17 May 2011

Tory (as opposed to Whig) Interventionism

History waits for no one. And neither, apparently, do the good people of Syria. Talk about sweet reversals. About the Great Destabilizer at last suffering some serious instability. (Though God help us all when/if it starts to boil over.) Anyhow - and regardless of how it ends up - there's a certain delicious irony in the fact that it's happening at all. Really, it's enough of a novelty to leave even us Yanks perplexed, and short-winded.

Not that it should, necessarily. America has always prided itself on the ease and enthusiasm with which it embraces the new. At least our OSAC (Officially Sponsored American Culture) always has. Nor am I suggesting that that pride is unjustified, or that our love of novelty has always been ill-judged. Personally I can't imagine a time in our history when there's been more urgent need to embrace the new. Indeed, I find today's America to be about as ripe as it shall ever be for a new tradition in foreign policy. A foreign policy not merely revolutionary - we've had quite enough of that already - but really new. I mean one that is conservative, in the broadest, deepest, and probably oldest sense of the word. Much older than the legacies of Barry Goldwater, or even Robert A Taft. And drawn from places at once more ancient and more permanent than either Ohio or Arizona. Places like Jerusalem, and Athens. Perhaps even occasionally Rome and Constantinople. And lastly, a foreign policy that is - some might even say - more genuinely nationalistic than anything we've ever known. I don't much care for the latter phrase, as I've indicated elsewhere. But I think I have an idea of what they might mean.

But in order for you to understand more clearly what I'm getting at, I need to ask you to exercise (as I always do) a little imagination.

Imagine a United States that understands - understands willingly and gratefully - a certain corollary of what is for Christians an indisputable fact. For it is a fact that America has absolutely no power within itself to be the earth's salt (which is the job of Christians everywhere). But that doesn't mean America has either the right or the duty to appoint itself to be the earth's solvent. Or even to be its own solvent. Today, indeed, we Americans may lack even the power to form among ourselves a more perfect union. But that doesn't mean we have the duty to enforce among ourselves a more thorough separation.

Let me see if I can explain a bit further. It is a fact that you can't compel widely disparate human individuals to recognize and value each other's common humanity - and hence each other's common need for salvation (and that quite regardless of how contemptibly idle you are, or how commendably industrious I happen to be). But that doesn't mean you're morally obliged to do the opposite: to create those conditions under which recognition of that commonality becomes increasingly difficult, if not all but humanly impossible. Those precise conditions are, in fact, what creates the breeding-grounds of sin, which in itself is nothing to mess with. Indeed, it is precisely this failure or refusal - on my part or yours - to acknowledge our common humanity that makes it easiest for us to sin in really big ways (to give each other the royal shaft, so to speak): this strange sense I have that, however lowly I may be relative to the God, why, I'm practically a god myself compared to you. And the fact that you or I can never be God does not give either of us the right to play Satan, whether as despot or as tempter. It is no more right to encourage a system that brings out the aggressive worst in each of us - a system of rigid class based on wealth, intelligence, productivity or accomplishment - than it is to acquiesce in a system that's always brought forth our passive human worst - a system of rigid caste based on race, birth, parentage or connections. And there are times, I believe, when encouraging a hierarchy of merit can be every bit as dangerous to a place's military preparedness - to its people's capacity to defend and care for and even cultivate themselves - as accepting a hierarchy of birth can be to that place's civilian productivity.

My point is there are times when we Yanks need to ignore, or set aside, those caste barriers that are apparently so conducive to a robust global economy, and yet potentially so inimical to both national and global security. Times when even a people as proudly individualistic, and as upwardly aspiring, as Americans need to close ranks with those beneath them. And even to regard their supposed inferiors, in the words of Scrooge's immortal nephew Fred, more nearly "as fellow-passengers to the grave, and not as a race of creatures bound on other journeys." Times, in short, when Americans of every description have both a right and a need to act together as a nation, in addition to doing what they already do so well: acting separately and oppositely, as cross-sections of transnational economic, professional, religious and ideological interests.

And to me that means again - and today more than ever - that America needs a new tradition of foreign policy. One that is both patriotic - in the sense of loving unashamedly both the American place, and the American people, for no other reason than because they belong to us - and interventionist, not because the rest of the world also belongs to us, but because other countries have a no less compelling need to belong to themselves. That is, we need to become more interventionist, not nearly as much by interfering in other countries' internal affairs (though that may sometimes be necessary), as by interfering in certain things we're already doing in those countries' internal affairs. Things we're doing, in an effort to make certain countries "more like us," that are based on the rather bizarre assumption that these countries are already like us. Things we've done, like more or less extortionately liberalizing the economies of Egypt and Russia, while making almost no effort to foster in those countries what are surely the institutional foundations of any decent capitalism: rule of law, property rights, a fraternal sense of being one nation, and - last but never least - representative democracy. Finally, things we've been doing that, without anyone in the least intending them to,* are making all sorts of countries an instability and a danger, perhaps even a tinderbox. And not just to themselves or to their immediate neighbors, but sometimes even to us.

* Most of the time we're only trying to make a humble profit, by engaging with like-minded individuals everywhere irrespective of their national origins (I mean they're all Americans at heart, aren't they?).

Above all, I believe we Americans need to be more patiently and delicately interventionist, not so much because of our already keen sense of moral exceptionality - our sense of superiority and immunity to the problems afflicting "lesser" countries and peoples - as because of an even sharper sense of our moral responsibility. Because after all, no mess that a country finds itself in is ever entirely its own fault. At least not in the extremely interdependent world America has succeeded in networking. In a few cases it may even be a fault in which Americans have had a considerable share. And letting a country stew in "its own" juices - particularly when not a few of the ingredients suggest US as well as local chefs - is no insurance that the pot won't boil over.

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