Daniel Schwammenthal of the Transatlantic Institute joins Inez Stepman on this She Thinks pop-up episode to discuss his Wall Street Journal article, To America, From a Worried European Friend, and the future of both the United States and our allies across the Atlantic. What do the trends of cancel culture, eroding free speech, and lack of faith in the justice of the American project mean for our role as leader of the free world?
Hey everyone, it’s Beverly Hallberg. Welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the Independent Women’s Forum, where we talk with women and sometimes men about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Enjoy.
Welcome to She Thinks. I’m Inez Stepman, with the Independent Women’s Forum. I’m pleased to have with me today, Daniel Schwammenthal, who’s the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels. Before taking on that role, he was an editorial page writer and editor at The Wall Street Journal, which is where he recently published a piece that we’re going to talk about today titled, To America, From A Worried European Friend. Welcome, Daniel. I’m so glad to have you with us.
Thank you so much, Inez. Pleasure to be on your show.
So, you open up your op ed, which I highly recommend that all of our readers go and find and read, with these sentences, “History and evolutionary biology teach us that the normal course of human affairs is tribalism, oppression and poverty. The emergence of liberal democracies, isn’t the inevitable end point of supposedly linear Western progress, but an aberration and a rather fragile one at that.”
Isn’t this exactly what this particular strain of left-wing ideology going all the way back to perhaps Kegel or popularized by Marx and the wheel of history turning? Then in terms of more contemporary politics, right? President Obama famously warned people to be quote, “On the right side of history.” This idea that history is progressing to an end point and we’re going to become endlessly more prosperous, endlessly freer, endlessly progressing to a higher plane of a quality every time the wheel turns.
This seems to be very deeply embedded train of thought, especially on the left, but even to some extent on the right in America, Reagan by contrast, despite being generally optimistic, emphasize I think the opposite, what you do here. The fragility of freedom, the possibility of returning to a thousand years of darkness to the Dark Ages. Can you explain why that underlying difference, perhaps in perspective with regard to the progress in history and the fragility of where we are now, why does that have important political consequences in your view?
Right. The way I see it, I think the misconception that liberal democracy is the inevitable outcome of all our civilization. I see as it common on the left as on the right and I think it has a lot to do especially maybe here, I’m speaking more from a European perspective, that Europe hasn’t seen a war on its own territory now, luckily for over 70 years and in that sense the United States, I mean, I would guess since the 1812 war with Britain, hasn’t seen any war on its territory. Also, after the Cold War, the leave now democracy has ultimately won the contest over ideology, over what is the right form of government. So I see this quite widespread among society, this belief that democracy is firmly embedded.
Unfortunately, if we look at history, and if we also turn, as as I reference it in this speech, to evolutionary biologist, it’s not the case. It took us some 2,000 years to get where we arrived and many of our natural instincts is to destruct the other and therefore we have to be very, very careful and make sure that we preserve these liberal democracies that we have. Of course at the same time, we of course ought to strive to protect them. But we need to be very, very careful that these ideas survive.
So I want to then ask you, actually, since you do see democracy as fragile, and I agree with you, I think now we’re seeing perhaps … you closed your piece with ominous tone, that you’re more worried about the continued survival of liberal democracy, both in the US and correspondingly around the world than you used to. Do you see, for example, the American founding as fundamentally a different creature? When you talk about how we have instincts towards tribalism, most European countries … so as to completely simplify hundreds and hundreds of years of history, most European countries were more or less started on the basis of a tribe. There was a smaller tribe and larger and larger tribes bound together. Eventually you have a unification and a modern nation state out of that.
Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t multiple peoples within national borders and it certainly doesn’t mean that immigration doesn’t change that the composition of who lives within those borders, but unlike most European countries, America has founding date, now questioned by the 1619 Project, but July 4th, 1776 and a founding creed and document. I think that’s probably why we’ve been able to have such a diverse people, truly from the beginning. America has never had really a tribe but now we talk about, especially the left likes to talk about quote unquote, whiteness, but that’s certainly not how people saw the different European peoples who were in the United States at the time.
I guess what I wanted to ask you about this, is our diversity, which I argue, and I believe still has been an incredible strength for the United States when it has had this edifice that did bind us together as a people, this creed, and then a certain amount of both historically justified and also mythologized founding characters. If we lose that, does diversity quickly become a weakness for the United States in the sense that we perhaps don’t have the same kind of long-term kinship or cultural ties as as many European countries. Is there’s something about the United States that desperately especially needs that e pluribus unum, I guess is what I’m asking you?
Yeah, yeah, no, definitely I see diversity as a great strength for any society, but it does again, if you look at human nature, if you read what evolutionary biologists have to say, it does make the creation of what sociologists refer to as social cohesion, the sticky stuff that holds society together, that extends the traditional tribal loyalty to people beyond your tribe, to be people who do not look like you, who have maybe different religions, it makes it more difficult to create this. That is indeed the miracle of the United States, the oldest democracy that it has managed to do just that. It is indeed based on the shared principles of the creation of independence, the constitution that has enabled America to create this incredibly diverse and successful and prosperous society.
Indeed, I fear that if one challenges or undermines these creeds that indeed make it possible that Americans and new immigrants from one day to the other basically can become American and are in principle recognized by other Americans as fellow citizens, that is only possible as long as Americans agree on these principles. If they’re now being taught that those principles are false, they never really existed, that America not only failed to live up to these ideas, but that these ideas were pretty much a lie, then I’m very worried what this would do to social cohesion, to the ability of American society to continue to function. As I lay out in this piece, I’m worried that this would be a contributing factor to social strife, with no end in sight,
You make a related claim about the American system in your piece too, I think we’re circling around it, so let’s get to the heart of it. You make the claim that the American system is just. Not that it’s perfect, not that the project of American citizenship isn’t to make a more perfect union, but that it is fundamentally just. So there are now many in the United States who deny that we have a justice system and they point to what they call quote, systemic racism. Nobody denies, and you acknowledged explicitly in your piece, that instances of racism exist, of course in the United States and around the world but there is a very important difference between acknowledging the individual instances of racism exist and impact people’s lives, and then indicting the system itself with that charge.
Then of course in America, and I’m sure broad, we don’t even agree on what our definition of racism actually is. So Abraham Kennedy, for example, whose book on anti-racism is now recommended by virtually every Fortune 500 company in America, he posits that disparities themselves between ethnic groups or racial groups are themselves proof positive of discrimination. That’s a definition obviously not accepted by large parts of the American people. So what lies ahead? I think we’ve talked a little bit about what lies ahead for America in terms of potential disunion among our many squabbling parts, in our 350 very different people, 350 million that is, but what … I think you’re right, because your piece is from the perspective of quote, a European friend. What are the consequences for the world and for geopolitics, if America loses faith in the justice of its own system and deems itself, as you say, unfit to lead? What are the consequences for people around the world?
Right. So I wrote this from a very personal perspective, also. As I described in this piece, I was literally raised by my parents to acknowledge, to always be aware of that, had it not been what Madeline Albright called the indispensable nations, all of Europe’s Jews would have been exterminated, including my own parents, which means that I would have never been born. So for me, American exceptionalism is existential. I also had the privilege, no pun intended, to actually then study and live in the United States and make a lot of personal friends to this day. Also it’s enriched me intellectually, America’s traditional concept of freedom of speech for instance, is something that is very, very different from the European or continental European tradition. So that’s one part of a very personal journey for me and my personal concerns for a country that I appreciate, deeply appreciate.
But generally as a citizen of Europe, of the Western world, I am worried and I think everybody ought to be worried, that if indeed America convinces itself that it is inherently and irredeemably racist, it would mean that it would obviously, inevitably, no longer consider it to be fit in any way to lead the free world, as we now say. I don’t mean this in the sense that the United States ought to be intervening militarily around the world. It’s the very existence of America as the leader of the free Western world and it’s posture and its self-confidence is such that provide the basic architecture of security and stability in Europe, in many other parts of the world. If America, as a society were to lose its self-confidence and were to give up this role, we know who will fill this vacuum. It’s not the good guys, it’s not liberal democracy. It’s Russia, it’s China, if Iran, players like these.
So, I see this not only as a tremendous friend of America, as somebody who could have imagined actually becoming American myself. In many ways, I consider myself an honorary American, but really as … So not only I’m worried about a threat to American society and survival of American democracy as such, but also obviously what the consequence is, as I just described them for the rest of the free world.
Yeah, I definitely see … I think we see that, that attitude of stepping out of the leadership role. I mean, I see it increasingly in American discourse, not just I think, the more considered and weary response to pull back perhaps from policing the world, which as you rightly distinguished, there’s a difference between moral leadership in the world and soft power and then using American blood and treasure to try to fix the world that isn’t fixable.
But there is this self-flagellating response now in American politics to … especially when stories come in from abroad that are just, I mean, common sense. I mean, it frustrates me as well personally to see people make false equivalencies between what’s happening in the United States and what, for example, China does in terms of its human rights abuses to the Uighurs and to other minority populations and its own people.
Or we’ve seen these incredibly grave democracy movements and in Hong Kong and Belarus, and increasingly there is that response, “Oh, well, that’s happening here.” It is a frustrating one, I think for people who either have friends, or family, or experienced themselves, some form of truly illiberal dictatorship, to see those kinds of moral equivalencies made when there truly is no moral equivalency between anything that’s happening in the United States and for example, what Lucashenko does in his detention centers in Belarus to his own people, but are we seeing a geopolitical divergence then, between Europe and the United States, because I’ll tell you what frustrates me perhaps as an American about our alliance with European countries, it’s that oftentimes you see these polls, long-term polls, done by Pew or by reputable polling firms that show that, for example, there are a lot of people in Europe who believes that the United States is the biggest threat to world peace.
There was a poll back a couple of years ago asking what’s the biggest threat to world peace, is it China, Russia, or the United States. The US was basically tied and a little bit ahead of China, and then considerably ahead of Russia, at a time when in the United States, I think many are questioning some of those international commitments for reasons of weariness that we distinguished before. These kinds of polls, I think are very frustrating to Americans when along the lines of the things that Donald Trump often says about European countries not making their commitments to NATO and then expecting the United States to carry that alliance.
What is the future of the alliance between Europe and the United States? How is it perhaps dependent? It seems like to some extent, at least amongst friends of mine, it seems like a lot of Europeans do buy into some of the critical race theory that America is exporting to the world. They have their own reasons for believing that US leadership is, is not in their best interest. Do you see a parting of the ways? And would you see that as a catastrophe, if there was to be a parting of the ways between European countries and the United States?
So, these are all very important questions. Personally, and as an organization that is deeply committed to the transatlantic relationship, after all the office here in Brussels is called the Transatlantic Institute for a reason. We take this very seriously and we are, of course, also disheartened when we see some of the opinion polls that look at America sometimes, or certain parts of the population, look at America more as an opponent than as an ally. There is a lot to do here among European leaders to correct this.
At the same time, as you also mentioned, and this is something I was not able to get into my op ed, the other reason why I’m a little bit worried about what I’m seeing in the United States is that America still is the leader of the free world. That also means the cultural leader in many ways and we know that many ideas that start in the United States come over to Europe, as you rightly said and then you can see it particularly in the United Kingdom, which was always, and is always closer to the US than continental Europe, and where some of the radical ideas have also already made quite an impact on universities and in the media.
That’s another worry for me, that it will also become stronger here, in both in Britain and continental Europe, and therefore also serve to undermine the functioning of European society. Therefore, this is … in my view, many of the extreme ideas are my view ultimately anti-Western, they are illiberal ideas and therefore by definition, will undermine our societies and therefore also further undermine this relationship, because if we are being taught that we are all inherently racist and so forth, that the West as such, or Western civilization as such, is largely a force for evil, then obviously the West as such will not be able to work together and that’s very worrying.
I have a lot of the same concerns, so thank you for articulating them so well. I do have one more debate, or something to press you on to wrap this up here. So I think you rightly highlight in this column, a rising illiberalism on the left, complete with attacks on the concept of free speech that, as you say is so different in America than from continental European law. I think actually a lot of Americans would be shocked at what can be banned, what kinds of speech can be banded in many European countries. But as you say, we have this tradition of extremely robust, free speech that was once embraced by the mainstream of both sides of the political spectrum. Now, that seems to be going on the left and we have … You mentioned 1984 is a manual. Of course, I don’t know if you’ve been following, but one of the more recent scandals in academia has been an actual defense of two plus two equals five, on the basis that mathematics and objectivity are racist constructs. So they are indeed taking it as a manual there.
So, you also have this paragraph though, in here about writing illiberalism on the right, where we talk about populism and then in a more extreme form, of course, the far right and its ties to fascism or Nazism. So it’s not that I don’t think that these folks exist, I know they do, they populate my Twitter mentions sometimes, but my question is, you seem to make a balance here between the dangers of illiberalism on the left and on the right. Now, we know that the Harper’s free speech letter is essentially the last cry of the liberal left, which once marched through all of our institutions in the United States, and now is being picked out by the illiberal left from those institutions. That I see as the big difference here between, the Richard Spencer’s and the alt right.
They may be dangerous in terms of being able sometimes to inspire individual acts of violence and tragedy, but they don’t have institutional power in the United States whereas the illiberal left, I mean, just took over The New York Times, right. It’s held the Academy for decades, and we know that the ideas generated the Academy, don’t stay there. It’s now metastasized to our K-12 system, Hollywood and the production of all of our cultural products, which we talked about being so important in terms of American soft power in the world. Those are largely controlled now by the illiberal left. So I guess I want to push back against this equivalence a little bit, not because I don’t think that neo-Nazis exist and are dangerous in the United States, but because they don’t hold any serious institutional power, which is why perhaps you’d like to defend that comparison. But I see it as an erroneous comparison because of just the levels of power that both sides hold.
Right. What I tried to lay out in my piece was the fear that I believe exists in America, out of these extremes to see some sort of really civil strife and violent confrontations actually also on the street. You are right, the far right has luckily no real institutional power, but they do exist. We have seen antisemitic and racist, violent terror attacks by the far right. Therefore, not to mention it in the context of a piece that describes my concerns about illiberalism in general and the potential of undermining social cohesion, social unrest would be incomplete if it didn’t also mention the far right. Which is often more violent, but as you said, is not dominating the social science and humanities departments at universities, which is what I also described, where the far left, I really want to make sure that I’m not talking about the left, but the far left really here has, unfortunately has taken over a lot of control over educational material and the curriculum at universities and is spreading illiberal ideas. Ideas have consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences, and all of this together also with far right and also violence-prone far rights is a very explosive cocktail in my view.
Well, we’re undoubtedly living through a period of civil unrest. Let’s hope that that cocktail doesn’t turn out to be a Molotov cocktail on the streets of America, but hopefully we can pull it together in the United States in time to take on some of the larger global liberal giants, like I think China is turning out to be. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us from Brussels. Please again, make sure to read his Wall Street Journal piece, To America, From A Worried European Friend. Once again, this is She Thinks. This has been Inez Stepman from the Independent Women’s Forum and thank you so much for joining us on She Thinks today.