Hobbes or Kant?

Bret Stephens in today’s WSJ, on the refugee crisis, “Europe’s openness rests on America’s strength. You can’t have one without the other.”

From Farewell to the Era of No Fences:

We mistook a holiday from history for the end of it. We built a fenceless world on the wrong set of assumptions about the future. We wanted a new liberal order—one with a lot of liberalism and not a lot of order. We wanted to be a generous civilization without doing the things required to be a prosperous one.

In 2003 the political theorist Robert Kagan wrote a thoughtful book, “Of Paradise and Power,” in which he took stock of the philosophical divide between Americans and Europeans. Americans, he wrote, inhabited the world of Thomas Hobbes, in which “true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.”

Europeans, by contrast, lived in the world of Immanuel Kant, in which “perpetual peace” was guaranteed by a set of cultural conventions, consensually agreed rules and a belief in the virtues of social solidarity overseen by a redistributive state.

These differences didn’t matter much as long as they were confined to panel discussions at Davos. Then came the presidency of Barack Obama, which has adopted the Kantian view. For seven years, the U.S. and Europe have largely been on the same side—the European side—of most of the big issues, especially in the Mideast: getting out of Iraq, drawing down in Afghanistan, lightly intervening in Libya, staying out of Syria, making up with Iran.

The result is our metastasizing global disorder. It’s only going to get worse…

Is there a way out? Suddenly, there’s talk in Europe about using military power to establish safe zones in Syria to contain the exodus of refugees. If U.S. administrations decide on adopting Kant, Europe, even Germany, may have no choice but to reacquaint itself with Hobbes by rebuilding its military and using hard power against unraveling neighbors.

Europeans will not easily embrace that option. The alternative is to hasten the return to the era of fences. Openness is a virtue purchased through strength.

Update:  elsewhere in the op-ed pages of the WSJ, the editors also weigh in on the refugee crisis:

Demands for compassion are easy, but it’s also important to understand how Europe—and the U.S.—got here. This is what the world looks like when the West abandons its responsibility to maintain world order.

The refugees are fleeing horror shows across North Africa and the Middle East, but especially the Syrian civil war that is now into its fifth year. Committed to withdrawing from the region, President Obama chose to do almost nothing. Europe, which has a longer Middle Eastern history than America and is closer, chose not to fill the U.S. vacuum.

The result has been the worst human catastrophe of the 21st-century…

The lesson is that while intervention has risks, so does abdication. The difference is that at least intervention gives the West the opportunity to shape events, often for the better, rather than merely cope with the consequences of doing nothing. As difficult as the war in Iraq was, by 2008 the insurgency was defeated and Iraqis were returning to Baghdad. Only after Mr. Obama withdrew entirely from Iraq and ignored Syria did Iraq deteriorate again and Islamic State advance.

Europeans who dislike an America they think is overbearing should note what happens when the world’s policeman decides to take a vacation and let the neighbors fend for themselves. In the modern world of instant communications and easy transportation, the world’s problems will wash up on the wealthy West’s shores one way or another. If Europe isn’t prepared to handle nearby crises, militarily if necessary, be prepared to accept the refugees.

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One Response to Hobbes or Kant?

  1. I agree that Kant should not be followed in these matter – but stressing Thomas Hobbes is not good. Hobbes did not believe in freedom – philosophical or political. Hobbes believed in tyranny – yes that is a “primitive” view of Hobbes, but it is also the correct view.

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