The Remaining Goodness in America


Review of The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy, by Michael Kimmage

New York: Basic Books, 2020


It is hard enough to love your country when some fellow citizens deem you unpatriotic, but sometimes it is even harder to convince yourself that the founding principles of your country are fundamentally good. This was the case for American author Whittaker Chambers, who, after a fiery spiritual trial in the 1930s, converted to conservatism from communism; this was also the case for W.E.B. Du Bois, who refused to spend his final years in the United States and chose to settle in Ghana, where millions of African slaves had disembarked for the Americas centuries before he was born. Both authors, white and black, feature in Michael Kimmage’s latest gallery of transatlantic intellectuals. Both grappled with a key idea about their sense of belonging in America: the West. 

Kimmage’s book reviews “the abandonment” of the West in U.S. foreign policy. The author, a former policy planner at the State Department and an intellectual historian of twentieth-century America, shares his educated faith in America’s founding principles and examines the century-long development of “the West” as a trademark of American diplomacy that only led to the idea’s recent decay. “Liberty and self-government,” two principles Americanized by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and internalized by many outside the United States ever since, foregrounded the diplomatic usefulness of “the West” in Kimmage’s view. Other definitions of the West competed in the book along civilizational, racial and religious lines. The historian puts them on display; the policy planner returns his verdict.

The book hinges on a reference to Leo Strauss, who, according to Kimmage, believed “politics without a philosophically elevated statesmanship was barbarism” (141). Strauss worked to harvest this elevation in education, teaching “the great books” in the Western tradition till the end of his days. Kimmage, on the other hand, sees a more diverse and sobering picture in the constellation of Western ideas: the tradition that gave birth to the Wilsonian international outlook could also foster racial segregation in America and show little remorse about the bombardment and destruction of historical monuments in Japan during the Second World War. The West could be provincial, and Kimmage concurs with the Left to the degree that this provincialism should be abandoned. 

Beyond the point of a white West, however, Kimmage exercises restraint against the gesture of abandonment. He is especially skeptical about the American university’s general distance from and marginalization of Western traditions, a phenomenon that becomes commonplace after the Civil Rights movement and fierce critiques like Edward Said’s Orientalism dethroned a Western hegemony in American academia. For Kimmage, the university forges generations of foreign policy makers’ knowledge about the West—or their lack of it.  He believes the excessive alienation of the West in American higher education has given rise to an air of disorientation in U.S. foreign policy decades after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. 

What does “the West” mean to the United States today? Kimmage emphasizes two layers of the idea’s usefulness in alliance-building: evoking a shared heritage with Europe and appealing to non-European countries with “the ideals of liberty and self-government.” Throughout the book, he reiterates a powerful metaphor that binds these two layers together: the key to the Bastille at Mount Vernon, the Marquis de Lafayette’s gift to George Washington. The metaphor is powerful because it echoes with the age of revolutions that has shared its republican and constitutional legacy with non-Europeans. Despite its origin in Europe, the key witnessed the rise of an American constitutionalism that evolved to fill “the void of not possessing the culture of Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Aurelius,” as James Baldwin pointed out six decades ago, and to provide a foundation for the "dream" in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The unfinished work of the key in Mount Vernon, Kimmage believes, has offered a rallying call inclusive enough for the United States and its allies, European or non-European. 

The choice of “liberty and self-government” is careful and timely, because an alternative usefulness of the West, that of a globalizing civilization cloaked with its “economic and technological sophistication,” is losing its entitlement to other global powers (145). Both Walter Whitman Rostow and Martin Luther King espoused the notion that Western wealth and technology would liberate the world from want. Friedrich Hayek built on it to predict that individual rights would come hand in hand with a free market and had his “global moment” after the wall fell in Berlin (221). Francis Fukuyama translated it into “the end of history” for political alternatives to a capitalist democracy. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all shared an optimism about the construction of a liberal international order through trade and technology. But three decades of development after the Cold War have given rise to other nation-state generators of technology and wealth. These generators, Kimmage argues, “could be construed by some as an attractive alternative” to the liberal international order and challenge its very existence” (291). 

It is at this point of current challenges that the historian and the policy planner in Kimmage become one. If the marginalization of the West as an ideal of liberty and self-government disoriented American foreign policy before 2016, the whole idea of the West is falling apart in the Trump administration. By marking Donald Trump as “the first non-Western president of the United States,” Kimmage reminds his readers of a U.S. history that united peoples of distinct heritages and beliefs and thrived on the contested basis of select Western ideals (303). The book’s argument is strongest when it offers its own philosophical elevation of statesmanship: the humanities, whether Western-themed or not, should sow the seeds of “self-love” in civic education. Just like Barack Obama’s identification with the Jeffersonian ideals in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, the humanities should keep American citizens close to the same ideals while reflecting on the self-contradiction and self-deception of Thomas Jefferson the slaveholder. Without an education in history, philosophy, and culture that identifies with these ideals, there would not be a coherent foreign policy presentation of liberty and self-government on the world stage; and “without the humanities, there can be no West” (307).

The book is weakest when it comes to race and immigration. It talks about key figures who rejected the West either by words or by choice, featuring Malcom X’s critique of the West as a “nexus of civilization and crime”(183) and W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous meeting with Mao Zedong in 1959 (173). However, such treatment is secondary in the author’s agenda. The ideas of Du Bois, who later chose to stay in Africa, emphatically serve to show the transformative impact of an elitist education in non-white foreign policy makers’ careers. The reference to James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” promises a fascinating conversation about Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” but the policy planner in Kimmage prefers to end the conversation on a note where Baldwin conceded that, “because of centuries of American life…the African American is ‘not a visitor in the West, but a citizen there, an American’” (170). In other words, there is no soul-searching discussion about historically valid alternatives to the West in the United States. 

The discussion about immigration and xenophobia is too obviously teleological. There is no reference to nativism against non-Protestant European immigrants and only one paragraph about the Chinese exclusion era between 1882 and 1943, a period that shows a dangerous degree of rationalized xenophobia in American politics against traditionally non-Western immigration groups. The historian in Kimmage chooses to present this fear of others as evanescent and incoherent, a public mood proven false by time and largely absent in his discussion of the United States after 1945. For Kimmage, xenophobia and a sense of civilizational decline only constitute a marginal abyss (where “the West was at its most beguiling”) in the contested, but nonetheless illustrious, scenery of the Western tradition (48). Although figures like Oswald Spengler, James Burnham, and Pat Buchanan constantly show the gaping mouth of this abyss and would not “persuade” when they can “overwhelm,” Kimmage believes that an “anti-Spenglerism” has carried and must continue to carry the day. This triumphalist attitude had its embodiment in the person of John F. Kennedy, who refused “despair, fatalism, anxiety and pessimism” in his inaugural address (150). Instead of addressing the leitmotif of nativism in America that instigates a sense of decline, the author seems to believe that U.S. foreign policy makers can jettison the naiveté of Graham Greene’s “quiet American” while keeping an educated, inclusive optimism.

Such optimism does not harm the book’s integrity as a policy planning piece but weakens its argument about the vitality of the West. With the significant exception of African American intellectuals, the book’s protagonists invariably had their roots in the Euro-American tradition. Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham took a detour to reach their reconciliation with the West, but they never had to uproot or transplant themselves from their country of birth. The presentation of Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger, both immigrants from looming totalitarian regimes in the 1930s and 40s, also suggests a continuation of, rather than a contradiction with, the West across the pond. These figures contributed to Kimmage’s foreign policy compass, which always points to the West. However—“the problem sensationalized”—that the West is being abandoned, still presents the idea as an asset at hand and seldom an idea to be acquired in America. 

Our age demands more. To be recognized as a member of the West in Kimmage’s terms, minorities in America still have to constantly reacquire and rebuild their identification with the West, just as Thai American Senator Tammy Duckworth has done after losing her legs in Iraq. Sacrifice and resilience like hers constitute a missing piece in Kimmage’s puzzle: the experience of non-European immigrants that in many cases resembled the search for Western ideals among dissidents under totalitarian regimes like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik. Minorities in America have provided the nation with policy makers who chose to embrace liberty and self-government despite their upbringing in a regime or tradition other than the West. Their lives offer concrete examples for the author’s hazy outlook about the West’s appeal to countries and peoples outside Europe. America’s alliance with non-European countries has relied on the talent and allegiance of non-European immigrants at least since the Second World War. Like Havel and Michnik, these immigrants’ contribution to the West mirrors the outreach of American influence overseas. Their identification with America’s founding principles increases the appeal of the West in U.S. foreign policy. 

A more glaring blind spot in the book lies in its silence about area studies’ role in U.S. foreign policy. The book discusses the rise of China but leaves no room for the influence of “China Hands” in the U.S. intelligence agencies, such as the founder of the Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, John K. Fairbank. Kimmage talks about the U.S. bombardment of Japanese monuments during the war but fails to mention the illustrious academic career of Edwin O. Reischauer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1961 to 1966. Reischauer, who graduated from Oberlin and Harvard six decades before Kimmage followed suit, also cared about the West in U.S. foreign policy. Born in Tokyo to an American missionary family and serving as a consultant at the Ford Foundation in 1952, he warned in a memo that “our own intellectual facilities of the West perhaps are not up to the task” of casting effective concepts and beliefs that “impel men to action” in non-Western countries. He emphasized “the help of the intellectual resources of Asia” and urged cooperation between Western and non-Western scholars.  His warning has been well-received among diplomats and policymakers who have either received a training in area studies or spent years of their life in non-Western countries. Their work has shaped a more informed and flexible version of the West. 

In the midst of an intensifying cultural war, Kimmage sets off gallantly to write a book that points at liberty and self-government as a shared basis of the Left and the Right. The book offers a fascinating conversation between a policy planner and a historian: the former seeks pragmatic, succinct lessons from the U.S. intellectual history of the West, while the latter provides broader pictures, nuanced details, and warns against oversimplification. A fluent speaker of Russian and German, Kimmage’s erudite but straightforward prose reveals his profound empathy with and emulation of his predecessor in the Office of Policy Planning, George F. Kennan. Like Kennan, Kimmage reached the prime of his life at a vital turning point of U.S. relations with Russia and China. Unlike the author of the “Long Telegram,” the ideological challengers of the West Kimmage faces have taken hybrid forms much more intricate than Communism alone. 

The West in Kimmage’s book provides a refreshing U.S. foreign policy common ground in our time, not because it checks the excess of political correctness but because it consolidates the fragmented goodness of Western ideas in American history and breathes new life into the idea of the West. The book boils down to Richard Hofstadter’s resounding claim six decades ago, that “the United States was the only country in the world that began with perfection and aspired to progress,” because rather than messy history alone, the nation was also founded upon a promise that many still believe to be fundamentally good. Kimmage is among the believers, and his claim is this: to convince the world that the nation is still finishing the work of the key to the Bastille, America must remind itself of the remaining goodness of the West.


Posted on 9 September 2020

TIAN ATLAS XU is a PhD candidate in US history at the Catholic University of America whose research examines the role of white intermediaries between non-white minorities and the administrative state in turn-of-the-century United States. He has received support from various research institutions, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.