Wirth’s Law, Havel’s Woodshed

Published April 1, 1994

Like others before me, I have been known to complain from time to time about the circularity of the standard-brand debate over morality-and-foreign-policy. “Realists” typically argue that foreign affairs are the realm of amorality and that introducing moral categories into the debate uselessly complicates an already difficult task. “Idealists” seem to think that treating with sovereign foreign powers, some of them of a decidedly unsavory nature, is an exercise on the order of dealing with children and other relatives: fractious children, perhaps, and difficult, even recalcitrant relatives, but, at bottom, people who are really Just Like Us. And so it goes, around and around the rhetorical maypole, with the notion that social ethics may be a distinctive form of moral reasoning getting its usual short shrift.

But just when you begin to think you’ve learned all the classic grips and grapples in this perennial controversy, something or somebody new pops up: in this case. State Department Counselor and Undersecretary-designate for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth, a former senator from Colorado, henceforth to be remembered as the author of Wirth’s Law—arguably the first new claim in the morality-and-foreign-policy argument in decades. And a breathtaking claim it is, too.

Seems that just about a year ago, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel visited the State Department, where he urged the Clinton administration to take more aggressive action to stop the war in Bosnia. Serbian ethnic cleansing, Wiesel said, created a “moral imperative” for American intervention. Counselor Wirth, who had been seconded to have lunch with Wiesel, then laid down his Law. According to Stephen Johnson, the head of the State Department’s Yugoslavia Desk in 1990-92, who was present at the meeting: “Wirth agreed with Wiesel that the moral stakes in Bosnia were high but asserted that there were even higher moral stakes at play: ‘the survival of the fragile liberal coalition represented by this Presidency.'”

Thus, Wirth’s Law: the highest value to be served by U.S. foreign policy, the “norming norm” as the philosophers say, is the survival of the “fragile liberal coalition” represented by the Clinton administration.

On the one hand, you have to hand it to Counselor Wirth. Deliberately or accidentally, he confessed what a lot of people in the Clinton administration seem to believe but, for obvious reasons, refuse to say: namely, that the 1992 election was (as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo) a “damn near run thing”; that there is no massive Clinton mandate; that 1992 was far more about jettisoning George Bush than about “restoring hope”; that the country remains dubious about liberal approaches to domestic social policy; and that any major international foul-up would give the voters permission to toss the Clintonites over the side in 1996, just as they had the Bushies in 1992—at which point the possibilities of pursuing the liberal agenda would be gravely jeopardized.

But, the brutal candor of the thing notwithstanding, isn’t Wirth’s Law an astonishment? Has there ever been a more craven public confession of political ambition? What kind of people think that maintaining their grip on the reins of power is the highest moral imperative of governance? And what does it mean that people of this ilk are now leading the world’s lone superpower? This is the “city on a hill”? Please.

You don’t have to agree with Elie Wiesel’s prescription for direct American military intervention in the Balkans to think that there was something frankly sickening about Counselor Wirth’s remark. Those of us who work regularly with civic, religious, and political leaders in the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, many of whom continue to look to the United States as the model of a morally serious liberal democracy, can only hope that Wirth’s Law wasn’t fully reported in the international press. Here at home, the lack of comment on—indeed, the lack of outrage about—this truly repulsive comment by a senior administration official will strike some as further evidence of the sorry condition of American public life. Whitewatergate is one thing; Wirth’s Law is something else, and arguably something worse, altogether.

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.

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