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What Lincoln knew about the war.

TOCQUEVILLE FIGURED THAT a liberal society could not, in fact, wield power. The vitality of American life confirmed his belief that social equality ("democracy," in his usage) was the wave of the future, even in Europe. But government in the United States was based on unusual principles--on popular sovereignty, federalism, and liberal rights--and those principles added up, in his estimation, to weakness. The United States consisted of 24 states and seemed to function well enough--for the moment. But someday the number of states was going to swell, he imagined, to 40, with a gigantic population of maybe 100 million. And, sooner or later, America's flimsy political system, under that kind of weight, was bound to break down."I would like to contribute to the faith in human perfectibility," he wrote in a section of Democracy in America titled "What Are the Chances of Duration for the American Union? What Dangers Threaten It?" "But until men have changed their nature and are completely transformed, I will refuse to believe in the longevity of a government whose task is to hold together forty diverse peoples spread across a surface equal to half of Europe, to keep them from falling into rivalries, plots, and struggles, and to bring together their independent wills into action for common plans."

This was not a foolish worry. A couple of decades after Tocqueville made his U.S. tour, the problem that he had detected in America's liberal principles brushed up against the live wire that he had likewise detected in America's attitudes and customs regarding race. Rivalries, plots, and struggles duly combusted in the form of Southern secession. And the U.S. system did fall apart, exactly as he had feared. But then came what Tocqueville could never have imagined.

Let us recall that U.S. democracy, in its Northern rump, might perfectly well have accepted the departure of the Southern states. In the North, a good many respectable leaders of the Democratic Party, not just the Irish mobs in New York's streets, advocated just such a passive acceptance. A shrunken United States would have had to accommodate the fearsome British and French imperialists (everyone forgets the French, but they were expanding just then into Mexico), not to mention the Spanish Empire in Cuba. A rump United States might not have survived for very long under those circumstances. Still, it might have prospered in the meanwhile. It might even have benefited from the amputation of its Southern half, might have become a second Canada or something still more adventurous in time: a Sweden of the New World, a social-democratic land of New Deals uninhibited by Bourbon alliances, a virtuous center of commerce and industry. A republic, in short, such as the many little republics of Florence and other cities in the Middle Ages, which blossomed splendidly for a few decades and then, in their defenseless condition, were invariably crushed under the heel of some marauding army. That was definitely an American possibility.  

Instead, the United States adopted the program that Abraham Lincoln unveiled at Gettysburg, in a speech that responded to virtually every one of Tocqueville's worries in "Chances of Duration." Like Tocqueville, Lincoln looked on the United States in the light of world history and not just as an isolated country--looked on the United States as a country that was experimenting with a possible future for the entire world. Lincoln's phrase about "conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" specified the double principle of liberal government ("liberty") and social equality ("democracy"). And Lincoln worried about duration--"whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

In arguing that liberal democracy would, in fact, endure, Lincoln did not invoke any kind of external or more-than-human force--the power of God, perhaps, or of providence. Nor did he cite the practical advantages of Northern industrialization and economic power or the size of the Northern population or some other material fact. Nor did he ruminate on "human perfectibility," in Tocqueville's mocking phrase. Lincoln considered that the United States was going to endure because it chose to do so--because of an act of will: "We here highly resolve"--that was his message. And he gave force to this message by defining the two aims of the war, as he was conducting it--two aims and not more, simplicity itself: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth." Which is to say: solidarity with the oppressed--in this case, the American slaves (the "new birth of freedom" referred to their liberation); and universal ambitions--the ambitions that were invoked by that final, most emotional, almost unbearably passionate word in his address, the final reverberating bang on his giant drum: the "Earth," meaning the whole Earth, not just a single corner of a single continent.

Liberal democracy was going to endure, in short, by taking on grander and more radical goals than ever before--by becoming more revolutionary, not less; by offering, in some form or another, liberty and solidarity to the entire world. This kind of response to Southern secession might seem counterintuitive-- to take on more burdens, instead of less, just when the night was darkest. But it was the nature of liberalism that pushed Lincoln in this direction. He chose to radicalize the U.S. republic because he knew that, in order to survive, liberal democracy needed to arouse among its own citizens a greater commitment than ever before to the cause of universal freedom--in fact, an absolute commitment, which could only mean a commitment unto death. This, too, was the meaning of "we here highly resolve." For where was "here"? Here was a cemetery. Lincoln was eloquent even in his choice of speaking platforms.

TODAY, WE ARE living through not just a military crisis but something of a political crisis within the larger liberal democratic world, trans-Atlantically. Robert Kagan has written a subtle and brilliant book on this theme called Of Paradise and Power, and I don't want to try to characterize his whole complicated argument here. I wish only to point to Kagan's view that, in the United States, people tend to suppose that we inhabit a "Hobbesian" world filled with nasty and brutish types who need to be stoutly clubbed from time to time, whereas, in Western Europe, people tend to picture themselves inhabiting a "Kantian" world, in which lions and lambs lay down in perpetual peace according to international law or can be lured into doing so.

This idea seems to me almost entirely wrong. The modern European idea does not seem to me Kantian. It seems to me Tocquevillean. It is a liberal democratic idea of a sort that cannot conceive of wielding power. It assumes that liberal democracy can only follow the path of a Sweden or a Switzerland or a Florentine Republic--the liberal democracy of virtuous and admirable countries that cannot possibly defend themselves, except by being inoffensive. In the European idea, power is imperial or nothing--the power of brutal empires, such as the Europeans themselves used to administer. Kagan writes that Europe has chosen to emphasize a nonviolent approach to world events today because the Europeans do not enjoy an option of doing otherwise. But the opposite is true. The Europeans (as Kagan acknowledges in a somewhat contradictory remark), with their 400 million people and their $9 trillion economy, could make themselves extremely powerful. They do not choose to do so. It is because they wish to be liberal democrats. And liberal democracy, in their concept, is a compromise, a mediocrity. It is, by definition, a negotiation--a good thing, but, as Tocqueville took pains to show, not entirely a good thing. And, because the Europeans cannot conceive or accept the notion of liberal democracy as a revolutionary project for universal liberation, they cannot imagine how to be liberal democrats and wield power at the same time. They simply cannot imagine how an exercise of force might bring about political revolutions in remote corners of the world--cannot imagine this, even though the experience of their largest country, Germany, offers a superb and vivid example.

In the United States, on the other hand, a great many people--not everyone, but many--naturally assume that every country, all over the world, will eventually embrace liberal democracy. In American eyes, the revolutions of 1989 were, at bottom, not at all surprising--they were the kind of revolutions that Americans have spent 200 years impatiently expecting to see. And, if the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 have not yet spread to still further regions of the world--if liberal democracy has not yet swept the Arab world and sundry zones within the larger Muslim world--why, that is only a matter of time, and we Americans ought meanwhile to show a little solidarity and do what we can to help, as we have done so effectively on behalf of the benighted Europe of yore. This view of world affairs is not Hobbesian. But neither is it Tocquevillean. It is Lincolnian.

In one respect Kagan seems to me on the mark. His idea about Hobbesian Americans and Kantian Europeans does express the way in which two specific groups of people see the Atlantic divide. The first of those groups includes a great many Europeans who picture the United States as Hobbesian precisely because, like Tocqueville, they cannot imagine how a liberal democracy could wield power; and, since the United States does wield power, its behavior must owe to a nasty brutishness that is not at all liberal and democratic. (And, to be sure, sometimes they are right.) The second group of people who share Kagan's perspective are the American partisans of foreign policy "realism," whose own doctrinal principles insist on a variation of the old Symbolist slogan about "art for art's sake," except this time in a political version: power for power's sake.

These people know perfectly well that liberal democratic motives have driven U.S. foreign policies in moments of the past and that liberal democratic motives still drive portions of U.S. policy; but they cannot really integrate these two insights--their belief in power for power's sake with their observation about the idealist impulses of some of their fellow citizens. And so, the realists bow piously toward the liberal democratic idea; and then, once the services have concluded, they go on prattling about power for power's sake. And here we stumble on a peculiar tragedy of our present moment. The United States has come under military attack, requiring military responses. But, as in the Civil War, the revolutionary responses of liberal democratic ideals are likewise required, and not in a small degree. For the ultimate goal of our present war--the only possible goal--must be to persuade tens of millions of people around the world to give up their paranoid and apocalyptic doctrines about American conspiracies and crimes, to give up those ideas in favor of a lucid and tolerant willingness to accept the modern world with its complexities and advantages. The only war aim that will actually bring us safety is, in short, the spread of liberal outlooks to places that refuse any such views today. That is not a small goal, nor a goal to be achieved in two weeks, nor something to be won through mere military feats, though military feats cannot be avoided.

In each of the greatest crises of its past, the United States has known how to summon its most radical ideals and to express them in ever deeper versions to ourselves and to our enemies--as Lincoln did; as Woodrow Wilson did; as Franklin Roosevelt did two times over, first against the fascists and then, at the end of his life, in sketching a few preliminary notions for the impending cold war. But, on these themes, our present White House has turned out to be incoherent. George W. Bush's demeanor, his undignified language (and even the language of his speechwriters, which is oddly antique, without any hint of the revolutionary liberalism of 1989 and the modern era), his early bias against what he derided as "nation-building," the continuing sneer at revolutionary liberation that is contained in the sinister phrase "regime change," his antipathy toward the ideals of international law, his uncultured air--these are traits that Hobbes would surely have ascribed to an American head of state or to any head of state. Right now, we need to summon people around the world to express a "devotion" (in Lincoln's word) to liberal ideals--a devoted enthusiasm for those ideas among the schoolteachers in every impoverished immigrant suburb of Europe, among the editors in every Arab newspaper office, and among the professors in every Muslim university. We need the cooperation of millions of people, who, in their idealism, will rush out to argue with their own students and neighbors and readers. But the U.S. government, which knows how to twist the arms of Turkish politicians, does not know how to inspire the schoolteachers and newspaper editors and professors, not to mention the European masses, not to mention the American masses. Worse, the American leaders don't even try to inspire people around the world, which is shocking to see, considering that our current problem is 90 percent political and only 10 percent military.

And so, we find ourselves in the midst of a Lincolnian war, a war for the liberation of others, yet led by people with Hobbesian instincts--find ourselves plunged into a crisis of liberal democracy, in which our leaders do not know what Lincoln knew, which was how to appeal to the ever more radical principles of liberal democracy. Our military is armed to the teeth, which turns out to be a good thing. (I admit it.) But our government has for some reason disarmed itself unilaterally in the realms of persuasion, inspirational example, philosophical clarity, and moral leadership. How did this happen to us? It has happened to us. Tocqueville thought that liberal societies could not wield power, and Lincoln proved him wrong. I am terrified that we are in the process of proving Lincoln wrong--that we are wielding power without liberalism, which will turn out to be no power at all.