The foreign policy debate in the United States has often been peculiar, in that it’s not infrequently about the United States rather than the world. Throughout history, other great powers have thought about world politics in terms of national interest. Americans typically think about the world through the prism of their image of America.
Thus in the 1920s and 1930s, American isolationists worried that American involvement in Europe’s bloody affairs would corrupt the United States. Two generations later, Vietnam-era neo-isolationists argued precisely the opposite: a racist, imperialist, militarist America (often spelled “Amerika”) was bad for the world. Good America, bad America: how Americans think about our own country has a profound effect on how we imagine U.S. foreign policy.
Thus in the wake of the recent murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, when an Egyptian demonstrator declares “We hate America” and USA Today headlines his declaration above-the-fold on Page 1, Americans (and those who would lead us) quickly divided into two camps. One camp, while deploring the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, immediately begins apologizing for alleged American hostility and insensitivity toward Islam. The other camp deplores intolerance but argues, correctly in my view, that stupidity is no excuse for homicide; this second camp also believes (again correctly, in my view) that the lethal attack on Ambassador Stevens and other U.S. diplomatic personnel had far more to do with the anniversary of 9/11, the cultural pathologies of the Arab Islamic world, the despair among jobless young Arab men, and a pattern of U.S. fecklessness in the face of Islamist aggression than it did with an idiotic film trailer shown on YouTube.
This division is mirrored in the Catholic debate about world politics, which reflects different understandings of the relative moral and prudential merits of conventional expressions of power (called “hard power”) and new forms of nonviolent political action (“soft power”). The soft power camp rightly points to the success of the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 in central and Eastern Europe, and argues that, if soft power could crack the Berlin Wall and put an end to the greatest tyranny in history, there’s no problem that the deft application of soft power can’t solve. While acknowledging the contributions of soft power to the communist crack-up, Catholic hard power advocates remember that that successful exercise in new modes of political action took place within a hard power context set by western re-armament under Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl and the Strategic Defense Initiative. In this view, soft power alone is no guarantor of peace, security and freedom, especially when the West is confronted with the irrational passions of jihadist Islam.
Despite the priority that the next president and Congress will necessarily give to fixing a broken U.S. economy, America’s leaders must also confront grave foreign problems that will not be wished away.
The jihadists smell American weakness and irresolution; and history has taught us the harsh lessons of where that perception can lead.
Religious freedom is under assault throughout the world, with thousands of new martyrs being consecrated annually; yet the present administration has, for almost three years, refused to promote religious freedom in full (dumbing religious freedom down to a mere “freedom to worship”)—just as the previous administration did not grasp that the assault on Christians in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was symptomatic of serious problems which any effort at democracy-building in those societies had to confront.
Russia has indeed accepted the present administration’s offer of a “re-set,” except the “re-set” is likely not what the administration anticipated: Vladimir Putin has “re-set” Russian grand strategy back to the days of Peter the Great, aiming to recover the losses incurred by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This, in turn, has created new pressures on the new democracies of central and Eastern Europe, some of whom are making accommodations with Moscow in light of a perceived American withdrawal from world leadership.
Americans are not imperialists by nature; yet history has thrust global responsibilities upon us. How shall we respond? From behind? Or from ahead?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.