by WILLIAM S. SMITH
There is an endless stream of commentary on what a Biden administration will do in foreign and domestic policy. Some writers seem prescient, others seem like gossip and speculation. However, you need not be a Beltway policy wonk to understand the moral, spiritual and ethical outlook of the Establishment elites who will be on Biden’s staff — and therefore to know what their policy prescriptions will entail.
Classical political philosophy understood that all political problems are downstream from moral and spiritual problems. And, in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau destroyed the West’s understanding of morality and spirituality, setting the stage for our current confusions.
For thousands of years, in both East and West, virtue was understood as the personal struggle to overcome the passions within oneself or, quite simply, to exert control over one’s impulses and desires. Rousseau turned this outlook on its head and insisted that virtue did not involve personal moral character but was instead indistinguishable from ‘sympathy’ for various social causes. Rousseau replaced personal virtue and moral character with ‘humanitarianism’.
This Rousseauistic outlook is precisely what drives the world view of our contemporary elites. In fact, the more highly educated they are, the more likely they are to associate strong moral character with people who simply support the correct humanitarian causes, not with people who display impeccable personal probity. The Harvard-educated elites who will staff the Biden administration are, first and foremost, secular humanitarians who do not believe that the most important goal in life is to set oneself right; they believe the goal of life is to set the world right.
It is quite easy to predict the policy prescriptions of secular humanitarians. An older understanding of human nature made leaders acutely aware that society is the soul written in larger letters — and therefore the goal of civilization is to create good people. That is, if you have rotten people, you will have a rotten society.
Humanitarians do not believe this. In their view, domestic problems are not driven by selfish people shirking their personal responsibilities to their offspring or treating others shabbily. Instead, domestic disorder is driven by the failure of the government, most always the distant federal government, to provide robust social programs. For people with this outlook, the panoply of humanitarian projects is limitless, and you assume the mantle of virtue by proposing and constructing them. To oppose these projects is to oppose virtue itself. Selfishness is not a personal vice; it is a policy position in opposition to humanitarian social programs.
In domestic policy, Biden’s humanitarian projects will inevitably slow economic growth, incentivize greater family and community breakdown and subject citizens to more faceless and remote bureaucracy. But it is on the foreign policy stage that the humanitarian outlook becomes most dangerous for, in world affairs, humanitarianism is indistinguishable from brutal imperialism and can cause major wars. Virtually all post-Cold War US foreign policy disasters — from Mogadishu to Iraq to Libya — were launched on humanitarian grounds. Afghanistan became a fiasco because our elites converted it from a fully justified national security action to a never-ending humanitarian quest for women’s rights and Afghani healthcare.
Biden’s foreign policy team will inevitably return to the pre-Trumpian belief that virtue in foreign policy is tightly bound up with crusades for democracy, human rights and a new world order. This outlook invites disaster, as we have seen.
As the great Harvard professor Irving Babbitt wrote in 1925: ‘The humanitarian would, of course, have us meddle in foreign affairs as part of his program of world service. Unfortunately, it is more difficult than he supposes to engage in such a program without getting involved in a program of world empire.’
So we know the moral outlook of those who will drive the Biden foreign policy: they will be meddling humanitarians on the world stage, always ready to condescend to, or even wage war upon, those who do not possess their understanding of a ‘virtuous’ foreign policy. As part of their program of world service, they will of course seek to ‘strengthen alliances’ and ‘support multilateral organizations’ but, as we have seen from our foreign policy establishment for decades, those nations who are intransigent about these humanitarian causes will face the barrel of a gun. It has long been clear that our humanitarian foreign policy is an imperial project, and we are about to return to this project.
Our political difficulties are not driven by our failure to arrive at the best ‘policy’ options. Our politics are broken because our elites possess an ersatz morality through their association of virtue with humanitarianism. The term ‘virtue-signaling’ is in such common parlance precisely because people intuit that when you define morality as support for various social causes, this is a form of easy and phony virtue, not virtue itself. Our leaders, even some of our religious leaders, no longer understand that good societies emerge when they create good people — not from a proliferation of humanitarian crusades.
William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press.