civilized freedom, where America plays a fallible though indispensable role: the West.
To trust only the title of Michael Kimmage’s latest book, “the West” as a cultural touchstone and a foreign policy paradigm was wantonly forsworn in the 1960s and has turned into something of a repoussoir since. The Abandonment of the West traces the intellectual undercurrents that propelled this notion to elite appeal, mainstream embrace, and then demoted it to political disrepute. The connection between America’s proclaimed global duty and its internal promise is everywhere manifest in the book, for the two have become simultaneous targets of woke cancellation. And when America sneezes, the West catches a cold.
The book should also be read in light of today’s transatlantic squabbles over nato and trade amidst Chinese and Russian revisionism, which combined seem a wake-up call to rearm the West of its long forsaken civilizational panache. These two facets in Kimmage’s definition of the West—culture and geopolitics—seem to have balanced each other out since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The version of the West that seemed irreversibly ascendant then was a purely technocratic one, symphonious with the siren song of cultural relativism and devoid of the intellectual élan that over centuries propelled mankind to that blissful moment. Whether today’s enflamed geopolitics are partly a recoil from reducing the West to open markets and democratic polities in the 1990s is a thorny question, but one that tugs at the decadent dynamic of a West sowing the seeds of its own cultural disavowal along the path to geopolitical omnipotence.
THE BOOK is a work of intellectual history, and as such combines the two scholarly endeavors of the mind—education and thought. Kimmage recounts a succession of acclaimed polemics that either idealized the West, decried its abandonment, or wokedly cancelled it as whitewashed ethno-cultural discourse. To the extent they’re datable, America’s entry into and exit from the West result from that “fluid combination” between the “cultural affinities” these works popularized and the “strategic posture” of the Euro-American alliance. Uncoincidentally, the country’s stumbling into World War II was preluded by the West’s cultural apogee amongst coastal elites, a zeitgeist that saw universities—that nexus between culture and strategy—equip rising cadres of servicemen, diplomats, and citizens with the sense of civilizational purpose that alone can give meaning to the deathliest of wars.
The teaching of the Western canon—that timeless locus of humanistic values shaped by Greco-Roman antiquity, Judeo-Christian civilization, and the Enlightenment—was pioneered at Columbia (more on that Western metaphor below) by literary critic John Erskine. This was occurring just as Europe, their historical lodestone, turned its back on them amidst the follies of the 1920s and 1930s. The trauma of the Great War was already having, at least on the Ivy-educated beau monde, the effect that a much deadlier World War II would later have on the broader American mind. The country, these coastal elites grasped in the interwar period, was destined to lead a bulwark of civilized liberty, rallied by Europe’s Western powers. But for Americans to be willing to fund this geostrategic West with their blood and treasure, they ought to be steeped in the historical wellsprings of liberty that give the West meaning. America’s dragging yet again into another world-altering conflict in 1941 merely hastened that destiny, and the Allied victory four years later propelled forth the Western ideal of ordered peace that had previously fallen prey to the ambient isolationism of the 1920s. America’s ingress in the geopolitical West was thus a backstop to Europe’s exit, and the worldwide wrestle against authoritarian communism that followed post-1945 required that it stay at the West’s helm.
As for our culture’s current post-Western moment, Kimmage’s introduction illustrates it with George W. Bush’s recanting of the word “crusade” in reference to the Iraq War, even though past presidents had reveled in its ethno-religious connotations. Another newsworthy instance of a diffident, self-doubting West was the removal of Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office on Barack Obama’s first day in office, which alt-right author Dinesh D’Souza seized on in one of his film-adapted best-sellers to describe him as an “anti-colonial ideologue” for whom the West had been untenably sullied by Britain’s imperial legacy. The former president’s meeting in 1998 at a community event in Chicago with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said was another such figurative moment, for Said’s Orientalism was, in Kimmage’s telling, a watershed in the West’s decline as a cultural currency. That book argued that the elites of freshly decolonized nations had internalized the West’s faux superiority, producing a cultural servilism that forever warped world affairs. Whether perused with D’Souza’s partisan sensationalism or Kimmage’s minute scrutiny, these seemingly discrete events tell the story of a West no longer connoting humanistic values, tainted instead by the unsavory legacies of ethno-cultural jingoism and hubristic foreign policy. Western civilization, when invoked today in academic and media settings, connotes not liberty, but aggression.
AMERICA’S CULTURAL Westernization in the first place happened intangibly too, at the imprecise moment when the country’s mainstream knew itself bound to a larger civilizational space by a common appreciation of ordered liberty. This awareness arose with the country’s newfound continental potential at the turn of the nineteenth century, which, in a moral contradiction typical of the West, ignored the countless torments inflicted on slaves, Native settlers, and immigrant laborers. Kimmage could have chosen to mark this juncture 1890, when the Census Bureau declares the frontier closed, or the Spanish-American War of eight years later—both of these fed a distinct giddiness about America’s version of mission civilisatrice, aided by a then-embryonic national press. A Judge magazine cartoon from the time pictures a mulatto toddler, embodying a colonized Cuba, yearning for Columbia’s embrace on the back of a war-weary, blindfolded Uncle Sam. Allegorizing the American people’s love of freedom, Columbia would today suffer instant cancellation, for it is a distinctly Western metaphor: one that grounds universal aspirations in the particular memory of those who earned distinction by honoring them—even as they proved their fallenness in doing so, even if their connection to actual liberty is so faintly indirect as Columbus’. For all the ill that followed in his wake, the Genovese explorer widened the expanse where liberty would later flourish by uniting the Old and New Worlds in a single fit of civilizational expansion. The reference point that Kimmage ends up using to mark America’s cultural Westernization is precisely the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Marking 400 years since Columbus’ discovery, the fair’s neoclassical aesthetics channeled a sense of civilizational kinship with Europe, thus giving birth, in Kimmage’s chronology, to an America fully Western.
What Kimmage calls the “Columbian Republic,” however, is best understood not as America’s awareness as a Western nation, but as the trickling-down of that awareness from an elite who’d been all too aware all along, having inherited from the Founders a distinctly Western philosophy of good government and an attendant optimism about the country’s global role. In 1782, Thomas Jefferson confided in a letter to Tench Coxe, a Pennsylvanian delegate to the Continental Congress, that “the ball of liberty is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light and liberty go together.” With the requisite foundation in enlightened virtue, Jefferson hoped other countries would emulate America’s pioneering mix of liberty and self-government, forming with it what he elsewhere called an “Empire of Liberty”—a clear synonym for the West. At the Founding, Jefferson and his co-authors knew that the infant republic’s promise couldn’t stay forever sealed from world events, and that the responsibility they bestowed on it was double—liberty and self-government had to prosper not just for America’s own sake, but for the world’s too, shining a light for other nations to follow suit. “Carved from the stone of Enlightenment thought,” as Kimmage writes, America’s founding marked in this sense the West’s apogee, the culmination of mankind’s reasoned desire, born out of Europe’s millenary troubles and transplanted into the New World, to live in ordered liberty under a limited state.
It is in this enlightened legalism that Kimmage wants the West re-anchored, which implies plucking the ethno-cultural undertones that history has appended to it. He is all too aware of the dilemma this seemingly poses between discarding these unsavory connotations and upholding the cultural soil of republican virtue that is a precondition for successful self-government, but he boldly refuses to play by it. It is by mere historical contingency, he rightly stresses, that Western moral codes, enlightened reason, and the primacy of the written word have been associated with Caucasian ethnicity, for they know no ethno-cultural context other than themselves. Those who were blessed first with their discovery have the duty to guide others towards them, which is a vastly different notion of Western responsibility than neocon-inspired regime change—the hubristic delusion that deems democracy easily exportable to the furthest reaches of the globe. Having led to Vietnam and Iraq, this “messianism” was, in Kimmage’s reading, built on a disregard for democracy’s preconditions that is strikingly similar to the cultural relativism that the hangover from these foreign policy blunders have later inspired. The two lead to vastly different worldviews, but both are founded on de-anchoring liberty and self-government from their cultural prerequisites—a healthy individualism, communitarian traditions, and enlightened civility.
KIMMAGE’S ROADMAP to saving the West thus stresses that the self-evident truth of human equality knows no national boundaries, and that America’s unique mix of self-government built on republican virtue is peaceably accessible to all nations, for all are equally called to enjoy the blessings of liberty. It is by nurturing the West’s universalist appeal that Kimmage hopes to close the back door, once and for all, to the unsavory discourses of whiteness and Euro-American supremacy that have long been invoked to justify such anti-Western practices as forced conquest, imperialist colonization, and slavery. Reviving this version of the West echoes again the mission to uphold America at home—the two require a similar argumentative method that foregrounds their defense in the language of natural rights and the promise of equality in freedom. They will also require facing up to past and present violations of these ideals, while highlighting them as the only domain where freewheeling individuals can aim for better—in other words, argue from the West but not with the West. Kimmage dreams of a Western pantheon that honors Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King on an equal footing with the Founding Fathers.
This kind of intellectual rearmament may find ferment in challenges foreign as well as domestic: shortly after the U.S. flag burned in Athens and CHOP, the streets of Hong Kong were awash with it in a Western cry for freedom and against Beijing’s tyranny. Kimmage’s fellow academic-cum-diplomats at the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff are taking notice—a year ago, Mike Pompeo gathered a star line-up of intellectuals to “advise on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and those of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” forming the Commission on Unalienable Rights now led by Peter Berkowitz, Kimmage’s Republican successor. Even then, it is at home that a West rehabilitated must ultimately take root, through the same conduit that ennobled it a century ago—the university. On this score, the prospects are as bleak as ever, for the anti-Western revisionism that Kimmage describes as having taken hold seems loath to compromise on a de-ethnicized reset. Perhaps Kimmage underestimates his opponents’ determination by hoping that the West can be restored to its erstwhile luster if only a certain ethno-cultural reek was cleansed from it. Perhaps the wokeness that has conquered the academy has irretrievably diluted both liberty and its cultural preconditions in an all-absorbing magma of cultural relativism. Perhaps Oswald Spengler, Pat Buchanan, and James Burnham—three authors Kimmage cites for having raised alarm about the West’s demise—were simply canaries in the coalmine. Perhaps the intellectual cul-de-sac they warned would come from relativizing the West has become our present predicament.
Perhaps Hong Kong shows the way. Or perhaps that way has been shut off for good.