American Power and the Common Good

by Questing Beast

by Stephen Sims

A recent article in a prominent newspaper identified the unfathomable spending and reach of the Department of Defense. The concerned journalist pointed out that no one is sure of the number of American military foreign bases, although conservative estimates place the number around 1,000. The journalist, distressed at alleged profligate military spending and inept bookkeeping, added his voice to the chorus shouting for a reduced military presence of the United States in the world. This chorus especially dislikes American power in the form of the soldier and the aircraft carrier, due partly to the strain defense puts on the government’s budget, but especially because they see a widespread military as an arrogant expression of power.

That power and arrogance often go hand in hand is a cliché; Lucifer and our daily lives show as much. But is the existence and exercise of power itself wicked? Is it a moral failure for the United States to act, in the phrase of one popular politician, as the “world’s policeman?” The phrase, a denigration of America’s overpowering military presence throughout the world and habit of involving itself in the affairs of other nations, often meets with applause from those who wish to see the United States withdraw from “foreign entanglements” and set its own house in order. The concerned journalist mentioned above agrees, claiming that American might is an expression of power politics. The wide reach of the American army and navy is seen as proof that Washington prefers to put morality and reason aside in favor of violence. The bullet end of national interest often comes across as such.

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The violence which has sustained Christendom and its free way of life does not fit well with modern liberalism and its distaste for men who fight and die for the sake of dogma.

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The violence which has sustained Christendom and its free way of life does not fit well with modern liberalism and its distaste for men who fight and die for the sake of dogma.The argument is attractive. A nation which engages in the murder of unborn children reminds one of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Such states had no business sharing their murderous vision of the good life with the rest of the world. Given the grievous moral failure of our own nation in this regard, the exercise of power over others should certainly give pause. One would want the champion of constitutional government to truly be a constitutional government.

Thus qualms over American failings lead to anxiety and introspection about “meddling” and “intervening,” as can concerns about the absurd debt that our representatives have cheerfully placed on American citizens. Such anxiety expresses itself in the current of thought which argues that the American republic ought to perfect itself rather than taking on a large role in global politics. Others argue that the United States should only lead the world by the example of republican freedom, and never by a rifle. Some even write in panicked sentences that the rise of a powerful military is always mirrored by a decline in political freedom. Despite reasonable misgivings about the size of the defense budget, these writers practically espouse the destruction of good order for the sake of perfect order. Such writers and politicians have lost sight of what it is they wish to do away with, attacking an ancient tradition without considering the consequences. Too much attention on the ugly and misunderstood episodes of American foreign policy has resulted in historical and political myopia.

The political history of civilization and Christendom is easily forgotten, especially by Americans yearning for a mythical golden age of isolationism. The violence which has sustained Christendom and its free way of life does not fit well with modern liberalism and its distaste for men who fight and die for the sake of dogma. Despite such intellectual discomfort, powerful militaries and rough republics have always protected Christendom and Western heritage from enemies, both from within and without. A forgotten virtue of the Holy Roman Empire was its resistance to invading Ottomans. The Roman, Greek, and British Empires spread civilization to other nations. Those who live in times of peace forget too easily that the price of their stable world was paid in blood, and that there are many who desire the return of perpetual violence. The very system of states to which these writers appeal is a product of Western civilization, forged from centuries of tradition and reason. That system has always relied on Western powers for its maintenance, and has only relatively recently included the so-called third world. The international order without a dominant Western power is something the world has not seen. The proponents of isolation would inflict an innovation on the world so detached from any historical basis that the American voters should be wary of yielding their “foreign entanglements.”

The ahistorical thinking of those who wish for a new era of American isolationism is reflected in their weird theories about the causes of anti-Western sentiments throughout the world, especially the Middle East. A current fad in political conversation is that hatred of the West is the result of “blowback:” just anger at Western atrocities. It is undeniable that Western powers have at one time or another sinned against weaker peoples, and thus some grievances are justified. It is also undeniable that nations do not need reasons to hate other nations, and the evil ideologies of some American enemies are not based on justice at all. Principles of jihad are hatred of Jews and Israel, hatred of America due to its friendliness toward Jews, and a desire to recreate a caliphate stretching from old Persia to the Iberian Peninsula. These goals have nothing to do with “blowback.” Similarly, Chinese xenophobia antedates American influence in world affairs. To argue that America is a universal aggressor which deserves world anger is to utterly ignore history and buy into a dangerously simplified view of politics.

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It is certainly the case that an international order demands respect for the sovereignty of separate nations and the various manifestations of human flourishing those nations illustrate. Nevertheless, men have a duty to serve the common good of mankind, even at the expense of norms such as sovereignty.

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Western civilization has always fought for survival. Brave Spartans, Athenians, Romans, Franks, Austrians, Poles, Spaniards, Englishmen, and Americans have died for freedom and Christian life, whether against the soft despotism of Persian bureaucrats, the brutality of Turkish sultans, or the abstract state of totalitarianism. Those brave men were almost invariably the products of a nation which had a potent military and was unafraid to use it in civilization’s name. The men of these nations did not delude themselves that all ways of life were equal. They saw the world in a hierarchic fashion, and those that came closest to the law of charity were the best. And generally the best ought to use force to preserve the virtues of civilization, if need be.

Who preserves the virtues of civilization now? An antiquated question perhaps, having no place in a world dominated by the sickly after-thoughts of the Bandung conference – if only those oppressed by the West were given a chance, they would forge a bright world of peace and sustainable living. Perhaps, but the political histories of Africa, India, and China leave little hope that these areas will become beacons of civilization and human flourishing. History suggests that it falls to European civilization and particularly its American manifestation to keep the world in good order. In the past century the British passed the burden of global order to the United States. To whom shall the United States pass that burden? The Middle East, led by a nuclear Iran bent on continuing the work of Hitler by eradicating the Jewish people? Or would we prefer the bureaucratic tyranny of Beijing?

No doubt the proponents of withdrawal and isolation could argue that whatever path history suggests, it is not certain that it will be the path our nation ought to follow. The weight of history is a powerful incentive to keep things as they have always been, but Christians wish to do what is right and good, no matter history. Following this line of thought, some Americans see the presence of the American military throughout the world as the presence of a bully. They argue that America has no right to force its views upon other nations, since such a forcing would be an infringement of the right to self-determine. According to this point of view, no matter how concerned the United States is about the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons, it is the right of the Iranian people to arm itself as it sees fit, never mind that it could lead to the greatest demonstration of anti-Semitism to date.

To this writer, however, it is unclear that the right of self-determination extends so far as to allow half-civilized states to disrupt the international order. It is certainly the case that an international order demands respect for the sovereignty of separate nations and the various manifestations of human flourishing those nations illustrate. Nevertheless, men have a duty to serve the common good of mankind, even at the expense of norms such as sovereignty. As Charles De Konick wrote, if it is good to act for the good of a single city, it is better to act for an entire nation. Thus, the nation is more divine than the city, as it is a greater cause. The maintenance of peace among nations is the pursuit of the common good of human society, the most fundamental good which allows for the flourishing of virtue. It is the common good of human society that is one of the most divine goods a people may pursue. While all peoples are called to pursue the good of human society, few peoples have the material and spiritual means to achieve it. The Greeks and Romans pursued it, and then the various nations of Europe. In the latest chapter of Christendom, the American people have striven for that good. It would be a sad day when the last Western power gives up the task of maintaining global order and hands mankind over to its worst instincts.

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The imperfection of the American government does not preclude its obligations to others.

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In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI draws attention to the reality of human society and the duties which follow therefrom. He notes that nations are never isolated entities which have no relation to each other; the powerful have obligations to the weak. He argues that while we seek solutions to the current economic crisis, aid to poor nations is instrumental toward the gain of all. The encyclical suggests many ways that wealthier nations can help the less fortunate. It is reasonable to think that providing some measure of security for the world is a tangible way for the American people to help less fortunate peoples, whether by sending aircraft carriers to tsunami victims, convincing Colonel Gadhafi to abandon his WMD program, or outracing the USSR toward better arms. Direct economic aid to nations which do not have even basic political stability can be worse than useless. Acting as a “world policeman” and maintaining a climate of stability and order could allow weaker peoples to flourish. As the Pope teaches, neither a man nor a people are an island. The American people have duties toward the rest of the world because the American nation is so wealthy and powerful, and the American military is the response to those duties. The imperfection of the American government does not preclude its obligations to others.

Scholars of international politics revel in the prospect of America withdrawing from the world, “dismantling the American empire” in the terms of the saturnine Chalmers Johnson. Such writers tend to argue that the rise of the American welfare state and the decline of American military are inevitable, the product of the same historical forces which caused the decline of Rome and Britain. History, however, is the record of human action. If the American people withdraw from the world and bring the Pax Americana to an end, it will be choice of the American people, not the effect of impersonal empire-crushing forces. The decline of American imperium would be a moral act of the American people, and the difficult question facing that people is whether that act would be for good or evil. The people may decide in the next few months that the price of maintaining a global good is too high, that pursuit of humanity’s common good is imprudent and not in American interests. They may indeed be correct. But when the world returns to the balancing act of multiple predatory powers, the continued existence of the relative easy times of the Pax Americana will be uncertain and difficult, if not impossible. What is for certain is that American soldiers and carriers will be sorely missed.

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