Former US President Obama lauded Enlightenment values – democracy, enterprise, human rights – now under assault in the US and around the world.
By Marc Grossman*
Many US Presidents since John F. Kennedy have cited the Enlightenment as the foundation for America’s constitutional system and the values which the United States and the larger West have promoted and defended since the late 18th century. But no American president until Barack Obama has had to report that the Enlightenment’s fundamental values – described in his farewell speech on January 10, as “a faith in reason, and enterprise, the primacy of right over might …the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly and an independent press” – are under assault in the United States and around the world. Just weeks into the Trump administration such concerns have acquired an added urgency.
Until recently, it seemed Enlightenment values were ascendant. In the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and Western ideals of economic, political, religious freedom spread across the world. Between 1990 and 2015, global GDP increased by $51 trillion and incomes across the world rose by 136 percent. Millions of people were lifted out of poverty. And according to Freedom House, the world today still has more democracies in the world today than dictatorships.
But democracy and values of the Enlightenment are under siege. Islamic and other fanatics perpetrate merciless violence. Authoritarian governments and movements are on the rise. Racism, sexism, intolerance and anti-Semitism are “new normal” components of discourse. “Alternative facts,” touted by Washington officials, replace logic and science-based evidence. Political gridlock weakens many of the world’s democracies. Too many Europeans have abandoned their belief in the ideal of integration as an antidote to centuries of bloodshed.
President Donald Trump’s inaugural address, 10 days after Obama’s farewell, was infused with pessimism, nationalism and nostalgia for what historian Mark Lilla calls a “happy, well ordered state where people know their place, live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God,” a society which supposedly existed before “the elites challenged this harmony.
The political promise so many saw in the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the potential of ever increasing global economic integration have faded.
First, too many of citizens were excluded or left behind. The American families described in David Smick’s book The Great Equalizer believe the system is “rigged” in favor of the large over the small. They see jobs lost to countries who do not play by the rules, crumbling infrastructure, out-of-touch political leaders, and family budgets one unanticipated expense away from disaster. They worry their children will be worse off.
Second, and surely related, there is an increasing reaction to and rejection of Enlightenment values and ways of thinking. Lilla writes in his book The Shipwrecked Mind, that “Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary.” Believers in this narrative recall a traditional world which “ran continuously from antiquity to the Catholic Middle Ages” and provided a “coherent narrative for understanding and practicing virtue in their individual and collective lives.” They suggest that world was destroyed by the “Enlightenment Project.” Lilla describes those “who have preserved the memories of the old ways” as people who maintain that only they can “see what is happening. Whether society reverses direction or rushes to its doom depends entirely on their resistance.” This is the common theme of Islamists, European nationalists who met in Koblenz on January 21 and many who aspire to “make America great again.”
Third, as Zaki Laïdi argues in his prescient book A World Without Meaning, first published in French in 1998, at the end of the Cold War, “We thought we saw the great work of the Enlightenment coming to fruition, whereas in fact everything seems to indicate it was brought ruthlessly to an end.” Laïdi describes the Cold War as a unique, long-term battle between democracy and communism for “the appropriation of meaning.” Both sides saw themselves as promoters of “progress, an identifiable course toward a better world.” When the Berlin Wall fell, this “meaning” was lost as a lodestar both for individual identity and as an organizing principle for nation states; “power became divorced from meaning.”
Globalization, in Laïdi’s view, delivered the final blow because “globalization is a state and not a meaning.”
To build a future more acceptable than the present requires a commitment to creating a reenergized Enlightenment, in today’s vernacular, Enlightenment 2.0. Based on its still relevant philosophical foundations, an updated Enlightenment would have as explicit objectives the promoting of rapid, sustainable, economic growth; producing a world order capable of meeting multiplying global challenges; and restoring meaning into the lives of the globe’s citizens.
The “how” is an urgent matter for public debate. Three connected foundational thoughts may be relevant to start that conversation.
First, without falling into the trap of exclusion, there is a need for the recognition and promotion of spirituality – renewed focus on the human spirit – as part of a full life. Pope Francis is right to remind that materialism is not an answer to all questions, and to paraphrase Laïdi, globalization is policy, not faith.
Second, without looking for enemies to recreate the Cold War in Europe or Asia or elsewhere, but always ready to defend interests, governments and citizens can use a reenergized Enlightenment as a foundation for nation states to begin the search for an international system which returns meaning to relations between and among states through their foreign policies. A return to meaning might begin with a broad coalition that destroys ISIS, ends bloodshed in Syria, and then focuses on the political and economic development of the Middle East. New meaning may also come through elevating not just the mechanisms but the collective effort to fight disease or protect the environment.
Finally, and most important, there is a requirement for global and national policies that open new possibilities for productive, meaningful work for as many citizens as possible as rapidly as possible. The just announced 2016 US economic growth rate of 1.6 percent is too low to achieve this objective. Unlike the ambiguities inherent in meeting the needs of human spirituality or the challenges of the global system, the United States and other governments can implement identifiable policies to increase the pace of growth and liberate what economic strategist David Smick sees as America’s natural entrepreneurial spirits: Real tax and regulatory reform that fosters growth and equality. Focus on producing safe conventional and alternative energies. A fair global system that promotes and does not choke off economic integration. Infrastructure investments funded by a return of US corporate cash parked abroad.
Because Enlightenment values are under attack does not make them wrong or irrelevant. They matter and need defending. Of course, those who seek an Enlightenment for the 21st century must avoid becoming “Enlightenment reactionaries” themselves, convinced that only those who preserve these “old ways” can understand what is really happening. The goal of free people should be to debate and then create a relevant, morally sound and modern set of guiding principles that can reconnect our work and our domestic and international systems to the great human aspiration to live lives of significance and meaning.
*Ambassador Marc Grossman is a Vice Chairman of The Cohen Group. A US Foreign Service Officer for 29 years, he retired in 2005 as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. The ambassador was the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2011-2012, and a Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale in 2013. The author thanks Hannah Hudson for her support on this essay.