The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America's Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest
By Walter A. McDougall
Publisher: Yale University Press
Review Author: David J. Peterson
As the Soviet Empire dissolved, fear of a nuclear conflagration lifted and citizens envisioned a return to normalcy. Nearly everyone believed that the U.S. would refocus its resources on domestic problems while reaping a substantial “peace dividend” from reduced military obligations. One celebrated historian forecasted “the end of history,” a golden age of expanded freedom and democracy worldwide. Nevertheless, history soon staged a comeback as new battlegrounds emerged around the globe. The following decades proved active ones for America’s military, which was deployed to regional conflicts in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East.
A short time after 9/11, George W. Bush declared that “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation.” Our task, he avowed, must be “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” What came next? U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — wars that have continued for 15 years, with 25,000 American dead and wounded, at a cost of $4 trillion and growing.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, a crucial debate was rekindled: Had the country’s leaders gone astray, and would a more prudent and restrained approach better assure our safety? For historian Walter A. McDougall, the answer is obvious. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has been an outspoken critic of America’s “war on terror.” His new book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, refutes the various arguments that underlie post-Cold War policies. McDougall argues that the so-called Washington Consensus — the project to remake non-Western cultures into stable democracies — is based on a utopian vision that upends any genuine understanding of our national heritage.
Since our republic’s founding, says McDougall, Americans have believed that we are a blessed people whose self-government is unprecedented and guided by the hand of Providence. Our ordered liberty has been likened to a “shining city on a hill,” our heritage of individual rights and democracy lauded by people everywhere. Now we must ask whether it is necessary, or even legitimate, for the U.S. to exercise a sort of grand hegemony as the world’s only superpower. The dominant view is illustrated by historian Robert Kagan, who writes in Dangerous Nation (2006) that American “core values” have always been “revolutionary.” Rather than pragmatists, the American colonists were idealists committed to a set of principles that incorporated universal natural rights granted by God and enjoyed by all men regardless of culture, nationality, and history. Thus, all our wars, Kagan believes, “have been selfless quests to expand freedom and natural rights.”
After 9/11, the notion that the U.S. must use force to shape world events became ubiquitous. In Just War Against Terror (2003) the late Jean Bethke Elshtain explained the principle of “equal regard,” which “underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The esteemed professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago rhetorically asked, “If the claim to justice as equal regard applies to all persons without distinction, shouldn’t an international body be its guarantor and enforcer?” She then answered, “Perhaps; but in our less-than-ideal world, the one candidate to guarantee this principle is the United States.” There’s no doubt, she said, that “as the world’s superpower, America bears the responsibility to help guarantee that international stability, whether much of the world wants it or not.” This brand of U.S. activism was previously backed by diplomats such as Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state under Bill Clinton, who defended the 1999 U.S. bombing of Kosovo as a “humanitarian war.” She said “war is our option” because “we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”
McDougall identifies a list of traditions that constitute our foreign-policy heritage. The first group, associated with the 19th century, includes liberty, which embraces “sovereignty and freedom at home” but opposes export of American ideology; isolationism, which cautions against binding alliances with foreign powers; and manifest destiny, which blesses territorial expansion throughout the continent. According to McDougall, the federal government adopted a strategy derived from George Washington’s farewell address and continued, in most respects, by his successors. As the U.S. expanded, people migrated or were assimilated into new territories, democratic reforms followed the flag, and American statesmen resisted the impulse to export liberty via conquest or revolution. In foreign affairs, they accepted the counsel of John Quincy Adams, who observed that America gives its ardent support to those anywhere who seek liberty and resist tyranny, “but she goes not abroad in seeking monsters to destroy.” Adams warned that once we start to take on foreign imperial missions, our freedoms would disappear and the country would be reduced to tyranny.
Regrettably, in McDougall’s view, our national priorities began to change early in the 20th century as a host of competing traditions vied for allegiance. The two most consequential of these are liberal internationalism, an effort to spread American institutions and democracy worldwide, and global meliorism, an effort to assist less-developed countries through foreign aid and American-style democratic norms. The crucial departure began with the progressive and universalist doctrines of Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian who crafted an overtly moralistic foreign policy. Adopting the rhetoric of universal rights, national self-determination, and worldwide democracy, Wilson committed U.S. forces to Europe in World War I, declaring that “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” The 22nd president insisted that we were not simply taking sides in the hideous conflict; instead, we had a duty to establish an era of permanent worldwide peace through fighting a “war to end all wars.”
Although controversial, the idea of the U.S. as an instrument of world transformation has a long history; its fervor among certain American Protestants even predates the American Revolution. In a 1900 speech, Indiana senator Albert J. Beveridge instructed his fellow congressmen, “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing…. Of all our race He marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.” McDougall cites Robert Bellah’s influential 1967 essay identifying an American civil religion and Ernest Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (1968), both which focus on the idea of Americans as destined to do the work of the Almighty.
Like Bellah, McDougall believes that our civil religion has often served as a salutary ecumenical model to unify and uplift a diverse nation. But religious rhetoric can readily be misused for grandiose and irresponsible endeavors, as politicians are eager to claim the blessing of God in their national undertakings. Nonetheless, says McDougall, “All the founders believed in the incorrigible imperfection of human nature (original sin) or its philosophical equivalent, the universal tendency toward selfishness and faction.” The Gospels instruct us to reject making an idol of earthly ambitions and counsel “seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” Replacement of true religion with a quest for an earthly paradise has led to governance with no moral center. McDougall is among those scholars who suggest that America’s zeal and determination to export our economic system and popular culture worldwide could be fomenting the very turmoil we now must combat.
The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis
By Daniel Utrecht
Publisher: TAN Books
Review Author: Elizabeth Hanink
Two of the cardinal virtues, prudence and fortitude, often appear at war within us. We have either one in abundance or the other. In classical thought, the aim is to have the two balanced, along with justice and temperance. Clemens August Cardinal von Galen — beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 — seems to have had all in heroic measure. And that is a good thing, given that he lived during one of the most difficult times in recent history: the reign of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Von Galen’s profound love of Germany, her people and history, coupled with a deep respect for the rule of law and the duties of citizenship, led to conflict with his nation’s rulers. His episcopal motto, Nec laudibus, Nec timore (neither by flattery nor by fear), taken from the text of the ordination Mass, served him well.
Von Galen brought to his role as a leader in the Church a sure faith, an engaged mind, and a fierce discipline, all nurtured from childhood by devoutly Catholic parents and an assortment of clergy relatives. In turn, his most vigorous efforts were directed at protecting the Catholic children in his diocese. They were at risk, perhaps not from death but from propaganda forced on them by leaders of youth groups, teachers in schools, and friends who succumbed to the anti-Christian ideology of the Nazi Party.
Bishop von Galen’s opposition to the regime was varied: sometimes oblique, sometimes confrontational. His sermons were direct and had influence beyond the congregation in the pews. The one he delivered on August 3, 1941 — one of three given particular note by Daniel Utrecht in The Lion of Münster — was based on Luke 19, wherein Jesus looks over Jerusalem and weeps. Von Galen calls attention to the increasing rumors of euthanasia in the country’s institutions for the mentally ill, decrying the practice that “would justify the murder of the innocent, that gives a fundamental license for the violent killing of those invalids, cripples, incurable sick, and weak old persons who are no longer able to work!” The bishop continues, “Then woe to our brave soldiers who return to their homeland severely wounded, as cripples, as invalids. Once it is granted that people have the right to kill ‘unproductive’ fellow human beings — even if at the moment it affects only the poor defenseless mentally ill — then in principle the right has been given to murder all unproductive people.” Von Galen had a knack for bringing home to people the consequences of their actions, appealing to self-interest if necessary. The idea that wounded soldiers who had sacrificed much for the nation could easily, upon returning home, also be put to death caused even supporters of the Nazis to take notice. He then asks, “How do things stand in Germany, how do things stand with us here, in regard to obedience to God’s commandments?”
In part, the arrogance of the Nazi authorities helped saved von Galen from more personal and deadly assaults. The leaders hoped to steer the churches toward the regime rather than to provoke them. Then later, after victory, they would confiscate all church property. Utrecht quotes a 1942 dinner conversation wherein Hitler “told his associates that after the final victory, he would have a reckoning with von Galen ‘down to the last penny.'” As Goebbels maintained, “Revenge should be enjoyed, not hot, but cold.”
The Lion of Münster has some flaws. Utrecht is not a professional historian and relies on a narrow set of references. There is almost no mention of von Galen’s defense of the Jewish population in his diocese, and that is quite noticeable in a book that catalogues in considerable detail most of what the bishop said and wrote to defend Catholics. Perhaps that is a fault of von Galen, not the author’s omission. But Utrecht’s discussion of this lack of intervention is inadequate: To speak up for the Jews, he says, was tantamount to causing them more attention and more harm. The whole question merits more consideration.
Still, there are lessons to draw from von Galen’s life and apply to our own, among them the need to trace social, political, and economic questions back to first principles. This von Galen did when dissecting Nazi and communist propaganda. To criticize the state or its leaders is not to denigrate a people or nation, but rather to protect both from straying into evil ways. The solidarity of his flock served to tie the hands of von Galen’s adversaries and kept him free to proclaim the Gospel in its full truth.
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As soon as ethics chooses to sever its contact with religion -- as is fashionable in our decadent society -- it becomes a caricature of any true ethics.