We in the West are now living in a world in which our political differences are no longer based, as they once were, on different perspectives within a shared worldview, but rather on diametrically opposed presuppositions about first things: what is good, what is true and what it means to be human. The premise of a basically unchanging human nature embedded in tradition, religion, community and family—a fundamental component of the Western worldview that has grounded individual freedom and self-government for centuries—no longer commands the general allegiance of Americans or Europeans.
Indeed, progressives are committed to a diametrically opposed view: a radically secularist vision of the virtually unlimited flexibility of human nature according to each person’s choice, essentially independent of traditional institutions and social relations. Every day we are witnessing the results: once freedom of choice—the right to choose—has been exalted above all else, there remain no meaningful limits on the social pressure and governmental power that are now wielded to impose “choice” on everyone, whether they want it or not.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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This manifests itself primarily in two ways. First, in the increasing polarisation within the nations of the West, and the weakening of our democratic freedoms as the progressive ideology takes root in our societies; and second in the conflict between globalism and national sovereignty that is roiling the trans-Atlantic partnership as the struggle intensifies between the EU’s globalist vision and America’s traditional concern for sovereignty.
First, my home country. In the US, our system of self-government is based on the recognition that certain things are unchangeably true, and thus that government must respect these truths in order to be just. As the Declaration of Independence says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …
A more profound elucidation of how freedom is anchored in these self-evident truths can be found in the Federalist Papers. This brilliant series of eighty-five essays defending the US Constitution was published in 1787 and 1788, during the debate on whether to ratify the Constitution. It is striking how deeply indebted the Federalist Papers are to the bedrock assumption of an unchanging truth about human nature: that human beings, while capable of great good, are also flawed and subject to the temptation to abuse power.
The entire US system of government is based on this sober view of the limits of human nature, and thus of the limits of government. This is why the US Constitution establishes separation of powers and checks and balances. Because human beings are unchangeably subject to corruption and abuse of power, the powers of government had to be limited and divided into multiple branches, so that the flawed human beings who hold governmental power could not impose a tyranny on everyone else. And I would argue that these eighteenth-century views on the essential truths about human nature are still the prevailing, instinctive views of most Americans today.
At the same time, though, respect for these self-evident truths has lost ground to an unwitting relativism. Without realising it, many Americans have succumbed to the relativistic worldview of postmodernism, in which truth is no longer authoritative and objective. Instead, truth is in the eyes of the beholder. A trickle-down form of postmodernism has become for many of us the implicit basis upon which we think. A standard definition describes postmodernism as “characterised by broad scepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a suspicion of reason; and acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power”.
This type of subjectivistic relativism, this suspicion that truth is not really truth but simply a tool to assert power, has seeped into virtually all areas of life. It is the heart of identity politics, and it is the heart of political correctness. Political correctness and identity politics are the two sides of the same postmodern coin. They both reject the idea that there is any truth claim that can command greater allegiance than the feelings or opinions of any individual or group, especially those that are deemed to be oppressed or disadvantaged. Reality itself is nothing more than what each individual or group feels it to be. Individual choice and group identity reign, and reality can and must be reshaped in the service of individual choice and group identity. Ultimately, the only thing that is objectively true is my subjective assessment of what is true for me.
And my subjective assessment of what is true for me must be enforced, because my dignity is violated by anyone who does not accept my decision about what is true for me. If I am a transgender person, I have the right to deny my actual gender and force everyone else to treat me in a way that corresponds to my chosen gender identity, as if my real gender were not real. If I am a man who is in love with another man, I have a right to marry him and to force everyone else to call it a marriage. If a pregnant woman expects to face difficulties in raising her child after its birth, she can choose not to call him or her a child, and to claim that it is her human right to abort another human life. If I want to seek a better life in another country, then it is xenophobic to support any immigration laws that stand in the way.
This idea at the core of the postmodern worldview—the idea that freedom means the right to disregard truth and decide for myself what is true—is the complete inversion of the traditional idea that freedom must be anchored in real, objective and lasting truth. And arising out of this inversion of freedom anchored in truth is an inversion of justice. The justice of identity politics is that society at large not only recognise but also support, in language, thought and legislation, each group’s self-definition of its tribal truth. And to do so globally, without regard for national borders.
Europe suffers from this same postmodernist diminishment of truth. In fact, the utopian side of the EU’s globalist project of supranational governance—governance by institutions that are above the level of the democratically accountable nation-state—has been fuelled by postmodernism at an international level—a kind of global political correctness.
One could put it this way: in the sphere of international politics, the spirit of postmodernism has seized the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War for new ways of thinking about world order. In the last thirty years, political postmodernism has deconstructed and redefined political categories associated with modernity—such as, for example, the nation-state, national sovereignty, international law and human rights—in order to assert a new, post-national view of governance and a new kind of human rights corresponding on an international level to identity politics at a national level.
These new human rights are at the very core of the globalist vision for world order that animates those who believe that the EU’s purpose is to realise world peace as the forerunner of a system of global supranational governance, above the national level, based on a growing web of international organisations administering a growing body of international law. And the new human rights are based, like identity politics, on a denial of truth. No longer does “human rights” mean the right to live, speak and act in accordance with the unchanging truth about human nature—in accordance with that which promotes human flourishing. Rather, “human rights” now stands above all else for the right to choose; the right to choose one’s own, personal truth and thus to be liberated from the truth claims of others while imposing one’s own truth claim about oneself on everyone else. Just like identity politics.
And this so-called “right to choose” must be enforced by the coercive power of an ever-growing government. After all, in a world without the authority of objective truth, only those who hold political power have authority that is enforceable. In principle, no relativist is far from Mao Zedong’s famous dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Not surprisingly, the new human rights downplays the classical rights that protect the individual from government, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press, and favours rights that must be enforced by government, such as women’s rights—defined as the right to choose an abortion in disregard to the unborn infant’s right to life—children’s rights—asserted and protected by the state, often against parents—LGBT rights—the right to choose one’s own sexual and gender identity and to have that choice supported by everyone else—and unlimited immigrant rights—the right to choose where to live, and to be admitted to any country that one chooses, a right that would be enforced by politically correct governments regardless of the desires of their own citizens.
Thus, with this political redefinition of human rights, the individual’s so-called unlimited right to choose becomes the unlimited right of the government to decide what must or must not be chosen.
So government as guarantor of “universal human rights” expands to government as master. And with the global reach of communications, travel, commerce and ideas, government as master expands geographically also. Just as government power to determine what human rights are is in principle unlimited, so also it becomes impossible to limit the power of government to a certain geographical area or people. Global supranational governance becomes the only rational option, and national sovereignty becomes—in principle—an impermissible limit on the elites’ power to decide for everyone what is just and true. The postmodern political project of supranational governance thus unmasks itself not as a benign desire to improve humanity’s lot, but as an unlimited power grab to define truth and justice, under the banner of “universal human rights”.
What the EU says about the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals—the ultimate globalist program of the twenty-first century so far—illustrates the overwhelming scale of the postmodern political project of global governance. Let me quote from a statement of the EU Council of Ministers that is particularly revealing of how the EU aims to achieve a utopian level of human rights via ill-defined, yet all-encompassing structures of global governance:
The post-2015 agenda should therefore integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development in a balanced way across the agenda; ensure coherence and synergies; and address inter-linkages throughout the goals and targets. It is also crucial to ensure that the agenda … encompass[es] all human rights and that it respects, supports, and builds on existing multilateral agreements, conventions, commitments, and processes … The agenda should leave no one behind. In particular, it must address, without any discrimination, the needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, including children, the elderly and persons with disabilities, as well as of marginalized groups and indigenous peoples; and it must respond to the aspirations of young people. We should ensure that no person—wherever they live and regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, religion or belief, race, or other status is denied universal human rights …
Here, politics, or “governance”, is universal, global, all-encompassing. There are no constraints, no limits, neither geographical nor aspirational. There are no checks or balances to stand in the way of the good that can be accomplished by the global elite. The language here is almost messianic, ascribing a quasi-salvific power to politics and “governance”. It sets aside the West’s traditionally Judeo-Christian recognition of human fallibility for the notion that, via activist global governance, the world can be transformed and human beings liberated from the constraints of tradition, culture and religion.
Enter into this situation the election of Donald Trump, the growing populist movements in Europe, and the EU’s conflicts with Hungary and Poland. Trump and Hungary and Poland, in their shared insistence on the importance of national sovereignty and Western tradition, have exposed how serious the polarisation is between conservatives and progressives, between globalism and sovereigntism. Many believe that Hungary and Poland could tear the EU apart and that Donald Trump could cripple the trans-Atlantic relationship. But I believe that bringing the tension to the surface is good, because it forces us to deal with the problem.
Many Western Europeans ask themselves, “Why are the Poles and Hungarians being so difficult?” I believe that what many Western Europeans do not fully understand is that the Poles and the Hungarians, with their difficult histories of war, occupation, conquest and communism, have a healthy realist’s eye for the hard truths in life. They have a greater sensitivity for the tragic in life, I would argue, than most Western Europeans. And the Poles and Hungarians—because of the pressure the EU is exerting against them—are beginning to figure out instinctively, if not always in a way that is easily articulated, what the darker implications of the EU’s supranationalism are.
Perhaps the clearest expression of this sentiment came in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech on October 23, 2016, at the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Comparing the EU’s supranational intrusiveness explicitly to the Soviet domination of the time, Orban said:
Only our own national independence can save us from the all-consuming, destructive appetites of empires. The reason we stuck in the throat of the Soviet empire … was that we asserted our national ideals … This is also why we shall not accept the EU’s transformation into a modern-day empire. We do not want them to replace the alliance of free European states with a United States of Europe. Today the task of Europe’s freedom-loving peoples is to save Brussels from sovietisation …
As I understand it, the Orban government, as well as the current Polish government, will not, after having been liberated from a half-century of Soviet domination, submit their countries to a new, authoritarian foreign domination coming from the West.
There are two additional reasons that Hungary and Poland see things as they do. The first is that the governments of Poland and Hungary are conservative. They have a traditionalist understanding of democracy, society, the rule of law and the other basics of the Western political order. Furthermore, they are struggling to put that traditionalist vision of democracy, society and culture into practice under the shadow of the European Union, which is anything but traditionalist—it is progressive to its core. Even more, the EU in its ambition to build a new, supranational world order is founded in novelty—a rejection of the traditional connection between democracy and the nation-state. For Hungary and Poland under these circumstances, there are bound to be big bumps in the road.
The mainstream media and thought leaders in Western Europe and North America share the EU’s perspective. Not only that, they do not understand—and do not want to understand—Hungary’s or Poland’s perspective. One notices this even in relatively conservative media. A 2017 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by William Galston, “The Growing Threat of ‘Illiberal Democracy’”, states: “The most urgent threat to liberal democracy is not autocracy; it is illiberal democracy.” Galston spends much of his article branding Poland and Hungary as the primary proponents of this dangerous “illiberal democracy”.
Viktor Orban has probably done more than anyone else in recent times to popularise the term “illiberal democracy”, beginning with his 2014 speech advocating the development of an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. But what did he mean by that? He defined “liberal democracy” as a system informed by liberal principles like those of the postmodern EU and the US under Barack Obama, which he characterised as based on the globalist disregard of the nation-state and national interests, and the radically libertine principle, disregarding moral considerations, “that you are free to do anything that does not violate another’s freedom”. He contrasted that with what he thought should be the principles of a true democracy, namely love of country and the Golden Rule. As he put it, “Instead the principle should be ‘do not do to others what you would not do to yourself’.”
If one actually takes the time to read the speech, it becomes clear that Orban was not disparaging liberal democracy as a form of government characterised by free elections, separation of powers, rule of law and equal protection of civil liberties. He was criticising the dominant role in the West of the Left in the formation of opinion and in policy-making. Orban was not really advocating an “illiberal democracy”; he was advocating a conservative democracy.
The second key component in the EU’s conflict with Poland and Hungary is the fact that the Hungarian and Polish governments stress the importance of Christianity to their societies and to European civilisation. Again, this unites Hungarian, Polish and American conservatives but rubs the radically secular EU the wrong way. In Orban’s speech of October 23, 2016, he also said, “There can be no free, strong, authoritative and respected Europe without the life-force of its nations and the two-thousand-year-old wisdom of Christianity.” Polish president Andrzej Duda, a guest at that event, said in his speech that Poland and Hungary together “carry on the thousand-year-old Christian tradition in Europe”. As the renowned American analyst George Friedman puts it, “The insistence by Orban that he is Hungarian first, and Christian, deeply offends the internationalist and devoutly secular leadership of the EU.” The same goes for the EU’s attitude towards the current Polish government.
Donald Trump’s conservative-sovereigntist view of the world—similar in many ways to that of conservative Hungarians and Poles—has profoundly affected trans-Atlantic relations, and increased tensions with the EU. From the end of the Cold War until Trump, US foreign policy towards Europe was conducted under the catchphrase, “Europe whole and free”, uttered by George H.W. Bush in a speech in Germany in 1989. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, US policy towards Europe has had a pro-EU bias, implicitly endorsing the supranationalist vision of the EU, usually without much reflection.
But now, with all of the problems in the EU, this American pro-supranationalist bias increasingly fails to fit the times. Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo understand that. They understand that the phrase “Europe whole and free” glosses over the fact that the EU and the US have fundamentally different visions of the world. The traditional US vision of the world, and of international affairs, is of a world of sovereign nations. Conservatives in the US hope to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous world by promoting democracy and the rule of law so that the world system is distinguished by the peaceful co-operation of democratically accountable governments of nation-states, accountable to their citizens, who accept their democratically adopted national constitutions, and not international law, as their supreme law.
A basic assumption behind this emphasis on national sovereignty is that the existence of nations is an undeniable fact that cannot be erased from politics. People exist within national cultures, histories, traditions and languages. This cannot be changed via political projects, such as the project of “global governance”, so beloved in the EU.
And this can be seen, by the way, in the light of what has been not only the number-one political issue in Europe for at least the past five years, but also the issue at the centre of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign—the right of each country to control its own borders and to formulate its own immigration policy is at the very heart of democratic sovereignty. This recognition also unites American and Hungarian and Polish conservatives.
The Trump presidency and the refusal of Hungary, Poland and many other Europeans to knuckle under to the EU’s progressive, supranationalist vision, has made the conflict between the sovereigntist United States and the globalist EU more visible and more acute. It appears that this clash of visions puts the EU and the US—implicitly at least—on a collision course. For a long time, we thought we could ignore it. Now we can no longer ignore it. A full-on collision could severely weaken the trans-Atlantic partnership for a long time to come.
Can we avoid the collision? I’m not sure. This is a battle involving fundamental commitments, fundamental worldviews, not just differing perspectives within a common Western worldview. That is the problem. The problem is not Donald Trump. The crisis in trans-Atlantic relations reflects the civilisational crisis of the entire West, a crisis characterised by polities divided according to worldviews that are in mutual opposition to one another.
Another, more practical, way of asking the question, “Can we avoid the collision?”—an approach that fits the Hungarian context especially—seems to me to be: Can the EU be reformed into what most of the European people want it to be, namely, an international organisation that fosters co-operation among its member states, but that respects, rather than calls into question, the full national sovereignty of its member states? Hungarians, apparently, believe, or hope, that the EU can be reformed in that way. I hope they are right.
But what if the EU can’t be reformed—in the worst case—or what if it takes a long, long time to be reformed? While we remain in this conflict between sovereigntism and globalism—and seek to shore up the trans-Atlantic alliance despite this conflict—I think we need to concentrate on the following fundamental question: What kind of societies, what kind of government, do we want? I think majorities on both sides of the Atlantic—even those many progressives who have not thought through to the real consequences of their postmodern worldview—still want democracy as we have traditionally understood it in the West, characterised by self-government, the rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms.
Trans-Atlantically, there are currently huge differences in important particulars of that desire, with the differences especially stark between the US and Western Europe—Western Europe’s globalist orientation versus the US concern, shared by Hungary and Poland, for national sovereignty; the European social model versus the American social model; the more religious America versus the more secularised Europe, especially but not only Western Europe. These are huge differences. But they don’t have to be insurmountable. The basis of good foreign relations is not achieving sameness. It’s respecting and striving to understand the diversity of views, cultures, traditions, languages and perspectives among international partners while working together on the basics—self-government, the rule of law, and fundamental political and economic freedoms.
My hope is that Hungarian, Polish (and other European) and American conservatives who cherish the Western tradition, stay firm in the struggle to renew this civilisational commitment to the fundamentals—a commitment that can no longer be taken for granted—and thereby help the alliance between Europe and North America not only to survive the cultural crisis we are now experiencing, but also to emerge from this time of trial stronger than before.
Todd Huizinga was a United States diplomat from 1992 to 2012 and is now director of International Outreach at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is author of The New Totalitarian Temptation (Encounter Books). He gave this paper to the Danube Institute, Budapest, in November 2010