In 1728, philosopher, theologian, and Anglican minister George Berkeley wrote these verses:
The Muse, disgusted at an age and clime
Barren of every glorious theme,
In distant lands now waits a better time,
Producing subjects worthy fame.
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay:
Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
By future poets shall be sung.
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
As Michael Kimmage reminds his readers in his new book The Abandonment of the West: the History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy, in the 1860’s Americans took this poem as a kind of prophecy, so much so that they memorialized it with a painting in the United States Capitol, and named the new home of the University of California for the philosopher-bishop. How that idea of the West became enshrined in American architecture, politics, and diplomacy is Kimmage’s story—as well as how it has fallen out of all those things.
Michael Kimmage is Ordinary Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the Catholic University of American in Washington, DC. From 2014 to 2016 he served on the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio.