The fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989: The moment when the limitation of righteousness was lifted (©David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
I owe my title to Dr Henry Kissinger, who needs no introduction other than the observation that he has been consulted by every president from Nixon to Trump. His first book, A World Restored, appeared in 1954 and was based on his Harvard doctoral dissertation. Its subject is “Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22”. It focused on the Congress of Vienna, which ushered in a long era of peace after the Napoleonic wars. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Kissinger, his colleagues thought it odd that a member of the Department of Government should write about 19th-century statesmen; hadn’t he heard of the atom bomb? Kissinger’s reply was caustic: Hiroshima, he explained, “had not created a new world; it merely showed that man had yet to learn history’s lessons about shaping a stable balance of power”. The study of history, for the young Kissinger, was merely the occasion for him to set out his ideas on political philosophy. “The fundamental problem of politics,” he wrote, “. . . is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.”
I have a very personal reason for choosing this particular book as the text for this lecture. In 1954 my mother, Marigold, was working for the newly-established publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, under the erratic direction of Sonia Orwell, the recently-widowed wife of the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. One day my mother was summoned to the office of George Weidenfeld himself, who had returned from his post as assistant to Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, to begin his remarkable publishing career and his no less extraordinary role as an informal intermediary between the Anglo-American, Germanic and Jewish worlds. Weidenfeld told my mother about his latest author, a young American academic who, like him, had been a Jewish refugee from the Nazis. Dr Kissinger (for it was he) was in urgent need of an index; would Marigold oblige him? My mother felt apprehensive: though she had recently graduated from Oxford, her subject had been English literature, not history or PPE; and she knew nothing about indexing. Weidenfeld relished throwing his staff in at the deep end, but he offered her a lifeline: at the US embassy the staff would, he was sure, be helpful. They were. Evidently Kissinger’s reputation, even at the outset of his career as a diplomatist, went before him. After several weeks of hard work (no search engines or even computers then) the index was done, the book was soon published, and my mother forgot all about it. Many years later, she found herself in the same room as Dr Kissinger, by now National Security Advisor or even Secretary of State. Introduced to the great man, Marigold was astonished by the warmth of his greeting and assumed that it was on account of my father, the historian and journalist Paul Johnson. In that uniquely gravelly voice, with its residual Teutonic accent, Dr Kissinger gently corrected her: “I hold your husband in great esteem, Mrs Johnson. But I have never thanked you for your index, and now at last is my opportunity. You did a great job!” Not surprisingly, this was an encounter that my mother has never forgotten. She reminded me of this episode when she presented me with the dog-eared proof copy of A World Restored that she had used to compile the index some 64 years ago. Gratifyingly, when I too met Dr Kissinger, he made a point of sending greetings to my mother as well as my father.
This brings me back to the text, and its context: “The fundamental problem of politics . . . is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.” What did Kissinger mean by his memorable but paradoxical aphorism? Clearly, he saw analogies between revolutionary France, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, all hostile to the status quo; equally clearly, he identified with Metternich and Castlereagh, conservative statesmen seeking to contain the disruptive power and its ideology. The young Kissinger warned, however, against the pursuit of peace at any price: “Whenever peace has . . . been the primary objective of a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of [its] most ruthless member.” Rather, the goal should be “stability based on an equilibrium of forces”. His colleague Stanley Hoffmann summed up Kissinger’s view of politics: “His was a quest for a realpolitik devoid of moral homilies.” Kissinger saw the “conservative challenge” as a “redefinition of the classic theological version of humility, ‘Thy will be done’, only that reason took the place of God . . . The achievement of self-restraint is the ultimate challenge of the social order.”
The question implicitly posed by Kissinger, which is even more valid for our time than it was for the Napoleonic era, is: can the survival of Western civilisation be guaranteed solely by a politics based on peace, democracy and human rights, or do we require a politics that posits a balance of power between sovereign nation states, and which regards just war as, to quote Clausewitz, a continuation of policy by other means? Is a liberal conception of politics that pursues peace at any price the only legitimate one, or must it be complemented — and at times supplanted — by a conservative one that regards the use of military force as occasionally justified and even necessary? In short, can we trust the righteous to inherit the earth on our behalf, or is “the limitation of righteousness” a necessary condition of “the control of wickedness”?
Before I attempt to answer these questions, which are all variations on the same theme, let me quote another Dr K, namely Charles Krauthammer: “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” Actually, Dr Krauthammer exaggerates the symmetry: most conservatives will admit that plenty of progressive or liberal presidents — not only the Roosevelts, Wilson and Truman, but JFK and LBJ, maybe even Bill Clinton — were anything but stupid. But most liberals think most conservative presidents are stupid as well as evil. The Left claims a monopoly of wisdom, truth and justice in the political realm; the Right merely asserts that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in liberal philosophy.
It is rare for liberty and tyranny to confront one another without bloodshed. One such event, in which I happened to take part, was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have written about the events of November 9, 1989, a number of times, most recently in Standpoint on the 25th anniversary, four years ago. The trigger for the opening of the Wall was the East German Communist Party spokesman Günter Schabowski’s press conference. Eight minutes before it was due to end, he unexpectedly announced new travel rules that would allow people to cross the border between East and West. The room was electrified: this was sensational news, though just how sensational we could not know. Someone (it is still unclear who) shouted out the question: “When do [the new travel rules] come into force?” This elicited the reply: “Immediately, without delay.” The careful choreography of the East German plan, which required a controlled opening of the border, was thereby cast to the winds. Several of the key players, including Schabowski himself, are now dead. So we may never know everything about what was happening backstage before and during the drama of those eight minutes.
My role was to ask the last question — the only one that actually mentioned the Wall: “What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?” It reduced Schabowski to silence for a second or two, followed by a rambling, incoherent response, as if he had suddenly simultaneously grasped what he had done and was at stake: the end of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War and the division of Europe by the Iron Curtain. He had no answer to my question, because of the obvious absurdity of keeping a wall through the German capital if people could pass through it. The phrase “a moment of truth” is often misused, but in this case it is the mot juste: Schabowski was lost for words because the truth had just dawned on him — and on the multitudes watching on live television. He abruptly brought the press conference to an end, leaving many journalists confused about what had actually been announced. For my part, I was in no doubt that the Wall was opening and ran back to my hotel to report it to the disbelieving foreign desk of the Daily Telegraph. TV news reports soon reinforced this interpretation, but it took a couple of hours before people started gathering at the checkpoints and demanding to be let through. Even then, the opening was not inevitable — but there were no orders and the officer in charge was not prepared to open fire on his own compatriots.
The fall of the Berlin Wall — perhaps the single most historically significant event of my lifetime — brought to an end a long period during which the measures required to ensure survival of Western civilisation had held in check the more extravagant fantasies of the Left. During the Second World War, the need to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan forced liberals and conservatives alike to be pragmatists, making an ally even of Stalin. “Ideological purity was less important to FDR,” writes John Lewis Gaddis in his new book On Grand Strategy, “than geography, balances of power, and the requirements of navies.” Winston Churchill famously declared: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Liberals were often at least as hawkish as conservatives during the Cold War — a phrase we owe to an anti-communist socialist, George Orwell. A liberal abhorrence of war in the nuclear age went hand in hand with a military doctrine that implied a readiness to risk mutually assured destruction. There was a balance to be struck between containment and confrontation, between detente and deterrence, between recognition of the reality of what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire” and the necessity of co-existence: what Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady herself, called “doing business with Mr Gorbachev”. The limitation of righteousness was a self-denying ordinance for the democracies, because the ultimate consequences of Utopian ideologies were plain for the world to see in the poverty and despotism, not only of overtly communist countries, but of the “third world”, most of which suffered under some variation of these ideologies.
All this changed when the Berlin Wall fell. The limitation of righteousness was lifted, the checks and balances that had held back the votaries of an earthly paradise were removed, and with the proliferation of international organisations, the Kantian vision of perpetual peace and world government seemed close to realisation. Few voices in the 1990s dampened the euphoria of a liberalism liberated from the incubus of “actually existing socialism” and from any need to defer to more conservative voices, cautioning against hubristic notions of the end of history and the invulnerability of Western civilisation. In 1990 the great scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis analysed “the roots of Muslim rage”, warning that the impending conflict “is no less than a clash of civilisations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both”. Soon afterwards, the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington adopted and developed this prediction of a “clash of civilisations” into a fully-fledged, systematic model that became highly influential around the turn of the century, especially after 9/11.
But the liberal world view that has dominated the public sphere prefers to deconstruct the very idea of “civilisation”. It denies that clashes between the West and the rest are likely or even possible. On the contrary: the preferred liberal civilisational discourse focuses on cross-cultural dialogue and engagement; if there is aggression between civilisations, it is axiomatic that the West must be the cause, whether efficient or final. Contrasts between civilisation and barbarism are dismissed out of hand as ridiculously outmoded. A recent BBC programme presented by the influential historian Sir David Cannadine, the president of the British Academy, blamed Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the idea that Western civilisation emerged from Greece and Rome, in stark contrast to the Orient, and Huntington for the idea that the West is today confronted by hostile Islamic or Confucian civilisations. And Cannadine’s recent, much-acclaimed history of 19th-century Britain castigated the Victorians for their failure to treat such ancient civilisations with proper respect. The history of the United States is likewise scrutinised on the basis that “the Other” is never an enemy but a friend, or at least a trading partner.
What was lost in the fog of retrospective reprimand is the fact — for it is a fact — that the two great nation states that have exercised the most benign influence on the progress and empowering of humanity have been the United States and the United Kingdom, without whose efforts Western civilisation would never have flourished as it has and certainly not have survived the onslaught of those, past and present, dedicated to its extirpation. The very familiarity of the Anglophone ascendancy has bred contempt not only among our foes but even more among our own liberal elites. And this is dangerous, because civilisations have in fact clashed throughout recorded history and do indeed perish.
Within living memory, our own civilisation came close to perishing. In the summer of 1940, the bulk of the Eurasian landmass lay under the yoke of dictatorships, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If the Battle of Britain had been lost, the threat to America would have been immediate. The British could prevent the French fleet from being seized by the Nazis or Fascists, but if Britain had been defeated, the Americans could not have prevented the Royal Navy falling into German hands, which would have left the US Navy outnumbered by the combined naval forces of the Axis. Roosevelt knew this, because Churchill had warned him; that is why Churchill unhesitatingly ordered the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir. The Atlantic Alliance, which has endured from that day to this, was and is the essential prerequisite for the survival of Western civilisation.
The post-Cold War idyll did not last long. The wars in the Gulf and Yugoslavia were successful in demonstrating that dictators could not violate the sovereignty of their neighbours or commit genocide with impunity. The Russians opposed both interventions against their allies, Iraq and Serbia, but these relatively localised conflicts reinforced the illusion of a global authority, with the United States leading Nato to enforce the resolutions of the United Nations. The idea of combining liberal internationalism with conservative realpolitik appealed to Western leaders of Left and Right, from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Democracy was still the watchword, as it had been in the two world wars and the Cold War; democracies do not fight one another. For the sake of peace and prosperity, the West had a direct interest in promoting democracy, rather than propping up corrupt dictators. Even in the most volatile region of the world, the Middle East, democracy was the only solution, as the astonishing success of the state of Israel has demonstrated for some 70 years.
This became the prevailing view, at least for a few years, after the attacks on New York and Washington took place on September 11, 2001. At a stroke, all post-historical illusions were dissipated, to be replaced by a single-minded determination to defend the American homeland from terrorism. That conservative instinct of self-preservation was combined with the liberal mission of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as the war on terror became ever more protracted, so the war coalition fell apart. Those who had always been enemies of the West saw their chance, as the allies snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
There followed a lost decade of recession, recrimination and retreat. During these years, Barack Obama persuaded himself and a great many others that the nation state, the only tried and tested political framework for democratic capitalism and the rule of law, was no longer indispensable. In 2009, John Bolton, now President Trump’s National Security Advisor, wrote an important article for Standpoint about Obama’s vision. He called it “the post-American presidency”. Obama removed the limitations of righteousness and instead took its pursuit to a new level. Under his presidency, liberal righteousness became radical self-righteousness.
In Europe, meanwhile, the dismal spectacle of the “Arab Spring”, followed by the exodus of millions of migrants from failed states, did nothing to dampen the ardour of progressive opinion. Rumours of war, emanating from the plains of Mesopotamia, the South China Sea and the Kremlin, seemed to leave the White House intensely relaxed. Then the wars started happening for real: the dismembering of Syria, the metastasis of Islamic State, the annexation of Crimea and infiltration of Ukraine, the start of the Korean missile crisis. Throughout, the Obama administration seemed distracted, even paralysed. Red lines were crossed in Syria with impunity, America’s role in the Middle East was usurped by Russia, Beijing felt no pressure to restrain the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il or his equally psychopathic son Kim Jong-un, and Iran’s nuclear programme, avowedly genocidal in purpose, was legitimised by a “deal” with the West. Most strikingly of all, liberal opinion across the Western world simply acquiesced. Liberals had, in Irving Kristol’s memorable phrase, been “mugged by reality” — but rather than go after the muggers, they identified with them. The imperative of righteousness had become indifferent to the control of wickedness. The axis of evil was pushing back, democracy was in retreat, yet there was no 21st-century equivalent of the Cold War liberals to remind the Left that the first duty of the state is to defend its citizens — and Western civilisation.
Enter, stage right, Donald Trump. In the early days of his candidacy, a mutual acquaintance who had known him for many years assured me that Trump was running solely in order to boost his business profile. Only recently, a book purporting to tell the inside story claims that nobody was more surprised that he won than the man himself. This is nonsense. Trump was confident of victory from the start for one simple reason: unlike his rivals, he was a man with a plan to save his country. Forget the narcissm, the bluster, the paranoia and even the megalomania. It seems to me as an outsider that Trump has a doctrine — whether or not he knows it yet. Building on the Monroe doctrine, the Reagan doctrine and the Bush doctrine, the Trump doctrine is based on one main concept: national sovereignty.
The “national” part of this may arouse suspicion among those who see the nation state as outmoded and nationalism as atavistic. In the age of empires, nations were often divided and downtrodden; in the unification of Germany and Italy, for example, liberalism and nationalism were indistinguishable. In the 20th century nationalism was indeed perverted by ideologues, but both Nazism and Communism were actually global ideologies, based on race and class respectively. Among the English-speaking peoples, the word “nation” has generally lacked the toxic connotations that still surround it in continental Europe. During the Second World War Winston Churchill, for example, led a National Government and chose to run for office in 1945 as a “Nationalist”. Trump’s espousal of nationalism ought not to brand him as a racist or an authoritarian. The nation state, Trump says, “remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition”. It is the basis of liberty, democracy and the rule of law.
What is really distinctive about the Trump doctrine, though, is what he calls “the principle of sovereignty”. I have written in Standpoint about what seems to me to be the ultimate source of this principle, in the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. In his speech to the United Nations last September, Trump used the words “sovereign” and “sovereignty” more than 20 times. With the talent for concision that the President occasionally displays on Twitter, he summed up his doctrine in one sentence: “But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the sovereign interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” Note that a regime that damages the interests of its own people — for example, by killing millions of them, as Nazi, Communist and Islamist despotisms have done and continue to do — thereby forfeits its rights as a sovereign nation. A regime that invades or threatens its neighbours may also forfeit its sovereign rights. Hence the Trump doctrine may, under certain circumstances, justify intervention, whether punitive or preventive, by the United States and its allies, without necessarily obtaining UN authorisation. There is continuity from Reagan to Trump. The odd man out is Obama, whose “leadership from behind” turned out to be no leadership at all. The control of wickedness by the use of force must sometimes override the limitless scruples of the self-righteous. Donald Trump is no more an isolationist and no less committed to the defence of the West than any of his predecessors, up to and including George W. Bush; but he reserves the right to exercise the sovereignty vested in him by the American people, rather than obey the invocations of international institutions. He prefers to serve those who elected him, rather than those who claim to speak for humanity but are elected by nobody.
Of a piece with this radical interpretation of the principle of sovereignty is another distinctive feature of the Trump presidency. Unlike most other presidents, Trump has so far shown every sign that he means to keep his promises: on the economy, taxation, immigration, defence, climate change, North Korea, Iran and Jerusalem. When his red lines have been crossed, as when Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, Trump has responded with “fire and fury”. When Putin used a nerve agent to poison people in the British city of Salisbury, Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats. So much for the canard that he is soft on Russia. One may not like Trump or his policies: his unilateral imposition of steel tariffs, for example, is doing real harm not only to global trade, but to American jobs. To this outsider, however, it seems that if you vote for Trump, you know what you will get. It is hard to overestimate the importance of trust for voters.
They will forgive Trump all his tawdriness and his tirades, his lewdness and his late-night tweets, his goofiness and his gaffes, his boorishness and his bombast, if they know that he will deliver what he has promised them. Most of the liberal outrage at Trump has been directed at his words rather than his actions. Many things he has tweeted or said have indeed been, to say the least, unstatesmanlike: it is enough to mention Charlottesville as an example. But most voters care much less about politicians’ words than their deeds. Electorates suspect that self-righteous elites secretly despise them as “deplorables”, so they do not expect those elites to approve of their choices; rather the opposite. They do, however, expect those choices to be respected, not overturned by attempts at impeachment or by the machinations of the “deep state”.
Trump knows this, so he is circling the wagons. The appointments of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, John Bolton as National Security Advisor, Gina Haspel as CIA Director and Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the UN mean that the President now has most of his key posts occupied by conservatives, by men and women who are not ashamed to belong to the Right. They share his view of the world and have no qualms about putting his principles into practice. The most outspoken of them all is the most recently appointed, John Bolton. He is notorious for a comment made nearly quarter of a century ago, that if the UN building in New York “lost ten storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”. He earned the undying hatred of the righteous, but the lasting loyalty of the Right. Trump hesitated for a whole year before appointing Bolton, but by doing so now he has sent out a signal. What could be the defining moment of his presidency is fast approaching: the summit with Kim Jong-un. If Trump can arm-wrestle “little Rocket Man” into denuclearising the Korean peninsula in return for the lifting of sanctions, this President will have pulled off the greatest diplomatic coup since Nixon went to China. But to do that, he needs to outwit his opponent. In other words, Trump needs his own Kissinger. That is too big a role for any one person. Together, Pompeo and Bolton might be a match for Dr K. In the words of Michael Oakeshott, they combine “the politics of faith” — faith in the ability of Western civilisation to strike back — and “the politics of scepticism” — scepticism towards the utterances of declared enemies of that civilisation. Bolton said recently: “Russia, China, Syria, Iran, North Korea. These are regimes that make agreements and lie about them. A national security policy that is based on the faith that regimes like that will honour their commitments is doomed to failure.” Rather than trust Iran to abide by the deal negotiated by the Obama administration, Pompeo would rather annihilate the Islamic Republic’s nuclear installations: “This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” The presence of Pompeo and Bolton at Trump’s side might just persuade a petrified Pyongyang to keep its word.
What, though, of Europe? There, queasiness about the cost of confronting the enemies of the West has removed any limitations on the politics of righteousness. The result has been the appeasement of wickedness, in the shape of Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, Erdogan’s Turkey and a host of other hostile regimes. At home, anti-Semitic parties of the extremes of Left and Right are on the march, evoking distant memories of the 1930s. Islamism is strengthening its hold on fast-growing, segregated and increasingly self-governing Muslim communities. These anti-democratic forces are in turn radicalising mainstream parties and unsettling hitherto quiescent communities. What is driving this ferment of discontent? The secular elites look on, uncomprehending, as long-dormant eschatological manifestations sweep the continent. When President Trump spoke in Warsaw, he was greeted by crowds chanting: “We want God!”
The resurgence of an apocalyptic mood is most obviously visible in the politicisation of Islam, but also in the quasi-religious movements that feed on the confusion of identity — national, social, sexual and spiritual. Even an academic figure such as the psychologist and author of 12 Rules for Life Jordan Peterson is greeted as a secular messiah; his subtitle explains why: An Antidote to Chaos. Europeans, especially the young, yearn for an antidote to chaos, dimly aware of the spiritual vacuum created by the retreat of Christian forms of life and the political one created by disillusionment with the European idea.
On the eve of the Second World War, the émigré Austrian historian Erich (later Eric) Voegelin wrote a tract in Princeton on the roots of the Third Reich, entitled The Political Religions: “A religious consideration of National Socialism must begin on the basis that there is evil in the world; and that evil is not merely as negativity, as a deficient mode of being, but as a real substance and force acting in the world. A satanic substance, not only morally bad but religiously evil, can only be resisted by an equally strong, religiously good force. One cannot fight a satanic force with decency and humanity alone.” Another émigré from Vienna, Aurel Kolnai, entitled his analysis of the Nazi ideology The War Against the West. There is a war against the West going on today — and it is being fought out on multiple fronts. Why is it mainly conservatives who recognise the threats — yet are castigated when they try to resist? Western civilisation needs liberals to defend it too. Where are they? Why do liberals persist in seeing Donald Trump and other “populists” as the main threat to democracy? Are liberals doomed to repeat the mistake of Alexander Kerensky, the ill-starred leader of Russia’s Provisional Government in 1917, who saw “no enemies on the Left” and was overthrown by Lenin’s Bolsheviks? Why are liberals in Britain still suffering post-traumatic stress after the Brexit referendum, but have no objection to installing in Number Ten Downing Street the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, an unapologetic anti-Semite who makes excuses for Putin’s poisonings?
Nor are liberals in the United States immune to these delusions. The next Democratic Party presidential candidate is quite likely to be even more post-American than Obama, and will get just as easy a ride from the mainstream media. He or she will quite likely win. If that were to happen, they would have no Kissingers in Foggy Bottom to keep their feet on the ground — and probably have no desire to do so. And were another 9/11 to happen, the West would look in vain to the American Republic for leadership. The Cold War presidents, from Truman to Reagan, alternated between liberals and conservatives, but the grand strategy evolved gradually. Now, when the problem of politics remains the limitation of righteousness, but the control of wickedness has become much more complex, and the West could do with the courage of a Washington, and the eloquence of a Lincoln, we are quite likely to find ourselves led by someone with the courage of a Clinton and the eloquence of a Carter. So next time you feel exasperated by the foibles of Donald Trump, just remember how much worse things could be.
It is time to draw what conclusions we can from this brief survey of the recent history of a very old problem — one that began when Paradise was lost. Evil is eternal, but evildoers can be punished. The hard problem is dealing with those who act in the name of righteousness but whose actions have malign consequences. The liberal conscience is perpetually tender: it hasn’t the stomach to rein in self-righteous wrongdoers. It is the role of the conservative conscience to do the demolition work disdained by liberals. Denounce the UN as a nest of hypocrites and scoundrels? Dissect the European Union’s invertebrate institutions? Expose the anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Western agendas of much-fêted universities, think tanks and NGOs? It is always left to the Right to hold the self-righteous to account. Only when liberals are shamed do they place limitations on themselves. It required the election of a Donald Trump to force liberals to acknowledge the grievances of their fellow Americans and to shoulder the responsibilities of global leadership. It required Brexit to force liberals to pay attention to the grievances of their fellow Britons and the European Union’s lack of accountability. Theresa May and her fellow Conservatives have not yet forced Jeremy Corbyn to resign as leader of the Labour Party (and hence Prime Minister-in-waiting), despite his anti-Semitism and his blind eye to Putin’s crimes. But they won’t give up until he does. Trump and his fellow conservatives have not yet made America great again, but they won’t give up, no matter how much they are demonised. Conservatives won’t give up warning that our enemies are fighting a war against the West until liberals cease to ignore the manifold threats to our way of life. Only when liberals renounce relativism, disown the divisive politics of identity, and rejoin the battle for the survival of Western civilisation will they persuade voters that they are equal to the task of defeating its enemies. As a liberal mugged by the reality of Trump, Mark Lilla has written a devastating critique of the American Left’s obsession with identity politics, which has left economics and patriotism to the Right. As Lilla told David Remnick, “I’m tired of losing.”
The righteous need the Right to hold their idealism in check, just as conservatives need liberals to restrain their realism. “The problem of politics is not the control of wickedness, but the limitation of righteousness.” Dr Kissinger was right, but Goethe got there first, in his sonnet “Nature and Art”: “Wer Grosses will, muss sich zusammenraffen;/In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,/Und der Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.” “He who aspires to greatness must overcome himself;/Only in self-limitation does the master show himself,/And only the law can give us freedom.”
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