Op-ed by German writer at NYT: A corroding skepticism is undermining the West

Consider the following sentences. First: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

And second: “I call … upon Russia to use its considerable influence over separatist leaders to stop any form of military, political or financial support. … Those responsible for the escalation must stop their hostile actions and live up to their commitments.”

The first was spoken by John F. Kennedy in his 1961 Inaugural Address. The second came from the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, after Russian-backed rebels shelled the Ukrainian city of Mariupol last month, killing 30 people. Kennedy’s sentence is a statement of Western self-confidence. Ms. Mogherini’s is shot through with self-doubt. The 1961 sentence rings with moral certainty; the 2015 one is a nod to legal provisions, cautious even by the standards of modern diplomacy. There is a dangerous side to this new self-restraint. Just how hollow and cold, I ask myself, has the West become?…

A corroding skepticism is undermining the West. I hear it in political circles and at private dinner tables when people say that what happened in Ukraine was Europe’s and America’s own fault. You see it in the banlieues of Paris and the migrant quarters of Berlin, where religious absolutism is taken as superior to pluralism…

Our enlightened societies have been struck by an autoimmune disease. Two fundamental virtues of the West, doubt and conscience, are turning against their inventors. “Sapere aude,” or “dare to know,” the courage to put into question any reputed certainty, has been the basic formula of progress and human development. We’ve fared pretty well with this principle, from Martin Luther to the moon landing and gene therapy…

Many Westerners today do not even ask what went wrong with their system; instead, they question the system itself. In other words, the legitimacy of the West is contested by the very skepticism it holds so dear.

The complexity of today’s interconnected world permanently strains our intellectual capacity (and that includes journalists). Gut feelings start to replace fact-finding, truth has yielded to truthiness, and there’s a growing demand for scapegoats — the prime one, at least on this side of the Atlantic, being the big, bad United States.

Russia was the first to diagnose this autoimmune disease. As early as 2007, in a now-infamous speech in Munich, its president, Vladimir V. Putin, tried to capitalize on this shaky ground by espousing a potent blend of nationalism and religious orthodoxy as a fixative for Western doubt. Russia also exploits the second virtue of the West: its guilty conscience. This is what nourishes a popular belief, particularly in Germany, that Moscow’s behavior in Ukraine is not aggression, but rather a reaction to our enlargement of NATO at the expense of Russia’s former greatness…


He does not mention mass immigration or the fundamental weakness of the Eurozone, but concentrates on the danger of a resurgent Russia. He wonders if Angela Merkel can somehow stop Putin. I doubt that, yet he is on to something here: we have lost our self-confidence.

The comments were filled with “we are so dreadful” style stuff like this:

The West has a long and bloody history of colonialism and imperialism hanging over its democratic principals. Democracy in the North, exploitation and oppression for the South. Even as Kennedy made his speech US troops were going to Viet-Nam in one of the most horrific wars of the 20th century. Let’s be honest and clear about the duality of Western history. It’s directly connected to the problems in Mr. Bittner’s column. As Malcolm X once said, “Racism is American as apple pie.”

Another commenter responded:

*Everyone* has a bloody history of everything they could get away with. History is replete with invasions and domination of others. We were doing it when we were living in tribal bands.

What counts is how the democracies did compared to other nations of their time, and how the democracies have progressed in creating a world order. And ni that regard, it is hard to argue against the democracies or for the totalitarian states, or for the past over the present.

The world today is less violent and exploitative than it has ever been. And democracy has a lot to do with that.

Unfortunately, this kind of unthinking self-hatred is precisely the problem about which the author writes.

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