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R. R. Reno

Thawing relations with Cuba was the right thing to do. We’re a long, long way from the early 1960s when Cuba was a Soviet satellite and the prospect of nuclear missiles ninety miles from Miami posed a direct threat to our national security. We’re also a long way from the 1970s when Cuba was trying to export revolution to Angola and elsewhere. Fidel Castro is dying. His Marxist dream has been dying for more than twenty years. There’s nothing about Cuba in 2014 that poses a risk to American interests.

During the Cold War it was possible to imagine an alternative to American-dominated global capitalism. This did not mean activists in Mozambique or El Salvador or elsewhere wanted to model their dreamed-of new societies on Russian or Chinese lines. A leftist could denounce the failures of those and other communist regimes. Nevertheless, their existence created the imaginative space for thinking communism a real possibility, a genuine alternative.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Chinese transition from Maoism to capitalist authoritarianism, communism (and its cousin, socialism) has lost its plausibility. Yes, a leftist rhetoric endures, especially in Latin America. But Venezuela and elsewhere it’s the vocabulary of economic populism, not a plan for ushering in a workers’ paradise. State owned companies are sources of patronage for supporters, not the first step toward socialism.

I suspect that’s been true for a long time. Socialist rhetoric is the traditional form of Latin American populism. The Lula-Rousseff domination of Brazilian politics for more than a decade has worked along these lines, as has the Kirchner regime in Argentina.

I read Pope Francis as a populist of a similar sort. His anti-capitalist statements are sharply worded. But it’s a mistake to over read them as serious claims about political economy. In Argentina and elsewhere, denouncing capitalism is a way of expressing solidarity with the poor.

I’m inclined to think a habitual Marxist-inflected populism creates problems in Latin America. It contributes to a political culture of empty gestures that can’t address social problems in ways that actually make sense. I fear the same will probably be true of Pope Francis’s sincere but overwrought interventions into economics. Because communism is now a dead letter, we need to find other ways to think critically about the global capitalism that now dominates. But denunciations of capitalism reflect old, Cold War fundamentalisms of the past, not the sort of thinking we need for to navigate toward a more humane future.

Only a similar fixation on the Cold War past can object to normalizing relations with Cuba. Fidel Castro has as much relevance to the future of Latin America as Robert E. Lee to the post-Civil Rights American South. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba no longer mattered one way or another, which is why America could largely ignore Castro in recent decades. Now we’re taking the next step, which is the right step. Relaxing and lifting the more than fifty-year embargo will deprive Cuba of its unique status as the icon of anti-Americanism in the Spanish-speaking world and turn it into just another Latin American nation with its own charms and its own problems.

The Cold War is long over. Today the only actually existing alternative to a global capitalism largely under American leadership is Islamic fundamentalism. Our foreign policy and military posture are currently organized around this threat. But we have not yet understood and responded to the ideological challenge radical Islam poses to the West.

We’re perplexed that European Muslims warmly embraced by the welfare state and ritually affirmed by multiculturalism are willing to take the existential risk of becoming Jihadists. But for the most part we do not understand or even admit this poses a threat to our secular liberal way of thinking. This is not surprising, perhaps, because one of the central conceits of Western modernity is that religion is a thing of the past, not a contender for the future.

We need to put the Cold War behind us. We need to face a different threat. This time it’s from those who don’t want to live in a world dominated by a secular ideology, be it Marxist or liberal. That’s not a threat we can defeat with drones. It’s going to require us to give an account of why and how a properly religious loyalty to the heavenly city leaves space in this world for an earthly politics that does not succumb to the temptation of trying to make men saints.

I’m not sure today’s secular liberalism can make that case, or that it even thinks it needs to. Many liberals today think their own way of thinking is so obvious and inevitable that it will triumph automatically. iPhones and science will conquer all. As a result, it may fall on religious conservatives in the West—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—to make the case for a liberal polity that liberals themselves can’t make. If so, it will be an irony. For exactly those voices are suppressed in today’s Western intellectual culture.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here.

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