In his remarks at the Disinvitation Dinner, Kissinger pointed out that the First World War destroyed Europe’s confidence and sense of purpose, and that Europe has never recovered. A society needs great objectives to which it can apply itself with conviction, instead of being “obsessed with its own shortcomings.”
The students who object to Kissinger’s presence on campus are emblematic of this loss of confidence, and of that obsession. They hate the West (and in particular the United States) for suppressing and oppressing other cultures, ranging from the American Indians to the Communist Chinese.
But these students’ admiration and even espoused preference for non-Western cultures is not just a loss of confidence. It is also, oddly enough, an expression of belief in the universality of Western values. Because what these students are really saying is that they believe every culture has the same basic desires that we have: that all cultures want security and prosperity and are willing to respect the rights and interests of other cultures pursuing the same thing. This, as Kissinger writes in World Order, was the basis of our nuclear deal with Iran: Our assumption that what Iran really wants “is to negotiate in good faith on the premises of existing order and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.” We assume, in other words, that other cultures will think as we think, want what we want, and work with us towards this shared goal.
In this view, all cultures are basically Western in their desires, and are distinguishable from us only by their different traditions in language, clothing, or food — which is perhaps why these items are always the culprit in cases of “cultural appropriation.”
And this is an exceptionally, almost disarmingly naïve approach. I recently learned how a liberal friend of mine from New York was shocked to discover, on a visit to a Middle Eastern country that wasn’t Israel, that to be publicly identifiable as a Jew was not just unwise but could actually be dangerous. It had not occurred to him that a universal acceptance of other cultures was not itself a universal value.