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The Resumption of History and the Coming Post-Modern Order
What would a Nietzschean world steeped in tragic realism look like? An Interview with AGON's Arta Moeini.
Is the Liberal International Order a permanent condition of global politics, or is it a historical aberration destined to end? And if so, what will replace it?
Prominent Danish journalist Flemming Rose sits down with AGON’s founding editor Dr. Arta Moeini to reflect on these questions and much more. Here is the full interview in English for the readers of AGON.
Using Nietzsche as a Guide to 21st-century Geopolitics
Note from Flemming Rose:
For this week's Free Thinking, I spoke with Dr. Arta Moeini, Research Director at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy think tank in Washington D.C. and an expert on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). We talked about the end of the liberal international order of the last 75 years and what order will replace the existing one. Moeini believes that we are witnessing the end of the modern period, which has lasted about 400 years, and that the wars in Ukraine and Gaza mark the West's swan song.
The modern period has been dominated by the nation-state and a certain universalism that is now incoherent and on the verge of collapse. Thinking of the future, we can look forward to a new polycentric world order consisting of multiple centers of power and regional poles rooted in different cultures and civilizations, each with its own value system and norms, and here, according to Moeini, we should listen to Nietzsche's response to the crisis of universalism at the end of the 19th century.
A life with multiple cultures
Arta Moeini makes no secret of the fact that his personal history serves as a starting point for his professional interest as an expert in foreign and security policy and the perspective he takes on the world. Born in Brussels, he grew up in Iran and the United States. Moeini is an American citizen but has Persian roots and has spent time in Europe. As a teenager, the now 36-year-old Moeini moved back to Los Angeles, where it occurred to him that he had adopted and internalized Western prejudices about life outside the West.
“I remember how I looked down on other civilizations and other people's experiences because they didn't align with my internalized understanding of ‘civilization’. I slowly realized how the West's notion of being exceptional and above others damages the Western psyche itself. It distorts reality and creates a sense of ownership of things that happen far away, which is deeply unhealthy”.
“We take our own experience and superimpose it on distant countries and cultures and turn it into a global experience. We equate our own way of life with others, measure other civilizations and countries by the same yardstick, and judge the world accordingly”.
Liberal ideology dismisses the real world!
“This notion also underlies the idea of convergence in development theory, the fact that, as a result of the spread of modernity and development, all societies, cultures, and ways of life will eventually converge.”
According to Moeini, the same worldview drives American thinker Francis Fukuyama's 1989 claim of the end of history. It is, he says, a theory that pushes aside the real experiences of other cultures in favor of an ahistorical ideological presumption at the heart of the liberal order that asserts every form of life must inevitably move in the same direction and towards the same goal.
He comments: “I see this as deeply problematic”.
“The same melioristic, eschatological view of history culminating in universal ‘justice’ exists in Islamism, communism, and fascism. All are ideological reactions to liberalism and creations of Modernity. They are all alter egos of liberal modernity and operate with the notion of the end of history, but just interpret this in a different way than Fukuyama. They are all part of modernity, fundamental belief systems underpinned by the idea of ideological revolution and the desirability of systemic transformation. Even as they see themselves in opposition to the West, they use the same concepts to explain the world”.
Biden as an ideologue
According to Moeini, U.S. President Joe Biden's attempt to convince Americans of the need to intervene on behalf of both Israel and Ukraine by suggesting that these two very different countries and peoples share a common destiny as seen from the Oval Office in Washington D.C. is also an unrealistic and abstract ideologization.
Such an ideological framing was evident in Biden’s address to the nation earlier this month:
Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they have this in common: They both want to totally eradicate a neighboring democracy—totally eradicate it.
According to Moeini, the war in Ukraine has become a holy war for a generation of Western elites steeped in the Cold War. A Russian victory, according to the establishment view in the West, would not just be Ukraine's loss. No, a Russian victory would mean the collapse of the so-called liberal international order so far as the Western ruling class is concerned.
“Ukraine has become existential for Western elites because a series of world events including the rise of populism and culminating in the Russo-Ukraine war has cast doubt on their worldview, suggesting their time is coming to an end. We are witnessing the swan song of the liberal order. Ukraine has become existential to them, even though the fate of Ukraine will never have a decisive impact on the national interest of the United States or the collective interest of Americans. This is because our political leaders have tied themselves to a particular worldview and the dynamics behind it. Ukraine has become a place where they can fight—if not physically then ontologically—against the disintegration of the liberal order and reap its cathartic effects”.
The ground is shaking under the West
Will the war in Gaza accelerate that process?
“Yes, both the war in Gaza and Ukraine are seismic tremors in the system. We are neither able to control what happens in Ukraine nor in Gaza, and the more resources Washington invests in distant conflicts and the more it interferes in them, the more the U.S. will be weakened. Our interference also weakens the incentive for local actors to find solutions themselves based on the reality on the ground”.
America’s universalism weakens the U.S.
“American exceptionalism is an ideology that ignores American interests. When a universalist ideology drives you, you are not concerned with the best interests of your own people. The United States has drained its resources and amassed unsustainable debt by waging wars around the world instead of focusing on strengthening our domestic institutions and local communities. It has weakened us”.
It wasn't like that to begin with during the Cold War, Moeini points out. Back then, the U.S. and the rest of the Western nations were far less ideological than today. They joined forces with non-democratic countries like Greece, Portugal, Turkey, and Spain to contain the expanding Soviet threat and didn't necessarily march in lockstep. The U.S. didn't demand that other countries behave in the same way. But that changed over time.
“Along the way, Western elites came to see themselves as better than others, and they saw their own model of society as superior to others. The funny thing is that in doing so, they adopted the Soviet way of thinking, an ideological worldview that was convinced of its own historical superiority and whose proponents saw the world as divided into good guys and bad guys, with themselves representing the good”.
“With the collapse of the Soviet Union, one ideological pillar of Modernity collapsed, leaving only the liberal one, and there were no restrictions on it whatsoever. I think of the 1990s, which was a unique period in world history where there was only one dominant power. It happens very rarely and it was thought that you could build a just world under American supremacy. Such a centralized and globalized international system ruled from a capital city is unprecedented. But when you say that your values are universal, that they apply to all countries and cultures, and that you hold the historical truth, sooner or later others will rebel, and that's what we're seeing now”.
Towards a new order
Today, Arta Moeini is Director of Research at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, a think tank in Washington D.C., where he researches the crisis of Modernity within the United States and the West and what he calls the “great transition”—the global shift currently underway from U.S.-dominated international order to a multi-centered and multi-polar order, which although feared by Western elites, could, according to Moeini, create a more stable and peaceful world.
This transition is driven by the rise of China, Russia's regained impetus for power, and new powers in the Global South that want to assert their sovereignty and independence. But it is also caused by the crisis that the US and other Western countries are experiencing internally, an extreme, late form of Modernity that rejects the concrete history, norms, and traditions of the West—the cultural forms that gave rise to Modernity itself—in favor of an abstract fixation with liberation and equality.
Rose: You see civilizational states and what you call middle powers as centers or pillars of this new global order. How do you define them?
Moeini: “These are countries that are not necessarily great powers with a global reach or force capability—currently only two great powers exist, China and the U.S.—but middle powers are geographical anchors, economically and militarily dominant in their regions, and often rooted in a civilizational tradition. Unlike the great powers, however, they cannot project power globally. They are concerned with their local area and historical spheres of interest, focusing on their vital national interests and territorial, strategic, moral, and cultural sovereignty”.
Rose: Which countries are these?
“These are countries like India, Iran, Japan, Germany, Russia, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, and possibly even Nigeria and Ethiopia. There are a few more, but the key point is that all these states have a civilizational, cultural, and historical foundation that binds them to a region. They are more than simple by-products of nationalism operating within a nation-state system. BRICS is the epitome of this shift, with China being the only example of a civilization-state that is not a middle power, but a great power that can project power outside its immediate area, but has so far chosen not to do so militarily.”
Nietzsche's warning to modern man
Moeini is an expert on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and he believes that Nietzsche speaks to our own time more than any other philosopher. This is because, Moeini believes, in the late 19th century Nietzsche delivered an uncompromising and increasingly forceful critique of the increasing décadence and self-destruction of the Modern zeitgeist that he argued would be a natural consequence of the failure to come to terms with the “death of God” and its philosophical and sociological implications.
Nietzsche understood that the collapse of universalism at the time—encompassed in his notion of the death of God and the Christian account of morality—heralded a nihilism for which he sought an alternative, and warned against the loss of meaning that came with the Modern project.
“I don't know of any examples before the modern period where people committed suicide, because they saw life as meaningless or because they felt that life was not worth living. That's why I see Modernity as an enemy of life.”
According to Moeini, there are also striking similarities between the way Nietzsche's contemporaries viewed his critique of Modernity and the established truths of his time and the way Western elites today react to the loss of their dominance and the dissolution of the liberal order—where for more than 75 years they could determine the course of the world and intervene at will anywhere on the globe.
“Nietzsche addressed the crisis of universalism in the 19th century, and he provides the most profound critique of Modernity from a Western perspective. He is the most prescient thinker with respect to the problems we face today”.
Nietzsche argued by the late 19th century it had become obvious that Christianity was just one moral system among many, rejecting the a priori existence of universal values and the idea of a universal morality that applies to all cultures and civilizations at all times. Here, Moeini argues, is a guide to the principles befitting a new truly post-Modern world order that could replace our pathological Modern order that has gone into hyperdrive and is on its last legs.
Armed with Nietzsche's tragic realism, the dissolution of the liberal international order does not mean chaos, anarchy, and disorder, in Moeini’s view: “Nietzsche's ideas on culture and morality can serve as the basis for a new order that puts a novel form of multiplicity above the universalism of the past”.
All civilizations are regional, lest they be ideologies
According to Moeini, the new world order will ultimately replace the one international system, with multiple regional systems built around various historically-rooted cultural complexes and states that ostensibly function as representatives of different civilizations, instead of a nation or demos. They are all local and regional, and no one can claim universal values and principles, which means that the actors of this global order have to live with the fact that other cultures and civilizations have norms, values, and ethical systems that they may not like.
This new order would also entail an ethic, however: he calls it a “value-neutral” and instrumentalist normative system in which all the participating states must exercise tolerance, abide by non-interference, and offer mutual recognition regardless of their political orientation, worldviews, and incommensurable differences in substantive values.
Isn't this a form of cultural relativism?
Moeini rejects the notion:
“No, because cultures are objective and constitute real worlds to their inhabitants. They are not relative to subjective whims and remain inherently or even unconsciously authoritative on the people who live in them. They are real and concrete, a form and frame of life. You can only talk about cultural relativism if you look at it on a global level.”
“At the same time, Nietzsche's concept of culture is not immutable. He acknowledges that cultures can become rigid and stagnant and that their calcification is not healthy as it can uproot them and denature them into ideology, so healthful cultures are also subject to evolution with new ideas and mutations. It's not a once-and-for-all proposition. Cultures are sublime embodiments of life, and evolution also applies to cultures. For me, this is not cultural relativism, but a cultural realism that recognizes culture as the most important object of study if you want to understand human existence”.
A word of advice from Nietzsche
Rose: If you were Nietzsche and the author of his 1887 work, On the Genealogy of Morality, what advice would you give to those who wield the power of the West today and are up against the self-destructive forces of modernity?
Moeini: "I don't think Nietzsche was the type to hand out advice left and right, and the people you're talking about are not conscious of any of what you and I are discussing. That's why they're so confused by and unsympathetic to what's going on around them. But I think Nietzsche would encourage them to recultivate a pathos of distance, to not give lip service to a shallow “diversity” but show respect for fundamental differences, for having cultural and historical roots, for all those things that are hierarchical as is the nature of life itself, things that are natural and organic to human existence such as community and the family”.
“But I doubt any modern person in a position of power and authority will heed Nietzsche’s advice because they are already profoundly decadent, as he predicted they would become as the “last man” living in late modernity and having collectively internalized its ressentimental pathologies against nature and life. On that tragic note, Nietzsche would probably remind us that everything has an end and that décadence is the last stage on the road to annihilation”.
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