President Barack Obama declared on Monday that Russian president Vladimir Putin was on “the wrong side of history.” Secretary of State John Kerry had complained on Sunday: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion.” Both share the view that “history” moves in a particular direction, namely, away from the quest for raw power, away from nations and boundaries and religions and towards an enlightened universalism.
Theirs is not a new idea of history. Yet it is one of which any student of history would be deeply skeptical. Rome was sacked not by a more enlightened civilization, but by barbarians. More recently, America was attacked on Sep. 11, 2001 by terrorists who wanted to restore a medieval civilization, never mind a 19th-century one. The 20th century brought “enlightened,” scientific ideas on race and class that resulted in mass murder and famine.
Humanity is better off today than it has ever been before, generally, but that is not due to “history.” Arguably, it is because of those who resisted the tide of “history” in favor of a set of principles that emphasized the sanctity of the individual. Freedom has driven the innovation and economic growth that lifted billions from poverty. Yet that progress is not the inevitable result of a natural, evolutionary process, but of deliberate interventions.
There is no small amount of hubris in Obama and Kerry’s concept of a history they see not only as a teleological process, but also as one that achieves its ultimate fulfillment in them, i.e. in a postmodern, post-nationalist elite uniquely qualified to rule by its ability to transcend old constraints. The post-World War I generation had similar ideas, and outlawed war. Our leaders today, so devoted to their “history,” have failed to learn from it.