January 22, 2015


This is one of the most erudite, comprehensive accumulations of wisdom which I’ve ever read. 

It reveals the insidious impact of "messianic visions" of one's country 
or religion or dogma of any kind that become so "exclusionary" that the rights 
of others are ignored or given scant respect and at worst become the rationale 
for killing others. 

I am not sure there is any antidote to this other than the belief that we are 
all creatures of God endowed with God-given rights-- even though history sadly 
demonstrates that  this antidote is often not strong enough to overcome the 
human tendency to seek meaning for one's existence by comparing ourselves as a 
group to some "other" group. 

I will try to illuminate, using Kissinger’s words, some of these multiple
“messianic visions” which have brought with them great tragedy as well as no small
amount of good. 

Today,these “messianic visions", if pursued unilaterally and without recognition of other people's history and culture and respect for the right of everyone to
“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” will continue to lead to enormous
human suffering.

Theme #1.  The messianic ambition of the United States and how it has formed our policy, leading to great good and considerable harm.  For example: 

·      As John Winthrop, a Puritan lawyer who left East Anglia to escape religious suppression, preached aboard the Arbella in 1630, bound for New England, God intended America as an example for “all people”:

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.”  For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.

None doubted that humanity and its purpose would in some way be revealed and fulfilled in America.

·      As the frontiers of the nation crept across the continent, the expansion of America was seen as the operation of a kind of law by nature.  When the United States practiced what elsewhere was defined as imperialism, Americans gave it another name:  “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

·      The American experience supported the assumption that peace was the natural condition of humanity, prevented only by other countries’ unreasonableness or ill will.

·      John Quincy Adams summed up these sentiments in 1821, in a tone verging on exasperation at other countries’ determination to pursue more complicated and devious courses.

America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendships, or equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.  She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.  She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.  She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.

·      In 1839, as the official United States Exploring Expedition reconnoitered the far reaches of the hemisphere and the South Pacific, the United States Magazine and Democratic Review published an article heralding the United States as “the great nation of futurity,” disconnected from and superior to everything in history that had preceded it:

The American people having derived their origin from many other nations, and the Declaration of national Independence being entirely based on the great principle of human equality, these facts demonstrate at once our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes.  On the contrary, our national birth was the beginning of a new history.

We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march?  Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.

The United States was thus not simply a country but an engine of God’s plan and the epitome of world order.

Talk about haughty presumption.

·      Like many American leaders before him, Woodrow Wilson asserted that a divine dispensation had made the United States a different kind of nation.  “It was as if,” Wilson told the graduating class at West Point in 1916, “in the Providence of God a continent had been kept unused and waiting for a peaceful people, who loved liberty and the rights of men more than they loved anything else, to come and set up an unselfish commonwealth.”

Nearly all of Wilson’s predecessors in the presidency would have subscribed to such a belief.  Where Wilson differed was in his assertion that an international order based on it could be achieved within a single lifetime, even a single administration.

Theme #2.  The messianic vision of Islam.  Its ambition to rule the whole world.  For example:

·      Other religions—especially Christianity—have had their own crusading phases, at times exalting their universal mission with comparable fervor and resorting to analogous methods of conquest and forced conversions.  (Spanish conquistadores abolished ancient civilizations in Central and South American in the sixteenth century in a similar spirit of world-conquering finality.)  The difference is that the crusading spirit subsided in the Western world or took the form of secular concepts that proved less absolute (or less enduring) than religious imperatives.  Over time, Christendom became a philosophical and historical concept, not an operational principle of strategy or international order.  That process was facilitated because the Christian world had originated a distinction between “the things which are Caesar’s” and “the things that are God’s,” permitting an eventual evolution toward pluralistic, secular-based foreign policies within a state-based international system.

·      No single society has ever had the power, no leadership the resilience, and no faith the dynamism to impose its writ enduringly through the world.  Universality has proved elusive for any conqueror, including Islam.  As the early Islamic Empire expanded, it eventually fragmented into multiple centers of power.

·      In the spring of 1947, Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian watchmaker, schoolteacher, and widely read self-taught religious activist, addressed a critique of Egyptian institutions to Egypt’s King Farouk titled “Toward the Light.”  It offered an Islamic alternative to the secular national state.  In studiedly polite yet sweeping language, al-Banna outlined the principles and aspirations of the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers (known colloquially as the Muslim Brotherhood), the organization he had founded in 1928 to combat what he saw as the degrading effects of foreign influence and secular ways of life.

Though he did not use the terms, al-Banna was arguing that the Westphalian world order had lost both its legitimacy and its power.  And he was explicitly announcing that the opportunity to create a new world order based on Islam had arrived.  “The Islamic way has been tried before,” he argued, and “history has testified as to its soundness.” 

Ambiguities lingered in al-Banna’s text, but the record of many Islamist thinkers and movements since then has resolved them in favor of a fundamental rejection of pluralism and secular international order.  The religious scholar and Muslim Brotherhood ideologist Sayyid Qutb articulated perhaps the most learned and influential version of this view.  In 1964, while imprisoned on charges of participating in a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Nasser, Qutb wrote Milestones, a declaration of war against the existing world order that became a foundational text of modern Islam.

In Qutb’s view, Islam was a universal system of offering the only true form of freedom:  freedom from governance by other men, man-made doctrines, or “low associations based on race and color, language and country, regional and national interests” (that is, all other modern forms of governance and loyalty and some of the building blocks of Westphalian order).  Islam’s modern mission, in Qutb’s view, was to overthrow them all and replace them with what he took to be a literal, eventually global implementation of the Quran.

In the purist version of Islamism, the state cannot be the point of departure for an international system because states are secular, hence illegitimate; at best they may achieve a kind of provisional status en route to a religious entity on a larger scale.

·      As Khomeini elaborated, “We must strive to export our Revolution throughout the world, and must abandon all idea of not doing so, for not only does Islam refuse to recognize any difference between Muslim countries, it is the champion of all oppressed people.”  This would require an epic struggle against “America, the global plunderer,” and the Communist materialist societies of Russia and Asia, as well as “Zionism, and Israel.”

Theme #3.  The messianic vision of China. 

·      From its unification as a single political entity in 221 B.C. through the early twentieth century, China’s position at the center of world order was so ingrained in its elite thinking that in the Chinese language there was no word for it.  Only retrospectively did scholars define the “Sinocentric” tribute system.  In this traditional concept, China considered itself, in a sense, the sole sovereign government of the world.  Its Emperor was treated as a figure of cosmic dimensions and the linchpin between the human and the divine.  His purview was not a sovereign state of “China”—that is, the territories immediately under his rule—but “All Under Heaven,” of which China formed the central, civilized part:  “the Middle Kingdom,” inspiring and uplifting the rest of humanity. 

In this view, world order reflected a universal hierarchy, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states.  Every known society was conceived of as being in some kind of tributary relationship with China, based in part on its approximation of Chinese culture; none could reach equality with it.

A Chinese foreign ministry was not established until the mid-nineteenth century, and then perforce to deal with intruders from the West.  Even then, officials considered their task the traditional practice of barbarian management, not anything that might be regarded as Westphalian diplomacy.

Russia, too, has had its messianic vision, one rekindled by President Putin in recent years.

Needless to say, Nazi Germany was propelled by Hitler's corrupt messianic vision of an exclusive Aryan race ruling the world

 It is from the cloak of exclusive messianic visions that war and untold human tragedy flow.  It is in the failure of these visions to recognize that we all have endowed God-given rights that need to be respected and honored.


Some other mind-opening reflections from Kissinger:

·      We will usually be better served as Edmund Burke once wrote, “to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, and to push for the more perfect.”

·      In the United States, the quest for world order functions on two levels: the salvation of universal principles needs to be paired with the recognition of the reality of other regions’ history and culture.  We failed the test on balance many times, including in our relationship with Russia over the past decade.  We failed when we intervened in Iraq as we did and in Vietnam as we did decades before that. 

·      Kissinger relates that, in his youth, he was brash enough to think himself able to pronounce on “The Meaning of History.”  He now knows, he says, “that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared; a question we must attempt to answer as best we can and recognition that it will remain open to debate; that each generation will be judged whether the greatest, most consequential issues of the human condition have been faced, and the decision to meet these challenges must be taken by statesmen before it is possible to know what the outcome may be.”

·      Order should not have priority over freedom.  But the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy.  The quest for humane values, the expression of elevated principles is a first step; they must then be carried through the inherent ambiguities and contradictions of all human affairs which is the task of policy.

·      Great statesman, or I would say leaders, however different their personalities, almost invariably had an instinctive feeling for the history of their societies.  As Edmnud Burke wrote, “People will not look forward to posterity who never looked back to their ancestors.”

·      There are traps in the all-pervasive technology that exists today.  Approbation has become the goal, Kissinger says.   Communication risks being reduced to a series of slogans designed to capture short-term approbation.  Foreign policy is in danger of turning into a subdivision of domestic politics instead of an exercise in shaping the future.  The search for perspective may well be replaced by a hardening of differences, statesmanship by posturing, per Kissinger.  We’re seeing a lot of that these days.  The challenge of technology is captured in a poem of T.S. Eliot: 

“Where is the Life we’ve lost in living it? 

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Kissinger:  “Facts are rarely self-explanatory; their significance, analysis, interpretation, at least in the foreign policy world, depend on context and relevance.


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