On February 19, Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic received Venezuela’s Deputy FM Ivan Hill and reiterated Serbia’s position of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. The following day U.S. Ambassador in Belgrade Kyle Scott responded with a tweet (in Serbian), warning that “Serbia is on the wrong side of history” for not recognizing “the provisional president Guaido.”
“The Venezuelan people are hungry under the dictatorial rule and more than 50 countries in Latin America, North America and Western Europe have stood by the people of Venezuela and the provisional president Guaido,” Scott said on Twitter.
His Excellency is wrong: there is no such thing as the right or wrong side of history. Any such notion is a progressivist fallacy. It reflects a mindset tethered by ideological blinkers. It breeds irrational belief in history as a moral agency in itself—a force bending toward perfection and morality—and subsequently in the correctness of one’s own judgment which is not amenable to evidence and reason. (Scott is also wrong in implying that the U.S.-led regime-change operation in Venezuela is making progress; in fact it is stuck, but more on that another time.)
Ambassador Scott’s tweet reflects a faith-based belief system; a labored, naïve and unsustainable understanding of “history.” Way above Mr. Scott’s station, it prompts megalomaniacal visions and policies inimical to the interests and constitutional tradition of the United States.
In his first inaugural address in January 2009 Barack Obama declared, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.” In the ensuing eight years Obama had used this phrase, and its converse, “the right side of history,” 28 times in his public speeches (cf. the American Presidency Project at UCSB). Both Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry had accused Vladimir Putin repeatedly of being on the “wrong side of history,” among other reasons for his actions in Ukraine and for supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. (Perhaps Ambassador Scott should take note of the fact that in this particular case “history” has not performed on cue: Bashar is still in power, and stronger than ever.)
Obama could rely on a rich tradition. Bill Clinton invoked “the right side of history” on 21 occasions while in office. David Graham noted in The Atlantic (December 21, 2015) that Ronald Reagan, for his part, wryly resurrected Leon Trotsky’s relegation of the Mensheviks to the “dustbin” or “ash heap of history”:
Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, the Gipper said, “The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.” Reagan used both translations of Trotsky’s phrase several more times.
A closely related example is provided by President George W. Bush’s interesting claim, in his 2002 State of the Union address, that “history has called America and our allies to action.” In his paradigm history ceases to be a benevolent, knowable but impersonal force. It becomes an active divine interlocutor, prompting its chosen apostles to specific action, Old Testament-style.
Abraham Lincoln waged his Totaler Krieg against the South with similar convictions as Mr. Bush waged his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and GWOT, and with similar consequences. As Eric Foner noted in his 2003 review of two books on Lincoln, both Presidents assumed powers that went well beyond what the Constitution allowed; in both cases, thousands of people were arrested and held without charge, and military tribunals were created to circumvent civilian courts. Such outrages were possible because the actors convinced themselves they were on the right side of history, taking part in “an epic struggle between good and evil, inspired by the country’s divinely ordained mission to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world.”
The historicist fallacy that “history” is an entity on a linear march has bred gnostic ideologies that find it easy to murder those who are deemed to be on its “wrong” side, most notably Bolshevism and its array of ghastly derivatives. Karl Marx launched the notion that any reluctance to embrace his “scientific” dialectical construct, leading to the end of history in the exploitation-free classless utopia, was not only irrational but immoral. Lenin and his disciples, domestic and foreign, applied this formula with gusto and murdered tens of millions of people. “History is on our side” was but the atheistic variant of “God is on our side.”
Sooner or later this mindset results in the destruction of its devotees, usually after they had done their worst. Some years ago my friend Brian Mitchell diagnosed the “twin faults” of this mindset leading in the same self-destroying direction. The first is “a gnostic belief in our own anointing as a nation, a belief without any foundation in scripture or tradition, chosen merely because it flatters us.” The second is an undeserved confidence in our ability to know and reason, which makes it easy to pass judgment on others and bear the sword against them, accounting ourselves blameless for the destruction we cause: “We all know how well men rationalize their nonrational preferences, yet after doing our just-war calculations and obtaining an answer in favor of war, we then proceed with a clear conscience to commit ghastly acts.”
America has committed many ghastly acts around the world in recent past, not least by waging an unprovoked, illegal, and destructive war against Serbia two decades ago. But it would be futile to try and explain to Ambassador Scott that reality is always more complicated than we imagine, and the farther the reality is from our own experience the less we can understand it. This is the moral basis for nonintervention, for the original refusal of the American Republic to get involved in arranging other peoples’ lives. This is the moral basis for belatedly redeeming America by applying this principle now, in Venezuela, and the Middle East, and the Balkans.