Cliff May

Robert D. Kaplan has long been among America’s most insightful analysts of global trends. I’d rather argue with him than agree with most others. Right now, I’m going to do a bit of both.

In “Toxic Nationalism,” an essay published in the Wall Street Journal last week, Kaplan observes that “Western elites” regard their beliefs as “universal values.” Because they approve of “women’s liberation,” they conclude that all thinking people from Albania to Zanzibar believe in women’s liberation. Western elites place a priority on “human rights,” assuming that must be the consensus view. Western elites are convinced that international organizations are breaking down the remaining “boundaries separating humanity,” so that must be what they’re doing, and what they seek to do.

These are, Kaplan understands, illusions: “In country after country, the Westerners identify like-minded, educated elites and mistake them for the population at large. They prefer not to see the regressive and exclusivist forces — such as nationalism and sectarianism — that are mightily reshaping the future.”

He cites, as an example, Egypt, where the hope that decades of dictatorship were giving way to liberal democracy has faded. His explanation: “Freedom, at least in its initial stages, unleashes not only individual identity but, more crucially, the freedom to identify with a blood-based solidarity group. Beyond that group, feelings of love and humanity do not apply. That is a signal lesson of the Arab Spring.”

I think Kaplan is right on all points save one: The Islamists who are coming to power are not a “blood-based solidarity group.” They are a religion-based solidarity group. Egyptian Islamists feel no solidarity with Egyptian Christians — despite blood ties tracing back millennia. This is a crucial distinction, one that makes “Western elites” — Kaplan included — profoundly uncomfortable. So they ignore it.

Kaplan, who currently holds the catchy title of “chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm,” goes on to worry that in Europe there is now “a resurgence of nationalism and extremism.” He’s not wrong on that, but is it remotely conceivable that the skinheads and neo-Nazis in Finland, Ukraine, and Greece pose as serious a threat to freedom and human rights as do the jihadists of al-Qaeda and Iran, or even the more gradualist Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood?


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.