Internationalisms (Public Square)

Richard John Neuhaus

Father Richard John Neuhaus founded The Institute on Religion and Public Life, publisher of First Things journal. Neuhaus, best known as a former anti-Vietnam-war activist turned conservative and author of The Naked Public Square, serves as editor-in-chief of First Things. He regularly contributes essays and his monthly column, Public Square, and serves on the board of many influential neoconservative organizations. U.S. News and World Report named Father Neuhaus one of 32 "most influential intellectuals in America."

Among the most oft-quoted statements on American foreign policy is that of John Quincy Adams in 1821: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” At the same time, as John Lewis Gaddis underscores in his recent book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, the same John Quincy Adams laid the foundation for a lasting policy of unapologetic unilateralism, including preemptive military action, when American interests are at stake. Defenders of the Bush administration’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq point out that these were not instances of going abroad seeking monsters to destroy. On September 11, the monsters came to us, making no secret of their desire to destroy us. No matter who had been President, the response to September 11 would have been dramatic and probably would have included military action on a greater or lesser scale. But that does not settle the arguments over the justice or wisdom of what President Bush decided to do.

In these pages we have published lively—some might say harsh—exchanges on the Bush policy by Rowan Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and Jean Bethke Elshtain. George Weigel, writing chiefly in defense of the just war tradition, was also supportive of the direction of administration policy. My own comments in this section, following the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, were critical of religious leaders who had donned the mantle of prophets in predicting a holocaust of civilian casualties and an America bogged down in “another Vietnam.” After the outrages of Abu Ghraib were revealed, I sharply challenged Alan Dershowitz and other writers who advocated the moral legitimation of torture. But as some readers have pointed out, either in praise or complaint, the war on terror has not been center stage in these pages. The editors, of course, are responsible for deciding what subjects have priority in “a journal of religion, culture, and public life.” With respect to the thousands of unsolicited manuscripts received, and in commissioning articles, we regularly ask two questions: Does this fit the distinctive purpose of First Things? Does this advance the discussion of the issue addressed? In considering articles and reviews, we tend to shy away from subjects that are amply, and more or less adequately, addressed in other publications. Editing is an exercise in the art of discretion, and such judgment calls are eminently debatable; as, indeed, they are debated among the editors.

In relation to foreign policy, we have a most particular interest in preserving, clarifying, and refining just war doctrine. That tradition of thought, dating back at least to St. Augustine, is indispensable to avoiding the trap of being caught between various pacifisms, on the one hand, and, on the other, the amoral maxim that, in love and war, “anything goes.” The reasons for going to war (ad bellum) and conduct in war (in bello) must be subject to disciplined moral reflection. Here First Things has a special responsibility, for these questions are generally not addressed with systematic care in publications such as the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, or National Review. In a forthcoming issue we will have a major article on the history and development of just war thinking by James Turner Johnson, who is probably the world’s premier authority on the subject. It is objected that just war doctrine has not prevented wars, in response to which it might be observed that the Sixth Commandment has not prevented people from committing adultery. Questions of war and warfare must not be permitted to escape the orbit of moral scrutiny. Nor is it helpful to view these questions through the prism of partisan politics, which has generally been the norm since September 11.

Conflicting Internationalisms

Yet conflicting visions of America’s role in the world—visions resulting in partisan alignments and realignments—also have a powerful bearing on how we think about questions of war and peace. We are witnessing today what might be described as a conflict of internationalisms. Some writers have claimed that “the conservative movement” is now splitting along the old divide between isolationists and internationalists. Old-fashioned isolationism is associated with the likes of Senator Robert Taft and Charles Lindbergh (the latter being the subject of a new historical fantasy by novelist Philip Roth). Figures such as George F. Will and Pat Buchanan are cited as representing that strain of thought today. In his more intemperate jeremiads about the American republic succumbing to the lust for empire, Buchanan fits the isolationist stereotype, as do publications such as Chronicles and the Southern Partisan. George Will, on the other hand, has been critical of what he views as the overreach of Bush’s war on terrorism but understands the inevitability, for better and worse, of America’s unprecedented dominance in world affairs, and the international and transnational entanglements that dominance necessarily entails. He is an internationalist.

But that internationalism is different from the vision proposed by, for instance, the Weekly Standard or Norman Podhoretz’s recent article in the September issue of Commentary, “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have To Win.” This is the assertive internationalism regularly and somewhat misleadingly attributed to those called “neoconservatives.” Some call it, meaning no compliment, democratic globalism. There is yet a third internationalism, represented by John Kerry and reflecting the consensus within what is described as the “foreign policy establishment.” I am obviously painting with broad strokes, but this third internationalism is strongly committed to international institutions, international law, and coordination with countries similarly committed, in order to ensure that U.S. policies pass “the global test,” to borrow a phrase Senator Kerry used in debate with President Bush. In this view, it is suggested that the war on terror is more accurately described as a defensive police action against criminal activities. The goal is to contain terrorism, if necessary by killing some terrorists, and to do so in a way that does not provoke further anger against America. One important way to do that is to make sure that America acts in concert with other nations, preferably through the United Nations, which bestows “moral legitimacy” on what is to be done.

Of these three internationalisms, the first two are agreed that America must remain the master of its own policies. A new book by Jeremy Rabkin of Cornell University is a great help in sorting out the contending arguments. The book is The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence (AEI Press, 255 pp., $25). The book is praised by both George Will and Robert Kagan, contributing editor of the Weekly Standard. Rabkin is especially astute in challenging the legitimacy, never mind the power to bestow moral legitimation, of institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the UN. International law that is not derived from or accountable to a political sovereign is doubtfully law at all, and is certainly not what the Declaration of Independence calls just government derived from the consent of the governed. Since Rabkin wrote the book, the corruption and criminal activity of the UN has become glaringly evident in, for instance, the “Oil for Food” program that was so skillfully manipulated for years by Saddam Hussein. Apart from corruption and crime, however, Rabkin’s argument goes to the heart of the question of how and by whom force can be responsibly used in world affairs. He makes a persuasive case that world peace and human rights are better secured by the judicious exercise of national sovereignty (and not only American sovereignty) than by institutions that speak for and are answerable to an amorphous “international community.”

International affairs continues to be, in the phrase of Hans Morgenthau, “politics among nations.” The Augustinian sensibility of a Reinhold Niebuhr is still required for deflating utopianisms and recognizing interests in conflict, and to do so with a realism that does not succumb to cynicism. Moral judgment is necessary, as is the awareness of different moralities in conflict. Politics among nations may also be politics among cultures, resulting in, as Samuel Huntington put it, a clash of civilizations. In the war on terror, we have been too reticent in acknowledging the challenge posed by Islam’s culture, morality, and very different civilizational aspirations. It is understandable that political leaders are eager not to define the conflict in terms of religious warfare, but that does not require speaking of Islam as a religion of peace that a few fanatics have hijacked for their lethal purposes. We must hope that there are Muslim thinkers of influence who will succeed in setting it right, but there is something terribly wrong with Islam in its inability to get along with the non-Muslim world. Almost everywhere we witness what Huntington calls “the bloody borders of Islam.” Most Muslims, like most people everywhere, may be decent and lovers of peace. But as an Egyptian newspaper, addressing recent events with refreshing candor, told its Muslim readership, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the terrorists are Muslim.” There is perhaps a better phrase than clash of civilizations, but we are in for a very long struggle.

Americans and those on our side of the clash should stop depicting the struggle in terms that Niebuhr described as “the children of light against the children of darkness.” To be sure, there is a conflict between good and evil—as in the deliberate targeting of the innocent and the publicized beheadings of hostages. But, in the larger picture of world affairs, neither good nor evil is as unmixed as we would like to think. We need to abandon the conceit that they hate us only because of how wonderful we are—how free, how productive, how powerful, how rich, and (repeat ten times) how free. No doubt there is ressentiment, but it is ressentiment with a multitude of reasons that we need to understand, if not accept. Islam was for a thousand years a civilization of triumphant conquest, until it was forced into retreat and centuries of being dominated, humiliated, and manipulated by the West, which, it is never forgotten by Muslims, is the Christian West. As for our blessed freedom, it has also brought to the world pornography, abortion, irreligion, and rampant licentiousness in the name of liberty.

On balance and considering the alternatives, America has been and is an influence for good in the world. Among the great and good things about America is our experiment in constitutional democracy that, while severely compromised, has not been ended. That experiment has been an inspiration for many others, but it is doubtful that it should be viewed as a global prescription, and certainly not a prescription we can compel others to accept. I believe that military action in removing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq could be morally justified on the basis of what was known then. Some of what almost all informed people thought they knew then has turned out not to be the case. Saddam Hussein’s presumed possession of and ability to use weapons of mass destruction is the most obvious instance. What is known in retrospect has led to long second thoughts, and not only about the competence of the intelligence services. I am not persuaded that post-war policies in Iraq have been, as so many claim, an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the timetable for post-war transition that was set out more than a year ago appears to be more or less on track. Of course mistakes were made and are being made. That comes with what is aptly called the fog of war. There is no reason why generals and their political superiors should publicly catalogue their mistakes, and many reasons why they shouldn’t, not least being the morale of the troops under their command. Those who condemn the war because soldiers and innocent civilians are killed and maimed are not being serious. That is what happens in war, and is a very good reason for avoiding war. War is always, as John Paul II said on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, a failure for mankind. There ought to be better ways of resolving conflicts and containing evil. But sometimes war is justified and necessary. There is a lively and legitimate argument about whether, knowing what we know now, this war was justified and necessary. That argument should be conducted in the awareness that leaders do not have the convenience of making decisions retrospectively. Wherever one comes down in that argument, it is to be hoped that the U.S. policy in Iraq succeeds, not least because for America to fail in such a momentous undertaking, and to be seen to have failed, would have ominous consequences for the future of world peace and stability.

Defining Success

What does it mean to succeed? Certainly not that next year or ten years from now democracy will be securely achieved in Afghanistan or Iraq. That, I expect, will not happen. Maybe politicians feel it necessary to use the term democracy because of our impoverished vocabulary in which democracy simply means government that is more or less decent. Such usage, however, is gravely misleading. If by democracy we mean liberal, constitutional, representative government, it is a difficult and rare achievement and is not securely achieved even among us who have been at it for a very long time. Talk about establishing democracy in Iraq and then in the greater Middle East can be delusory. Maybe a hundred years from now, but that is beyond the control of today’s decision makers. Equally wrongheaded is the equation of democracy with holding elections. As we discovered in Algeria in 1992 and may yet discover in Afghanistan and Iraq, popular elections can end up putting the fanatics in power. That, for instance, would likely be the result were the royal family of Saudi Arabia to yield to popularly elected government tomorrow.

In these pages, we have adumbrated in a thousand different ways why politics is in largest part dependent upon culture, and why culture is the product of a morality and meaning most deeply grounded in religion. On all these scores, the Islamic world is grievously impoverished. That does not mean Islamic nations are not capable of democracy. It does mean democracy will require deep and difficult transformations not just in politics but, much more importantly, in culture, morality, and religion. That almost certainly will not happen in the foreseeable future, and nobody should suggest that the success of American policy depends upon its happening. Success in Iraq is, in no small part, having removed the regime of Saddam Hussein, thus ending the monstrous rule of a systematic perpetrator of crimes against humanity. Success is in demonstrating that America has the capacity and will to respond when attacked. In that connection, the final report of Charles Duelfer and the Iraq Study Group leaves little doubt in my mind that Saddam had the intention and, if America had dallied or left it to the UN, would have had the weaponry to dominate the Middle East and, in collusion with terrorist networks, inflict massive damage on America and the West. Finally, success will be if, three or thirty years from now, Afghanistan and Iraq have reasonably decent and stable governments, operating under something believably like the rule of law and generally respecting the civil rights of their citizens. If Iraq were, in time, to lead the nations of the region in bringing about a more responsible government in Palestine and making peace with Israel, that would be great success.

Internationalism of Circumstance

With few exceptions, we are all internationalists now. We have little choice in the matter. Jefferson worried whether our form of government could survive expansion on a continental scale. Now, by force of both intention and happenstance, our sphere of power and responsibility has expanded far beyond that. The liberal internationalism of diminished sovereignty is an abdication of responsibility and would be neither in our interest nor in the interest of world peace. The internationalism of global crusading for democracy is a delusion fraught with temptations to the hubris that has been the tragic undoing of men and nations throughout history. We should, rather, think of ours as an internationalism of circumstance, whose obligations we will not shirk. Our first obligation is to repair and keep in good repair our constitutional order and the cultural and moral order on which it depends. That we cannot do unless we are prepared to defend ourselves, not going abroad to seek monsters to destroy but also not fearing to resist and counter those who would destroy us.

An internationalism of circumstance, with its attendant duties, does not provide the thrilling drum rolls of the crusade or the glories of empire. Nor does it indulge dangerous dreams of escape into a new world order on the far side of national sovereignty. The world continues to be a world of politics among nations with, for better and worse, the United States as the preeminent nation for the foreseeable future. We cannot build nations, although we can at times provide encouragement and incentives for those determined to build their own. We cannot bestow democracy, but we can befriend those who aspire to democracy. We can build coalitions or act on our own for the relief of misery and the advancement of human rights, always having done the morally requisite calculation of our capacities and interests, and knowing that it is in our interest to be perceived as doing our duty. We can try to elicit, engage, and nurture constructive voices within Islam, recognizing that the Muslim future will be determined in largest part by those who seek to do what they believe to be God’s will in relation to the infidel, which will always mean us. Above all, we can strive to be a people more worthy of moral emulation, which includes, by no means incidentally, our dependability in rewarding our friends and punishing those who insist upon being our enemies. Finally, given our circumstance of preeminence and the perduring force of envy and resentment in a sinful world, we need not flaunt our power. Whenever possible, we should act in concert with other sovereign nations, and especially other democracies. Often America will have to lead, and sometimes have to act alone. When we do, we should not expect to be thanked, never mind loved. We frequently will be, as in fact we frequently are, but that is to be deemed no more than a bonus for being and doing what we should.

Our December 2001 editorial “In a Time of War” observed: “The statement of a war aim signifies not only a purpose but also a terminal point. When will we know that it is over? President Bush has declared, ‘It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.’ After September 11, we are or should be in a permanent state of heightened vigilance, but we must not resign ourselves to being in a permanent state of war. Not immediately, but in due course, we need a clear statement on how we will know that the war is over and a just peace is reasonably secured. There may never be, and there should never be, a return to the last decade’s delusory holiday from the vicissitudes of history, but it seems probable that a democracy cannot survive and flourish in a permanent state of emergency.” That was three years ago. This is written before the outcome of the presidential election is known. John Kerry apparently believes that we are not, or at least should not be, at war. A Kerry presidency would likely move toward the internationalism of diminished sovereignty described above. If George W. Bush is reelected, we will need a new and more persuasive statement of an internationalism that is compatible with our interests and capacities, and that proposes a believable alternative to an America and a world in a permanent state of war.

Admittedly, this vision is far removed from the Christmas angels’ announcement of peace on earth and good will among men. That promise is sacramentally anticipated in the City of God journeying through time toward the temple of the New Jerusalem by whose light the nations shall walk and to which the kings of the earth shall bring their glory (Revelation 21). Meanwhile, in the lesser but also real world short of that consummation, our responsibility is to attend, in the courage of our uncertainties and with a wisdom not untouched by providential guidance, to the politics among nations—which will seldom provide us with the choices we would prefer.

Copyright (c) 2004 First Things 148 (December 2004): 64-84.