The Atlantic Charter, Atlanticism, and Western Civilization on the Eve of another Bilderberg Conference

9 June 2016

Thursday


Dresden as 'Florence on the Elbe' in a colorized photograph from about 1890.

Dresden as “Florence on the Elbe” in a colorized photograph from about 1890.

Once again I find myself without an invitation and shut out of the Bilderberg conference. Today, Thursday 09 June 2016, the Bilderberg Group is beginning its 64th conference, this time held in Dresden, Germany. Dresden was once called “Florence on the Elbe” as it was once a cultural center and renowned for its beautiful architecture. Dresden remained intact throughout most of the Second World War, and many believed that there was a tacit quid pro quo according to which Dresden would be spared. The Dresdeners were disabused of this notion as the city was destroyed by one of the most devastating Allied air raids of the entire war, conducted a few days after the Yalta conference wrapped up (I previously wrote about the bombing of Dresden in Mass War and Mass Man, inter alia).

Dresden after the Allied air raid that destroyed the city.

Dresden after the Allied air raid that destroyed the city.

There is, then, something ironic about holding a Bilderberg conference in Dresden, though perhaps the intention was symbolic, to demonstrate that Dresden is once again a world-class city, reclaiming its place as a rebuilt “Florence on the Elbe,” with the reconstructed Frauenkirche and most of the rest of its historic center restored. The Atlanticism represented by the Bilderberg Group (cf. Bilderberg and Atlanticism) was predicated upon the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the defeat of Nazi Germany meant that the brutality of Nazism had to be countered by an even greater brutality. If there had been an internal uprising against the Nazis, the German people could have made the country ungovernable, but even after military defeat was certain the Germans continued to fight. The destruction of Dresden was collateral damage in this fight, and the reconstruction of Dresden has been, in a sense, a triumph of Atlanticism — the re-unification of Germany in the context of a peaceful and prosperous Europe.

Much of Dresden's historic center has been rebuilt.

Much of Dresden’s historic center has been rebuilt.

Recently in Counterfactuals in Planetary History I noted that the post-war social order collectively created by the victorious Allies of the Second World War has been unraveling since the end of the Cold War. This is no secret, and few would disagree. The disagreement emerges over the next form of the “new normal” that will follow the present period of drift. One unspoken assumption is that Western Civilization will continue on in more or less its present form, and will continue to be central to planetary civilization. In other words, the assumption is that the unraveling of the post-war social order is not the unraveling of Western Civilization. We may be concerned about the resurgence of Putin’s Russia and the rise of China as a technologically sophisticated world power, but we don’t seriously contemplate the end of Western Civilization itself, even if we see its relative decline.

Atlantic_Charter_(color)

The traditions of Russian civilization — what Samuel Huntington identified as Orthodox civilization — and Chinese civilization are in many cases openly hostile to many of the principles central to Western Civilization in their anti-individualism, non-transparency, and preference for despotism. A world in which the Chinese or the Russians held the central place in the international system that the US now holds would be a world in which almost all the ideas embodied in the Atlantic Charter were either ignored or actively subverted. This would not be a world safe for democracy. But two great wars were fought in order for the world to be made safe for democracy, and yet democracy finds itself embattled once again. How did this happen?

With the rise of the US to world power status, Western Civilization has been Atlantic civilization, represented by Europe on the one shore, and North America on the other. The civilization of Atlanticism constituted what the shared tradition of Western Civilization had become in the course of its seriation. The principles for which this civilization stood were embodied in the Atlantic Charter. The Atlantic Charter was, in turn, heavily influenced by Wilson’s 14 Points, which came before, and went on to influence the founding principles of the United Nations, hence the global social order. While Yalta was the conference on the post-war settlement that came near the end of the Second World War, the Atlantic Charter was the agreement on the post-war settlement that came near the beginning of the war, even before the US had officially entered the war, and thus constituted the explicitly stated principles in defense of which the US entered the war.

Atlanticism on both sides of the Atlantic is seriously threatened at present. Both of the presumptive presidential nominees of the two major political parties in the US are openly populist and protectionist, and both major parties are tearing themselves apart internally over the choice the nominee. No doubt matters will settle down in time, someone will be elected president, and things will go on as before. But even if this happens, and all the shouting was for naught, it is obvious that the political class in the US no longer believes in the principles it once fought to preserve. The élites of the western world have contributed to the unraveling of the social order implied by the principles enumerated in the Atlantic Charter and imperfectly embodied in practice by institutions such as the United Nations. Temporary political advantage seems a sufficient pretext to abandon even a pretense to the ideals of an open society.

In Europe, the great political project of the post-war era — the EU — faces increasing popular resistance as the initial promises of the EU to deliver economic growth have failed to bear fruit, while the non-democratic character of the institution has become increasingly obvious. In other posts I have noted that democracy does not come naturally to the Europeans, who even in an age of popular sovereignty have managed to erect the appearance of democracy without the substance of democracy (cf. Europe and its Radicals). The EU is one of the worst offenders in this respect. It is not merely non-democratic, but often openly anti-democratic. When any nation-state has voted against the agreements that implement the EU, these votes have been set aside or ignored, and the project has continued on. (Personally, I would like to see the vote for Britain to leave the EU to go against the EU, just to hand a resounding comeuppance to the pretensions of the EU — but this vote, too, would probably be ignored and it will be said that Britain “initially rejected” the EU, but then, after another vote, or two, or three, they wisely changed their minds.)

Europe and the EU is not the only offender against the ideals of democracy. The technocratic élites of western civilization so profoundly distrust the peoples they are supposed represent that they created a technological panopticon in which every detail of the lives of the public is laid open to the minutest observation, while the shadowy watchers reveal nothing of themselves, so that the ancient question — who watches the watchers? — must remain unanswered. This is the meaning of the universal surveillance state as revealed by Edward Snowden, who had to flee the US after making his revelations. This is not merely anti-democratic, but openly contemptuous of the spirit of democracy.

The point here is that singling out the non-transparency of the Bilderberg Group — one of the last remaining vestiges of authentic Atlanticism — is beside the point. The EU itself is non-transparent, and seems to be so by design. And the universal surveillance of the US is non-transparent, and has been made so by design. Focusing on the Bilderberg Group is to fail to see the forest for the trees.

The unraveling of the post-war political consensus, once held in place by the stable dyad of the Cold War, continues apace because the “leaders” of the nation-states putatively representing Western Civilization simply do not believe the platitudes and glittering generalities that they spout. Their contempt for the democracy they claim to espouse is a glaring hypocrisy lost on no one — least of all the Chinese and the Russians.

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4 Responses to “The Atlantic Charter, Atlanticism, and Western Civilization on the Eve of another Bilderberg Conference”

  1. xcalibur said

    I too have noted the anti-democratic currents in the modern West.

    I’ll offer an analogy here. I have no direct experience with horticulture. But to my understanding, cultivation of plants requires active maintenance. If at any time human effort slackens, weeds and grazing animals will invade and destroy the plants. If, however, the crop/garden is maintained, it is highly productive.

    It seems to me that democracy is similar to a garden. It needs to constantly be enforced against inner decay and external enemies. Without continuous effort, a society will devolve away from democratic principles, and despotic/collectivist forces will gain the initiative. It must constantly assert itself, but if it does so there is a great reward.

    In the current West, there is no lack of lip service to democracy, but the overall trend is towards oligarchy. I believe many people are noticing this, which is what’s driving this bizarre US election (although that’s going off on a tangent).

    • geopolicraticus said

      The kind of democratic society that is a difficult balancing act, which accommodates different points of view and real debate on substantive issues, is the most difficult of governmental systems to maintain, and, as you suggest by analogy, if it isn’t maintained it degrades into something easier to maintain but also a less admirable form of government. We know from the example of the Peloponnesian War that when an imperial democracy goes to war with an authoritarian oligarchy that each side will stand up puppet regimes, but that these puppet regimes are each worse than that which they seek to imitate, so that satellite states become either mobocracies or despotisms, or both. We also saw this during the Cold War.

      I would like to tentatively suggest (as I have not yet thought this through carefully) that one of the things that makes democracy especially difficult to maintain is that it requires a different kind of effort in different historical epochs, whereas tyranny and despotism and pretty much the same in most times and places. Changing social circumstances mean that assembling social coalitions changes, and the nature of the coalitions themselves change.

      As Spinoza said, all things noble are as difficult as they are rare.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  2. It’s ballot petition season again in Oregon, and since I ride the MAX frequently, I observe this particular corner of democracy in the 21st century.

    I was recently approached on the MAX by a man who was looking for signatures for a seemingly technical ballot initiative. If I understand correctly, this would increase the threshold for the Legislature to pass an “emergency” bill–bypassing committees and waiting periods–from 1/2 to 2/3. I refused to sign, immediately not liking the idea, though I was unable to articulate at the time why I didn’t like it. At any rate, the man was not interested in debating; he was interested in getting signatures and would not waste time on someone who wasn’t interested in signing.

    But now that a few days have passed, I think I can articulate why I don’t like the idea. The initiative was sold as “democratic” and “transparent”, while the petition gatherer raised the specter of the legislature rushing bills through with emergency provisions in order to bypass public hearings. This allegedly deprives the public of the opportunity to weigh in or be informed before it’s too late. But in reality, no tinkering with the process will change the fact that >99% of the public is disengaged from the mechanics of legislating. The fact that the petition gatherer was wearing a Greenpeace hat raises another clue. The <1% of the public that is engaged and would gain power from the proposed change are committed activists and pressure groups. Do they speak for the general public? Will the quality of legislation be better if they have greater power? Are they underpowered as it is now? I would have to express great skepticism for all three of these questions.

    Next, we can turn our attention to another thread, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign which 80% of us recognize is now dead. The candidate and his passionate supporters have repeatedly alleged that the nominating process is "rigged", that "superdelegates" are nothing more than the reincarnation of the smoke-filled room of bosses, that primaries should be open to Independents, that Debbie Wasserman Shultz is biased, that Southern states are overweighted, that the media is biased, and so forth. For one thing, hardly a peep is raised against the use of caucuses, which bring out a small fraction of voters as primaries. Not only do these policies not seem so bad in light of what the Republicans have done this year, it is difficult to evade the impression that, to Bernie Sanders, "democratic" means any rule that increases the likelihood that Bernie Sanders wins. This is exactly the same mentality of asking Britain to vote repeatedly on the EU question until the desired result is returned.

    So what's the point of all this? I don't really know what "democratic" means. I know what it doesn't mean: technocratic governance from the EU, mass surveillance, and authoritarianism. Activists will invoke the name of democracy against genetically modified crops, nuclear power, and apartment construction. It's the perfect buzzword because I know I am supposed to know that democracy is good, but I don't know what it actually means. Could it be that "the 'leaders' of the nation-states putatively representing Western Civilization simply do not believe the platitudes and glittering generalities that they spout" because platitudes and glittering generalities is all that they have? If I am to believe, I need to have a vision that goes well beyond the transparently self-serving process tweaking of pressure groups.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your comment. I’m happy to hear from someone in Portland.

      Part of the lack of interest in engaging in any kind of substantive interaction on the part of the signature collector may be due to the fact that some people simply collect signatures as a job. There are, to be sure, some true believers, and they will engage in spirited debate, but many are just paid hacks. Before “ballot petition season” one often sees advertisements in local media for positions soliciting signatures for ballot measures.

      In any case, one of the dangers of democracy is when people simply cease participating and so the political process is left in the hands of the exclusively ideologically motivated, or it is left to monied interests who can buy the process. All over the world we have seen declining rates of participation in democratic political processes, as large numbers of individuals do not bother to vote. I am part of this. I never vote. It feels utterly pointless, but my personal disaffection is, of course, not the whole story. An adequate analysis of declining participation would need to consider a range of factors. I would single out two: 1) in mass societies, political issues are settled by mass opinion in which the individual voice is lost. This development is inevitable in societies composed of millions or even billions of members. 2) The absence of a viable central project. On my other blog I’ve been writing about central projects and their role in civilizations. Without a central project a society drifts without a clear sense of meaning, value, and purpose. These two problems may be linked, as it may be difficult or impossible to constitute a central project in a mass society.

      It is truly unfortunate that democracy has simply become another buzzword. The term was already eviscerated politically during the Cold War, when it was a sure sign that any nation-state with “democratic” in its name was certain to be undemocratic (if you have to say it explicitly, its probably not true). At one time, democracy itself could be a central project. Certainly we could interpret the political excitement and agitation that surrounded the American and French revolutions as a central project of establishing a new kind of government and ridding the world of feudal tyrannies. This is no longer the case. Democracy alone is insufficient as a central project. Democratic societies need to find a way either to agree upon a central project that can give a democratic sense of universal participation, so that everyone feels they have a genuine stake in the common weal, or democratic societies need to find a way to transcend themselves in favor of some kind of system (I don’t know what this would be) that could in turn serve as a new central project, as democracy once did at the beginning of the modern age.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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