A Moral Horizon for U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

Published February 1, 1993

As richly textured human and historical realities, “centuries” do not always follow the conventions of our system of dating. The eighteenth century ran for some one hundred and twenty-six years, from the beginning of the great wars between France and England (of which the American Revolution was an episode) until Waterloo. The “nineteenth century” really got under way in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon; it ended in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The guns of August 1914 opened the twentieth century, which ended in August 1991 with the conclusion of the Great Fifty-Five Years’ War against totalitarianism.

And so, the conventional calendar notwithstanding, we are (at the very least) living through the overture to the twenty-first century—which, as the Holy Father regularly reminds us, marks the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era. What is the American task in the world politics of the twenty-first century? What does the Catholic Church in the United States have to say to the country, as it deliberates that grand strategic question?

The country does not need from the Church, nor should the Church’s bishops offer the government, detailed instruction on the fine points of foreign policy.3 To offer such instruction would be to reduce the Church and its leadership to the condition of those sundry interest groups that, even as we meet, are beating on the doors and clogging up the fax machines of offices all over Washington. Moreover, according to the teaching of Vatican II, detailed policy prescription is not among the tasks of the episcopal leadership of the Church; the charisms conferred by episcopal ordination are not to be understood as somehow parallel to the competencies acknowledged by election, senatorial confirmation, or executive appointment. Rather, the role of the Church and its bishops, as Pope John Paul II has insisted, is to teach the “truth about man” that is revealed in its fullness by the Gospel, and to suggest how the moral norms derivative from the “truth about man” can illumine (and discipline) the tasks of the policymaker. Put another way, the task of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is to help form, through the arts of religious and moral teaching and persuasion, the moral horizon against which the foreign policy of the United States is shaped, and toward which America’s action in the world is directed. That is what bishops are supposed to do, as I understand the magisterium of the Church on this point.

Happily, that is also precisely what the country needs right now.




“We live, my dear, in a time of transition,” Adam is said to have remarked to Eve on their way out of the Garden of Eden, and many of his descendants have said the same thing. Still, I think we can say, without fear of contradiction or cavil, that ours are especially transitional times.

The great contest that has defined world politics since Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland— the struggle between totalitarianism and liberal democracy—has been won: and by the party of freedom. As Jeane J. Kirkpatrick put it just about a year ago, “For the first time since the Spring of 1936 we are not facing mortal danger.” Freedom’s victory in the Great Fifty-Five Years’ War has been poorly celebrated in the West; and yet the past decade—and particularly the period between June 1989 (when Poland elected a Solidarity-led government) and August 21, 1991 (when Boris Yeltsin’s forces successfully resisted the coup that threatened to return the USSR to communism)—has in deed seen a series of “extraordinary events in which the love and mercy which God the Father has for all His children [could] almost be touched” (as the bishops of Europe wrote at the end of their Special Synod in December 1991).

One reason why the victory of freedom was not fully or properly celebrated is that things got messy, in a hurry, in the early 1990s. For the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of history: it meant the restoration of history to its normal rhythms, patterns, and (lack of) discipline. Thus the immediate post-Cold War period has been marked by several wars, the outbreak of ethnic irredentism and violence, and the accelerating decomposition of nation-states in Africa. (There is also some good news, often ignored, about reasonably successful transitions to democracy and the market in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and even Bulgaria; meanwhile, the process of democratic capitalist consolidation continues apace in East Asia and Latin America—sometimes rapidly, sometimes at less than full throttle, but it continues.)

In this especially transitional time, calls are frequently heard for a new “master concept” or image that would do for the foreign policy of the twenty-first century what “containment” did for foreign policy in the latter half of the twentieth: provide a template against which individual choices could be measured and cut. But the unsettled circumstances of the present may make any such effort chimerical; as Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr., has put it, “The world order after the Cold War is sui generis, and we overly constrain our understanding by trying to force it into the procrustean bed of traditional metaphors with their mechanical polarities.”4

Thus the first order of business today may seem, at first blush, more modest, but may actually be more important for sound policy in the long run: to clarify the intellectual building blocks out of which a new “master concept” might later emerge. The NCCB could play a major role in illuminating the moral dimension of this new policy calculus were it to focus its primary attention on three key foundational questions.


1. Why Us?


In our present psychological and political situation, the first and most important thing that the bishops’ conference could teach about peacemaking ten years after “The Challenge of Peace” is the moral impossibility of isolationism in its Old Right, New Left, or libertarian forms. Put another way, the most urgent moral question to be answered in America today, when the topic turns to foreign policy, is—Why engage?

There are many reasons why the new isolationist impulse—whether articulated by aging refugees from the radicalisms of the sixties, nostalgic (and sometimes xenophobic) celebrants of America First, or buttoned-down scholars from the Cato Institute—should be resisted. It is strategic foolishness of a very high order: in a world of proliferating ballistic-missile technology where deranged or evil tyrants can acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them over thousands of miles, the concept of “Fortress America” is a sorry (and menacing) fiction.5 It is politically dangerous: as the debacle in ex-Yugoslavia has shown, absent American leadership the new world order will be characterized by murderous chaos, not by a self-expanding web of collective security. Isolationism is also a recipe for global economic catastrophe and the gross human suffering that would result therefrom: for isolationism, translated into attempts at economic autarky, will almost certainly yield a chain-reaction world trade war whose likely results may be discerned from a brief meditation on the 1930s. The new isolationism, with its call to tend our own republican garden, also misconceives the sources of our domestic woes: SAT scores are not too low, and teenage pregnancy rates too high, because there has been an insufficient re-allocation of resources from the Pentagon to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. (When Pat Buchanan and The Nation agree on the general outlines of a course of action [or, in this case, inaction], you can be morally certain that the prescription is wrong.)

These strategic, political, and economic points have been made in recent months by competent analysts of both liberal and conservative bent. (Indeed, one of the striking things about the current internationalist/isolationist debate is its reshuffling of the old ideological deck.) But what the NCCB could do, powerfully and perhaps uniquely, is to explain why isolationism is a morally irresponsible option for the United States at this, or indeed any, juncture in history. To put it more positively, the NCCB ought to articulate a persuasive moral rationale for responsible internationalism.

In making this case, the bishops will have to make clear why the moral duties of nations cannot be understood as simply analogous to the moral responsibilities of individuals. Moreover, the bishops will have to articulate a vision of American moral responsibility in the world that does not smack of unwarranted hubris or national messianism. But these temptations are, in truth, far less pressing at the moment than the temptation to say, “We did our job; we saved the world from Hitler and from Stalin and his epigones; it’s time to take care of business at home.” The sentiment is understandable; but it must be firmly challenged, and precisely on grounds of moral realism and moral obligation. Public weariness—or worse, a crabbed, narrow, and selfish view of the American role in the world—must be answered by a realistic, yet more capacious, construal of our duties beyond our borders. If that answer is not given, the result will be greater danger (and suffering) in the world—and, I fear, a crabbed, narrow, and selfish construal of the American possibility at home.

America’s international duties are not infinite. There are limits to our capacities, as there are limits to our wisdom. But the bishops would help reorient the national debate in a more helpful direction were they to lay out a compelling moral argument for the inevitable and unavoidable exercise of American international responsibility in a unipolar world. “Why us?” is the first question to be answered.


2. “Interest” and “Purpose”


“Toward what ends?” is the second question on the new agenda. At one abstract level, of course, we know (or should know) the answer: U.S. foreign policy, measured by the norms of Catholic social ethics, should serve the ends of justice, freedom, security (order), the general welfare, and peace—the classic ends of politics in the Western tradition as developed by Christian philosophers and theologians. But the invocation of those grand ends does not get us very far down the path toward coherent and responsible policy.

Perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to think about the classic ends of politics through the prism of the argument that has erupted, since the end of the Cold War, over the definition of “the national interest.” Few terms have been deployed so frequently in the debates over Somalia and ex-Yugoslavia. But the invocation of “the national interest” is more often an incantation, a rhetorical trump card against an opposing position, than a term of analytic and strategic (much less moral) art.

The bishops could do the country (and the Church) a great service were they to help sweep clear from the notion of “national interest” the cobwebs of amoralism that have grown about it since Hans Morgenthau first published Politics Among Nations. For whatever Professor Morgenthau’s own intentions, the sorry fact is that more than a few of his soi-disant disciples have taken “the national interest” to be a category devoid of moral content: indeed, for many policy “realists” today, “the national interest” can be almost math ematically defined in terms of certain key indices of economic and military power. The result has been a schizophrenic foreign-policy debate in which it is too often assumed, in the “policy community,” that between the worlds of statecraft and morality is fixed a great gulf that no man can cross.6 This, in turn, has further distanced the government from the citizenry, which remains profoundly uncomfortable with rationales for policy that are grounded solely in the canons of Realpolitik. The confusion is further deepened by the media’s tendency to vulgarize the debate, such that it comes down to a contest between “tough-minded realists” and “soft-hearted idealists.”

But as John Courtney Murray argued two generations ago, the unsatisfactory quality of the “morality and foreign policy debate” in the United States has less to do with differences over concrete applications than with the impoverished notions of morality that usually inform (and de-form) our public life. To put it with drastic brevity, the circularity and intractability of the morality-and-foreign-policy debate reflect the cultural residue left by certain American evangelical Protestant notions of “morality” that sought to apply the norms guiding private life to the exigencies of international public life.7 It was against this moralism that Morgenthau and other “realist” critics reacted, by trying to “demoralize” the debate. But moralism of this sort ought not to be confused with moral reasoning as the classic Catholic tradition understood it.

In that tradition (and in other natural-law traditions), there is only one human universe of reflection and action: a universe that is at once moral and political. Which means, as the philosopher Charles Frankel used to insist, that Realpolitik (especially in its Bismarckian form) is not an escape from morality; rather, it is a deficient and debased form of morality. The real choice, then, is not between moralism and amorality but between wiser and dumber forms of moral reasoning.

The classic Catholic insistence that moral decisions are inextricably involved in political choices means, inter alia, that the very definition of the “national interest” is itself an exercise in moral reasoning. Charles Frankel once put the matter this way, in terms that Murray would have applauded:



The heart of the decision-making process … is not finding the best means to serve a national interest already perfectly . . . understood. It is the determining of that interest itself: the reassessment of the nation’s resources, needs, commitments, traditions, and political and cultural horizons—in short, its calendar of values.


In the Catholic social-ethical tradition, “interest” (like “power”) is not a four-letter word. Moreover, democratic political leaders have a fiduciary moral responsibility to defend the interests of those whom they represent. But that responsibility is best exercised, according to the classic Catholic position, when the notion of “national interest” is married to a concept of American purpose. Father Murray put it like this, speaking out of the natural-law tradition which he believed was crucially formative of the political tradition of the West:



The tradition of reason requires, with particular stringency today, that national interest, remaining always valid and omnipresent as a motive, be given only a relative and proximate status as an end of national action. . . . The national interest, rightly understood, is successfully achieved only at the interior, as it were, of the growing international order to which the pursuit of the national interest can and must contribute.


Is this simply more moral logic-chopping? I think not. Indeed, to find a concrete exemplification of this Catholic claim that the pursuit of the national interest can and must contribute (through the mediation of a sense of American purpose) to the “growing international order,” we need look no further than President Reagan’s epochal 1982 address to the British Parliament in Westminster Hall: which led to the creation of the (U.S.) National Endowment for Democracy—which helped support and sustain the forces that eventually led to the nonviolent Revolution of 1989.


3. What “Peace”?


The third foundational building block that the NCCB could help cement into our post-Cold War thinking about foreign policy is the aforementioned concept of “peace” as rightly ordered and dynamic political community. As a brief glance through American Catholic newspapers and magazines will readily attest, there remain deep confusions in the Church over the meaning of the “peace” that is to be sought in the politics of nations. But to the confusions (generally found à gauche) about peace as the Shalom kingdom to be built by human hands have been added confusions off the starboard beam about “peace” as the absence-of-American-participation-in-violent-conflict. Then there are the various New Age (and essentially gnostic) understandings of “peace” as a matter of psychological healing.

And yet the drama of the Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution of 1991 should have taught us that “peace” between and within nations is, at bottom, a matter of just legal and political structures, capable of mediating the ancient and ongoing argument over “Who rules?” It is these structures that permit the exercise of human freedom, including the fundamental right of religious freedom. It is these structures that create the circumstances in which the kind of “free economy” endorsed by John Paul II can develop. It is through these structures that conflicts over justice can be resolved without the threat or use of mass violence.

The bishops were frequently accused, in 1983, of “politicizing” their witness. This was true in the narrow sense that many Catholic political activists seized TCOP as a weapon in their bellum contra Reagan.8 But I would argue that the real problem was that TCOP “de-politicized” the Catholic debate over the pursuit of peace, precisely because it failed to make clear that, in the Catholic understanding of these things, international “peace” is a matter of structures, politics, and law. If that lacuna were repaired in a new document, both the Catholic debate and the wider national debate would be set on a more morally sturdy footing.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

The Promise and Peril of Civic Renewal: Richard John Neuhaus, Peter L. Berger, and “To Empower People”


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today