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What Right Side of History?

February 14, 2011

Did Obama put America on the right side of history in Egypt? In Tunisia? Will it be on the right side in Algeria? Yemen? Before answering this question, we must ask what the point even is of being on “the right side of history.” There are different forms of this argument, but all of them are inherently problematic. Inherently, they are teleological, and give history a moral or rational predetermined course. In most cases, these arguments bestow our preferences with inevitability (perhaps with the exception of disillusioned environmentalists such as James Lovelock). We direct these arguments at our leaders and others in positions of power, to compel them to stand with us, on that “right side” which will inexorably wipe out our opponents.

Yet this mode of reasoning is particularly poor for guiding policy decisions, at least in the way we generally employ it. Though there are many forms of teleological arguments about the course of history, for the sake of keeping this post at a reasonable level, we can focus on the idea of democracy’s spread as a historical inevitability. It is easy to look back on history and deduce that history does have a clear, linear path towards increasing democracy. However, it is much more difficult to explain why, and remove the role of contingency from the story. The outcome of any number of environmental, military, technological-economical, and demographic events could have differed, and these events could have taken with them the so-called course of history, including intellectual and political history.

Through the lens of historical inevitability, we lose this sense of perspective. We reduce events which existentially challenged democracies to momentary setbacks whose final outcome was really preordained. When we raise this lens to policymaking, we further remove it from the vital considerations of power. Linear time inevitably clashes with the flow of events, and constrains our responses. As Roberto Calasso writes:

Nothing is less homogeneous than linear time: it is marked by varying rhythms over dense periods and voids, momentary and unrelated spurts, clashes of incompatibles, the double life of the discrete and the continuous. But in the new state of things, this is not what defines it; rather, it is defined by its inability to retrace its path, by its lack of periodicity This leads us to think of an act that takes place sine intermissione: uninterrupted prayer. In ancient times, prayer always had a moment of its own. Now, the writing in the sky no longer specifies the right moment, prior to which the act would be sacrilege. Now the moment is always right, and always wrong. The only way out is a continuous act: Orate sine intermissione.

Calasso was writing of ritual and sacrifice, but what linear history demands is essentially constant tribute, constant sacrifice. Democracy, in the guise of history, is not a deity. Yet those who argue America, or any other political subject, must stand on the right side of history and support democracy, demand constant demonstrations of piety, first in word and then in sacrifice.

Thus, America must unequivocally declare its support of democratic protesters. It must embrace, rather than cautiously react, to each new development in the political tumult, and then push things further, to their inexorable conclusion. The danger is not that democracy will really fail, but, as many critics said, that we would betray our values and find unfriendly regimes constituted in mass society emerging from those peoples we scorned.

This can never be the basis of sound policy. All political decisions occur in concrete historical situations, our ability to undertake them from finite resources, limited time, and the malleable minds and moods of human beings. Historical inevitability, in the democratic form of the argument, dooms the United States to the unenviable fate of relentless consistency. The US is no longer simply responsible for its interests. Rather, historical inevitability dissolves them into responsibility for ideas, in this case, the idea of democracy.

Here, the acolytes of democracy on the right and left share something in common with the critical perspectives. Failure to pay tribute to democracy sine intermissione is sign of apathy, contrasted with the course of history, the most damning indictment is that of hypocrisy. For many on the right, America’s weak-willed leaders pretend to value American ideals and fulfill America’s historic destiny, but abdicated it for political cynicism, for the left, America’s leaders pretend to support popular rights and freedom, but abandon it for, once again, political cynicism. What these idealists demand is consistency, and with it, an abandonment of any foreign policy which smacks of not just political realism, but of a pragmatism which, adopting the idealist’s values, approaches events cautiously.

As Chris Albon noted in a post on Twitter a few days back, America’s foreign policy is not a nimble speedboat, it’s a lumbering supertanker. Were Obama to try and even embrace the movement as the more vocal idealists requested, events would overtake foreign policy. Here, it’s appropriate to note that Obama himself, far from being some kind of realist eager to embrace tyranny, is simply a different sect from the aforementioned historical believers in history’s long arc towards democracy. Obama’s crimes have been to lay out a more ecumenical, tempered appeal to universal values, the democratic course of history, and America’s role in advancing this historical unfolding. But this less strident idealism accompanies few major deviations in US policy, yet the possibility of a leader who refuses to stand on the “right side” of history leads critics to search each action for some fresh heresy. We could say the same thing about much of the left’s reaction to Bush, which saw more forceful language as some awful deviation from the norm, and interpreted many of his policies as such, rather than admitting Bush’s policy hardly sprung without precedent in American politics.

In more practical terms, the desire to place ourselves on the right side of history brings about an obsession with prophecy. Ironically, people who argue for the inevitability of popular expression leading to democracy do not feel content to sit back and let destiny come about on its own. They must be ready to act as a vanguard of history, which, given the practical constraints on foreign policy, requires being able to sense when democratic movements are about to erupt and take advantage of the opportunity. Witness DARPA’s multi-million dollar investment in predictive models like ICEWS. Although ICEWS is a fairly successful model compared to its antecedents, it is not nearly enough to be vastly useful to DARPA or the policymaking community in general.

Critics also leveled charges of prophetic failure against academia, in particular. While there certainly is a case to be made, as Andrew Exum does, that North American political science, with its emphasis on quantitative methods, may have fared worse in comparison to scholars with a greater appreciation for qualitative regional knowledge. Some political scientists have done a better job of predicting and analyzing the events in Egypt than others, to be sure, but in general, however lamentable political science’s scholasticism is, it was not, in general, to blame for the failure of policy to adequately embrace prophecy in this case.

The attitude of the linear course of history, as policy, often degrades into an acceptance of history being “one damn thing after another” rather than a predetermined march towards any particular value. Policymakers may even think history has such a course, but they deal in timescales where concern with the grand sweep of history is distracting and dangerous. Elevated to the position of policymaking, even believers in the democratic course of history must deal with the fundamentals of power, material and political calculation.

Which returns us to the problem of staking out policy on the basis of being on the “right side of history” – it leads us to insert causes and project outcomes where we really have no basis in doing so. As Joshua Foust points out at his new blog, iWAR, observers caught up in the euphoria of Mubarak’s departure assume identical situations in Yemen, Iran, Jordan, and other states. The idea that democracy promotion must come without interruption ultimately causes us to ignore the substance of events: the local political conditions and actions of the people in government and opposition themselves. Commentators obsessed with being on the “right side of history” point to every new development as proof of their beliefs, ignoring or distorting local conditions. This is a recipe for awful policy. Ultimately, however, these narratives do huge disservices to the people who are actually involved in these events, who are human beings making difficult choices, not mere earthly vessels for some abstract force of history, as we might view them from Washington (or Cambridge).

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