Truth, Human Nature, and the American Way
This past November 27, 2012, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) held its annual forum, titled "The Price of Greatness: The Next Four Years of U.S. Foreign Policy", at the Newseum's Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC. Comments during forum panels there by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) once again evoked questions concerning a proper understanding between America's ideals of liberty and intervention abroad in their name. Such longstanding issues are no less important today in light of a United States that has led several military intervention coalitions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and, Libya in the past decade. These exercises in regime change/nation-building sought to counter multiple, often interrelated, threats in majority-Muslim countries with the exportation of, if not mature free societies, then at least indigenous regimes at peace with their local populations and the world. Current events in Syria and Iran continue to hold forth the distinct prospect of the United States and its allies becoming involved in additional interventions of varying natures in Dar al-Islam in the years to come. Questions concerning the proper use of power to promote peace and prosperity in America and abroad already present at the United States founding era have not lost any relevance in the ensuing decades.
FPI's mission statement on its website advocates an "active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights," a "strong American military", and "strengthening America's global economic competitiveness." Less favorably, the left-wing Sourcewatch and Right Web (the latter produced by the Institute for Policy Studies or IPS) websites describe FPI along with its 2009 founder William Kristol with the dreaded "neoconservative" moniker. As Right Web with its mission of "Tracking militarists' efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy" editorializes, neoconservatives like Kristol support an "aggressive U.S. security posture" entailing American intervention in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. As the American Conservative criticizes from quarters on the political right with a well-known analogy, FPI sees the United States as the proverbial "world's policeman."
Not surprisingly in this environment, McCain at the FPI forum referred to American values as being not parochial, but "universal", such that they could inspire and legitimate American intervention around the world. His often like-minded colleague Lieberman continued this theme in a subsequent panel with an invocation of the Declaration of Independence. Recollection of the precepts set forth in the opening paragraphs of this document from 1776 brings to mind the immortal words of how America's Founding Fathers held certain "truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In order "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Such conclusions followed no less from the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."
The Declaration of Independence thus grounds the existence of the United States in the recognition of universal "truths" of human dignity ordained by the Deity, however specifically defined, and accessible in nature. Such a law of liberty is, in principle, no more confined to certain persons, geographical places, and historical periods than the physical law of gravity. Indeed, America's united existence as a diverse immigrant nation depends upon the universal validity of these maxims, for, as Forrest Church has advocated in The American Creed: A Biography of the Declaration of Independence, "[w]hat makes us all Americans -- whatever our differences -- is adherence to a creed" expressed in the Declaration. "Who are Americans?" political commentator George Will asks in analyzing America as a "creedal nation." "Those who hold those truths to be self-evident," Will answers.
Yet despite such ideological universalism latent in America's origins, a strain of skepticism towards any universal American promotion of the Declaration's founding principles has been present in American political discourse since the Founding Fathers. President George Washington's September 17, 1796, Farewell Address letter, for example, expressed a general aversion to American strategic involvement with foreign nations, declaring America's "true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world." President Thomas Jefferson's March 4, 1801, First Inaugural Address as well notably called for "commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none," using thereby a phrase often erroneously attributed to Washington.
While secretary of state, the subsequent president John Quincy Adams specifically cautioned the House of Representatives against American foreign entanglements in the name of freedom in an 1821 address honoring Independence Day. In words often seen as relevant to various subsequent American involvements in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam, Adams analyzed that America since 1776 had
abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama, the European World, will be contests between inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
The words of America's Founding Fathers thus present a conundrum of universally-proclaimed principles coexisting with a practical isolationist abstinence from their global promotion. If American foreign policy debates in the present and past are any indication, such conundrums have by no means disappeared.
Perhaps central to understanding the dichotomies in thinking of individuals like Adams and modern policy debates is the Biblical view of a human nature corrupted by Original Sin in the Fall of Man described by Genesis. Such a view still prominent today in modern America would have been second nature to the people of America's founding described by Adams in his Fourth of July address as overwhelmingly Christian in character. This basic Biblical tenet teaches that the human ancestors Adam and Eve forfeited their once purely innocent character by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Human nature has ever since been corrupted, subject to an understanding of all manner of base desires.
The concept of Original Sin appears most often in conjunction with discussion of individuals and their wrongs, yet an understanding of corrupt human nature is also by extension applicable to entire groups of people deformed, in a sense, by the peculiarities of their particular cultures. Black slavery and its attendant racism, for example, have appeared to many observers as America's national Original Sin, initiating a history of conflict showing how difficult the creation of a free society was even in the United States. "Four score and seven years" after the Declaration of Independence, President Abraham Lincoln in his November 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address spoke of a "great civil war... testing whether... any nation" founded upon the Declaration "can long endure" after disputes over slavery had incited secession and America's bloodiest conflict. A century later during the civil rights movement the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called upon America from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, to "live out the true meaning of its creed" in the Declaration. Such struggles would have been no surprise to any reader of the Old Testament with its recurring accounts of the ancient Jews falling away from divine law.
Yet foreign nations have faced even greater obstacles along the road to freedom. Diagnosing the motives behind the Soviet Union's behavior in the famous February 22, 1946, Long Telegram, for example, the American diplomat George F. Kennan wrote in Moscow that "[a]t bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity." Thus there "was no coincidence that Marxism, which had smoldered ineffectively for half a century in Western Europe, caught hold and blazed for first time in Russia." Marxist "dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose," gave Russian rulers "justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand."
Kennan's Long Telegram argued additionally that the corruption of an entire nation's culture did not depend upon the active will of the majority. The Communist "party line," Kennan judged, "does not represent natural outlook of Russian people" who "are, by and large, friendly to outside world, eager for experience of it, eager to measure against it talents they are conscious of possessing, eager above all to live in peace and enjoy fruits of their own labor." Yet a closed Soviet society made a controlling indoctrination of the Russian people easy, as Kennan confessed to an "unsolved mystery as to who, if anyone, in this great land actually receives accurate and unbiased information about outside world." Information deficiencies meant that a falsified party line was not even
necessarily disingenuous and insincere on part of all those who put it forward. Many of them are too ignorant of the outside world and mentally too dependent to question self-hypnotism, and who have no difficulty making themselves believe what they find it comforting and convenient to believe.
Kennan presented his thoughts to the public under a pseudonym "X" in a 1947 Foreign Affairs article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Therein he famously determined that "United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies" involving "counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points." Pertinent to the present analysis, Kennan's containment strategy looked not primarily to any intervention in the Soviet Union or anywhere else to advance the Declaration's cause of human liberty. Rather, stymying Russian-led Marxist expansion would provide a long-term framework in which the "over-all worth of the United States" with its free society would show the Soviet Union's Communism to be "sterile and quixotic." Kennan understood that, although the Declaration's principles are universal, popular perceptions around the world of these principles and their proper workings are limited along with America's power to promote these ideas.
Even as Russia 20 years after the Soviet Union's demise still struggles to form a free society, similar considerations present themselves now with respect to promoting peace and prosperity in Muslim-majority nations. Various conservative commentators have opposed these campaigns as being ultimately forlorn in light of incompatibilities of Islam-dominated cultures with the classical liberalism expressed in the Declaration. Indeed, to the extent Islam contains barriers to the development of a free society, Islam presents even greater challenges than the Communist regimes analyzed by Kennan, for unlike Communism, Islam in many societies is a majoritarian phenomenon.
Writing of the international support for the Arab Spring, for example, Andrew C. McCarthy entitled his book Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy. Reminiscent of Kennan, McCarthy has written at National Review Online that the growth of free societies in the Muslim world is an "evolution that can and should be promoted, but it cannot be rushed." McCarthy has similarly criticized the "dubious Islamic nation-building projects" undertaken by America in Afghanistan and Iraq. McCarthy's colleague Robert Spencer has also condemned at his website Jihadwatch these two "spectacular failures of the Wilsonian democracy projects" and has opposed "more Wilsonian adventures" in places like Libya and Syria. Surveying the Islamist domination of the insurgency against the Assad regime in Syria, Daniel Pipes has also advocated American abstention from the conflict there.
Such military reticence will often find a receptive audience in an America that has learned just how difficult it can be to heed President Woodrow Wilson's April 2, 1917, call that the "world must be made safe for democracy" in merely the two countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to costs in blood and treasure, these conflicts have demonstrated once again the relevance of Adams' words from 1821. In these conflicts America's own agenda has often become entangled with local "wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom." Life and death, kill-or-be-killed issues of armed conflict such as harsh interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, and war crimes such as at Abu Ghraib prison have reiterated the crude reality expressed by Civil War general William T. Sherman in so many words that "war is hell." These controversies exemplified for many Adams' warning of a change in America's "fundamental maxims...from liberty to force" and an America wearing an"imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre."
Americans need not question the principles of their founding document. Nor need Americans doubt the practical strategic effect the growth of free societies has upon peace, first indicated by Immanuel Kant. What will always remain in question, however, is how an America of limited power can best promote principles still lacking universal acceptance, particularly when such promotion involves the inherently costly and blunt instrument of military force. German chancellor Otto von Bismarck termed politics as the art of the possible, and his fellow Prussian, the military thinker Carl von Clausewitz, described warfare as a continuation of politics by other means. However uplifting the words of the Declaration of Independence are, human life after the Fall remains messy.