Published September 1, 1987
The bicentennial of the Constitution of the United States affords us the opportunity to reflect on many things: the “miracle at Philadelphia” by which thirteen squabbling mini-states managed to forge agreement on an instrument of national governance; the fact that the instrument created during that muggy Philadelphia summer has stood the test of two centuries and is now the world’s oldest constitution; the ongoing, and often rancorous, debates over what the Framers intended and what that might mean in modern circumstances. The tone that has been set for the constitutional bicentennial is, properly, one of gratitude; the Framers indeed “built better than they knew,” as John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop of the United States, once put it.
For our purposes here, though, it is important to recognize that the Constitution has become more than an admirable framework for the national government. In its public meaning, ever-contested as that may be, it has become the embodiment of the American experiment. That phrase, “the American experiment,” is now emblazoned on two banners inviting visitors into the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The formulation “American experiment” suggests, as many wise observers have noted over the years, that this thing called the United States of America is a never-finished business. The governmental framework proposed two hundred years ago is the architecture, if you will, of a social, cultural, and civic (in the classic sense of the term) exploration of whether a free people under a limited government can, as Lincoln would have it, “long endure.” The United States is, in principle, never finished. The testing of the American experiment is an ongoing enterprise. In that sense all Americans, of whatever generation, are Founders and Framers.
Over the past ninety years or so the testing of the American experiment has involved the great question of the right role for the United States in world affairs. We are, by geography, history, and cultural inclination, a people perennially disposed toward isolationism. It is by no means a publicly settled issue whether the United States ought to take an active role in shaping world politics. Many of our deepest national instincts warn against such an effort. Traditional isolationism taught that entanglement in the affairs of the world would inevitably spoil our own experiment in democracy. Contemporary neo-isolationism teaches that a racist, sexist, imperialist United States is too dangerous for the world. But whether the appeal is to American virtue or American vice, the message is the same: beware foreign adventures, crusades, and imbroglios.
For good or for ill, and often for both, that counsel has been rendered less than persuasive by the facts of life in the contemporary world. One cannot, on the one hand, urge that this is an “interdependent” world and, on the other, urge the withdrawal of American power and influence from the contest for the world’s future. The voices of interdependence are correct about the basic structural fact of international life today: Economically, culturally, and strategically, the modern communications and transportation revolutions have created a world in which what happens on the tiny Pacific island of Vanuatu will, sooner or later, have something to do with what happens in Peoria.
Which suggests that the crucial question in the American third century is not whether, but how, the United States will act in the world. What ends shall we serve? By what means shall we seek to advance those ends? Under what constraints—physical, psychological, moral—does this “nation with the soul of a Church” (as Chesterton once said) go about its international business?
In this bicentennial season it occurs to us to ask what the experience of the Constitution, not simply as an instrument of national governance but precisely as an embodiment of the American experiment, has to say to this question of the right role for the United States in world affairs. For that reason we depart in this issue from our regular format and offer in its place a more extended reflection on American purpose and American interests in a persistently hostile and inextricably interconnected world. The bicentennial question to which we want to return here can be put thus: While the Father of the Constitution was not a theorist of international relations, is there a Madisonian sensibility that might shed light on the international strivings and doings of the United States?
1. The Peace Perplex
With all due regard for the very real dangers of chauvinism one can argue the case that the United States is a watershed community in world history. Pluralism, the basic cultural given of the world in which we now live, was the native condition of our experiment. The world has always been “plural,” of course. But that plurality takes on a distinctive political weight in a world of Boeing 747s, micro-chips, and fiber-optic telephone calls. The world has had to learn to do politics amidst pluralism over the past two or three generations. We’ve been doing it for centuries.
In that sense the American experiment is a microcosm, if you will, of the world problématique that presents itself, inexorably, in each day’s headlines. Can human beings build political community across the boundaries of race, language, ethnicity, and religion? Can there be community amidst the multiple conflicts that are endemic to pluralism?
There are, of course, hundreds of reasons, many of them weighty, for answering those questions in the negative. But the American experience and experiment caution against too easy a realism.
For the fact remains that, with one terrible break, the United States has formed and sustained political community amidst luxuriant plurality for over two centuries. We are a multi-racial people. On the street corner of any major city and most sizable towns one finds several churches, a synagogue, and, latterly, a mosque. We are conservatives and neo-conservatives, liberals and neo-liberals, radicals, and agrarian populists. We disagree, often passionately, on anything and everything from abortion to the funding of the local zoo. We live in, and wish to be accountable to, many communities: family, religious community, political party, voluntary association. Yet we are, in the midst of it all, a political community that has settled its arguments about the public ordering of our lives, loves, and loyalties without organized mass violence since 1865.
This is no mean accomplishment. One might almost say, again with all due caution, that the American experience and experiment have been a miracle in human history. Imagine a parallelogram three thousand miles wide and two thousand miles deep; then try to superimpose that box on a map of the world from which borders have been expunged. Where, save here, can one say that within that box, and amidst divers peoples, the problem of war-the use of organized mass violence to settle the fundamental public argument over who rules—has been solved for well over century? There is no other such place. And whether one deems this American experience of public peace a providential or accidental reality of history, a reality it remains.
The American experience under the Constitution thus teaches a first and crucial practical lesson to those who would work for peace: peace in this world is a matter of political community. The world will remain plural and conflicted. But that stark fact—the secular meaning, if you will, of the doctrine of original sin—does not necessarily imply the impossibility of political community. The American experiment is a living refutation of the notion that political community requires a numbing uniformity or is impossible amidst pluralism.
Work for peace, as that term is now understood in these United States, rarely takes account of this distinctively Madisonian experience. In church and synagogue basements, in union halls, in board rooms, and at meetings of physicians, educators, architects, and local government officials “for social responsibility,” one hears a different tune being sung. Or, rather, two different tunes.
In those communities which take work for peace as a religious imperative peace is sometimes defined simply as a right relationship between the individual and God—an important meaning of peace, to be sure, and perhaps the most important meaning, but an understanding that throughout history seems to have had little to do with resolving the problem of war. That “wars will cease when men refuse to fight” is a persistent theme in the religious community. But it is also a prescription for wars without end.
In the contemporary American peace movement peace is typically understood as a world free of conflict: a secularized version of the biblical condition of shalom, in which the lions lie with the lambs and swords are beaten into plowshares. Whether, in modern secular terms, this condition of blessedness is thought to be made possible by better communications, people-to-people contacts, or mass psychotherapy, the basic teaching is straightforward: wars will cease when conflict is expunged from the human family. Conflict, in other words, is not quite real: it is epiphenomenal, the result of an improperly adjusted psyche or a defective ideology or that greed which, it is supposed, is the dominant cultural characteristic of market-centered economies. The impacts of the American therapeutic culture, especially the third force or personalist psychology of Carl Rogers and his disciples, and the themes of the vulgarized Marxism that entered the American public square during the heydays of the New Left have been enormous here.
There are elements of truth embedded in this otherwise unpersuasive body of thought: it is surely true, for example, that an open communications process in the world would serve the cause of peace, as well as the cause of human decency. Those who do not believe this should consult the men and women who struggle to hear the Voice of America, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, the BBC World Service, or Deutsche Welle through the maddening scratchiness of jamming. But the basic concept here—that ours can be a world free of conflict—is Utopian in a damaging way.
Why? Because conflict and peace—the peace of free political community—are not antinomies. Conflict can be creative rather than destructive. Conflict can be conducted and resolved through orderly, democratic structures of law and politics without the use or threat of mass violence. Those are important lessons of the American experience and experiment. Those lessons are part of the Madisonian sensibility that ought to inform debate about peace. They rarely do today.
Therefore, we may hope that the bicentennial of the Constitution can be the occasion to re-politicize peace.
Once that conceptual move is made, other cautions must be immediately engaged. To recognize that peace is a matter of politics—a matter of political community—ought not lead one to imagine that the world can become “like us” in the twinkling of an eye by a great act of national will. Modernity’s two great attempts to build world order through political organization—the League of Nations and the United Nations—are, or ought to be, sobering in the extreme. One cannot create effective structures for the peaceful resolution of conflict without a base of community on which to build. That community did not exist in 1919 nor in 1945. At the macrocosmic level it does not exist today.
But elements of it do. The world’s democracies, for example, form a nascent political community, a zone of peace if you will, that now extends from the iron curtain west to Australia. Attempts at building international and/or transnational structures within that zone are themselves immensely difficult as the experience of the European Community has amply demonstrated. But the zone exists. Within it, it is difficult if not impossible to conceive of a war. That is surely something.
World order is thus more than a pious phrase to be invoked over cocktails at the Aspen Institute. It is a reality. The issue, one might reasonably argue, is not whether the world is going to be organized and ordered, but how: by what values, through what structures, answerable to what authorities? One might further argue that a truly Madisonian test of American purpose in the third century of the Constitution is the degree of wisdom we shall bring to this ongoing and unavoidable task of ordering the world. We know, or ought to know now, how it cannot be done. That does not absolve us from responsibility for answering the question of how it might be done better.
Thus the first constitutional lesson for the debate over the right role for the United States in world affairs: peace is a matter of politics. Peace is a matter of dynamic, rightly ordered political community.
2. The Centrality of Freedom
That last cluster of adjectives and adverbs is important: dynamic, rightly ordered political community. Here is where we distinguish the American or Madisonian experience of peace from the pseudo-peace that prevails in a particularly efficient totalitarian state—Albania, let’s say. There, there is no dynamism, for there is no conflict—or no public conflict at any rate. And the order that prevails is hardly a right order, judged by any humane set of values. Peace is not, then, merely the absence of war: it is the absence of war because of the fact of rightly ordered and dynamic political community.
The American experience and experiment is based on a core moral claim—that “all men are created equal.” The Founders and Framers did not think of this as a particularistic claim. They thought it could be understood, and thus honored, by all people of good will because it was rooted, not in sectarian dogma but in human nature. And they further thought, which is to say Madison further thought, that making this claim real in public life was a matter of institutions, not assertions.
Peace, in other words and to continue the discussion above, is thus a matter of institutions of freedom.
Just as there has been a flight from the political meaning of peace in those circles most visibly identified as the peace movement, so has there been a parallel flight from the linkage between peace and freedom. The reasons for this are understandable, if not finally compelling. The terrible fact of nuclear weapons and the potential for world-historical damage that they represent weigh heavily on any sensitive soul. That the chief threat against which we maintain nuclear weapons is a military superpower guided by an ideology at fundamental cross-purposes with the values that undergird our own experiment further complicates the picture. That we find ourselves, surely without willing it, in a state of chronic, low-intensity conflict with that Leninist, nuclear-armed superpower is a nerve-wracking business. The temptation to denial can be irresistible. And the point of least resistance is often on the peace-and-freedom linkage.
Thus it is that Americans who genuinely think they are advancing the cause of peace put themselves in the anomalous position of denying a basic fact of their own political experience: that peace and freedom go together. They deny, as one prominent and publicly celebrated Seattle activist recently did, that psychiatry is politically abused in the Soviet Union. They conduct exchange programs that deliberately ignore human rights issues for the sake of “lowering the temperature” of U.S./Soviet relations and thereby, putatively, serving the cause of peace. They ignore the counsel of a man like Andrei Sakharov, who has persistently argued that the pursuit of a measure of human freedom in his unhappy country is an essential component of work for peace.
In the third century of the Constitution one may hope that this uncoupling of peace and freedom will be reversed. The insistence of dissident intellectuals like Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, Poland’s Adam Michnik, and Hungary’s Georg Konrad that working for human rights and for peace are inseparable (reported in our March 1987 issue) will have its impact. But so will history. Thus we should turn our focus for a moment from the sometimes distorting prism of U.S./Soviet relations and nuclear weaponry to the Third World.
Here the linkage between peace and freedom is being actively rebuilt.
That there is a democratic revolution in the Third World is one of the salient facts confronting those who would think about American purpose in this bicentennial season. In the Philippines, in South Korea, throughout Latin America and, even, in Eastern Europe men and women are working with courage and persistence to build structures of public life that are accountable to the people. In the hardest cases, such as the countries of the Warsaw Pact, this takes a minimalist form: rebuilding a measure of that civil society that can stand between the individual and the megastructures of the totalitarian state. The building blocks of that civil society can take different forms. There is the jazz musicians’ union in Czechoslovakia. There is Solidarity in Poland, a phenomenon that, after the Pope’s June visit, can no longer be dismissed as moribund. There is the Catholic Church in Lithuania. There are the Baptist Pentecostals in Siberia. There is the Moscow-based “Group to Establish Trust Between the USSR and the USA,” an independent peace movement, relentlessly harassed by the authorities. Support for all of these brave attempts to create some living space in the suffocating climate of the Leninist state serves not only the cause of freedom but the cause of peace. Or so insist the men and women who daily are putting their lives on the line in that struggle. They may never have heard of James Madison. But they are working on the same intuitions that guided the Father of the Constitution.
Then there is the revolution of truly democratic political structures in the Third World. These are fragile experiments to be sure. But it now seems clear that there is an option in the Third World between more or less benign forms of authoritarianism and the siren songs of Marxism-Leninism. Men and women like Raul Alfonsin in Argentina, Vinicio Cerezo in Guatemala, and Corazon Aquino in the Philippines have, in their own ways, taken to heart the Madisonian notion that freedom is not protected by “parchment barriers” but by living institutions of democratic governance. At this writing in the summer of 1987 it would seem that similar understandings have been let loose in the Republic of Korea. In the Philippine, Guatemalan, and South Korean cases the linkage between freedom and peace is being severely tested, not merely among democrats but between democrats and totalitarians. But would anyone argue now that a return to authoritarian rule would make it more likely for the Philippines and Guatemala to resist successfully Marxist-Leninist insurgencies? How much more likely will a democratic, as well as an economically thriving, South Korea be to stand fast in the long struggle against its Stalinist neighbor to the north?
The Latin American theologies of liberation have made a commonplace of the phrase, the “preferential option for the poor.” The stylistic inelegance of the formulation aside (Peter Berger once called it a bad English translation of a bad Spanish translation of a clumsy German neologism), there is a truth here that most reasonable people recognize. But the experience of the democratic revolution in the Third World suggests that there is a complementary option to be considered in the American third century: a “preferential option for freedom,” if you will.
The two options bear on each other. Successful economic development, as in the “four little dragons” of East Asia, creates pressures for democratization; South Korea is the most recent example. It is a safe bet that similar pressures will sooner or later change politics in Singapore and Taiwan. Conversely, the rule of law—one basic characteristic of democratic or even pre-democratic states—would seem a crucial component in the project of empowering the poor because the rule of law gives a country’s underclass, often its dominant class, institutional protections lacking under caudillos or generals in uniform or in three-piece suits.
This suggests that we ought to reconceive the relationship between peace and justice. The relationship is typically understood in grand, maximalist terms among contemporary American activists: there can be no peace without justice. In this view this usually means distributive justice, which usually means, in effect, that all quarrels over a just distribution of wealth have to be settled before there can be peace. So, of course, there will be no peace this side of the Kingdom of God or whatever secular equivalent thereof we might imagine.
The democratic revolution reminds us that there are many forms of justice, and some have more to do with building the peace of rightly ordered, dynamic political community than others. In the classic understanding there were three forms of justice: commutative justice, which has to do with contracts and what I owe you as an individual in a just personal relationship; distributive justice which, as noted above, has to do with the allocation of economic goods; and legal justice, which has to do with the structures of public life. Which of these forms of justice is most relevant to the pursuit of peace?
All are relevant; but the American experience and experiment and the democratic revolution in the Third World suggest that legal justice—the creation of just structures for determining who rules—is the most crucial of the three. In some cases, questions of distributive justice have to be settled, or at least vigorously addressed, so that just legal and political structures can be built. Think, for example, of the relationship between land reform and democracy in El Salvador and the Philippines or, in a longer time frame, in Japan.
But the key ingredient would seem to be the structural one: the question of legal or, as your editor prefers to call it, constitutional justice. Those structures having been established and confirmed by the consent of the governed, the perennial arguments over distributive justice can be engaged in ways that strengthen rather than fracture nascent democracies. The “preferential option for the poor” and the “preferential option for freedom” both dictate active American support for the building of democracies throughout the world. That is a task that will, undoubtedly, involve much of the American third century and, quite likely, beyond. But to take up that task, as is being so ably done, for example, by the National Endowment for Democracy, is to engage in a policy that is thoroughly in tune with the Madisonian sensibility and what it suggests about the right role for the United States in the world.
Such activity also advances the cause of peace. Owen Harries, an Australian who served as his country’s ambassador to UNESCO, is the editor of The National Interest and a man keenly attuned to the bitter realities of international public life. Yet in a recent issue of his journal, he refuted certain dogmas of the foreign policy realists about national interest, as follows:
“…For a free society freedom itself is an interest. It is so in the obvious sense that a free society wants to preserve the freedom that it enjoys. But it is so also in the sense that—other things being equal—its own freedom is made more secure insofar as freedom is established elsewhere. For the historical record shows that while free democratic societies have their differences, they go to war with each other very rarely. All the major wars of this century have been fought either among authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, or between democratic countries on the one hand and authoritarian or totalitarian ones on the other. As an illustration of the point, contrast the state of the long border between the United States and Canada with that between the Soviet Union and China. On one there are no military forces; on the other over a hundred divisions. Even more striking, consider the state of the” border between France and Germany now that they are both democracies.”
Thus the second, Madisonian lesson: peace and freedom are inseparable and both must be protected by just institutions and not merely by the “parchment barriers” of documents and treaties.
3. Questions of IS and OUGHT
Jefferson’s foundational claim was a moral claim. From its inception the American experiment has been a matter of ought as well as of is. This has had its impact on our great domestic controversies, of which the civil rights revolution of the 1960s is the most impressive contemporary example. But it has also affected the American approach to world politics. As the distinguished commentator Charles Krauthammer put it, “Our nationalism is unlike others, in that our very nationhood is bound up with and is meant to give expression to the idea of freedom.” The question of the U.S. role in world affairs is thus ethical as well as structural. We speak, quite naturally, of the right role for the United States in world politics and economics. This is not a formulation that occurs with equivalent ease in Whitehall or on the Quai d’Orsay, much less in the counsels of the International Department of the Soviet Communist party’s central committee.
The question of right role and the arguments that have swirled around it have often been a source of frustration and, it must be admitted, the occasion for inept policy. It has made a great difference, for example, that it was Woodrow Wilson who first articulated a moral case for an American assumption of the responsibilities of a great power in history. For Wilson was the living expression of a very particular and distinctive style of American moral enterprise, what we can call with justification American Protestant moralism.
That moral sensibility had a number of distinguishing characteristics, but for our purposes its most important features were its individualism and its subjectivism.
By individualism is meant its tendency to conceive social and political ethics as a function of the ethics of interpersonal relationships. To put it crudely but accurately, one thought morally about dealing with another country the way one thought morally about dealing with Aunt Tilly. “Open covenants, openly arrived at” would be one classically Wilsonian formulation of this tendency.
By subjectivism is meant the notion that intentions are what count, morally. A striking example of the effects of this morality of intentions can be found in the deliberations of the Carter administration during the last days of Anastasio Somoza, as chronicled by Pulitzer Prize-winner Shirley Christian in Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family. The administration had been asked, indeed begged, by the democratic members of the anti-Somoza coalition to get the dictator out of Nicaragua before he was brought down in a civil war, after which the Sandinistas would enjoy a monopoly of military power in Nicaragua. But, on the advice of National Security Council staffer Robert Pastor, President Carter finally decided not to cajole, bribe, or force Somoza out. Pastor’s winning argument was that, whatever the possibly damaging consequences of inaction, the United States could not be seen to intervene yet again in a Central American country. The administration clearly wanted an end to the Somoza dictatorship but was so single-mindedly focused on the purity of its intentions, which it feared would be sullied by even nonmilitary intervention, that it booted an extraordinary opportunity. The results of that decision are all too evident today.
In its third century the United States needs a new debate over morality and foreign policy. That debate would be enhanced by coupling a Madisonian sense of moral realism with Jeffersonian idealism. The United States needs a social ethic capable of providing policy wisdom in the pursuit of peace and freedom.
Such a social ethic would recognize the distinctiveness of moral reasoning in politics, not confusing social ethics with the ethics of interpersonal relationships. Allies and adversaries are not to be considered as the moral analogy of next-door neighbors or relatives. Social ethics has its own norms, methods, and integrity.
Such an ethic would recognize that national interest is a central policy consideration but would draw the line at Realpolitik’s raison d’état as a policy criterion. There are some things that we just would not do: selling police equipment that can be used for torture comes to mind as something that should be absolutely proscribed. If others wish to do so, let them.
The United States needs a social ethic that would not be squeamish about power—which is, after all, simply the ability to achieve common purposes—but would know the moral difference between power and sheer violence. This ethic would relate the limited and careful use of armed force to the pursuit of peace, security, and freedom.
A social ethic capable of guiding wise policy would reject the too-easy application of biblical texts to messy policy situations. It also would recognize that prudence—the virtue which teaches how to apply moral norms to complex public choices—is the key political virtue.
Moral reasoning on matters of peace and freedom is thus, as your editor put it in The Washington Quarterly, not “…a set of how-to-do-it instructions that might be followed by any dolt.” Rather, it is “…a matter of endless argument, research, reflection, more argument, and empirical testing.”
Such a reform of moral argument over the right role of the United States in world affairs would involve the revitalization of just-war theory and the transformation of American pacifism.
Just-war theory suffers from the defects of its name. It is not, as the Catholic bishop of Richmond put it in 1981, “…an excuse to go to war, mental gymnastics, casuistry of the worst sort.” On the contrary, just-war theory begins with a moral presumption in favor of peace. St. Thomas’s discussion of the theory began with the question, “Is it always wrong to go to war?” The theory then asks about the conditions under which the presumption for peace may be overridden. Moreover, the classic theory has also insisted that peace is the final end to be sought, even in the last-resort use of armed force. In short, a concept of peace-as rightly ordered political community—is implicit in the moral criteria contained in just war theory.
To be honest, the just-war theorists over the past generation have not made this clear. Therein lies part of the public relations problem of just-war theory. Virtually all scholars of the tradition know well that the theory is ordered to the peace of political community. But that crucial fact is largely unknown to the general, or even to the attentive public. Just-war theorists, especially in a nuclear age, stand under a heavy obligation to make clear that theirs is a peace ethic, not an anti-ethic blessing indiscriminate violence. Recent work by James Turner Johnson of Rutgers, discussed at a James Madison Foundation/Woodstock Theological Center seminar, bids fair to redirect the scholarly debate along these lines.
American pacifism has been, these past twenty years or so, an increasingly influential voice in the debate over the country’s right role in world affairs. It has also been, in the main, a voice for neo-isolationism, for Utopian schemes of human perfectibility, and for anti-anticommunism.
But it doesn’t have to be.
There is a truthful and publicly important role for a witness pacifism that stands, deliberately, outside politics and that lives as a reminder that all works of our hands are under judgment. This has been the traditional role of the historic peace churches: the Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren, for example. But many within those communions now chafe at what they consider—mistakenly, in our view—such a delimited role. They wish to enter politics; they want to make a public difference in the normally accepted sense of that term. Pacifists should be welcome participants in the debate over peace and freedom. But they will act according to their own best instincts and traditions when they act as nonviolent agents of democratic change within and among nations.
Pacifists ought, that is, to recognize and act on the fact that democratic law and politics are the world’s most successful examples of the nonviolent resolution of conflict. A pacifism ordered to democracy, at home and abroad, can thus contribute to the reconstitution of a Madisonian perspective on American world responsibilities.
And thus both pacifists and those committed to a just-war ethic can work together at the politics of peace and freedom if both recognize that these large goals of our action in the world are matters of institutions of freedom.
4. Novus Ordo Seclorum: A Few Cautions
There are dangers in thinking about the multiple problems and prospects of U.S. foreign policy through the prism of the American experience and experiment. These have to be acknowledged, and the cautions they pose have to be brought into any policy calculus that seeks to advance peace and freedom.
The classic American temptation to an indiscriminate universalism has to be checked. There were particular conditions—cultural, historic, geographical—which gave rise to our experiment, to this “new order of the ages” (novus ordo seclorum), as the Great Seal of the United States puts it. Those conditions may not be, in fact are not, replicable in a world as culturally, religiously, and ideologically diverse as this one. The world won’t become Connecticut overnight, and furthermore much of the world doesn’t want to be Connecticut.
But a necessary realism about the distinctive historical and cultural character of the American experiment should not blind us to the possibilities that exist for advancing peace and freedom—or that can be created. Democratic forms of law and governance are not, on the available evidence, a North Atlantic cultural curiosity. There are Japanese, South Koreans, Czechs, Lithuanians, Zulus, Filipinos, Argentines, Chileans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Poles, Hungarians, and many others who wish to live in free societies governed by consent rather than coercion. Their cause is, in the broadest sense, our cause. The structures they evolve to make freedom real may not be our structures. But the “preferential option for freedom” is being asserted in an impressively cross-cultural way in the modern world, and that fact ought to be a central consideration in the foreign policy of James Madison’s political heirs.
The American temptation to utopianism must also be acknowledged and checked. Wilsonian moralism taught that the United States had a mission in the world, which many understood to be divinely authorized. Such an assertion does seem an imposition on God, and in any event history teaches that it makes for wreckage in the policy process. To paraphrase that familiar line from Lord Acton, utopianism corrupts, and nationalistic utopianism based on a sense of divine mandate corrupts absolutely. And gets a lot of people killed in the process, be it added.
But to recognize that there is no divinely mandated American mission in the world is not to argue that there is no American purpose in world politics. If moralism leads to a sense of mission, then perhaps the kind of tempered moral reasoning suggested above can lead to a renewed sense of American purpose. Mission hints of a short fuse: now is the time of salvation; now is the time for decision; the day of the Lord (or the secular equivalent thereof) is at hand. Purpose, on the other hand, suggests a more measured sense of time. A purpose can be pursued in and out of season; it can suffer defeats and gather itself again for action at a latter date.
Moreover, the phrase American purpose does not, or should not, bespeak lassitude. Nicaragua would be a rather different place today, as would El Salvador, had American policymakers exhibited a bit more urgency in their approach to reform in Central America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We seem to have learned something from this, as the early results in the Philippines and South Korea suggest. We shall see what we have learned, yet again, in Chile over the next several years. But be these discrete situations as they may, the welcome cautions that realists raise against a return to Wilsonian world evangelism ought not mitigate against the reconstruction of a publicly persuasive and politically sustainable concept of American purpose in the world.
That reconstruction is threatened, it must be admitted, by more than the facts of plurality in the world, compounded as they are by the world-historical impact of such universalisms as Leninism and the form of Islam propounded by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Gathering a sense of American purpose in the world that reflects in a sober and wise way our national experience over the past two centuries is made even more difficult by the civic condition of our foreign policy debate today—a condition that in the normal course of events will be exacerbated during the coming presidential campaign.
That condition, in brief, is one of deep division. James Rosenau of the University of Southern California has described it as “fragmegration”: the pre-Vietnam foreign policy consensus has not only fractured, but shards of it have been re-integrated into hard-and-fast positions at the poles of the contemporary debate. Thus the picture that presents itself in this bicentennial season is of a debate shaped like a barbell: two dense, thick clusters of opinion, passionately held at the poles of the argument, with very little by way of mediating argument in between.
The situation is further complicated in that the policy disagreements symbolized by Rosenau’s barbell involve other, deep cultural chasms. They reflect the post-Vietnam class conflict between the two American establishments: the older elite with its roots in the business community and the “new class” elite in the symbolic knowledge industries of the media, the universities, the entertainment world, and the leadership of much of the religious community. There are partisan divisions at work here, too; and as the great contest for power in a post-Reagan United States is engaged, one looks long and hard for the contemporary equivalents of Dean Acheson and Arthur Vandenberg: men who can agree on the broad contours of American purpose across partisan lines.
Twenty years of division and acrimony are not going to be resolved in a year, much less in an election. But there are some hopeful signs that there is movement in the debate, not so much creating middle ground between the poles as new ground ahead of today’s arguments.
The American Federation of Teachers’ Education for Democracy project represents such movement, challenging both establishments to a concern for transmitting the values of democracy to the next generation.
The National Association of Evangelicals’ Peace, Freedom, and Security Studies Program is working to create a new debate in the religious debate over the right role for the United States in world affairs. The degree of unease the program has raised among the guardians of the reigning orthodoxies at the poles of the present argument suggests a recognition that there is, indeed, a new game in town.
After considerable travail a broad bipartisanship now sustains the work of the National Endowment for Democracy, pointing to the possibility of agreement on an active American role in world politics, ahead of today’s polarizations. That the role undertaken by the Endowment is thoroughly Madisonian indicates how the perspective outlined in this essay can, in fact, gather rather than further divide. When liberal Democrats and movement conservative Republicans can work together in support of the world’s democrats—and when the argument for such bipartisanship can be, as it occasionally has been, put in terms of work for peace—then something worth not only preserving, but expanding, is at hand.
To note the good news here is not to deny the reality of the bad. No one familiar with the contemporary American whirlpool in which various isolationisms, rank partisanship, cultural warfare, and ideological confusions now interact can doubt that we are in for a long haul of it. But the good news, to alter Ben Wattenberg, is that the bad news isn’t all the news there is. No one is going to be elected president of the United States next year who does not, in one form or another, place himself or herself squarely on the side of peace and freedom. And even with all due discounting for the rhetorical sleights-of-hand that such affirmations will involve from the sundry supplicants for our votes, there is an important truth lurking beneath the surface here: our society has not become tone deaf to its heritage.
The United States could commit itself again, in this bicentennial season, to the great task of building peace and freedom in the world. And that is a cause to which “we the people” can pledge anew “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
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.