Power Without Limits: The Allure of Political Idealism and the Crumbling of American Constitutionalism

[Originally published in Humanitas (Volume XXVI, Nos. 1 and 2, 2013)]

For the framers of the U.S. Constitution no task seemed more important than to limit and tame power. The chief reason why they established a government of divided powers and checks and balances was their view of human nature, which was primarily Christian and classical. It seemed to them self-evident that human beings are morally cleft. They are potentially decent, even admirable, but also have darker inclinations that pose a great threat to themselves and others. Human beings cannot be trusted with unrestricted power. The constitutionalism of the framers assumed that the drive for power had to be contained first of all through the self-discipline of individuals, but corresponding external restraints, including constitutional checks, were necessary to protect the public.

Since the adoption of the Constitution American government and society have changed radically. The Constitution still enjoys a kind of ceremonial respect. It is cited as if it possessed an august authority. In actuality, political practice is today so different from the intent of the framers that, in substance, the original Constitution has been virtually suspended. Over the years sometimes tortuous and highly tendentious constitutional interpretation has combined with powerful political and intellectual trends to produce an enormous expansion and centralization of the federal government and a concomitant erosion of checks and balances. The claim that these developments have realized the hopes of Alexander Hamilton is blatantly anachronistic. The American federal National Security and Welfare State with its presidential system bears little resemblance to the scheme of the framers.

The reasons for the change are many and complex. They include the effects of wars, economic and scientific developments, and globalization. The change can also be traced to moral, cultural, and social developments that have had profound, transformative consequences. Briefly put, the way in which Americans today view themselves and the world is very different from what was the case at the time of the framing of the Constitution. That change is far-reaching and goes a long way towards explaining the mentioned political change. One major consequence is a muting of the old American fear of power and the creation of vast new opportunities for politicians who desire more power. Although these developments have distinctively American characteristics, they reflect trends throughout the Western world. Those trends have, in fact, been even more pronounced in Europe.

Although traditional religion and morality have long been in retreat, moralistic language seems more pervasive in American politics today than ever. Few public policy stands are advanced that are not said to be demanded by “justice” or “fairness.” To oppose them is to be “greedy,” “callous” or “intolerant”—to be morally inferior, even despicable. Moral indignation is, it seems, the favored posture of politicians and pressure groups.

But the moralism of today is very different from the notion of morality prevalent at the time of the writing of the Constitution. The purpose of this article is to identify a powerful strain within this new moralism and to elucidate its role in engendering the transformation of American society and politics. While sharply lessening the old American fear of power, the change has facilitated and even stimulated a desire for power. According to the new conception of morality, it is virtuous to want government, almost always the federal government, to expand its reach. In foreign policy, it is common for American leaders to claim, sometimes with great ideological fervor, that America is exceptional and has a moral mission in the world. American leadership is needed to remake insufficiently “free” and “democratic” countries. According to assertive nationalists, neoconservatives, and liberal interventionists in both parties, America should seek armed global hegemony—not, of course, to indulge a desire to dominate but to fulfill a morally noble destiny. The advocates of uncontested hegemony will deny that they desire, for its own sake, the enormous military power that would be necessary to achieving the stated goal; the need to wield enhanced American power is only incidental to the moral imperative of creating a better world. In domestic politics, many politicians similarly assume that their wish greatly to expand the scope and functions of government has solely moral motives. Here, too, the need to accumulate power at the political center is viewed as merely incidental to wanting a more just society. Yet one might wonder why the desire for moral public policy rarely, if ever, issues in calls for reducing the power of political leaders. So striking is this pattern that it raises the question whether the moralism in question and the wish to expand and centralize power might somehow be integrally connected. Whatever else this moralism might be, is it a subtle way of justifying a desire to rule others?

The purpose of this article is to analyze the “idealism” that has helped transform America and, in particular, to demonstrate that its moral-imaginative dynamic is quite different from its reputation. It would appear that indistinguishable from its ostensible caring for the welfare of others is a desire to direct their lives. Indeed, the deepest source of idealism’s appeal may be that it is a sense of moral superiority that implies a right to dominate.

To argue this thesis it will be necessary to revisit points that this author has made in other contexts and to recast, combine, and supplement them for the present purpose.

The Old Morality and Its Social and Political Entailments

The traditional Western view of man’s moral predicament carried with it a deep ambivalence about power. On the one hand, no political objectives could be achieved without the exercise of power. On the other hand, the prominent lower proclivities of human beings made power potentially dangerous, so that people in political authority had to be subjected to restraint. Both in personal and political life, it was important to foster moderation and a sense of limits. Even the political theory of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), which breaks with the Western tradition with regard to both moral philosophy and the idea of restraints on power, offers a kind of confirmation of an older sense that governments must recognize limits. It never occurs to this advocate of supposedly absolute political rule to extend the sphere of sovereignty beyond matters touching law and order. He is in this respect a kind of forerunner of classical liberalism. In his view of human beings Hobbes rejects much of the older heritage, but in stressing man’s wholly egocentrical nature he might be said to advocate a simplified and extreme Augustinianism.

Representatives of the dominant modern notion of political morality do not much worry about possible egotism and ruthlessness in people who seem to them to have the right ideals. They tend to place any dark inclinations outside of the supposedly idealistic and hence benevolent politician, place it among those, especially, who oppose the supposedly moral cause. One of the reasons why virtuous politicians are thought to need great power is to be able to overcome the opposition of recalcitrants.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were acutely aware that the responsible exercise of power had moral preconditions. They feared original sin in themselves as well as others. They hoped that in personal life moral character would restrain the desire for self-aggrandizement, just as in national political life the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution would contain and domesticate the all-too-human desire for power as an end in itself. Personal self-control and constitutionalism were but different aspects of the need to subdue the voracious ego. Freedom and rule of law required republican virtue. They had to be achieved by the members of society over time through protracted inner and outer moral struggle. Freedom and rule of law could not be bestowed as a gift on a people that had not undertaken any of this work. Constitutionalism could be safeguarded in America only through the continuation of the kind of culture that fostered it.1

The Framers assumed that for the Constitution to work its institutions had to be manned by individuals who embodied its spirit of restraint. That spirit stemmed from America’s unwritten constitution, that is, from the religious, moral, cultural, and social life that had inclined Americans to constitutionalism. To be capable of sustaining the constitutional order those working under its provisions had to be predisposed to virtues like moderation, respect for law, and readiness to compromise. They had to have what this author calls the constitutional personality. The main reason why the U.S. Constitution has become a mere shadow of its old self is that it cannot function as intended without the aforementioned personality traits.2

It is important to understand that the moral character that the framers saw as the ultimate protection against arbitrary power and as the source of the constitutional temperament also generated a society of a certain type. Most Americans will vaguely remember that at the heart of Christian morality is the admonition to “love neighbor as thyself.” What is commonly forgotten or is not very well understood are the far-reaching social implications of that moral vision. By “neighbor” is meant individuals within the person’s own sphere of life, people of flesh and blood with names and faces. We are to treat them as we would like to have them treat us. Note carefully that traditional Christianity does not call upon us to love “mankind” or “humanity,” which, by modern, idealistic standards, looks more generous and ambitious. What sounds so nice in modern ears—loving “humanity”—is very different from loving “neighbor” in that its object is not some particular person in the here and now. “Humanity” is highly amorphous and distant. Humanity is not here, in our way, where it might inconvenience us. By the standards of traditional morality, which are down to earth and rather crusty, loving mankind does not engage us where we live. It does not interfere with our ordinary lives and require acts of self-sacrifice. It takes place chiefly in the imagination. For that reason, it does not represent any moral challenge. All it requires is having supposedly noble sentiments, “feeling the pain” of a diffuse suffering collective somewhere far away. The proof to you and others that you are morally noble is that thinking about those who suffer puts a tear in your eye. Moral virtue is not, as for Christianity, charitable action toward particular people up close, but having warm feelings for nobody in particular. Those in trouble are not actually present, making uncomfortable demands. From the point of view of traditional Western morality, the sentimental notion of virtue has little to do with real morality, which is to shoulder responsibility for persons, for “neighbors.” That older morality presupposes ability to overcome our native egotism and laziness. It requires strength of character. To be up to the task, the individual must have already learned to moderate his self-indulgence and callousness and to make the needs of others his own. It is because the problems of actual persons are concrete and nearby that loving neighbor can be very demanding. It may take up much of our time and energy. To compound the difficulty, neighbor may not even be likeable. Yet love him we should, not by emoting nobly and walking away, but by taking concrete, perhaps greatly inconvenient action. Without strength of will we may shrink from acting. Loving “mankind” does not require character. It takes place in the imagination and is to that extent morality made comfortable and easy.

People who believe that loving neighbor will give meaning to life will be prone to give their best in settings that are near and intimate—families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces. There are many reasons why such groups and associations will be for most people the main sphere of life, but it is crucial to understand that it is here more than elsewhere that traditional morality has its center and primary outlet.

Note that in small, intimate associations the person must repeatedly take others into account. There he cannot indulge his native self-indulgence and slothfulness without inviting immediate censure. In families and small groups where relations of mutual dependence are dense and numerous, the person is taught to behave with the well-being of others in mind. You cannot always have your own way. Each member must learn to perform little acts of self-denial. The person is habituated to doing his part, assisting others, and compromising. Character is bred and repeatedly tested. Where life is personal and up-close no one can get away with portraying himself as morally better than he is. Others will be quick to see through mere posturing. Never mind some conceited self-image of being a deeply caring friend of humanity; it is your actions toward real people that reveal who you really are, and they decide your reputation. To the extent that moral character is fostered through life in groups, the will is honed for the responsibilities of the larger society.The more people learn to restrain their lower natures and take others into account, the greater the likelihood that ties of community will be fostered and strengthened.

Traditional Western morality does not assume that people up close will be the only beneficiaries of moral responsibility. It assumes merely that genuine morality will originate in and be nurtured in intimate settings. Thus formed, moral character will have an effect wherever a person directs his attention. Some people will concern themselves with a world far beyond local associations and issues, but they will have learned from life in their groups and communities that what makes for a better society is not some nebulous warm sentiment, but a readiness to act responsibly in and to understand the world as it is, full not least of human weakness.

To be able to understand moral “idealism” and its various entailments it is important to recognize first the social and political ramifications of the rather different traditional ethic just described. The latter generates certain priorities. Love of neighbor is not for exceptional, grandiose circumstances but for the concrete life of the here and now. It shapes and enhances dayto-day relationships. Because it emphasizes that doing right by persons up close is essential to human well-being, it encourages people to give their best within their own groups, neighborhoods, businesses, associations, and local communities. From this understanding of man’s higher calling is derived the old principle of subsidiarity, central not least to Roman Catholic social thought, which says that problems should be addressed, as far as possible, by those immediately concerned. Only if people cannot manage on their own should they seek assistance elsewhere, and then, again, as near to themselves as possible. This sense of moral responsibility will let them attain their full stature as human beings. It is not difficult to see that the traditional understanding of morality encouraged and built energetic, strong communities. What people felt that they should handle personally, privately, and locally minimized the need for government. This morality was a powerful decentralizing force.

It was in the 1830s that Alexis de Tocqueville commented at length on the vitality and proliferation of private and local associations in America. Americans had a strong inclination to collaborate and to address their needs within their own groups. De Tocqueville was particularly struck by the active role of members of churches. He noted the great reluctance of Americans to part with any authority over their own lives. Except perhaps for the prominence of these observations in Democacy in America, they should not be very surprising. Although there was no single reason for these social patterns, it should be easy to see the connection between a highly decentralized, group-oriented society and America’s moral roots.

The same moral heritage that fostered cooperation, selfreliance, mutual assistance, self-restraint, modesty, respect for law, and a willingness to compromise helped shape the constitutional personality. These traits formed the mentioned unwritten constitution, which gave life and direction to the written one. Just as the traditional views and habits of Americans made them impose internal checks on themselves, so did they make them willing to accept and respect external legal constraints. Had these personality traits not been strong and widespread, nothing like the U.S. Constitution could have been conceived or made to work.

That the American form of government today bears little resemblance to the constitutional design of 1787 reflects a change in America’s unwritten constitution, in the basic self understanding and priorities of Americans. There can be no question here of attempting a comprehensive summary of what brought about the present state of affairs. The emphasis will have to be on how the change in the understanding of morality and society helped produce a new attitude towards power and government. It is necessary to take account of an aspect of so-called “modernity” that has had profound and far-reaching effects but that is still poorly understood.

Idealism: Morality Reconceived

Not all strains of modernity are incompatible with the older moral tradition, but special attention needs to be paid to the explicitly stated desire for liberation from earlier beliefs and ways of life that is most commonly called modernity. Two seemingly disparate but intimately connected currents have given that part of modernity its distinctive flavor and dynamic: one is a belief in rational enlightenment; the other is entertaining “idealistic” dreams of human existence transformed. Both currents assume the coming of a new, superior world, an era of liberty, harmony, and general well-being.

Modern idealism follows no single path, but one may discern a central, enduring pattern. The philosopher who gives the clearest and most thorough-going expression to the dream of a new world and who comes closest to being paradigmatic for this idealism is probably Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712- 1778). More than anybody else he inspired the kind of imagination that has, in more or less extreme form, exerted enormous influence in the Western world, first of all in literature, art, philosophy, and religion, but soon also in politics. “Idealism” as a term for the moral-political force that Rousseau helped create should not be confused with the nineteenth century school of German philosophy that is often given the same name.German philosophy that is often given the same name.

Rousseau flatly rejects the ancient Western belief that human beings are morally torn between higher and lower potentialities and that they are their own worst enemies. Human beings have nothing to fear from themselves. They are naturally good, but traditional societies pervert and imprison their true nature. The way to a better life is to liberate man’s natural goodness from inner and outer restraint. Rousseau dreams himself away from what he considers a dark and intolerable present. He starts the modern theme of estrangement from existing society—alienation, indeed, from all of life as it currently exists. He imagines a long lost idyllic past and a corresponding glorious future. Employing a new form of the imagination, he becomes the great pioneer in the West for envisioning a society wholly different from anything known in history.

The term “imagination” has been carefully defined by this author in other places. Here the context should provide sufficient definition.3

Human beings are dreamers. They often dream themselves far away. Capable of imagining something quite different from the present, they are free in a way that animals are not. But this power presents humanity with a big problem. They can use it to imagine and long for what simply cannot be, dream the impossible dream. The dream may become so captivating that they will try to enact it, which may bring disaster upon themselves and others.

A central feature of what used to be known as civilization is not letting human beings escape too far into dreamworld. They need to tether their visions of a better life to what humanity has found to lie in the realm of the possible. Civilization protects people against frivolous dreaming not least through its moral teachings and great works of art and literature, which seek to anchor the imagination in the world in which human beings have to act. More often than not experience in the world of action shows dreams to be mere wishful thinking. Civilization teaches that we cannot have the world just as we would like it. Children dream endlessly of what cannot be, but to mature as a human being means giving up childish things. Adults must face the facts of life, most importantly the limits imposed by man’s moral predicament.

Yet in the last 250 years Western men and women became more and more reluctant to accept a world that limits their hopes. They did not want to remain imperfect creatures torn in the depths of their being between high and low, condemned to struggle against dark inclinations in themselves and others. Idealistic dreaming let them set aside the uncomfortable traditional claims about human nature. Leading idealistic artists, philosophers, and politicians nurtured their hope for a marvelous new world, free of the old restrictions.

Just where the imagination crosses over the line from contemplating real possibilities for improvement to dreaming the impossible dream we cannot say for certain ahead of time, but the mature person knows to adjust his aspirations to what historical experience has shown to be unavoidable facts of life. The dreamer of the impossible dream, by contrast, is not willing to let evidence from the world of human practice—the historical world—put a damper on his dreaming. For mature persons, daydreams are never more than momentary departures from life as it is, but for idealists dreams of a radically different, wonderful world are a permanent accompaniment of daily life, a vantage point from which the present can be seen to be all the more disappointing.

Rousseau represents the idealistic imagination in a particularly thoroughgoing form, but in one version or another this kind of dreaminess has continued to reverberate. It may indeed be the dominant moral sensibility of the contemporary Western world.Rousseau declared that everything was the opposite of how it had seemed. Traditional civilization is not a support for making the best of life. It enslaves the goodness that belonged to man in a pre-civil state of nature. Evil is not in human beings but is due to wicked social norms and institutions. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Even the works of culture helped enslave human beings. “The sciences, letters and the arts . . . spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which they are burdened.”4

Returning to the primitive state of natural goodness is neither possible nor desirable, Rousseau averred, but the unimpeded spontaneity of the natural man can be restored in a radically reconstituted society. Doing away with inequality and dependence on others will create virtuous unity. Though Rousseau did not propose returning into the woods, the natural, uninhibited man was for him the standard for revolutionizing society. Rousseau gave a detailed account of the goodness of man in his original state. It is when most unaffected by civilization that men are at their best. To create a new society man must repair to the natural man, the child within, as it were, and make a fresh start.

Rousseau’s dreams were greatly pleasing to many in that they seemed to free human beings from the hard, unending work of disciplining dark forces in themselves. He directed the blame for evil away from the individual onto the institutions of existing society. Human beings are the victims of perverse circumstance. But they can make a wonderful new existence for themselves by revolutionizing the social and political exterior.

From the perspective of the classical and Christian view of man this is not a story for adults. It flies in the face of human experience. It is an elaborate fantasy. But it enthused Western readers. They wanted to believe this dream. How wonderful to be relieved of the never-ending struggle to improve self, to hear that man is already what he should be—that nature made him such! The vision promised a short-cut to fulfillment.

It should be carefully noted that the Rousseauistic dream of a transformed human existence involved from the very beginning an element of conscious or semi-conscious self-deception. It offered a striking example of an imagination of escape. Significantly, Rousseau was not wholly unaware of disregarding actual human experience. He admitted to wondering at times if there was not something frivolous and unreal about his own flights of fancy. It was, he said, as if his “heart,” his dreamy imagination, did not belong to the same person as his “head,” his moments of critical reflection. Yet he could not, would not, resist his dream. In the Second Discourse he introduced his elaborate survey of the state of nature and the origins of the corrupt civilized society by saying that his account should not be regarded as an historical narrative. He wrote: “Let us . . . begin by putting aside all the facts, for they have no bearing on the question.” His “investigations” should not “be taken for historical truths, but only for hypothetical and conditional reasonings.”5 In other words, he asked his readers to follow him into an imaginary history and to find there the true nature of man and the inspiration for remaking society. Countless political activists have engaged in this kind of dreaming and pushed a political agenda of liberation.

It is important to realize that what Rousseau understands as natural and fulfilling is conceived as incompatible with trying to make the best of the historically known world. He does not employ his imagination to help us live to advantage in a world in which man is divided against himself and has to contend with various other impediments. He simply rejects what he considers an unacceptable human existence. He imagines life on wholly different terms. It is not possible here to explore why something that looks to the traditional Christian like a children’s tale should have had such deep and enduring appeal. The time must have been ripe in the West for something like romantic escape and revolt. Rousseau offered happiness and enchantment without difficult moral striving. Fulfillment would be a free gift of nature.

It is relevant to the issue of morality and power that Rousseau found in human beings a natural inclination to sympathize with those who suffer. He pioneered a new notion of caring. Charity does not, as in Christianity, develop through character formation but is a spontaneous impulse. For Rousseau, the measure of being a good person is not to exhibit decency in practical conduct, but to have warm feelings, a supposedly benevolent “heart.” The new caring takes place not in the world of action, but in the imagination of the caring person. Replacing the traditional understanding of love with teary-eyed sentiment became a powerful trend in Western morality. The new morality was appealing not only in that it did not require an effort of will, but in that it was inherently self-applauding, giving the sympathizing person a nice feeling of nobility.

Dreaming the impossible dream had dramatic social and political consequences. It inspired the French Jacobins and the French Revolution. Later it inspired socialism and communism. Even when modern idealism did not accept the Rousseauistic premise of man’s natural goodness, it assumed a sharp contrast between a diseased present and a future of radiant health. Even National Socialism had its dream of a glorious time to come, the thousand-year Reich. In recent decades many have fantasized about global peace and democracy.

Rousseau himself did not much care for Enlightenment rationalism, but idealistic imagination formed in the West an anti-traditional alliance with rationalism. What the two currents had in common was that they rejected the old stress on moral character as the key to a satisfying life. All over the Western world this informal alliance exhibited a “head” that was narrowly technocratic and instrumentalist and a “heart” that was full of dreamy sensibility. The quintessentially modern Westerner combines with sophisticated technical ideas and equipment a sentimental imagination. Politicians of this type feel the pain of suffering collectives and dare to share that they care. They also have elaborate plans for reorganizing society. Their goals are idealistic; their method for enacting them is social engineering. Today the typical idealist espouses a special brand of ecologism and has very ambitious plans for cleaning up the planet. This idealism owes much to the Rousseauistic assumption that civilization has ruined a pure and wholesome nature.

Looking back on what has been said here about modern idealism, it might appear incongruous that, like Rousseau, persons can at the same time be intellectually brilliant and have imaginations that people of an earlier worldview would consider naïve and utopian. Yet nothing seems more common in the modern Western world. Many employ high intelligence to argue that their cherished dreams for remaking the world are wholly plausible. As already mentioned, there is something willful about Rousseauistic dreaming. It would appear that among those who seem most to need to be persuaded are the idealists themselves.

Idealism and the Desire for Power

There is an aspect of idealism that may explain much of its appeal but that is poorly understood: its connection to the subject of power. Whatever else dreaming of this kind accomplishes for the dreamer, it seems to satisfy a desire to feel superior to others. The person who envisages a life far above the humdrum, routinized present is by this very act, in his own eyes, lifted far above those who are caught within that present and who, by definition, lack his fine, elevated sentiments. See how noble and superior I am, the idealist announces to self and others, words being unnecessary. The putatively benevolent dream is, among other things, a form of self-flattery. The one who thinks of self as committed to a better world for others also feels deserving of their praise. He feels entitled, moreover, to directing their lives. The greater the person’s imagined caring for mankind, the greater the power to which the person feels entitled to do good for mankind.

This aspect of the idealistic dream is, it can be argued, no marginal component or hidden implication of the dream. The sense of moral superiority and the corresponding sense of entitlement are parts of what makes the dream what it is and recommends it to the dreamer. It is perhaps the most important source of its allure. To get pleasure from the idealistic dream the person does not have to receive the actual adulation of others or exercise power over them in practice. Short of engaging in politics, the person can experience them in the imagination. He can enjoy them viscerally by identifying with the idealistic political movement or with its virtuous leader whose rhetoric and actions confirm the idealist’s moral authority and nobility.

To many admirers of modernity, the twentieth century was the most enlightened in human history. It was an era committed to noble ideals—“equality” and “democracy” prominent among them. Yet in that century far more people died at the hands of other human beings than in any previous century. Some of the biggest idealists, championing a vision of universal brotherhood—Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao—were also among the greatest killers and murderers. They caused enormous suffering. Yet the Western world seems to have learnt very little about idealism from this horrifying experience. Idealists still expect, and often receive, admiration for their allegedly noble visions. The idealism cannot be blamed for the homicidal mania, idealists tell others. There was nothing wrong with the ideals; they are as beautiful as ever. The ruthlessness was the result of practical means somehow getting away from noble ends.

But at this stage of the argument being presented it should be possible to see that there is a connection between the impossible dream and ruthlessness. The problem is not with poorly chosen means but with the impossible dream itself. The dream ignores basic facts of life, specifically the need for moral character. The typical idealistic goals fly in the face of reality. They more or less deliberately hide aspects of life that are crucial to any realistic assessment of whether change of a particular kind is desirable or even possible. In particular, the ideals conceal the darker side of human nature, letting it be acknowledged at most among opponents of the dream. To the idealist, issues of character seem trivial or beside the point in comparison with the need to end great social evils and realize great plans. As the champion of a noble cause, the idealistic leader does not need to be shackled. More power to him! The idealistic leader himself sees little need to worry about personal weaknesses of his own, such as an inclination to be ruthless in dealing with opposition. To oppose him is, after all, perverse.

How to explain that in many quarters the view that idealists have of themselves is still considered plausible? People who are not as heavily under the sway of idealism nevertheless sense that to attack its leading representatives is to attack a part of themselves. Idealistic assumptions come up against overwhelming philosophical and historical evidence, but so dependent is the self-worth of millions of people on the purported nobility of the dream that they cannot let it be challenged root and branch. Yet neglecting unwelcome but stubborn and salient facts of human life, as idealists do, is not admirable. Contrary to their reputation, the idealistic goals are not noble and beautiful. They are reprehensible and dangerous. The horrors of the twentieth century were not paradoxical or difficult to explain. In important respects, they emanated directly from a self-deluding, self-applauding moralism and a concomitant dearth of moral character. The brutality of the idealists simply brought the neglect of moral self-control into the open, just as it expressed a hatred of the existing world and a disdain for actual human beings that was contained in the ideal from the beginning. Edmund Burke fully expected violence to flow from the Rousseauistic dreams of the Jacobins

Irving Babbitt calls Rousseau’s imagination “idyllic,” and so it is, in part. The term “idyllic” takes note of the fact that from Rousseau’s imaginary “nature” all disturbing elements have been removed: life in the state of nature is simple, sunny, and pleasant, a kind of vacation from life as known to history. But the term “idyllic” does not convey the potential for inhumanity that is a basic, if often unrecognized, part of this kind of imagination. Imagination of a reality-defying idealistic kind foreshadows and rather predictably calls forth certain dark practical consequences. These are consonant with the back side of the dream, its disgust with what exists. That disgust is part of what defines the dream. The apparent benevolence of the dream may to some extent hide its potential for ruthlessness, hide it even from the dreamer, but it surfaces as soon as the dream is brought into contact with the real world, the world of action, where it is bound to encounter opposition. The true believer’s predictable response when others fail to yield unquestioningly is coercion. You are either for him or against him. The dreamer of the impossible dream sees no reason to tolerate opposition. In its assumption of moral superiority the dream is uncompromising. It demands monopoly. Those who do not acknowledge the moral authority of the idealist have to suffer his wrath. His reaction to opposition is not unlike that of the egotistical child: he throws a temper tantrum. Sooner or later idealism brings conflict, whether domestic or international. As the idealist tries to make uncooperative reality conform to the dream, the violence expands and intensifies. Through unbending zeal the dreamer tries to persuade even himself of the sacred nature of his vision. To show mercy for or to compromise with opponents would cast doubt on the moral nobility and necessity of the dream and would, in effect, denigrate self. To give up the dream is unthinkable, for it is the idealist’s source of personal worth and pride. It alone legitimizes his power.

To capture idealism’s potential for merciless brutality a term like “diabolical” is needed. The idyllic aspect of the ideals of the French Revolution was “freedom, equality and brotherhood.” Their diabolical aspect, made evident by their practical entailments, was the guillotine.6

It should be possible to see that in its pure form the impossible dream expresses and serves, but also veils, unbridled moral conceit. It extends to the dreamer a right to unlimited power. It serves as a great stimulant and justification for self aggrandizement. It is incompatible with traditional modesty, self-restraint, and limits on power. The gist of what has been argued so far about idealism is, then, not merely that “ideas have consequences,” but that the dream is inherently, from the beginning, consonant with its practical expression.

To sum up on that point, imagining and advocating unattainable goals is from the point of view of traditional morality not admirable, but perverse and dangerous. It distracts human beings from attainable goals and from the need to deal realistically with the chief obstacles to moral well-being, which are in human beings themselves. Idealists who promise a different world are not sweet and well-intentioned. Their dreams reveal bad motives. Contrary to their reputation, their souls are not beautiful, but ugly and ignoble. The imagination through which they view the world is wicked and shoddy. Idealists have pulled entire societies into disaster, and they can do so again.

Many people regard the great suffering of the otherwise progressive and enlightened twentieth century as a terrible aberration, perhaps the birth-pangs associated with something glorious coming into being. Surely, mass killings and murder are now a thing of the past. But many people remain greatly susceptible to the lure of political idealism, if not always of the most extreme sort. For example, in the last several decades a powerful political and intellectual movement invested the United States of America with a worldwide mission to spearhead what George W. Bush called a “global democratic revolution.” The French Jacobins of the eighteenth century appointed France as the liberator of mankind. The new Jacobins appointed America.

It was partly to wean Americans off the traditional fear of unlimited power and the view of life that it implies that the new Jacobins sought to transfer the allegiance of Americans to a reinvented, more uninhibited America. They propounded the myth of America the Virtuous—the myth of a morally noble America, according to which America should have free rein in transforming the world. The myth provided the moral justification for a great unleashing of power.

Political idealism is no less ravenous for power when applied to domestic politics. There, too, it assumes a monopoly of moral virtue. It feels entitled to mobilizing and directing great power to reshape society. In America it does not care for a small federal government with checks and balances and does not like to share power with states, counties, and localities, to say nothing of citizens in their private capacities. Whether it considers itself “right” or “left,” the imagination of political idealism thrills to the dream of maximum energy in the executive, of a virtuous president who overpowers opposition.

It might be objected that power seeking does not need some kind of idealism to give it energy. Most people are perfectly cynical in their pursuit of power. However true that may be, the will to power can hardly present itself as a desire to rule others for its own sake, especially not at a time when moral sounding motives are expected and there is a need to appeal to democratic majorities. Today that desire routinely wraps itself in idealistic rhetoric. For those in our era who desire expansion and concentration of power idealism is the great enabler. It discovers ever-new reasons for government to act benevolently. The greater the caring for others, the greater the need to place power in the hands of those who care.

If the argument of this article has any validity, it is no coincidence that idealistic benevolence always justifies giving more power to the benevolent—never less. So well does the will to dominate dress itself up in moralistic attire that it may at times deceive even the power-seekers themselves.

Idealism vs. Constitutionalism

The old American idea of limited, decentralized government was conceived by people who believed that placing restrictions on self and on government and encouraging strong communities was essential to human well-being. Today, an increasingly common and influential human type espouses grandiose political objectives and correspondingly grandiose moral justifications for a desired expansion of power. The title of a book, An End to Evil, written several years ago by two enthusiastic advocates of American global supremacy during the glory days of the New Jacobinism, summed up the moral purpose of the desired reign.7 America should get rid of dictators and other evil people. An end to evil—could any goal appeal more to the will to power? The task is surely the very essence of moral nobility, and because it is at once enormous and endless it requires power to match.

A wish to “end” evil would have been rejected out of hand by the old Americans. It betrays an unwillingness to face the human condition. Evil can be to some extent contained—that the Framers of the Constitution did believe—but evil is an inescapable part of human life, hence the great need for character and both internal and external limits on power.

The old Western notion of man’s moral and intellectual shortcomings and the accompanying recognition of a need for self-control and humility can be traced back through Christianity to the ancient Greeks. This view of human nature and the political attitudes that it fosters tend to forestall, censure, and defuse an inordinate desire for power. For that reason, it is not pleasing to the ego that wants to dominate other human beings. Idealism has just the opposite effect. It is a potent stimulant for the desire for self-aggrandizement. Today idealism is letting a grasping, “imperialistic” ego throw off the old American constitutional personality and related constitutional restraints. It offers powerful support for the transformation of traditional limited, decentralized American government into a national Superstate.

It might be objected that the idealism described in this article is only an “ideal type” in the Weberian sense and that in real life we seldom encounter it in such pure form. In most people it is diluted or balanced by other factors. Also, this idealism is certainly not the only force to have contributed to the expansion and concentration of power. That many seek political power for the wrong reasons also does not mean that government cannot be a beneficial force. Each of these comments is well-grounded, and they are not contradicted by anything that has been argued in this article. It should perhaps be stated explicitly that, needless to say, there are reasons for wanting to expand the role of government that may have nothing to do with idealistic dreaming. The point of what has been argued here is not that political idealism, by itself, has caused the transformation of America, although it has exerted great influence. The main purpose has been to draw attention to a major, but poorly understood, factor in the transformation of America (as well as the rest of Western civilization) and to demonstrate the nature of its influence—to show how idealism changes morality and society and the view of power. In order to lay bare the moral-imaginative core of idealism, this article has examined this phenomenon in full flower, as it were, rather than in the practical politics of a particular society where it inevitably blends with or is balanced by other currents.

The effect of idealism in America as elsewhere has been to trivialize and weaken love of neighbor and thus to undermine the support for traditional decentralized political and social structures. At the same time it has helped inspire a vast accumulation and centralization of state power. In proportion as the moral sensibilities of Americans have become idealistic, Americans have come to expect more and more from government and less and less from themselves, their intimate groups, and communities. Not even the idea of the state as parent, which is far advanced in Europe, is without traction in America. To an extent that the Americans described by de Tocqueville would have found hard to fathom, Americans today are willing to rely on a distant central government for their well-being. Idealism has played a key role in undermining the old American distrust of a concentration of power. Wrapping itself in vaguely Christian-sounding rhetoric, idealism has been the Trojan horse for the forces wanting to dismantle traditional American constitutionalism. Most Christian churches, too, have been deeply affected by idealism. To that extent they have gradually abandoned the traditional concern about sin and the need for repentance and adopted a feel-good sentimentalism. As Americans lowered their moral guard, they became increasingly willing to abdicate old responsibilities and local and private autonomy. In practice, if not always in theory, they moved away from the principle of subsidiarity. This has been the case also with many Roman Catholics, whose notion of “social justice” has under the influence of idealism become indistinguishable from that of the centralized and secularized welfare state. Substituting idealism for traditional morality, people were able to persuade themselves that in abdicating personal responsibility they were actually behaving nobly. In fact, the greater their willingness to hand over power to virtuous-sounding leaders and presumed experts, the greater the evidence of having a superior moral sensibility. As government benevolence has replaced traditional morality, people have been freed from sometimes burdensome familial and communal ties and responsibilities and have been spared much inconvenience. Relieved of the need to show character and exercise up-close responsibilities, they can give more attention to their own personal interests and pleasures. Yet by the standard of an earlier understanding of man’s humanity, their personhood has been greatly diminished.

Though idealism in one form or another has greatly affected all parts of American society, traditional morality is not extinct. It keeps buttressing some old social and political habits and structures. Americans are not of one mind. There is not yet any consensus in favor of the comprehensive, benevolent state. Opposition to it is stronger in America than in Europe. Still, the central power that idealism has done so much to boost is so far-reaching that it would have horrified an earlier type of American. So deeply attracted have Americans become to the idea that a distant central government can be their benign guardian that many of them barely notice or care that the sphere of private, local, and autonomous action is contracting precipitously. In recent decades the centralization and expansion of government has been greatly aided by benevolent sounding arguments for protecting the American people against threats to its security, specifically terrorism. Already predisposed by idealism to regard federal power as a benign force, Americans have, more or less, invited the creation of an elaborate, massive national security apparatus that employs nothing less than totalitarian methods of surveillance.

Rousseau gave the West the image of the wonderfully natural child, uninfected by civilization. To be natural, men should be more like children. He did not want to consider the evidence that children are at least as prone to egotism and cruelty as adults. In partly unrecognized cooperation with rationalists, Rousseauistic idealists have had much success in over turning the ancient civilization of the West, but they have not rid society of egotism, greed, or the will to power. They have only managed greatly to weaken the old moral, intellectual, cultural, and political restraints placed upon them. They have produced, in abundance, immature, ill-behaved, ignorant, erratic egotists. Rationalist modernity has simultaneously placed sophisticated technology, including military and surveillance equipment, at their disposal.

Many defenders of the old American Constitution seem to think that all that would be needed in order to save the Constitution would be to persuade Americans of the correct interpretation of the framers’ intent. These “constitutionalists” live in a world of abstractions, a dreamworld of their own. The argument here advanced should have demonstrated that there is only one way to revive American constitutionalism, and that is for Americans, from leaders to people in general, to revive or freshly create something like the older type of morality and to start living very differently. Should that not be a likely development, the future of American constitutionalism is bleak.

Claes G. Ryn is Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship and Professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America.

You Can’t Blame Trump for the Welfare-Warfare State

By WILLIAM S. SMITH • April 4, 2018

According to a current tenet of conservative groupthink, the movement suffered a terrible blow with the ascension of Donald Trump, who it is alleged hijacked conservatism and its political vessel, the Republican Party. But while political conservatism is in crisis, Trump is not the cause. By embracing an ideology of military interventionism alien to American constitutionalism—while tolerating an ever expanding welfare state—conservatism lost its way.

When the Cold War ended, the Republican Party had an historic opportunity to lead the United States toward a more modest role in the world and to return to smaller government, federalism, foreign-policy restraint, and constitutionalism. Even for Ronald Reagan, setting such a direction would have been impossible given our Cold War military commitments, but in 1990, the window of opportunity suddenly opened. Unfortunately, the Republican Party and an influential portion of the conservative movement fumbled this moment and embraced a Jacobinistic ideology, vowing a crusade to create a New World Order and to democratize nations near and far, even those with no historical foundation for democracy.

The post-Cold War Democrats were divided on questions of war and peace, but they also recognized that wars tend not only to expand the national security state but also domestic programs. Thus, despite the presence in the party of dovish leaders, the Democratic establishment quietly acceded to America’s military interventions. They understood that a nation that swells its chest in the foreign arena inevitably swells it also in domestic affairs. As Woodrow Wilson and LBJ knew well, the rush of power felt when America engages in a foreign crusade is effortlessly converted to a domestic crusade. Wars tend to undermine federalism.

Many conservatives do not grasp that World War I accelerated Wilsonian progressivism, that World War II brought us the first general income tax, that Vietnam coincided with the Great Society, and that the Iraq War was concurrent with the largest expansion of Medicare. The three presidencies in the last century that displayed skepticism about military interventionism—Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Reagan—also were the leaders most successful at controlling overall spending.

Since 1990, Democrats have cleverly leveraged the GOP’s seemingly ever-present desire to engage in costly wars to ratchet up domestic spending. In 1991, when “emergency supplemental appropriations” were required to fund Operation Desert Storm, the Democrats loaded up the bill with increases in food stamps, unemployment insurance, housing assistance, and a $100 million payment to the D.C. government. President George H.W. Bush, whose priority was the war, promptly signed the bill, setting the GOP pattern for the post-Cold War era.

The 2003 Iraq War provided enormous spending opportunities for the Democrats. When The Heritage Foundation rightly complained in 2008 that “Congress Again Lards Iraq War Spending Bill,” they did not seem to recognize that a war funding-domestic spending alliance had emerged. As the Cato Institute pointed out, George W. Bush “presided over an 83-percent increase in overall federal spending, which includes defense, domestic, entitlements, and interest.” George W. Bush was not a conservative president. He was a war president who supported huge domestic spending in order to secure a coalition that would fund his main priority: wars. Bush vetoed a mere 12 bills, compared with 181 for Eisenhower, who regularly used the pocket veto to limit congressional spending.

For FY 2018, Congress funded the government through a series of continuing resolutions that will push spending to $4 trillion. The last installment of that spending was the $1.3 trillion bill recently signed by President Trump. Republican leaders agreed to dramatic funding increases for the Democrats’ domestic priorities (including Planned Parenthood) because the bill fulfilled the GOP’s dearest desire: a massive increase in defense spending.

When he signed the bill, President Trump made clear that defense-spending increases were a priority above all else: “We’re very disappointed that in order to fund the military, we had to give up things where we consider in many cases them to be bad or them to be a waste of money.” House Speaker Ryan was quoted in The Hill saying that this gluttonous spending was necessary because the nation’s leaders had asked the military “to do so much more with so much less for so long.” One can describe this approach in a variety of ways, but “conservative” is not a fitting adjective.

When analysts point out, for example, that our national security apparatus costs more than $1 trillion per year if you include the intelligence community, veterans programs, and other spending not found in the Pentagon budget, they are underestimating the costs of the national security state because they ignore massive domestic spending accepted by Republicans in return for greater military funding. National-security spending has become the foremost political principle of the Republican Party and conservatives seem not to realize that promiscuous military interventionism and elaborate alliance commitments stand in historical opposition to fiscal rectitude.

Yet far more is at stake than fiscal excess: Constitutionalism itself frays badly in a warlike regime. Just ask the 2,000 American dissenters prosecuted by Woodrow Wilson under the Espionage Act or the 100,000 Japanese-Americans thrown into internment camps by FDR or even Michael Flynn whose Kafkaesque prosecution emerged from a political conspiracy justified by anti-Russian war fever. Not only have congressional leaders ignored their obligation to provide constitutional sanction for recent wars, they have also built a surveillance state so powerful that it was likely used in an attempted coup d’état against a legally elected President. In fact, Congress reauthorized the FISA surveillance program at the very time when they were aware of its unconstitutional misuse.

America is now in uncharted territory. The Constitution is virtually inoperative as a check upon government surveillance of its own citizens or waging wars. Conservatism has weakened because it failed to recognize what history teaches, that the political culture in nations with imperial ambitions is never constitutionally conservative.  A recent book has labeled this phenomenon “the boomerang effect.”

The connection between military interventionism, constitutional flaccidity, and profligate domestic spending is not some odd coincidence. These trends converge because they are each inspired by a certain temperament of character in leaders, a lack of restraint, and a will to power for its own sake. The American framers assumed that a certain type of constitutional personality would animate American statesmanship. But any government that regularly goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy will tend to be led by people whose temperament ignores the constraints of constitutionalism and who in turn will become a threat to fiscal prudence and to its own citizens. Recent wars are merely a symptom of a decline in the general culture and an eroded constitutionalism. Donald Trump is largely a non-factor in this decades-long conservative crack up.

When will we ever have a government that protects civil liberties and shows some fiscal discipline? The answer is that conservatism may have revived if the nation begins reducing its alliance commitments, launches fewer wars, speaks with less bellicosity, and generally acts with more restraint. Restraint abroad would probably coincide with restraint at home. The John Bolton wing of the Republican Party, by contrast, is the very last political force that might lead the nation in a conservative direction.

William S. Smith is managing director and research fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. Article published concurrently at The American Conservative.

Where is Real Statesmanship When We Need it Most?

By CLAES G. RYN • March 13, 2018

The view that America is the indispensable leader in efforts to make a better world has long been so dominant in American foreign policy thinking as to seem axiomatic. Much of the current hostility to the Donald Trump presidency originated within the foreign policy networks that connect government, think tanks, media, and academia. Trump’s assertions during the presidential campaign that America should play a more limited, non-interventionist role and put “America First” created profound discomfort. Though his real intentions as president are still unclear, his penchant for repeatedly violating conventions of speech and action has inflamed the passions of the national elites, particularly the foreign policy establishment.

So intense and confrontational is the hostility to Trump that it amounts to a constitutional crisis. It generates the potential for further political turbulence that might have devastating consequences. The danger is particularly acute in the area of foreign affairs, where decisions of far-reaching importance relating to Russia, North Korea, China, and other countries could fall prey to passion, short-sightedness, and recklessness. This is an alarming prospect, for sound leadership in international relations demands the very opposite—calm reflection, long views, and caution.

To recover their moral and intellectual bearings, Americans need to pull back from the demagoguery and turmoil of the moment. They would do well to remind themselves of an older model of debate and decision-making. That model, which should be for them a default setting, is today virtually ignored—the U.S. Constitution. Here the primary source of wisdom is not constitutional prescriptions like the congressional prerogative to declare war or the Senate’s treaty power, as important as they are. These institutional and procedural specifics are but the tip of an iceberg. What needs to be better understood and brought to bear on current problems is that the Constitution is the political expression of a general view of human nature and society. It embodies an entire American ethos, of which a certain view of how to make political decisions is but a part. The Framers’ way of approaching political problems and life generally was not only realistic and far-sighted but morally astute.

Much more attention ought to be paid to the fact that prominent general assumptions and features of the Constitution, though not explicitly connected to international relations, carry important and wide-ranging implications for foreign as well as domestic affairs. Specifically, they assume a notion of statesmanship.

It used to be generally recognized that, especially in foreign affairs, inferior leadership can have disastrous consequences. There the need for circumspection and restraint is acute. Run-of-the-mill politicians may be prone to narrow-mindedness, demagoguery, and carelessness, but statesmen have the vision and the character to rise above the quarrels and opinions of the moment. They have a historical frame of reference and critical distance to their own time. They recognize dangers and opportunities not apparent to lesser men, and they have a capacity for audacious leadership. When necessary to advance the common good, they are willing to go against prevalent opinion and even to risk their political careers. Statesmen too will have human flaws, but they have as their models some of the most admirable members of the human race. A desire to move people with this kind of potential for leadership into influential positions was integral to the constitutional design of the American Framers.

Looking for modern Americans who exemplify statesmanlike qualities, one might turn to the end of the Second World War and the Cold War. Action taken by Senator Robert A. Taft after the defeat of Nazi Germany may illustrate the willingness to risk media censure or other unpopularity. It was John F. Kennedy who, in his book Profiles in Courage, pointed admiringly to Taft, who despite clamoring for vengeance opposed the plan to accuse the German leaders of war crimes before specially constituted courts and according to specially designed laws. The idea of applying ex post facto laws was, Taft insisted, repugnant to the American legal tradition with its deep roots in British and Western jurisprudence. Not even the vileness of the Nazi leadership could excuse legalistic posturing. At a time of growing anxiety about the Soviet Union and world communism George Kennan exemplified another side of statesmanship by providing both a sense of direction and a calming, steadying influence, which were made possible by a rare combination of intellectual power, historical acumen, experience, and realism. Later in the Cold War when fear of the Soviet Union and communism still ran deep in America, one example of the boldness that statesmanship sometimes requires stands out. Only an American leader of unusual foresight, daring, and willpower could have conceived and acted on the possibility of an opening to China, which carried great political risks.

At the same time that the Framers sought to promote a leadership elite, nothing seemed to them more important than to limit, divide, and decentralize power. Even the best of men are prone to overreach. The Framers’ deep distrust of human nature derived from biblical and classical sources and historical observation. Moral and prudential restraint on human depravity had to be imposed first of all by individuals on themselves, but constitutional and other external checks, individuals and institutions exercising checks on other individuals and institutions, were a necessary part of the effort to tame man’s baser passions.

Realistic though they were about human weaknesses, the Framers sought to promote the common good. They looked in particular to the republics of Greece and Rome for models as well as warnings. Without republican virtue—self-discipline, modesty, and devotion to the public things—their constitutional system could not work. They wanted to increase the likelihood that people of wisdom, moral character, and the right experience—potential statesmen—would have a disproportionate influence over policy. For generations of Americans, George Washington stood out as the quintessential republican leader.

Though the Framers favored a system of popular consent, they dreaded demagoguery and short-sightedness. They feared a majority agitated by merely partisan interest, what they called a “majority faction.” Such rule would endanger minority interests and threaten the general welfare. A representative system should, in the words of James Madison, “refine and enlarge the public views.” The Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court illustrated particularly well the effort to promote “the deliberate sense” of the people. The Constitution was to protect the better self of the American people against bouts of ignorance, intoxication, or fear.

Directly relevant to foreign policy is the Framers’ deep concern about the tendency of the powerful to want to lord it over others and to behave arbitrarily and ruthlessly. The inclination of the strong to consider themselves always right is at once prominent and dangerous. The weak need to be respected and protected. Though self-restraint and modesty are of the essence of republican leadership, all power has to be subject to sturdy institutional checks.

Genuinely to aspire to serving the common good is not the same as to know just what that good is in particular circumstances. Life is complex and the facts rarely clear. Statesmen will be predisposed to recognize the interests of different groups and to compromise. War may become unavoidable, but good leaders are predisposed to defuse conflict. Nothing could be more antithetical to America’s constitutional ethos than to demand of opponents that they surrender unconditionally.

Statesmen must forever contend with people incapable of a balanced, many-faceted, and historically informed view of the world: conceited ideologues, nationalist yahoos, self-satisfied pseudo-moralists, ravenous investors, and other partisans. Their disparagement or demonization of opponents is inherently conducive to conflict. Only their side has legitimacy. When Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea mere partisans viewed it as an act of brutal aggression against a foreign country, no matter that since the fall of the Soviet Union the United States and NATO have pushed more and more deeply into the old Russian sphere of interest, in effect pursuing a policy of encirclement. A person of less partisan outlook will recognize that Russia has historical, cultural, and geopolitical reasons to think that it has legitimate interests in Ukraine, especially Crimea, and that it is pushing back against provocation. What seems unacceptable to one side may seem rightful or even imperative to the other.

Because of the propensity of the strong to run roughshod over others, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution favored procedures and institutions that forced restraint and mitigated willfulness. They put a premium on settling disputes by give-and-take. They shunned unilateral actions, such as by simple majority vote. Their system would yield strong and enduring decisions only when a fairly broad working consensus could be achieved. Legislation passed narrowly and over intense opposition—the adoption of Obamacare comes to mind—would be unstable and a source of dissension.


To summarize the relevance of the American constitutional ethos for foreign policy, nothing could be more germane than that this ethos is, first and foremost, a strong disposition to self-control, deliberation, and compromise. It abhors autonomous, unrestrained power. Power is a possible source of ruthlessness and arrogance and must be limited and decentralized. Marked by modesty and humility, the spirit of American republicanism is inimical to arrogance and conceit. That the strong are often wrong and that the weak have legitimate interests are but two of the reasons for seeking compromise and common ground.

The post-9/11 decision to invade Iraq surely will stand out as a prime example in the 21st century of passions of the moment, shoddy thinking, and cynical manipulation robbing American power of restraint, deliberation, and caution. Decisions of great magnitude fell to a president who had little relevant education, experience, or familiarity with the world that could have protected him against being swept up in the agitation for attacking Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

Some will object to these arguments that America is exceptional by virtue of its universal values and that the world needs and craves American leadership. In this view, since American power is a force for good, it does not need the strict limits that the Framers imposed. These limits are seen, in fact, as obstacles to the efficient use of virtuous American power. What is desirable today is not self-restraint, willingness to compromise, and checks on the ability to wage war. No, what is needed now is great “energy” in the executive.

People who oppose this attempt to subvert constitutional checks on power and would like to see these checks restored may at the same time plausibly argue that America has moved so far from character traits of self-control and modesty that the Framers’ advocacy of deliberation and seeking common ground is anachronistic. What is desirable, to return to the Constitution, is not, at least not for the foreseeable future, practically possible. People strongly attracted to constitutionalism may also believe that in a political environment of increasingly blatant partisanship, crude and inflammatory ideology, and egregious demagoguery, the old-fashioned preference for debate and compromise will only play into the hands of the most pernicious and ruthless among the established elites. The only way to deal with such partisans and to give constitutionalism a chance to survive is to confront and defeat them.

The reasons for deemphasizing compromise and deliberation and for welcoming or accepting strong presidential leadership can thus have widely divergent motives, but they all illustrate the erosion of the moral and cultural supports for American constitutionalism. The old constitutional temperament is up against historical circumstances more conducive to rabble-rousing and authoritarian leadership—precisely the dangers that the Framers feared.

Hence we face a paradox. The U.S. Constitution teaches urgent lessons about leadership, and the American constitutional temperament is highly relevant to foreign affairs. Yet today’s historical circumstances seem to conspire against this temperament. What, then, of the prospects for statesmanship?

If the old-fashioned American ethos of leadership has dissipated because its civilizational supports have eroded, only a general revitalization of old moral and cultural traditions or the emergence of some new version of the same could generate a general resurgence of the spirit of statesmanship. Since there are few signs that this kind of renewal of civilization might emerge in the foreseeable future, the question becomes whether individual leaders with a potential for statesmanship might arise in the current deteriorated moral, cultural, and political climate. Could such persons create breathing room for even a partial recovery of constitutionalism?

In view of the sad state of American politics, some readers may believe that the kind of statesmanship described here must be a kind of political luxury, requiring fair-weather conditions. But true statesmanship is characterized by the kind of uncompromising realism that the Framers exemplified, and its sense of direction is applicable to any and all circumstances.

Thinking about specific practical measures that might constitute a statesmanlike agenda today would require an assessment not only of what is desirable but of what is possible, a very large subject. A central general point is that genuine statesmanship is animated by a distinctive ethos that tends to move societies towards respectful relations, domestically or internationally. To the extent that leaders share this ethos, they will tend to take each other’s concerns into account. This is not to deny that they will often have competing objectives or that leaders of different countries must adjust their domestic and international agendas to their special circumstances. They have different and potentially conflicting interests. Leaders of countries must attend to military and economic imperatives. But statesmen realize that their counterparts in other countries must do the same, and they recognize the need for reasonable accommodation among contending parties. Thus does the spirit of statesmanship tend to moderate inevitable tensions and encourage negotiation.

At the very core of this ethos is an acute awareness of the baser inclinations of the human self and the need to control them. For genuine statesmen this need is not an abstract general observation about human nature but something deeply and personally felt. The moral realism in question is indistinguishable from a spirit of self-examination and self-limitation and a wish to act for the common good, an aspiration that was central to American republicanism. Integral to the same ethos of statesmanship are modesty, circumspection, and critical distance from the historical moment. Because the inspiring spirit is always the same, the diverse practical measures of statesmen tend to move their countries in the direction of peaceful coexistence.

If this is a summary of the moral and intellectual temper and practical import of statesmanship, what, more specifically, might comprise statesmanship in America today? It can be argued that the U.S. Constitution has been so enfeebled as to be barely intact and that America is facing something like a moral-spiritual collapse. The forces that foster and benefit from this state of affairs are at the same time deeply entrenched. There is, however, in genuine statesmanship no inclination to retreat from difficult challenges. It has nothing to do with sanctimonious Platonic disdain for debased politics or with fruitless nostalgia for something lost, but neither does it resort to cynical expediency. Though marked by a strong sense of purpose, statesmanship is eminently pragmatic. Whatever the circumstances, it wants to make the best of them. Although it has no choice but to adjust to decadence, its purpose in doing so is not to yield to but to outmaneuver the destructive forces, for example, by using their methods against them. Statesmanship has to be at once creative and robust. To withstand the inevitably fierce counteractions of a threatened reigning establishment, it must be tough and skilled in the use of power. In an era in which public opinion and opinion polls are an important measure of political legitimacy it must somehow maintain popular support. Paradoxical as it may seem, one of the chief requirements of statesmanship in today’s America must be to adapt to a media-centered and highly demagogic public discourse but to turn it to advantage by using similarly simplified but redirected rhetoric. As a readiness to act in any and all circumstances, statesmanship may today have to assume an unfamiliar form. Guardians of conventional respectability may find its audaciousness disturbingly unorthodox.

To look today to the U.S. Congress for imaginative, courageous leadership seems fruitless. Its leaders appear incapable of thinking creatively about how to address deep-seated problems. Members of Congress collectively reflect a deteriorating and fragmenting society. Rather than transcending the usual posturing and demagoguery designed to avoid media censure and ensure reelection, the leaders of Congress appear content to shore up a crumbling status quo.

It is too early to assess the extent to which Donald Trump might represent statesmanship for our time. He certainly does not cling to the dilapidated status quo. That he sends defenders of the established order into paroxysms of outrage is not dispositive, although it does indicate that his opponents perceive him as posing a real threat. That is certainly how those who elected him viewed him. Only very deep resentment in the American people and Trump’s special rapport with a large segment of voters could account for the rise to the presidency of this political neophyte with much dubious personal baggage. Many Americans, acting on gut-feeling rather than reflection, seem to have concluded that beggars cannot be choosers.

Not enough attention has been paid to how truly remarkable it is that Donald Trump was elected president. His winning the nomination of a reluctant party and then winning the presidential election was nothing short of miraculous. Political scientists and seasoned political journalists will tell you how utterly difficult it is for an aspiring politician to reach the presidency. Not only did Trump come from the outside, he had to run against experienced, well-organized, and well-funded competitors. He was also up against virtually monolithic media hostility. It says something about the viability, creativity, and timeliness of Donald Trump that this supposedly vulgar upstart was able to outmaneuver—everybody.

This blustering and almost roguish amateur politician who keeps violating conventional norms might appear the opposite of statesmanlike. Is it, then, out of the question that his high-wire act might be a form of statesmanship adjusted to a fraught moment in American history? Snobs and guardians of the status quo will of course scorn such an idea. Yet it is conceivable that the brashly self-confident style of Trump, so different from the formulaic conduct and speech of other politicians, might be a way of advancing a change agenda in an increasingly debauched and dully predictable political culture.

The upholders of conventional respectability should ponder the survivability of a leader who genuinely wants to challenge the established order but who also measures up to their refined standards of conduct. Was their ideal candidate on offer in the latest presidential election? If so, how well did he or she do? Trump’s braggadocio, hyperbole, and outsized ego offend traditional Christian sensibilities especially, but, given the magnitude of America’s problems and the strength of the opposition to real change, would Americans have preferred a more unassuming, low-key leader? Trump’s strong rapport with a core group of voters may have something to do with a subconscious identification with this caricature of a typically American personality, a larger-than-life embodiment of their own aspirations.

Establishment figures in politics and the media have been aghast at Donald Trump’s rank demagoguery. Their criticisms have far from always been unjustified, but the conceit and nearsightedness of these arbiters of respectability has blinded them to how selective their indignation has been and to the fact that demagoguery, though of a different, approved kind, has long been an integral and expanding part of American political and media discourse. The established order with its main media outlets both fosters and takes advantage of a deteriorated political and journalistic culture. Trump infuriates those normally in charge of the view of the world and of public opinion by simply violating their prescribed rules and often beating them at their own game.

Many of Trump’s supporters assume, mostly on good grounds, that much of his rhetorical bluster is merely conversational hyperbole or an act. His impetuous way of countering criticisms and his propensity for sweeping, off-the-cuff assertions seem to them a refreshing contrast to the scripted speech and conduct of other politicians.

Trump’s stated general views do in important ways harken back to a more traditional ethos in American politics. He defends an old-fashioned sense of American national identity—“our country”—and opposes the kind of national self-effacement that results from open borders, politically correct multiculturalism, and other cultural radicalism. He wants to protect American workers against trade arrangements that he deems unfair. He has made the need for national sovereignty, that of the United States and of other countries, a central theme. His advocacy during the election campaign of limiting America’s involvement in the world comported, if allowance is made for America’s circumstances in the 21st century, with the disposition of George Washington and most of his American contemporaries. Trump’s stated desire to make more room for negotiation and compromise with foreign competitors points in the same direction.


If there are thus elements in the Trump presidency that suggest at least the potential for a new kind of American statesmanship, other elements call that potential into question. Statesmanship includes an inclination to be self-critical, to check the impulse of the moment, and to have a sense of distance to the events of the day. By contrast, Trump often exhibits impulsiveness and a preoccupation with the concerns of the moment rather than calm reflection. Only an intuition of exceptional quickness and soundness might protect such a man from big mistakes.

In foreign affairs Trump ran on a preference for negotiation over confrontation, but in office he has been prone to bellicose rhetoric, assertive military action, and impatience with diplomacy. As president he has fallen back into and even reinforced the habits of the more hawkish members of the foreign policy establishment. He and his aides have brought into the administration many figures who represent just the kind of interventionism and push for global hegemony that he criticized during the presidential campaign. The president appears to lack the knowledge and intellectual independence to resist assertions of power from that quarter. The extent of the militarization of the upper echelons of his administration has contributed to an impression of foreign policy assertiveness and even militarism.

Similarly, in the economic field the president has given great influence to Wall Street, a power center that he attacked during the campaign. This suggests that here as in other areas he has only a vague idea of who are and who are not his allies in pursuing his stated larger objectives. A more worrisome explanation for seemingly paradoxical appointments is that he is more closely tied to the money power than he let on during the campaign.

It could be argued that Trump is simply looking for talent wherever he can find it. His fondness for generals may reflect a fundamental disdain for the creatures of the swamp and a preference for what he takes to be disciplined people who are used to serving their country and acting in tough circumstances. His alliance with Wall Street oligarchs and other big money people could conceivably exemplify a strategy of keeping his enemies closer than his friends. He may have decided that confronting a supremely powerful element in American society would not only be pointless but doom his presidency; only by reassuring at least parts of this element could he hope to gain some freedom of movement. There is another, perhaps more likely, explanation for his paradoxical appointments and his apparent pragmatism: that they are, for the most part, the result of poorly integrated, even contradictory beliefs, and of naiveté about the real nature of America’s reigning elite.

Trump supporters disgusted with the established order may argue that there is no such thing as a flawless political leader. All leaders are mixtures of good and bad. One might add that debased, fragmenting societies tend to produce leaders who are prone to strong action but are also lacking in subtlety and caution. Whatever the case with Donald Trump, major shortcomings in a president of the United States can have disastrous consequences, especially in foreign affairs. That the U.S. Congress has abdicated to the executive its authority to decide on war or peace is but the most striking example of an abandonment of constitutional restraint that could lead to catastrophe.

Real statesmanship is a crowning achievement of civilization. We recognize it precisely because it is out of the ordinary. America’s current historical circumstances cry out for statesmanship adapted to the country’s precarious moral-spiritual, cultural, and political condition. We had better not be too quick deciding what statesmanlike daring and vision might look like in today’s America. Donald Trump has thrown a big monkey wrench into a flailing and yet intractable system dominated by confused, corrupt, and conceited leaders. He has created an opportunity for changing direction. Whether he has the moral compass, the understanding, the temperament, and the capacity for statesmanship and whether the American people are capable of the needed change remains to be seen. The alternative to major reform is further deterioration and, in foreign affairs, more wars and provocations that could at any time trigger a cataclysm.

Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics and founding director of the new Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. He is honorary professor at Beijing Normal University. His many books include America the Virtuous and the novel A Desperate Man. Article published concurrently at The American Conservative.

The Moral Path to Peace

[Originally published in The American Conservative (Nov/Dec 2014)]

Humanity faces no greater challenge in the 21st century than averting conflict among peoples and civilizations. It is curious and revealing that experts in international relations and political science generally seem not to be beyond themselves with worry that this century might see the war that will make all previous wars look minor. A deteriorating relationship between China and the United States and more arrogance and obduracy in the Middle East are but the most obvious possible sources of a great conflagration.

Superficiality in defining the dangers or delay in addressing them could have horrendous consequences. Yet discussions of how to minimize conflict typically neglect what may be the most important part of the problem. In the West particularly, it is common to assume that general enlightenment will remove obstacles to peace—this despite the fact that we need only look to the century preceding this one, the most murderous and inhumane in all of history, to recognize that the spread of supposedly sophisticated ideas and science does not reduce the intemperance, belligerence, or cruelty of human beings. It only provides them with new means of asserting their will.

Many in the West expect that certain political and economic arrangements will promote peace—“democracy” and “markets” being perhaps the most popular at the moment. They think that universal suffrage and economic interdependence will be salutary. Many hope that international agreements and increasing the influence of the United Nations will keep the peace. Behind some prescriptions for lessening tension there lingers a sentimental notion of the brotherhood of man. As fellow human beings, can’t we just hug? Meanwhile, those who consider themselves more realistic favor balance-of-power theorizing.

But most attempts to deal with conflict do not deal in any depth with what may be the very core of the problem, man’s moral predicament. Proceeding from a dubious or incomplete understanding of the basic moral terms of human existence, scholars and others exaggerate what elaborate, clever international arrangements or techniques can do to lessen tension. The trouble is that when passions run high even the most efficacious measures can be swept away in the blink of an eye. In fraught, very tense circumstances peace will have a chance only if the actors involved are not only experienced, knowledgeable, and creative, but capable of withstanding, in themselves as well as others, the onrush of rashness, belligerence, and ethnic-nationalistic fervor. Such urges can be tamed in the end only by strong character, including habits of restraint and caution. You want peace? Then you need peaceful individuals.

Yet the subject that may be most important seems largely alien to the Western intellectual elites. I have in mind the moral and cultural preconditions of peace. They are crucial, first, because efforts to avoid conflict are likely to be unsuccessful unless those involved have a certain kind of will and imagination, second, because the relative importance of other aspects of how to deal with conflict are best assessed in light of the most complete view of what makes human beings tick. That the subject of the moral and cultural preconditions of peace receives far less attention than other topics seems a sign that Western intellectuals may not be well equipped to deal with the most pressing problem of the new century. Upbringing and education in the West may have to be significantly revised.

In exploring the issue of morality we must, partly because we find ourselves in a globalizing age, guard against intellectual provincialism, presentism, and other myopia. We need to repair to the historical experience of mankind. We should be willing, at minimum, to question the prevalent view of modern Western intellectuals that moral values are merely “subjective” or that moral beliefs are just the idiosyncratic creatures of historical circumstance. If we think more historically and internationally, a different possibility emerges. Amidst a wide variety of beliefs in the human past and present the open-minded scholar finds what looks like a shared, if variously expressed, sense of higher values, a universal dimension. The ancient Greeks called these values the good, the true, and the beautiful. The great moral and religious systems give primacy to the good, that is, to moral universality. In these traditions ecumenical research finds far-reaching transcultural and transhistorical agreement on what is the central moral problem of human existence: that the human will is cleft between higher and lower potentialities and man is his own worst enemy.

National arrogance and economic ruthlessness are among the obvious and palpable threats to international harmony, but they are but instances of the more general danger that societies and their leaders, instead of interacting on the level of what is morally, aesthetically and intellectually noblest in each, will interact at their worst, when most self-absorbed, grasping, and intense. Enlightened self-interest, as opposed to crude, short-sighted self-interest, can go a long way towards keeping competing parties from clashing, but a mere coincidence of partisan wills provides no stable and lasting basis for peace. That popular Western culture is today spreading around the world creates a commonality of sorts, but it is a fragile, very questionable likemindedness. This popular culture is almost uniformly disdainful of the moral and cultural traditions of mankind, including those of the Western world, and is perceived by many as a threat to their most deeply held beliefs. Because of its crudities and vulgarities it antagonizes rather than appeals to the more discerning and discriminating representatives of the peoples of the world.

No observation would seem to be more richly confirmed by the historical record than that human beings are morally cleft, to the core, between higher and lower potentialities. Yet this crux of the human predicament is strangely denied or ignored in most Western attempts today to find a way to harmonious and just arrangements. One thinks, for example, of the long-influential moral rationalism of a John Rawls, with its propensity for wholly ahistorical ratiocination. The Rawls who was widely celebrated would have human beings step behind “the veil of ignorance” and consider policies without regard to how they might affect them personally. “Reasonableness” would then preside over deliberation, and justice and harmony would be served.

The same fondness for abstract theorizing and reluctance to think historically and concretely marks theories of communicative or deliberative democracy. Sound policy and harmony are expected to emerge from never-ending conversation that excludes no legitimate groups. There is something very abstract and even dream-like about these theories. They assume what must not be assumed, that human beings are interested in listening to competing views. They are not. They want their own way. They think of opposition as annoying and as something to be overcome. What these theorists do not quite realize is that when people do show a genuine willingness to consider the ideas of others, it is because they have learnt to control the passions that would close them down intellectually.

Openness of mind presupposes a special, rather sturdy moral self-discipline and habituation. The framers of the U.S. Constitution set up a system that would encourage debate and compromise. Americans would be governed by their “deliberate sense.” But the framers were acutely aware that for this system to work those active within it would have to be capable of self-restraint and be willing to respect the views of others. Their system had demanding moral and cultural preconditions. A certain character type—I like to call it the “constitutional personality”—had to be available if genuine deliberation were to take place.

More recent theorizing about how to achieve communication and harmony does not explore in depth how to create the moral and cultural conditions favorable to deliberation, dispassionate judgment, and compromise. Exhibiting ahistorical and sentimental leanings, today’s theorists simply assume that when people operate in a more progressive, egalitarian setting they will be spontaneously predisposed to reasonableness and to hearing the arguments of others. This is wishful thinking. Theories of this abstract, rather dreamy type have limited value in discussions of domestic politics, and they are wholly inadequate for international relations. There is need for a more realistic, robust understanding of the real sources of open-mindedness and civilized conduct.

In the end, only moral character, supported by general culture, can fortify the self in man that wants openness to argument and respect for others. It used to be regarded as the central purpose of civilization to assist individuals in reining in their least admirable traits so that more admirable ones could be developed. Only protracted moral and cultural exertions and habituation, encouraged by the surrounding society, bring forth people of this kind. In proportion as the people of a society fall short, they undermine not only their own well-being and the cohesion of their society but also international relations.

Until fairly recently, it was taken for granted by most in the Western world, as it was in the East, that human beings are torn between desires that enhance existence and ones that, though they may bring short-term pleasure, are destructive of a deeper meaning and are potentially diabolical. To realize what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, happiness, a person must learn to discipline his appetites of the moment, try to extinguish some of them, with a view to his own enduring higher good. Happiness does not refer to a maximization of pleasure but to the special sense of well-being and self-respect that attends living nobly and responsibly. It is for the sake of this higher life that a person foregoes momentary pleasures and advantages.

The good life has many aspects and prerequisites—moral, intellectual, aesthetic, political, and economic—but there was widespread agreement in the old Western society, whether Greek, Roman, or Christian, that realizing life’s higher potential ultimately depends on the person’s character and quality of will. A person who lacks the strength to act rightly cannot achieve happiness by dint of intellectual brilliance, imaginative power, or economic productivity.

According to the old Western tradition and corresponding traditions in the East, society should encourage the kind of working on self that will build meaning and worth into personal and social existence. Whether the goal is the happiness and nobility of a worldly life of the kind that Aristotle and Confucius advocate or the special peace of holiness in which religion culminates, there is no substitute for the protracted, often difficult effort of will.

Note carefully that the most important measure of progress is the quality of actions performed. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” said Jesus of Nazareth. The statement implies that its validity could be tested only in practical action. In Buddhism, the right Way is the diligent working on self to extinguish needless or destructive desire. In the Dhammapada, which is attributed in its general spirit to the Buddha, we read about the path to Nirvana: “You yourself must make an effort.”

In the West, the most radical and influential challenge to this view of man’s moral predicament came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau was, among other things, the main intellectual inspiration for the French Jacobins, who spearheaded the French Revolution that started in 1789. For Rousseau, the old view of human nature is profoundly mistaken. Man is not chronically torn between good and evil. There are in man’s own nature no lower inclinations, certainly no original sin, as Christianity alleges. Man was born good. In his primitive, presocial, “natural” state, man was pure, simple, peaceful, and happy, and that remains his nature. The evil in society is due not to some perversity in man but to perverse norms, habits, and institutions. Destroy that society, and man’s goodness will be released.

Rousseau and his many followers pioneered a revolution in the understanding of morality that continues to reverberate. Virtue ceased to be a matter of character and right willing. It became primarily a state of feeling and imagination, an attribute of the “heart.” Rousseau gave prominence to tearful empathy, “pity,” as a sign of human nobility. The old measure of moral virtue was loving, responsible action. Good conduct was the outgrowth of sometimes painful self-scrutiny and a diligent working on self. But for Rousseau man was good by nature, so there was no need for man to be on guard against his own lower impulses. Neither was there any need for traditions, social groups, or institutions to buttress morality. On the contrary, it was by liberating man from such traditional constraints that natural goodness would reassert itself. Rousseau and his followers shifted the central struggle of human existence from the inner life of persons to the social and political arena, where the virtuous had to defeat evil forces.

Rousseau’s redefinition of morality, which by itself had a profound influence in the modern Western world, coincided historically with the kind of rationalism that seized the initiative with the Enlightenment. Its conception of reason was heavily slanted in the direction of mathematics, geometry, and natural science. Representatives of the Enlightenment rejected the traditional view of man as superstitious and unscientific. They had no place for ancient moral wisdom. A happy life was not dependent on moral character but required a fundamental restructuring of society according to enlightened ideas.

Rousseauistic sentimentality and Enlightenment rationalism might seem to be wholly different approaches to life, but they became close and frequent allies. Both belittled the need for moral character. Selfishness, ruthlessness, avarice, and conflict were not due to any chronic human weakness but could be overcome by remaking the social and political exterior. Sentimental idealism and rationalism came together in social engineering, dreamy idealistic visions of the future providing the goal and technocratic manipulation providing the method. In the area of international relations, sentimental virtue and technocratic thinking eventually combined in the idea of an enlightened and vaguely egalitarian global culture, often summarized in the term “democracy.” According to this ideology, the historically evolved characteristics of peoples, societies, and civilizations will soon give way to a proper transnational ideological homogeneity. History will “end.”

This notion of emerging global harmony neglects the central issue of moral character. Equally troublesome is the presumption that persons, societies, and civilizations should give up their traditional distinctiveness. Let me suggest, to the contrary, that what might actually be the most conducive to cordial relations is to cherish—not disdain—historically evolved identities, though to cherish them in a particular manner. It is not contradictory or even paradoxical to view this respect for historical particularity as a kind of cosmopolitanism. It is a cosmopolitanism that would encourage particular persons, societies, and civilizations to be themselves while living up to their own highest standards. The cosmopolitanism I have in mind affirms both cultural distinctiveness and pan-cultural unity, which it can do because each is anchored in a similar moral and cultural striving. In order to assist peace, political, economic, scientific, and other efforts to reduce conflict must be informed by moral realism, most especially by a recognition of the need for leaders to have self-control and a corresponding cultural sensibility. I call this approach to peace “cosmopolitan humanism.”

I hasten to add what should be obvious, that sometimes cultural diversity expresses provincialism, intolerance, and brutality and is a major source of conflict. Diversity that is not humanized by moral and other universality but manifests self-absorbed eccentricity engenders friction and instability. Nationalistic arrogance and bullying caused terrible upheaval and suffering in the last two centuries. The great problem with what is ordinarily called multiculturalism is that it is quite unable to distinguish between diversity that enriches and diversity that degrades human life.

The history and culture of a people is the source of its social cohesion, outlook on life, and sense of direction and self-worth. Its past shapes it in countless ways, some of which are not even visible to the superficial eye. Every people has less than admirable traits of which it would do well to try to divest itself, but it also has admirable qualities and great achievements in which it can take pride. These must be absorbed and appreciated anew by each generation. Efforts in the present to improve society need to be adapted, through creativity, to the historically evolved cultural heritage. A people cannot give its best without being itself. To impose on a people a supposedly superior pattern of conduct that is wholly alien to its traditions produces disorientation and a split personality: the alien patterns can only produce mechanical and artificial imitation, while putting the people at odds with its deepest sources of self-respect and meaning.

When people in different societies develop what is most admirable in their culture, however, they may at one and the same time be cultivating their own heritage and a common human ground, to the extent that their work is inspired by the universal values of goodness, truth, and beauty. As they culturally enrich their own society, they strengthen their ties to other peoples. Though inevitably marked by the distinctive past and present of their particular society, their cultural efforts are in their expression of man’s higher humanity a bridge to equivalent attempts in other societies.

Genuine human universality has nothing to do with uniformity. It consists of universal qualities that are always adapted to the historical circumstance of time and place. This is done by means of human creativity that synthesizes the universal and the particular. Cosmopolitan humanism is based on the recognition that many different, historically formed cultural identities and individual creative acts can manifest one and the same higher quality of inspiration—though obviously more or less successfully in particular cases. Representatives of different cultures can come together as fellow human beings not despite but through their cultural individualities, the latter sharing not all particulars but the same quality.

Cosmopolitan humanism, then, simultaneously and indistinguishably cherishes the unity of purpose that is intrinsic to pursuing life’s higher values and the diversity that must characterize attempts to realize that potential. Moral and cultural activity at their best affirm the unity by harmonizing and dignifying the diversity and affirm the diversity by varying and enriching the unity. This humanizing discipline contrasts sharply with universality that is understood as distinct from and even opposed to particularity and as abstract rather than concrete and particular.

In the Western world especially, it is widely assumed that a culture of enlightenment, democracy, and equality is far along in supplanting the ancient moral and cultural traditions of the world. But supposed progressives seem not to realize the extent to which social and political arrangements that they deem desirable and even take for granted—including respect for individual rights, rule of law, freedoms of speech and association, and tolerance—actually evolved from the old moral and cultural traditions that progressives deem expendable or unacceptable. Many of their designs for society and the world are parasitic on old character traits that they have no plans for trying to preserve. They want behaviors of a certain kind but do not attend to their moral and cultural preconditions.

If there is any truth about human nature in the ancient moral and religious traditions, the progressive mind ignores or downplays the greatest threat to domestic and international peace: that man is his own worst enemy. This is the case not only, as enlightened intellectuals might concede, in that man is sometimes less than fully rational but also in that he is prone to letting egotistical passion and rashness run roughshod over conscience. Leaders and people who are able to show the appropriate self-restraint are such because they are in the habit of scrutinizing and purifying their own motives. Protracted moral and cultural efforts have shaped their character, limiting the self-indulgence that puts them in conflict with others.

Because historical circumstances vary so greatly, societies are bound to differ in how they approach and express respect for higher values. Yet there is among the ancient civilizations of the world a remarkable confluence of moral and cultural sensibility. It includes far-reaching agreement about what constitutes admirable human conduct and good leadership. From China to Europe and the United States there is a rough consensus on the attributes of a great man or gentleman. He is first of all a person of moral integrity. Of particular relevance in this discussion of prospects for cordial relations is the belief that the exemplary person exhibits self-restraint, humility, modesty, dignity, and good manners. The ancient Greeks warned against hubris, against the belief that you are one of the gods. For Christianity, the greatest sin is pride. Our primary moral obligation is not to condemn the weaknesses of others and demand that they improve but to attend to our own weaknesses. Christianity roundly condemns the conceit and moral evasiveness of always finding fault in others. In the words of Jesus of Nazareth,  “Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will be able to see and take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

The notion of universality that I associate with cosmopolitan humanism contains no implication that persons, peoples, and civilizations should conform to a single model of life or that universality can be imposed by means of political engineering. It may be helpful to contrast genuine universality with a type of universalism that today is particularly common and influential in the United States. I am referring to an ideologically intense variant of the Enlightenment mindset that assumes a single political system is desirable and even mandatory for all societies and should be everywhere installed, through military means if necessary. I have called this ideology the new Jacobinism. The French Jacobins summarized their putatively universal principles in the slogan “freedom, equality, and brotherhood.” They saw France as the redeemer of nations. The new Jacobins speak of “freedom” and “democracy,” and they have anointed the United States.

It is important to understand how radically that form of universalism departs from the older Western tradition. Although proximate in time, the ideas behind the U.S. Constitution of 1789 and those behind the French Revolution of the same year are fundamentally different. The framers of the Constitution held a view of human nature and society that was essentially classical and Christian, whereas the French Jacobins were inspired by Rousseau.

According to the classical and Christian traditions, moral virtue is indistinguishable from personal character. It is first of all a form of self-rule. It means subduing and ordering the passions. Jacobin virtue, by contrast, is primarily and directly political. It is a sense of moral superiority, of being a benefactor of mankind. Because it thinks of itself as a desire to improve vastly the lives of others, this virtue feels itself entitled to the power needed to change the world. This virtue, then, is not a wish to control and improve self but a wish to control and improve others. Far from curbing the will to power, Jacobin universalism stimulates it.

The U.S. Constitution assumes a need for the opposite, to restrain power, that of the people as well as that of their representatives. America’s leaders were not interested in ideological crusading. They hoped to set a good example for others, not impose their will on them. But the new Jacobins radically re-interpret what they call America’s “Founding principles.” These principles belong to all mankind, they assert, and they justify armed American global hegemony.

The U.S. Constitution granted to the central government only limited and shared sovereignty. It left power for the most part in state and local institutions and, above all, with the people themselves in their private capacities. The purpose of the constitutional arrangement was unity in diversity. The union of states would help harmonize and draw strength from diversity, not abolish it.

Because neo-Jacobin universalism favors abstract, ideological homogeneity and disdains particularity, it runs counter to old American attitudes and Western traditions. In practice as well as theory, abstract universalism means a lack of respect for regional or local diversity and for the special needs and opportunities that they reflect.

It does not follow that the most common form of modern multiculturalism with its cult of diversity and its so-called “historicism” offers a humane alternative. By its frantic and therefore disingenuous denial of universality, postmodernism makes history chaotic. Without a unity or continuity of human experience, no consciousness could exist. There could be no history, only wholly disjointed and therefore meaningless experiential fragments. It is different with what I call cosmopolitan humanism. Though it recognizes and affirms the variety of human existence and its inevitably contextual, contingent, “historical” character, it sees particularity as potentially expressive of universality.

In political theory the school that most sharply attacks historicism is that of Leo Strauss. Interestingly, postmodernism shares with anti-historicist universalism, whether of the Straussian or neo-Jacobin variety, the assumption that universality and particularity are incompatible. The postmodernists attack universality in the name of radical historicity. The anti-historicists disparage historical particularity in the name of ideological universality. Neither side recognizes the possibility of synthesis of universality and particularity, a potential that is central to cosmopolitan humanism.

The dialectical and synthetical relationship of universality and particularity may be suggested in the most general terms. The good, the true, and the beautiful do in one special sense lack specific form: they are magnetic qualities that an infinite number of yet to be completed moral acts, philosophical thoughts, and works of art may have. But in a different sense the good, the true, and the beautiful exist for us only in historical particulars: they are embodied in countless acts, thoughts, and works of art—in loving, morally responsible behavior, wise books and lectures, outstanding poems and compositions—which come alive in the present as we relive and try to absorb them and let them inspire more of the same.

Far from being an ahistorical, abstract standard, genuine universality must be freshly discovered by individuals for themselves in their time and place. It must find expression in concrete particulars. The resulting variety enriches and deepens man’s historical existence.  Because universality has no other opportunities for articulation than the historical circumstances of persons, it can have no single manifestation, only a single qualitative form. Although true universality creates qualitative affinities across borders, it is inimical to a global uniculture. Goodness, truth, and beauty reveal the common human ground as they show themselves in the uniqueness and distinctiveness of persons, peoples, and civilizations.

This kind of particularity harmonizes diversity. It makes for more than a flimsy and transitory unity. When peoples and civilizations cultivate their selfhood at the highest level, their efforts are not only compatible with unity. They are the unity. To the extent that unity is possible among human beings, it is achieved through diversity.

It should be possible to see, then, why cosmopolitan humanism is indistinguishable from patriotism, that is, from a proper love of one’s own society. The genuine patriot, as distinguished from the self-absorbed, arrogant nationalist, cherishes what is admirable about his own traditions, as judged by transnational, universal standards. Without the patriot’s deep rootedness in his own culture’s sense of goodness, truth, and beauty he would not have the preparation and sensitivity to appreciate comparable efforts in other societies. Moral, intellectual, and aesthetic phenomena from around the world that strike rootless, ill-informed, ill-prepared observers as having nothing in common are found by the patriotic cosmopolitan to be both qualitatively kindred and intriguingly, appealingly different.

Cosmopolitan humanism contrasts sharply with the prescriptions for regional or global unification that are advanced by people who have no deep cultural roots and who for that reason are at home in no particular place. For such pseudocosmopolitans no truly common human ground exists and no truly transcultural appreciation is possible. Peace has to them no special moral and cultural preconditions. The dominant breed of Eurocrat exemplifies the type. Just as this person has no strong attachment to any country, so does this person have scant interest in history and even less in the philosophically demanding issues of morality and culture. The typical Eurocrat makes do instead with a smattering of trendy ideas. It is anomalous and potentially dangerous that people with little familiarity with and even a strong prejudice against the moral and cultural traditions of mankind tend to set the tone in discussions of how to achieve better international relations.

A technocratic and presentist cosmopolitanism is not merely ill-conceived, it positively undermines prospects for lessening tensions by diverting attention from what peace and unity most require: that persons, peoples, and civilizations put a resilient check on self-absorption and arrogance and cultivate what is best in their traditions. To stress that need is to make a central philosophical point, but it is first and foremost an urgent call for greater realism in addressing the problem of peace. It is realism in keeping with the shared moral and cultural heritage of humanity.

Claes G. Ryn is Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship and Professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America.

NATO’s Real Existential Threat: The Surrender of Western Values

By WILLIAM S. SMITH • February 7, 2018

On January 17, Petr Pavel, a Czech army general and NATO’s military committee chairman, led meetings with his counterparts from Ukraine and Georgia, which he tweeted were “Sessions dedicated to Projecting Stability.” Yet while NATO’s collaboration with nations historically intertwined with Russia could lead to a number of possible outcomes, “stability” seems the least likely one. Like so much of what the alliance does, the purpose of these meetings is to push the alliance ever eastward.

That raises a question. Why should Americans participate in an alliance in which a general—from a minuscule military power that spends 1 percent of its GDP on defense—hosts a meeting that is more likely to provoke a catastrophic U.S.-Russia war than to prevent one? As Ted Galen Carpenter recently explained here at TAC, this is the dangerous calculus that results from interlocking the United States with so many NATO nations, including some that Moscow regards as within its sphere of influence.

Let me offer another reason to be skeptical about the long-term future of U.S. participation in the Western alliance: the West is dying. The historical and cultural legacy that animated Western civilization is atrophying. This is particularly the case in Western Europe, where elites see nothing particularly valuable in their cultural heritage, which will increasingly make them unreliable partners to the United States. How can a Western alliance be maintained when less and less remains of common, distinctly Western values and ideas?

At the end of the Cold War, the late Harvard historian Samuel Huntington pointed out that the world was reorganizing itself along civilizational lines and that cultural commonalities were replacing Cold War alliances. Western European nations signed the Maastricht treaty, Russia rebuilt its Orthodox cathedrals, Islam experienced a historic reawakening, and China rediscovered Confucius. Huntington therefore recommended that NATO serve as “the security organization of Western civilization.”

According to Huntington, the Western heritage is rooted in “Greek philosophy and rationalism, Roman law, Latin and Christianity,” a common culture with penchants for the separation of “spiritual and temporal authority,” the rule of law, representative governments, and civil liberties. In the post-Cold War world, Huntington advised that the West reanimate its principles and avoid meddling in the affairs of other civilizations that were rediscovering, and taking pride in, their own traditions.

Because Western elites, the “Davos men,” do not cherish or even particularly admire the unique Western cultural inheritance—Christianity in particular—they did not see civilizational criteria as a basis upon which the West should form post-Cold War alliances. We have thus done precisely the opposite of what Huntington recommended: we have meddled, sometimes aggressively, in other civilizations, and we have repudiated more and more of our own heritage, replacing it with a mishmash of multiculturalism, universalism, globalism, and anti-Christianity. And with our worldwide meddling and fading fondness for civil liberties has come the national security behemoth, weakening our commitment to freedom, privacy, and the rule of law. The recent FISA scandal is another reminder of the legacy that we are squandering.

Because Western elites no longer recognize and respect the unique characteristics of their own civilization—let alone those of competing civilizations—the foreign policy of the West has been marked by ineptitude. For example, as ethnic and religious aspirations came to the fore in the former Yugoslavia, NATO fought to keep the country intact, and, when that failed, essentially allied itself with Bosnian Muslims whose other friends included Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and al-Qaeda. We launched a massive invasion of Iraq in the heart of Islamic civilization that provoked the entire Muslim world. We sponsored an anti-Russian coup in Ukraine, a nation so closely tied to Orthodox civilization that its capital, Kiev, has historically been described as “the mother of all Russian cities.”

This civilizational cluelessness has also marked Western mismanagement of the NATO alliance. Had elites understood in 1990 that NATO was no longer an anti-Soviet bloc but the “security alliance of Western civilization,” huge changes would have been made at the end of the Cold War and afterward. Turkey, an increasingly authoritarian country that is aspiring to a leadership role in the Islamic world, is a sponsor of terrorism and is overtly hostile to the United States; it should hardly be a NATO member, its strategic position and large army notwithstanding. China has both a strategic position and large army, and no one would argue that it would be a constructive NATO member. Macedonia, a corrupt and unstable nation with an Orthodox majority and a Muslim minority, shouldn’t have been considered for membership either. Finally, Western leaders should never have pushed to admit Georgia and Ukraine, and they should not now be playing footsie with those countries’ generals. Any statesman with civilizational awareness would have recognized and respected the historically rooted interests and prerogatives of the leader of the great Orthodox civilization, Russia.

But nothing highlights the civilizational cluelessness of Western elites quite like the deliberate facilitation of mass Islamic migration into Europe. When a leader such as Angela Merkel defends Islamic migration on economic and multicultural grounds, she shows herself to be simply ignorant about what made Western civilization distinctive and successful and what is now threatening it. The embers of our heritage will ultimately burn out in nations like Germany, where domestic politics will trend toward ambivalence about NATO. A demographic profile with large blocs of Muslim voters will transform the geopolitical views of the political classes in a number of Western countries. (The political implications of Islamic migration for Europe are presaged in Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Submission.) Some Western nations, it seems obvious, will no longer support a Western alliance because they will no longer be Western. One can envision a time when certain Eastern European countries, which still cherish their heritage, will be the only reliable alliance partners. NATO, famous for scenario planning, ought to plan for that, rather than covetously eyeing Vladimir Putin’s neighbors.

William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.

The Sad Truth of the FBI Scandal: Both Political Parties Are to Blame

By WILLIAM S. SMITH • January 26, 2018

Republican lawmakers seem gleeful about recent revelations in the “RussiaGate” investigation that point to Obama administration abuses of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) powers rather than Russian collusion. Before they pop the champagne, the GOP should soberly remember that what has been alleged is an entirely predictable result of the evolution of the national security state created by the Bush administration with the continuing support of congressional Republicans. The GOP was warned that someday the surveillance state would generate precisely this kind of abuse.

With Republican support, the national security state has grown so large that key policies are no longer decided by Madisonian institutions — Congress, the courts, the president — but by the national security bureaucracy. Tufts University scholar Michael Glennon has argued that we have entered a constitutional phase he labels “double government.” Glennon has written that “judicial review is negligible” and “congressional oversight is dysfunctional” while “presidential control is nominal.” If corroborated, the recent FISA scandal at the FBI would be “new” only in the sense that it represents the first direct attack on Madisonian institutions by the national security state, an ominous but inevitable development.

The argument is not that there exists a “deep state” conspiracy controlled by a tightly knit cabal. If that were the case, it would be easy to end a small conspiracy. Instead, the national security state is so large and well funded, in possession of so much information, that Madisonian institutions can no longer compete. Madisonian government is a Potemkin village, putting on a Kabuki show for the voters and providing the illusion that elections matter, when a bureaucracy, unknown to most Americans, makes most important national security decisions. What policies, you might ask, did Madisonian institutions not decide? The answer: only the big ones.

First, consider the “nominal” presidency. Barack Obama was the peace candidate, pledging to roll up the Middle East wars (save Afghanistan). Instead, military action was taken in Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Troops were withdrawn from Iraq, only to be sent back. Likewise, candidate Trump vowed to end the war in Afghanistan. But now, thousands more troops are returning. In a December 2016 speech, Trump declared, “We’re all over the place fighting in areas that we shouldn’t be fighting in.” Yet the recent national security strategy identified threats everywhere: Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and “across Africa and the greater Middle East.” On national security, presidential elections seem not to matter much. The wars go on.

What of the “dysfunctional” Congress? The most important power granted by the Constitution is the Article I power to declare war. However, Congress has avoided debating the current wars, and the congressional war powers only complicate matters for those who prosecute them. Why, when “grown ups” are in charge, consult a raucous, unreliable Congress? So when the House Appropriations Committee voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force allowing Congress to debate these wars, the national security community objected. Paul Ryan then dutifully torpedoed the provision without a vote, sending the clear message to his caucus that they should worry about their franked mail, not war and peace.

Consider Congress’s recent reauthorization of the FISA program. Were policy actually controlled by Congress, the FISA legislation should have been controversial. After all, a massive eavesdropping scandal was looming. Moreover, the Beltway establishment agrees that President Trump is Mussolini in a Brooks Brothers suit. Should Congress give this budding “dictator” eavesdropping powers that even temperate presidents had abused? Why not? Congress knows that Section 702 powers do not accrue to the president, but to the national security community, to “those who really keep us safe.” Congressional Republicans know to give the national security “professionals” like Peter Strzok the “tools” they need.

What about the “negligible” courts? From the rubberstamping FISA courts to the rejection of war powers cases to the detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the courts have taken no significant position that would interfere with the march of the national security state. The National Security Agency virtually laughed in the face of a federal district court judge recently when they informed the court that (whoops!) they had destroyed reams of surveillance data that the judge had asked them to preserve. On national security, the constitutional role of the courts is a dead letter.

The nation’s political class has allowed James Madison’s institutions to wither, and real authority now rests with the leaders of a largely unaccountable national security bureaucracy. The sad truth of the FBI scandal is that both parties are letting the nation slide into a post-constitutional era.

William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. Article published concurrently at The Hill.

Can America’s Foreign Policy Be Restrained?

By CURT MILLS • December 12, 2017

A year on from the election of Donald Trump—which some hoped would usher in a new era of foreign policy “realism” and “restraint” (in contrast to the swashbuckling days of the last Republican administration)—many of those same voices are gravely disappointed. “There is no realism and restraint in American foreign policy in the Trump era,” the editor of The American Conservative, Robert Merry, said at a recent conference.

Others assert things have changed, if only the conversation: “realism is back.”

Rex Tillerson’s State Department has openly downgraded the focus on a defense of human rights internationally, in a huge contrast with the two previous administrations, Obama and Bush 43, which were at times outright dominated by liberal interventionists and the neocons, respectively. Tillerson, on the other hand, has repeatedly argued Foggy Bottom’s principal charge is to be “efficient.” And the X factor of an unprecedented occupant of the White House cannot be overstated: Donald Trump’s administration may be stocked with characters who know how to stick to conventional talking points, but his often-renegade Tweets are also official statements of government policy, no less than the Justice Department has said. And on Tuesday morning, we learned Moscow and President Vladimir V. Putin see it the same way.

Still others are playing a longer game, hoping to begin the process of reorienting how Americans should view their place in the world, and encouraging a new generation of “restrainers.”

“How is it that the national security managers get away with it?” historian and foreign policy intellectual Andrew Bacevich asked at a recent event at Catholic University (CUA) in Washington, DC.

“My answer lies in our collective, self-assigned role in history.”

The event was held by the John Quincy Adams Society—which is “committed to identifying, educating, and equipping the next generation of scholars and policy leaders to encourage a new era of realism and restraint” and the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Statesmanship at CUA. Both are emerging players, who seek to establish themselves as rivals to more interventionist-friendly outfits like the American Enterprise Institute.

“Here in Washington, in particular… Democrats and Republicans alike subscribe to that sentiment” of a unique, near-providential and irreplaceable role of the United States on the global stage, Bacevich argued. “We hear it, in the repeated references to America as ‘the indispensable nation.’ We hear it in the reminders of the imperative of the United States exercising ‘global leadership’—always and everywhere, there being no plausible alternative.”

Such language is music to the years of paleoconservative writers and politicians such as Patrick J. Buchanan, who has long taken issue with the idea of America as the “first universal nation.”

Some restrainers see bonafide progress. Tucker Carlson’s rise to prominence has been seen as watershed for the movement: the new occupant (like the president) of the most coveted time slot in cable news openly says the Republican-instigated war on Iraq was a fiasco, a generation-defining mistake. Carlson has dedicated good chunks of air time to needling neocons like Max Boot and ultrahawks like Ralph Peters. In my conversations with him, Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist often animadverts about the need to restrict U.S. foreign policy to only “vital national interests.”

“Where is all this under Trump? That’s changed,” Tufts University professor Michael Glennon said at the event at Catholic. “For the first time, in our country, the United States, publicly, has seen behind the veil,” of how a lot of this works. But Glennon, for one, worries about some of the American public’s conclusions: he doesn’t believe in the existence of some sort of “deep state,” for instance, a concept that dominated national conversation earlier this year. Another trouble spot could be this emerging coalition will struggle to agree where there is “vital national interest.” Bannon, for instance, is quite hawkish on Iran, with a source close to him last week insisting to me that we already “ARE at war with Iran throughout the Middle East.” Carlson and Buchanan are far more dubious.

Still, some are hopeful a restrainer-leaning alliance structure can cohere. “Am aware of Bannon’s views on Iran, but think it best to focus on persuading Trump that fighting the next neocon war, with Iran, has nothing to do with America First but will do for his presidency what Iraq did for W, in spades,” Buchanan told me last month. “Don’t believe that Trump and his generals—with North Korea hanging fire—can be seriously contemplating a war with Iran right now.”

A concrete step in the right direction for this contingent could be the announcement last week—that went largely unnoticed amidst the increasingly all-enveloping national conversation about sexual violence—that the Department of Defense will be subjected to its first ever audit. In fact, the move has been so hush so far that a source, an advisor the U.S. Army, told me he hadn’t even heard of the audit. “Taxpayers should be encouraged that DOD has finally begun the necessary process of auditing its gargantuan bureaucracy. The Pentagon has done an exemplary job of protecting our national security, but a very poor job of keeping track of how defense dollars are spent,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “Since the Pentagon is the largest federal department, the lack of transparency and accountability has made this delay even worse.” Channeling Tillerson, chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White said the move “demonstrates our commitment to fiscal responsibility and maximizing the value of every taxpayer dollar that is entrusted to us.” But others have put it more wryly: “Get ready for two years of ‘We didn’t ask for this platform, Congress told us we had to buy it.’”

Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills. Article originally published at The National Interest.

Why is America Addicted to Foreign Interventions?

By MONICA DUFFY TOFT • December 10, 2017

At a time when the United States is preparing to increase Pentagon spending and escalate troop deployments overseas, an analysis of U.S. military interventions since the country’s founding highlights two important and related dynamics.

First, the empirical distribution of military interventions––that is, the deployment of U.S. armed forces to other countries––is not evenly distributed; and in fact is highly skewed, in terms of frequency, to favor the historical period following the end of the Cold War (1991).

Second, U.S. military interventions since WWII have only rarely achieved their intended political objectives. That is, the United States has lost more than won; and when it has “won,” it has generally won at a cost far in excess of what would have been considered reasonable prior to the intervention.

This leads to an important puzzle: if U.S. military interventions are failing more often, what accounts for the dramatic increase in their use since 1991?

Basic Statistics

If we look at the distribution of the 392 U.S. military interventions since 1800 reported by the Congressional Research Service in October 2017 by fifty-year increments, the data show a dramatic increase: from 1800–1849 there were thirty-nine interventions; forty-seven from 1850–1899; sixty-nine from 1900–1949; 111 from 1950–1999; and 126 from 2000–2017—a period of only seventeen years as compared to fifty years in the other periods.

As these data reveal, the rate of intervention across time is not monotonic, but jumps during the two world war periods (1917–18), as well as the Cold War (1948–91). One implication being that the world wars forced the United States into a permanently international posture, and at the same time, as a consequence, resulted in the conscious development of reach: the raw and almost unique capacity among peer competitors to rapidly move armed forces across the globe and support them during sustained offensive operations.

If we further refine the data to compare Cold War and post–Cold War intervention rates, something truly striking emerges: while the United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.

These statistics introduce two important puzzles. First, why would military interventions rise at the same time success in military interventions has been declining? Second, why would military interventions increase after the Cold War, when both an ideological rationale for interventions (say, to rescue peoples in danger of falling into a Soviet, and by extension, authoritarian, orbit) and a material existential threat to U.S. national security (no more dominoes, a reduced threat of deliberate thermonuclear war) had declined? In other words, if the United States only intervenes with armed force when its vital interests are at stake, why intervene more often when there are arguably fewer vital interests at stake? The answer is that Washington too often intervenes militarily when it should not—and U.S. security and prosperity have both suffered as a result.

Winning at Losing

Since 1950, strong actors in asymmetric conflicts (not limited to, but certainly including the United States) have lost a majority of fights with nominally much weaker adversaries (up until 1950 strong actors had won a majority of such fights). As Ivan Arreguín-Toft revealed in his 2005 book, How the Weak Win Wars, large actors like the United States beat small actors such as Vietnam 88 percent of the time from 1800–49; and their chances of victory declined from there. They won 80 percent of their conflicts from 1850–99, but only 65 percent from 1900­–49. For the last period, 1950–98, success proved elusive. Strong actors—including the United States and Soviet Union, the two so-called ‘superpowers’—lost more wars than they won: losing 45 percent of the wars they fought.

An important theoretical contribution related to the above puzzles includes T.V. Paul’s (1993) and my own on time horizons as a rationalist explanation for war (2007). Paul’s work engaged the puzzle of why weak actors initiate armed conflicts with much stronger adversaries. Paul demonstrated that one answer to the question of how a rational actor might pick a fight with a much stronger adversary had to do with time horizons: often calculations of net benefit involve very short term assessments. If time is extended, the likelihood of net benefit plummets. Thus, it may be that something structural in U.S. calculations tends to concentrate assessments of risk and benefit into short time horizons, explaining both unwarranted optimism and a high failure rate. My work on time horizons demonstrated that Paul’s conjecture was correct: if two rational actors come to a conflict of interests with very different valuations of time-to-objective, they may find themselves escalating to unwanted war which in retrospect appears irrational.

A Nonthreatening Environment

Going forward we are left with a number of important questions. First, we know that along with material considerations, culture, identity, and history affect states calculations of the risks and benefits of military intervention. After years of struggle and investment, China has at last succeeded in creating a military and economy capable of securing it against any outside attack, but its history of insecurity and a desire to redress past ‘humiliations’ drive its calculations just as surely as material considerations. To outsiders, the past five years have called into question whether China remains insecure, as it insists, or is actually bent on global hegemony, which would be more consistent with its accelerated military spending and its provocative deployments in the South China Sea. Similarly, a common reading of recent increased U.S. military spending, along with its accelerated deployment of armed forces abroad, is that the United States is an aggressive power, committed to maintaining the post–Cold War status quo. So assuming states weigh gains and losses of national identity along with material costs and benefits in determining whether to intervene militarily abroad, how does identity compare? For example, in considering direct military intervention in Vietnam after 1963, what was more important to the United States? The material loss of a tiny and very distant ally, or its own reputation as leader of the free world, and defender of the weak?

Second, given the dismal record of failure in military interventions since WWII and especially after 1991, what accounts for its persistence as a tool of U.S. statecraft? One strong possibility is that the costs of failure––given the extraordinary reach of American armed forces and the relative geopolitical isolation of the continental United States––have never risen to the level of an existential threat as compared to the possibility of success, however small. Another is that military interventions both signal ‘toughness’ and, as just observed, don’t appear to entail a serious risk to U.S. sovereignty and security. Thus, the benefits for political elites in Washington, of looking tough outweigh the costs and risks of failure, which can almost always be blamed on factors beyond their control, or on political opponents or third parties. Our elites don’t pay the costs.

Finally, given that under very limited circumstances, a U.S. military intervention might prove a necessary option, what can we learn from past failures and successes to maximize the chances that future U.S. military intervention will succeed, and do so at an acceptable cost?

Answers in the academic literature include an emphasis on more modest political objectives (say, simply stopping whatever horrible thing is ongoing and then leaving), multilateral efforts (acting in tandem with allies entails considerable joint operations costs, but these are almost always redeemed by the boost in legitimacy multilateral efforts bring), ensuring long-term public support (U.S. support for publicly known military interventions rarely lasts more than three years, yet most experts agree that interventions capable of ‘winning the peace’ tend to require at least seven to ten years to succeed), and increased reliance on other-than-military resources in support of interventions (armed force will almost always be needed to some degree, but if as a proportion of resources applied armed force is excessive as compared to say, aid, law enforcement and diplomatic efforts, interventions will fail).

U.S. Military Interventions in the 2020s

The United States does not view itself as an aggressor state, but with the brief exception of the Obama administration (2009–16), whose core energies were absorbed with holding the U.S. and global economy together along with mitigating the impact of two unwinnable wars, the United States has become both more interventionist and less likely to cleave to its core principles of opposing genocide (e.g. Rwanda, Darfur) and abiding by the rule of law (e.g. Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib). It has fought two fantastically costly wars, won neither, and then insisted that Iran not acquire the means to defend itself. Allies and adversaries alike may therefore be forgiven for reimagining the United States as an aggressor and a possible threat to the international order.

The U.S. military currently counts over 1.3 million personnel on active duty, with over 450,000 of these currently stationed overseas. The United States spends more on its military than the next eight states combined, and still twice as much as China and Russia combined. Many continue to identify the period following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 as a “unipolar moment,” in which the United States was the sole remaining superpower. And the U.S. military is invariably referred to as the world’s most powerful by far. The problem is, even in the absence of the increased military spending currently planned, this characterization remains as true as it is irrelevant.

This is not because armed force no longer matters in international affairs. It is because, as neorealist theory emphasizes, no one likes a world in which only one state has the power to, in Thomas Hobbes’s formulation, “over awe” all others. Thus, those opposing U.S. “management” of the existing order have had to innovate a strategy for thwarting a state with the world’s strongest military, greatest geopolitical reach and most robust economy. Given that every strength is at the same time a weakness in different circumstances, we should be unsurprised that U.S. adversaries have been reluctant to challenge the United States where it is strong. But on the contrary, adversaries have worked tirelessly to identify and exploit U.S. vulnerabilities; and to innovate new ways to coerce without provoking an armed response (e.g. Russian strategy in Ukraine, now referred to most often as “hybrid” or “grey zone” warfare).

This process began in the 1940s with Mao Tse-Tung’s efforts to innovate a strategy capable of defeating a major advanced industrial state with only a peasant army. His “revolutionary guerrilla warfare” strategy turned out to have very little to do with Communism, and everything to do with nationalism; and it eventually succeeded in defeating the U.S.-supported Kuomintang with no outside material support. The core features of the People’s Liberation Army doctrine would be adapted by the Viet Minh against first France, and later the United States in Indochina and Vietnam (respectively). In the years since, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China have all proven adept at innovating ways to thwart U.S. efforts without challenging the U.S. military and its alliance partners head on, as Iraq (1991, 2003) and the Taliban (2001) attempted to do in the early 2000s with predictable results: they lost decisively.

What has emerged in the 2010s is a world in which Steven Pinker’s (2011) argument that ‘the world is less violent now than at any time in history’ is both true, and at the same time less relevant: as China’s ongoing transfer of trillions of dollars of intellectual property value from the United States (much by cyber intrusion, and much by forcing U.S. corporations seeking to manufacture in China to choose between short-term profits and long-term corporate and U.S. interests); and Russia’s overwhelming success in interfering with Britain’s referendum on EU membership and the U.S. presidential election in 2016 highlight, states are capable of doing each other massive harm without crossing the traditional ‘act of war’ threshold; without killing.

What then should an ideal U.S. military intervention strategy look like in the 2020s? Just as our adversaries adapted their strategies and associated resources to counter U.S. strengths, the United States must innovate new strategies for advancing its national interests going forward. This can be done by increasing economic and diplomatic power and reserving military power for vital interests—rather than spreading our values. This will result in increased effectiveness even as it also means fewer and fewer military interventions. Ironically, the ideal U.S. counter to Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and North Korean strategies is to avoid the preventive use of armed force (thus repudiating the post 9-11 strategy of offense as defense) and to devote a greater share of resources to resilience: to effective education, infrastructure innovation, health care reform, food security and equitable economic growth. An ideal strategic response to cyber threats would be to reduce our vulnerability by increased public education and regulatory pressure on the private sector to guard against cyber intrusions.

Taken together, democratic states will find it increasingly difficult to both remain open and privilege the rule of law, and secure their citizens from all threats and harm. The 2020s will be a decade in which all hopes rest on building a resilient citizenry here in America, not on a now clearly doomed strategy relying on hyper-threat inflation and the overuse of the sword.

Monica Duffy Toft is Professor of International Politics at the Tufts University and Member of the Council of Advisors at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. Article originally published at The National Interest.

Phony Virtue is Ruining Western Society

By WILLIAM S. SMITH • December 7, 2017

What counts as virtue among Western elites? As Aristotle teaches, if you can identify what a society considers to be virtuous or good, you can understand the moral outlook of that society’s institutions, from its schools to its foreign policy. One needs only to study any gathering of American elite culture to see that virtue, traditionally centered in personal character, has become redefined as public sympathy for humanitarian causes. When watching any cultural awards program, for example, one is treated to a parade of “beautiful” souls voicing support for myriad progressive causes. This moral preening has become so commonplace that a term has developed to characterize it: “virtue signaling.”

The West’s moral outlook is now animated by the widespread belief that virtue is measured by one’s professed sympathy for causes such as combating homelessness, extending civil rights for various protected groups, and decrying poverty in far-off places. The more publicly ostentatious one is in attaching oneself to these causes, the more virtue one is assigned by our elite culture.

Yet the continuing sex scandals of our elites are (pardon the phrase) laying bare the inadequacy of this definition of virtue. In Hollywood and other elite institutions, puffed-up paragons of “virtue” reign, but backstage are characters such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, people wholly lacking self-control, decency, moderation, temperance, and civility. In short, many of “the beautiful souls” who have been telling us how to live are reprobates–or protecting them, either tacitly or directly. While there are many perfectly praiseworthy philanthropies and social causes, the glib dismissal of personal probity and the substitution of a moralistic public commitment to “society” and “the world” has corroded our understanding of morality.

We might simply chalk this up to the everlasting tendency of human beings toward hypocrisy. Yet something more insidious is at work: Over the past 300 years, Western culture has overthrown its traditional understanding of virtue and replaced it with an ersatz morality. This revolution has allowed personally vile people to claim the loftiest moral standing while, in their daily lives, freely treating those around them with gross disrespect and abuse. The Clinton Foundation is the cleverest and most cynical exploitation of this perversion of virtue: associate yourself with a smorgasbord of progressive causes while grabbing as much money as you can. Solving the world’s problems is less important than the moral approval associated with one’s public commitment to solving them. In short, morally substandard and self-aggrandizing human beings are the very people who are now regularly engaged in moral preening.

Traditional moral philosophy once recognized that, within each individual, there are two selves. The human soul is made up of a range of impulses, desires, and passions, but there is also a voice in the soul that works to control these impulses and desires. St. Paul described this duality as the “law of the flesh” and the “law of the Spirit.” Virtue, traditionally understood, belonged to the individual who performed the inner work required to overcome unjust desires and shape his temperament according to something higher in his own nature. A person of character must subject impulse to self-control. Confucius put it this way: “That wherein the superior man cannot be equaled is simply this—his work which other men cannot see.”

This traditional understanding of virtue as inner ethical work is all but gone. Morality is no longer understood as reforming oneself, thus making oneself a better member of society, but as wishing to reform society. This new morality of social conscience has replaced the virtue of St. Paul and Aristotle, which combined an awareness of the darker side of our humanity with an effort to overcome it and develop our higher humanity. Though moral progress was possible, human flaws dictated humility and ruled out moral pretentiousness.

A central intellectual figure in the re-definition of virtue was the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rejecting the definition of virtue as ethical work and personal effort, Rousseau took precisely the opposite position: men are born good and virtue requires no ethical work. Goodness is found in spontaneous emotion, in sentimentality, and in instinct. Rousseau finds it in the noble savage, the “natural,” pre-social man who is untouched by the trappings, rules, and admonitions of civilization. For Rousseau’s strain of Romanticism, traditional checks upon impulse and desire are not virtues but vices. In Rousseau’s legacy, the irreverent and vulgar Bohemian emerges as more natural and good than the refined and polite gentleman. Virtue ceases to be a matter of character and personal action. It becomes an emotional sympathy with the plight of the downtrodden; the admirable are those who foment societal revolutions not those who master themselves. As the famous Harvard scholar Irving Babbitt remarked of Rousseau: “He was the inventor of that cant-phrase, ‘goodness of heart,’ which is everyday used as a substitute for probity, and means little more than the virtue of a dog or a horse.”

Rousseau’s understanding of morality has, of course, had great appeal in the West, for obvious reasons. His morality does not require that one train oneself to avoid very pleasurable vices; one can throw personal restraint to the wind and assume the mantle of virtue simply by attaching oneself to an approved “idealistic” social movement. Under the Rousseauistic notion of morality, one can, as Hollywood knows, simultaneously be vile and virtuous. Western theatergoers have, for 150 years, affirmed Rousseau’s ethics by cheering for Jean Valjean, the thief and ex-con in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, whose revolutionary fervor for the poor washes away any personal failings.

Rousseau’s destruction of the long-held definition of virtue has had disastrous effects on Western institutions, from the family to organized religion to government. But consider the impact in just two areas of American life: education and foreign policy. Elite higher education in the United States in the early 19th century entailed a curriculum that sought to reinforce the traditional understanding of virtue. Students read the classics, such as Plutarch’s Lives and the Bible, with the goal of becoming gentlemen who had the character, temperament, and knowledge to serve as national leaders. This earlier tradition of higher education was tarnished by class-based snobbery, overt racial discrimination, and the denial of opportunities for women—deficiencies that could have been corrected over time without throwing out a traditional understanding of morality. But the latter is precisely what the most famous reformers of higher education did.

In the late 19th century, Harvard President Charles Eliot sought to align the university mission with Rousseau’s understanding of virtue. The goal of higher education was not to produce leaders of superior character and probity, but to address social causes. “Service” to the nation and to mankind, not character, became the goal of higher education. Harvard, Eliot thought, must produce leaders who could run large companies, unlock the secrets of the atom, and find ways to alleviate the plight of the “lower classes.” Courses in the great Western classics that taught students about their own nature as moral beings became “electives” while courses designed to equip mankind for both scientific and humanitarian endeavors became the heart of the university, as it is today.

In politics, the re-definition of virtue in elite universities as “service to humanity” has produced a leadership class that believes American domestic and foreign policy is only “moral” when it involves humanitarian goals and crusading. American foreign policy, particularly in the post-Cold War era, has been characterized by self-glorifying and self-aggrandizing rhetoric about America’s global commitment to the great causes of democracy, human rights, international institutions, and the rule of law. Speeches by American policymakers have the same moral flavor as that perennial speech at the Oscars by a narcissistic Hollywood star claiming the mantle of virtue through an ostentatious display of his or her exceptional social conscience. The foreign-policy elites of both parties proclaim America as the “exceptional” nation, with no need to second-guess its actual behavior on the world stage, virtuous by the very nature of its noble pedigree. One may characterize this strain of foreign policy thinking in various ways, but “conservative” is not one of them.

The now century-old American foreign policy rhetoric, from Wilson’s commitment to make the world “safe for democracy” to George W. Bush’s goal of “ending tyranny in our world,” can only be described as virtue signaling. The yawning gap between our leaders’ moral preening and the concrete reality of our foreign policy was on full display in the flowery rhetoric and action of the president who launched the war in Iraq. Hubristically, he asserted that the “urgent requirement of our nation’s security” was to restore human rights and dignity given to all people by the “Maker of Heaven and earth.” The practical reality was gruesome for the Iraqi people and the soldiers who fought there, with thousands of dead and the unraveling of Iraqi society.

Bush asserted that America’s beautiful soul has the potential to redeem the world and that our foreign policy is the very handmaiden of the Almighty. Implied was that restraint in foreign policy does not apply to such a god-like nation and only those countries with non-beautiful souls—the not-so-exceptional ones—need to have their foreign policy circumscribed.

Yet, like the ersatz virtue of Hollywood, the reality of American foreign policy is not quite so morally lofty. America’s boastful virtue signaling against dictators, for example, has killed tens of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Syria, created a zombie state in Libya, and may some day instigate a nuclear war with Russia. As in Hollywood, at the forefront of American foreign policy are prideful proclamations of sympathy for the oppressed in other nations, but backstage one finds the droning of innocents and whole nations reduced to terrorism, famine, and anarchy.

It is an enormously welcome development that a plethora of realist scholars of foreign policy are emerging at prestigious places such as Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Notre Dame to point out the real-world consequences of this hubristic foreign policy. Desperately needed in diplomacy and national security policy are men and women of sagacity and real-life experience who can take the place of the crusading humanitarians.

Those wishing to change American foreign policy should also recognize the genuine appeal of our elites’ moralistic tone. As Aristotle recognized, all human beings and societies aim at “some good.” It is the highly dubious, even perverse moralism of our current foreign policy of redeeming mankind that needs to be replaced with a genuine morality and the realism that is indistinguishable from it. For a realist foreign policy to have broad appeal, particularly among young people, it must offer a persuasive account of the true nature of morality and a vision for foreign policy grounded in that sounder morality. Our leaders must begin to distinguish between real virtue and shoddy, destructive, ersatz virtue both in themselves and their nation.

William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. Article originally published in The American Conservative.

Samuel Huntington Was Not Like Steve Bannon

The late Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” paradigm has been taking a beating lately. His critics have warned that such a worldview portends a millenarian war between the West and Islam.

One reason for the pile-on is that Huntington’s theory has become associated with the views of Steve Bannon, who, as a call-in participant in a conference at the Vatican in 2014, was thought to have echoed Huntington when he declared that the West is now “in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.”

As also discussed by TAC’s Noah Millman, Stephen Walt of Harvard has labeled Bannon’s views “Huntingtonian” and argued that “seeing the future as a vast contest between abstract cultural groupings is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we assume the adherents of different religions or cultural groups are our sworn enemies, we are likely to act in ways that will make that a reality.” Cato’s Emma Ashford recently wrote in The National Interest: “The incoming administration seems to have fully embraced the ideas of Harvard historian Samuel Huntington, not only on the clash of civilizations, but on American decline, the idea of a West encircled by enemies, and even on immigration.”

But these commentators misunderstand the connection between Huntington’s views and Bannon’s. While Bannon does follow Huntington in seeing the world order as marked by civilizational clashes, the most prominent being the clash between Islam and the West, he has not adopted Huntington’s remedies for these clashes. Huntington forcefully argued that the leaders of the great world civilizations must seek common ground; Bannon’s focus is upon the clash itself.

These caricatures of Huntington’s theory, both by Bannon himself and by his critics, represent a serious problem for U.S. foreign-policy analysis, as Huntington was largely correct in his diagnosis of the problem. The foreign-policy establishment has never recognized the truth in what Huntington wrote about the New World Order: “In the post-Cold War world, for the first time in history, global politics has become multipolar and multicivilizational … the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural.” By stigmatizing, discounting, or ignoring a cultural analysis of world events, the foreign-policy establishment has been able to retain a deeply flawed worldview that has plunged the United States into a series of fruitless and costly military interventions. These have been motivated by what Robert Kagan called a “universalist ideology,” one with which he is in agreement, calling for exporting the values of the Declaration of Independence to all nations.

The catalytic event in this post-Cold War establishment foreign-policy consensus was the Gulf War, when the U.S. decided that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was an affront to these global values and could not stand. At the forefront was the rhetoric of a New World Order of universalist values enforced by the United States, but in the background was the reinstallation of a morally dubious regime in Kuwait by force of American arms, a subsequent massacre of Kurds by Saddam, and, most ominously, an endless and robust American military presence in the heart of Islamic civilization. President George H.W. Bush’s New World Order of liberal values and global institutions enforced by U.S. hegemony turned out to be a chimera as the cultural and ethnic enmities of the Middle East came to the fore.

The 2003 Iraq War was the crowning blunder of the establishment’s post-Cold War foreign policy. Marching under the banner of globalist democracy promotion and the need to cashier a supposedly rogue dictator, the U.S. initiated a destabilization of the entire Middle East, in effect delivering Iraq to Iran. It unleashed horrific sectarianism, wiped out ancient Christian communities, and helped to create a virulent terrorist cult that has spread throughout the Middle East and into Western Europe.

The Iraq War should have made clear that the greatest failure of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment in the post-Cold War period has been its inability to recognize that the world is increasingly organizing around civilizational categories and that the removal of rogue dictators in other civilizations does not midwife world order. The recent U.S. attack on the Assad regime willfully ignores the legacy of U.S. policy failures over decades.

Huntington’s view has been corroborated by a series of post-Cold War events that were, and continue to be, dominated by ethnic and cultural tensions. The civil strife in the Balkans, the division in Ukraine, Turkey’s increasing rejection of the West, the rampant civil wars in Africa, the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe, and even U.S. immigration politics all reflect a world in which peoples wish to ally themselves with those of a similar culture, including a similar religion and history. Civilizational clashes mark the New World Order as culturally alien nations and peoples no longer want to be forced together, either into artificially created nation-states or into alliances between alien civilizations. Most U.S. policymakers seem not to realize that the three main foreign-policy challenges of the U.S. have a prominent civilizational component: Islamic civilization wants the United States, and its culture, out of the Middle East with many groups resorting to terror tactics to accomplish this goal; Orthodox civilization, led by Russia, wants to limit U.S. meddling in historically Orthodox regions such as Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and views the U.S. and NATO as putting their civilization under pressure; and, in East Asia, China wants to limit U.S. influence as she feels herself the natural leader of a Sinic civilization.

All the traditional concepts of realism, such as balance of power, still apply to the modern world; however, the overlay to world competition is no longer ideological in the narrow sense, as during the Cold War, but predominantly civilizational, in the sense that deep historical-cultural allegiances motivate action. There is truth in Mr. Bannon’s view that the global struggles facing the United States are rooted in a clash of civilizations. The clash between the West and Islam may, as he contends, be the most prominent.

On the other hand, many on Bannon’s side who constantly affirm the reality of civilizational tensions—and insist, for example, that we must use the words “radical Islamic terrorism”—have adopted perhaps the worst possible strategy for addressing intercivilizational disputes. They continue to embrace a large “kinetic” U.S. military presence in the heart of a distant and different civilization. Why is it that “clash of civilization” advocates recognize the cultural problem of millions of Islamic migrants invading Western Europe but are seemingly oblivious of the deep resentments created by there being tens of thousands of Western troops in the heart of Islamic civilization? A clash between civilizations is always a two-way street, and civilizations that tend not to mix well tend not to mix well anywhere.

The failure to take into account civilizational tensions of the deeper sort identified by Huntington continues to bedevil our foreign-policy decisions. “Liberals” and “neoconservatives” in the Obama administration conducted one of the most reckless foreign-policy initiatives of recent decades when, in the name of universal “democratic” values, they backed an anti-Russian coup in Ukraine, a nation with deep historical and cultural connections to the Orthodox civilization of Russia. The Russian intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine after the coup was a not unpredictable reaction by the core state and representative of Orthodox civilization. Backing the coup was a civilizational provocation on the part of Western elites who seemed not to understand the deep bonds that unite those who have a common civilization. Many of the secular “citizens of the world” who populate our foreign-policy establishment, called “Davos Men” by Huntington, seem unsuited to manage many of our most important security challenges because these problems are rooted in cultural and religious loyalties that they do not understand or recognize.

In a world dominated by civilizational competition, the most provocative and foolish policy that a great power can adopt is to meddle directly in the affairs of a different civilization, as the United States continues to do as a matter of policy in numerous places around the world. Neither the Bannonites nor the establishmentarians seem to recognize how perilous and ultimately counterproductive this policy can be. Huntington wrote that it was “most important … to recognize that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.”

Contrary to the caricatures of his ideas, Huntington did not cheer on a “clash of civilizations.” He recommended that we simply recognize the reality of such a clash and develop strategies for maintaining peace within it. Huntington’s recommendation was to treasure and cultivate what is best in Western civilization—the rule of law, civil liberties, freedom of expression—but not to advocate the imposition of these values on other civilizations, especially not by force. What is necessary in Western statesmanship is a cosmopolitanism that places a premium upon noninterference and tolerance and that seeks to build on “commonalities” among all great civilizations. Peace, Huntington said, would “depend upon understanding and cooperation among the political, spiritual, and intellectual leaders of the world’s major civilizations.”

The strategies recommended by Huntington are almost the opposite of the policies that the U.S. has followed in recent decades. While the rule of law embodied in the Constitution continues to fray at home, we perpetually meddle in the affairs of other civilizations in ways that stir resentment. We do not generally seek cooperation with other civilizations by looking to what is best in them; instead we transform the leaders of other civilizations into bogeymen and turn them into our enemies, as in the current anti-Russia hysteria. Rather than seeking cooperation with Russia on a genuine and difficult problem like that of Ukraine, a nation torn between two civilizations, we project belligerence. Places such as Ukraine, where two civilizations are bumping up against each other, are precisely where the great powers must be willing to cooperate in order to avoid a conflagration.

If we are to avoid a world war, the United States must maintain defenses adequate to the realities of international competition, but it must also demonstrate magnanimity and a willingness to cooperate with the core states of other civilizations. As with any great power, Russia and China will on occasion adopt policies that represent challenges for the West. But we must recognize that they dominate civilizations with a cultural richness and depth that in some ways rival those of the West. As representatives of great civilizations they deserve a certain respect. Given that our massive military actions in the heart of the Islamic Middle East have, predictably, been counterproductive and even disastrous, and that tensions are rising between the U.S. and other great powers, it is high time to reinvigorate and develop Huntington’s ideas, not to ignore or caricature them. A great danger with the current Trump foreign-policy team is that it is divided into two factions, neither of which seems to have the knowledge and sophistication necessary to formulate strategy for a world of civilizational tension.

Therefore, one can take little solace in the fact that the Trump foreign policy appears now to be moving away from Steve Bannon’s “CLASH! of civilizations” paradigm and returning to the neoconservative outlook. According to the latter, the U.S. role in the world is that of a fatherly hegemon enforcing global values that transcend nations and civilizations. With astonishing speed and despite the loud campaign rhetoric about America First, the Crusader Nation seems to be reemerging, this time with Trumpian bravado, with a White House brimming with combat generals and an exploding defense budget.

It is possible that President Trump is still merely trying to show the leaders of the world that he carries a big stick and that behind the belligerent-looking façade he is actually setting the stage for the kind of long-term, noninterventionist foreign policy that he signaled during his presidential campaign. But so far he has seemed to be heading in a direction sharply at odds with what Samuel Huntington would have recommended.

William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.

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