Monday, January 4, 2010

The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation

By Strobe Talbott, 479 pages hardcover.

Strobe Talbott, long-time political affairs journalist for Time magazine and Deputy Secretary of State from 1994-2001, examines the often scarcely-visible tendency of Western civilization towards unification. The groundwork laid by the ancient Hebrews towards universalism under one God, even if that people did not proselytize, has undergirded the blood-soaked West for centuries.

Talbott offers a refreshing light on Western military and political expansionism. Rather than the usual politically-correct emasculation, he emphasizes the culture-building that such figures as Alexander the Great and the non-Western Genghis Khan promoted.

He takes a fresh look at the “barbarian” and Viking “invasions”, which he terms “migrations”: “Like earlier waves from the east, these northern tribes set down roots that became entwined with those of the indigenous peoples and earlier invaders.”

While Talbott avoids the traps of left-wing defeatism, he offers an overly-bright survey of humanism and the Enlightenment, focusing almost uniquely on its positive accomplishments. The Great Experiment fails to investigate with any depth the violence – communal, military, and spiritual – that the eighteenth-century spawned.

Firstly, any Catholic-oriented assessment of this period must question the anti-Church violence as well as the Enlightenment's destruction of centuries-old spiritual life and community. France went in a few short centuries from being the dynamic intellectual and spiritual center of Catholicism to being overtly antagonistic philosophically and politically to Rome and to traditional Catholic community and society. The Church and the French nation have suffered immeasurably from this loss. The author's one-sided analysis of the Enlightenment reflects the weakness of the book as a whole for a Catholic audience.

Secondly, Talbott offers a very American and very Calvinist rendition of political, social, and military events over the past few centuries, spending the majority of the book analyzing the twentieth century and its murderous tragedies. This leads to an inflation of the importance of certain players, such as Bill Clinton, and events, such as speeches made by American senators, who with the passing of time will become less important characters of history.

In contrast, Talbott says nothing about such realities as the transforming demography of Europe and Japan in comparison with that of Muslim communities in Europe, parts of Africa, and southeast Asia. These energetic and densely-populated Islamic cultures will have a greater say in world affairs in the twenty-first century than old-stock Europeans and the Japanese will. In this sense, Talbott's optimism about world unification under Western leadership comes up a bit short when applied to the present and the future.

Also, Talbott falls into the same trap that every political dreamer does, which is to discount the spiritual for the temporal and naked power. He tends to overemphasize realpolitik, which denotes the cynical use of power in international relations.

In the latter part, Talbott fails because while he correctly points us toward some supranational organization with much more punch than the current U.N., he offers no reason as to why this is so important. Why should America or any other country give up giant pieces of its sovereignty for a politically-correct, inefficient group of anti-Western bureaucrats and Western feminist-liberal snobs?

The Great Experiment
offers nothing new or grand for Catholics or other traditionalists because he latches onto the same philosophical nonsense that most modern Westerns do – something along the lines of Kant's Enlightenment belief that we can know right from wrong without a spiritual sense of things. That is to say without guarding our spiritual, Christian heritage in the West. This heritage in North America and Europe requires a sense of God's role in creation and the world, and therefore a belief that right and wrong come from God's revelation rather than from some supposedly enlightened, grown-up civilization.

Talbott fails to recognize that many earlier, religious societies that he sweeps through in his analysis were in some respects more mature than ours today.

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