‘President Nixon: When the President says he voted for me, he voted for the lesser of two evils.
Chairman Mao: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right.
President Nixon: And General DeGaulle.
Chairman Mao: DeGaulle is a different question. They also say the Christian Democratic Party of West Germany is also to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.
President Nixon: I think the important thing to note is that in America, at least at this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.
Dr. Kissinger: There is another point, Mr. President. Those on the left are pro-Soviet and would not encourage a move toward the People’s Republic, and in fact criticize you on those grounds.’
Because the Left-of-Center collectively is all about guilt by association and purity culture rather than actual accomplishment. See, you can’t say I hid the answer after a wall of text. Now on to why I came to this conclusion and why I am speaking of it right now.
Purity culture is a term I first became acquainted with through the evangelical prominence in the early and mid oughts. It was a cultural movement that espoused cult like behavior such as teenagers wearing rings that proclaimed their virginity untill marriage and other such behavior of self-righteous dorkishness. It was continued in evangelical colleges where adult students were (and presumably still are) subjected to curfews and bans on mixed sex gatherings as if they are children in a gulf Arab monarchy.
Coming from the same strain of thought, even if neither acknowledges it, is the incredibly knee jerk puritanism of anyone on the secular side that, like their religious contemporaries, values intent and social signaling more than actual reality. After all, statistical data from places with large evangelical populations often shows greater levels of crime, divorce, teenage pregnancy, etc. So too is it with the wokescold brigade on the left-a brigade that has hijacked the discourse of centrist liberals and actual leftists alike in order to posture as the elect of politics. Though in their case it is more often dictated by the tropes of popular entertainment with its clear cut narratives or good guys and bad guys. I surely cannot have been the only person to notice the sheer amount of nerds who identify first with the entertainment products they consume that have these opinions. This is the true end result of the union of neoliberalism and puritan culture.
Regular readers of these posts know I usually make the case that in terms of systemic structure and power that liberals are more like conservatives than they are the proper left. I still hold this position. But psychologically I do think there is immense overlap with liberals and the left. And that this, along with evangelicals on the right, is based off of an immense commitment to moralism rather than the hard, messy, and morally neutral world of power politics.
Nowhere is this unfortunate cultural baggage more clear than on the rare instance that such people have opinions on foreign policy…a world even more morally gray than that of the domestic as it lacks a final arbiter (a la state) of authority which one can appeal to. And thus it is not one for the attention of those whose understanding of the world is still stuck in Hollywood-and-YA-addled childhood. Granted, proportionally speaking, the western wokes avoid foreign policy like the plague. There is little room for basing one’s identity around a gender or individual conception of anything. Much like the rightists who prioritize social issues over all else, their provincialism is implicit-if perhaps made hypocritical by their constant claims of worldiness. This is good as it means there are less of them to wade through in my field…but also bad because when they do happen to dip their toe in the water it means the takes get nuclear hot and there are few correctives to be found.
Take for interest leftists trying to make sense of Tulsi Gabbard’s foreign policy focused run. She is far too independent of any doctrine to be a comfortable match with either them or liberals. Leftists discount her views, even when they agree with their own, for being of the wrong intentions. Leaving aside the farce of an idea that anyone could run for high office in America today on a platform of interventionist internationalism that wasn’t liberal hegemony, they get hung up on her civic nationalism even though it leads to the closest approximation to many of the same ends they share. Their point isn’t to accomplish anything in terms of policy, its to signal one’s ideological purity. Of course, history is full of examples of how one should never want the pure in government-no matter what side they are on. That’s Khmer Rouge level stuff in the making there. A government, by the way, once indirectly supported by the United States and directly supported by China. Though Chinese and American patriots alike often have a hard time squaring this with their own self-regard, it makes perfectly sense when one views issues in a purely strategic lens-something moralism and wokeness inevitably prevents anyone from doing.
This is directly parroted on the milquetoast neoliberal side of things, showing that the connection is clearly puritanical wokeness itself as it is what the left and liberals share together. Kamala Harris, who has largely run a substance-free campaign based on virtue signaling and easy identitarianism (while surrounding herself with the very people who the democratic establishment likes to staff administrations with to ensure no rocking of the boat) got taken to task on her ghastly Lock-Upesque criminal justice record in last night’s debate. Aunt Ruckus’ rattled campaign’s response showed everything about how this attitude is so dangerous to foreign policy as well as the campaign’s general hollowness on critical thought.
You can’t talk or even be in the same room with objectionable governments without it being seen as some kind of violation of our present niceties. Diplomacy is only for friends and amongst friends. (Saudis and Emiraties, of course, always exempt). The world stage is for showing your virtue, not for negotiating and getting things done. That is the implicit view here. Similar iterations of this view can be found in the far left, the neocon right, and among the media bobbleheads of the extreme center. Leftbeards (the neckbeards who swapped fedoras for flat caps and/or ushankas) are the first people to call Tulsi a Hindu nationalist for…meeting with Modi…a world statesman? Well, anyone who wants relations with India has to meet with Modi and exchange meaningless niceties with him, and any (and many) other American politicians have met with Modi in the same capacities. In the Bush Era, Nancy Pelosi met with Assad herself. And they should meet with these people because relations between two such huge countries are important. Another, darker, explanation is anti-Hindu prejudice. The left having (often rightly) defended Muslim minorities means it is accustomed to that issue, but has yet to extend the same courtesy to Hindus who are being conflated with right wing policies due to a single government. Needless to say, if the things leftbeards said about Hindus were said about Muslims said leftbeards would have a conniption.
Bolsonaro is probably the single most odious and even potentially dangerous world leader around right now, but it would be foolish not to have relations with him or meet with his government.
To bring it back to the North Atlantic puritanism that lurks at the center of this view is a kind of Huntingtonesque assumption that the first factor in determining relations is shared values, not shared interests. The reason the United States does not compete with any other liberal democracy is because all other liberal democracies are subordinate to the United States, not because they are liberal democracies. One needs only look at the combatants list of the First World War (and many other conflicts to boot) to see that the domestic composition of states matter little when their core interests are at stake. The United States supported far right governments in the Cold War, but also far left movements against the Axis. Democratic Athens obliterated other democratic city states who allied with Sparta. The Roman and Carthaginian republics fought three knock down drag out wars despite, from a foreign perspective, having more politically alike with each other than almost any other state around then.
But in the teleological view of the left and liberals alike (along with religious nuts and neocons/right-liberals) diplomacy is the means to an End of History, be it world revolution or cosmopolitanism or the Book of Revelation. That means that, consciously or not, they are predisposed to see the world as marching in some predetermined direction with morality as the key to hastening this process.
But the world is a chaotic place and diplomacy can only look so far ahead. There is no ultimate arbiter be it god, Meryl Streep, or a unified global working class. There are as there always have been, tribes of humans divided by geography, interests, culture, and circumstance. The best hope you have for progress in this reality is to look home first. If you want a global coalition to fight something like climate change, you first need a variety of governments that arise within their own circumstances and who are prepared to calculate the different costs of climate change (and occasional benefits) that show up for each biome and region. You also need to reduce defense spending in as many countries as possible, which means you must set aside messianic projects of international social engineering which are likely to raise the hackles of any weaker partners.
If you want to take on the rapacious policies of the right and the center alike, you need a realist, not an idealist, left. And if you want an alternative to endless war to help bring this about you need diplomacy. The very definition of diplomacy is to talk to people no matter what their values or domestic policy structures are. There are so many people in this world today that would benefit from a re-engagement with the Treaty of Westphalia, how much good it did, and how it ended one of Europe’s most destructive wars in an age of religious fanaticism by recognizing the rights of princes to determine their own domestic structures. It takes an adult to recognize that it’s the very opposite of purity culture that gets things done on the international stage.
Before the rise of numerous absolutist ideologies, religious and secular, it was taken as normal that different states had different structures and values. Hence why there were different states in the first place. It is the most natural view to have, and the most practical. The reason it is not common in liberal democracies anymore (though it remains common everywhere else among left, right and center, tellingly) has more to do with immense levels of propaganda and cultural baggage on this very issue-an issue that no matter what direction of the ideological spectrum it comes from-is all about creating a world where the reality of calculating balance of power is denied for the comforting fable of a world where crisis management is a means to some greater glory, rather than just the day by day necessities of getting by in a chaotic world. This, in turn, sabotages our ability as good strategists to do crisis management at all.
Considering that this view of a homogenized and moralistic world cannot be achieved, it actively thwarts real work in practical diplomacy. When a country decides not to have relations with another, or to impose sanctions, over something out of the control of the bilateral relationship, it merely increases the likelihood of something bad to happen for the psychological comfort of the governing and media class of the sanctioning country. This is why the one unquestionably good thing Trump is doing, negotiating with North Korea, is so vehemently despised by so many in the Democratic Party who supported the Iran Deal, while it is also upheld by many who opposed the Iran Deal on the other side. Purely partisan lines of attack know that Anglo-moralism can always be alluded to as a criticism when one is out of power. The fringes, especially the left-fringes, also seem to have adopted that lesson.
It is time to force people to re-learn it. For the sake of diplomacy, realists must take the initiative and not let such puritan rhetoric stand.