Twilight of the Idols

June 1, 2003 Topic: Society

Twilight of the Idols

Mini Teaser: Nietzsche thought God was dead and used philosophy as a hammer to force others to recognize his unhappy insight. The Bush Administration has used public diplomacy as a hammer to force recognition of changes in the global security environment. But

by Author(s): Christian D. Brose

ROUGHLY A year ago, James Ceaser interpreted George XV. Bush's post-September 11 foreign policy rhetoric as a direct attack on Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophic legacy--a legacy that ironically finds its most vocal contemporary cheerleaders on the Left, which Nietzsche despised.1 In calling evil by its name, wrote Ceaser, the President was engaging in what amounted to a broad assault on the dishwatery moral relativism that (post)modem liberalism clumsily drew from the pages of Nietzsche's writing.

This is completely correct. As a man who identified Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, President Bush is the natural antithesis to a philosopher who gleefully described himself as the Antichrist, as well as to those liberals who today peddle misunderstandings of Nietzsche as moral dogmas. The President and his administration detest nihilistic destructiveness; they do not worship the will to power. They are certainly attackers of Nietzsche misunderstood, but perhaps they share something in common with Nietzsche properly understood. Obvious interpretive errors aside, shades of similarity do seem to exist between the Bush Administration's approach to foreign policy and Nietzsche's approach to philosophy.

The Dawn

The greatest events and thoughts--the greatest thoughts, however, are the greatest events--are longest in being comprehended: the generations which are contemporary with them do not experience such events--they live past them.
--Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, our security environment has undergone profound transformation.... But new deadly challenges have emerged from rogue states and terrorists... It has taken almost a decade for us to comprehend the true nature of this new threat.
--The National Security Strategy, September 2002

IN "THE Parable of the Madman" from The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche describes the individual who first grasps the horrific reality of nihilism while everyone else lives in ignorance of it. Holding a lantern burning brightly in the early morning hours, "the Madman" enters town seeking God and confronts a crowd of nonbelievers who do not share his religious passion. He is suddenly overcome with the realization that these modern men, feeling as though they have outgrown such antiquated superstitions, have murdered God in their impious hearts. The Madman offers the townspeople his knowledge of the death of God, but they fail to grasp either the reality or the cataclysmic nature of this event. "I have come too early ... my time is not yet", the Madman proclaims as he shatters his lantern and retreats.

Taken as the metaphorical point of departure for Nietzsche's philosophy, this allegory precipitates the attempt of the knowing individual to dispel the illusions of the unenlightened, forcing them to accept the terrible implications of God's death. Nietzsche thought the recognition of nihilism, though harsh and discomforting, was more intellectually honest and psychologically healthier than the continued denial of it, and so he chose to force the issue. Only in this way could modern man overcome his spiritual decadence. Desiring to awaken his fellow men to this realization, Nietzsche willingly courted their ire and ridicule. His approach to philosophy--the candid, strong-willed embrace of provocation and, if necessary, destruction--was fundamentally unilateral and sustained by little more than Nietzsche's own courage.

On September 11, 2001, the world felt the first major shockwave of the presumably new and unknown era of international relations that rumbled into existence over a decade ago with the collapse of the bipolar order. That morning's terror attacks were the symptom of a larger geopolitical condition: the "unipolar" world, now stripped of its illusions of order and seen in the reality of its violent resentment and upheaval. Though it had been a long time coming, a U.S. administration finally awoke to the collapse of the old order and began working through the attendant implications.

In order to ground U.S. foreign policy in this new world, the Bush Administration critically examined post-September 11 reality from both a strategic and moral standpoint. America's national interest was recalculated and recast. Longstanding dogmas about law and alliances, established by many as fundamental truths of international politics, were re-evaluated. The utility of deterrence was weighed against the perceived need for pre-emptive strikes and preventive wars. The Westphalian norm of external sovereignty was reexamined in light of America's compulsion to intervene forcibly in the internal affairs of other states. The relevance of Cold War alliances and security architectures was no longer assumed; they had to be proven effective in the post-9/l 1 world. The traditional practice of amoral realpolitik was challenged by a new strategic logic rooted in moral principles: "a balance of power that favors freedom", as September's National Security Strategy proclaimed. In a world of murky, deadly threats from non-state actors and their patrons, the Bush Administration claimed the United States had no choice but to address the internal character of foreign regimes, not just their external behavior.

Such a dramatic reconstitution of national security by the world's evident hegemon could not but elicit suspicion and anxiety from other states. What, wondered weaker states, was to be of international law, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and other mechanisms useful for controlling American power? From the perspective of foreign states, the Bush Administration demonstrated a frightening willingness to question the strategic and moral value of institutions and ways of thinking that much of the world viewed as the pinnacle of historical progress. Hence, what the September 11 attacks (supposedly) revealed about the nature of the unipolar world compelled the Bush Administration to initiate an unprecedented revaluation of international political thinking. Foreign states could come along willingly, reluctantly or not at all with the new U.S.-wrought dispensation, but they certainly would not be allowed to "live past" this monumental event. They would be compelled to realize not that God was de ad, but that the old order was no more.

Thus Spoke W.

Our institutions are no longer fit for anything.... But the fault lies not in them but in us. Having lost all the instincts out of which institutions grow, we are losing the institutions themselves, because we are no Ionger fit for them.
--Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888

We created a United Nations Security Council so that, unlike the League of Nations, our deliberations would be more than talk, our resolutions would be more than wishes.... Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?
--George W Bush, September 12, 2002

NIETZSCHE intended his philosophy to be provocative. He thought the illusory promises of Platonic metaphysics and Christian otherworldliness had produced the gradual degeneration of Western civilization. These old ideas were undergoing a crisis of meaning in the modern era as human beings lost faith in their professed rewards. As the idols declined and fell, they revealed the fundamental meaninglessness of life. Nietzsche wanted his readers to cast off hope for moral and metaphysical certainty and accept the reality of nihilism so as to be able to overcome it. He thus approached his philosophy, as he was so fond of saying, with a hammer-smashing the old to make room for the new. This act of destructive ground-clearing was cruel but necessary, for it would set human history down an illusion-free, life-affirming path.

Ontological hand-wringing aside, the Bush Administration has engaged over the past year in a similar act of provocation. On September 12, 2002, President Bush stood before the United Nations and systematically called to account its member-states for their failure to address the threat of Ba'athi Iraq. The President's speech, however, served a much broader end: it was an intentional provocation designed to compel the (so-called) international community to dispense with illusions of security that veil "gathering dangers", and to accept the unipolar world in all of its frightening instability. The message was similar to the command of Zarathustra: "Become hard!" Like Nietzsche, the Bush Administration views a bitter but necessary dose of reality as redemptive, and both intend to be forceful with the spoon.

A significant point of difference, however, must be noted: The Bush Administration is no Nietzschean wrecker of the contemporary international order. Nietzsche took great joy hammering into fine powder anything that smacked of Christian morality or Platonic metaphysics. The administration-at least the majority of it anyway-- never sought to destroy the United Nations, nor did it wish to kill off time-tested traditional alliances. That said, one should not confuse the administration 's reluctance with irresolution. Though it sought the counsel and blessings of other states regarding its policies, the Bush Administration demanded that these states and the institutions they formed must accept its way of thinking about international politics. And this way of thinking is certainly unpleasant: a long-enduring, unipolar imbalance of power that is threatened constantly by transnational terrorist groups and their rogue state allies, both of which are getting closer by the day to acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

As Nietzsche understood, the idols and orders that human beings imposed on the world possessed one fundamental purpose: to enable human life to flourish. If, instead, they spawned decadence and retarded human achievement, they must be destroyed and replaced with something new. As the Bush Administration insisted throughout the past year, such is the case also with the traditional dogmas, institutions and alliance systems of international politics. They exist as means, not as ends in themselves. For this reason, one might say the Bush Administration made its foreign policy with a hammer throughout the entire Iraq debate--using this tool, as Nietzsche advocated, as a tuning fork to "sound out" the integrity of international institutions and normative behavior. This constituted a form of shock therapy applied to its allies in the United Nations and NATO, as well as to the institutions themselves and the strategic thinking that underpinned them. It tested whether they were "relevant" for this nasty world of terr orists, rogue states and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. If the idols of international politics rang hollow, then new arrangements would have to be made.

The most significant development in this regard was the promulgation of the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy in September 2002, which sought to shatter illusions of security and critically challenge conventional dogmas. Much of the serious debate over this document concerned the alleged tactlessness with which the administration brandished a "doctrine of pre-emption." Many argued that pre-emptive military attacks against clear and mounting threats were rarely required in international politics, and when necessary, they were justified by common sense and hardly deserved doctrinal enshrining. Philip Zelikow, however, who had a hand in creating the document, argued differently in these pages:

Essay Types: Essay