Benevolent Hegemon, Illiberal, or Too Far Gone Already?

Walter McDougall writes: “Congress and the American people…want to believe their ‘indispensable nation’ can be a ‘benevolent hegemon’ doing good on the cheap and doing well by doing good.” As a description of how Americans view our role among nations, this is arguable. But it is a fair summation of our foreign policy establishment‘s view of America’s proper role among nations, of which liberal internationalists, neoconservatives, and realists give particular versions. The terms “indispensable nation” and “benevolent hegemon” characterize Mackubin Owens’ thesis as well.

The part of McDougall’s exemplary career as a historian that has dealt with international affairs has been devoted to showing that these terms are polar contradictions of the American Founders’ views of what America is about, and of their approach to dealing with the rest of the world. The second part of his Promised Land Crusader State may fairly be described as a gloss on former Secretary of State Richard Olney’s turn of the 20th century statement:

[No great power] can afford not to make the welfare of its own people its primary object—none can afford to regard itself as a sort of missionary nation charged with the rectification of wrongs the world over. Were the United States to enter upon its new international role with the serious purpose of carrying out any such theory, it would not merely be laughed at but voted a nuisance by all other nations—and treated accordingly.

McDougall believes that U.S. foreign policy over the last century has so regarded America, has tried to play the role of indispensable nation, and thus has condemned the American people to being treated as mankind’s nuisance. He believes that our foreign policy establishment has forgotten how to do anything else, that its control is unshakable. McDougall believes that were the American people to elect a President inclined to follow the example and advice of George Washington and John Quincy Adams, our ruling class would move to impeach him. We are too far gone already.

For McDougall, the proper core of foreign policy is to “ ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’ to promote peace and commerce with all nations, and to enjoy real peace, ‘our peace’ grounded in legitimate national interests… the defense of national sovereignty and the security of American citizens and property… the defense of our national identity…expecting and commanding respect from other sovereign states.” Mackubin Owens would agree with all that.

But McDougall stresses, as did Washington and Adams, that: “every one of those interests comes with a responsibility.” If the U.S. government is to insist on its sovereignty and identity, it “must recognize the right of other sovereign states, however repulsive, to exercise the same right…All the Founding Fathers stressed reciprocity as an indispensable principle of U.S. foreign relations.” Indeed, “reciprocity” may well be the most common word in the Founders’ lexicon of foreign relations.

Mackubin Owens advocates benevolent hegemony rather than reciprocity. Quite as much as McDougall, Owens advocates the use of power to protect the identity and advance the interests of the United States of America. But for Owens, “the prudent exercise of power” must have as its objective “to maintain a liberal world order characterized by freedom and prosperity.” And that means exercising hegemonic oversight over the globe.

Owens’ logical point of departure is that maintaining America’s own liberal republican character is easier in the context of an international environment characterized by liberal republics, or at least by non aggressive regimes of other kinds. Moreover since, as Alexander Hamilton pointed out in Federalist #6 (nobody disagreed), history teaches that republics are as likely as any other kind of regime to be troublesome, keeping the peace would be easier were international relations among disparate regimes to proceed according to some order. Neither McDougall nor anyone would argue that being surrounded by kindred regimes that behave in orderly ways is anything but desirable.

America’s Founders, however, did not imagine that the world was then or would ever become liberal, republican, or orderly. They intended to maintain America’s exceptional character in a disorderly world filled with ancient and modern despotisms of every kind. The logical point of departure of their foreign policy was to shield the Republic’s freedom, peace and prosperity by a jealous squaring of ends and means. The character of the world’s regimes, the order and disorder among them, was of incidental importance.

For Owens, however, the agreeable character of the world’s regimes and a reasonably well-policed world order — providing the world with “the collective goods of economic stability and international security”— is not an altruistic act, but rather is a precondition for maintaining America’s own freedom, peace and prosperity: “The United States can be fully secure, free, and prosperous only in a world where others are also secure, fee and prosperous.” For Owens, U.S. foreign policy’s primordial task is to foster good regimes and to police world order.

This, in fact, has been the objective of our foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson, pursued with a variety of means. The Republican administrations of the 1920s did it via the Washington treaties of 1921, the Dawes plan for the recovery of Europe, the Rio conference, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The Roosevelt Administration of the 1930s did it via relentless diplomacy epitomized by Cordell Hull’s circular letter of 1937. The postwar system’s creators built alliances and institutions galore, intended to order the world at least as much as to contain communism. Henry Kissinger’s “Détente” meant to create a different order including the Soviets. George H.W. Bush invaded the Persian Gulf primarily to establish “a New World Order.” The essence of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural may be expressed in Owens’ own words: “The United States can be fully secure, free, and prosperous only in a world where others are also secure, fee and prosperous.” Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, expresses similar sentiments with his patented hauteur. If the world is not as the U.S. foreign policy establishment would like it, it’s not for lack of trying.

Nevertheless, today’s world, for all its problems, has one wonderful feature that is not to be forgotten: There is no Soviet Union. That is in part, because Ronald Reagan, who was strenuously at odds with the foreign policy establishment, looked at the world with old fashioned simplicity: “We win, they lose.” He regarded the Soviet Union as an enemy to be wiped from the face of the earth, and did what he prudently could to make that happen.

Since the Soviet Union’s disappearance however, the United States has been at war almost constantly. Worse, while our foreign policy elite is occupied with establishing order and maybe even peace in various parts of the world, no one in it is even thinking of how to restore peace to the United States of America. How could that be? How can peace not be the primordial objective of any nation’s foreign policy?

In fact, seeking one’s own peace becomes practically impossible for any nation that seeks the peace of any other, never mind to order the world. Simply: Any country that eschews minding its own business but rather seeks to manage others, can never be at peace. Those whose affairs it is trying to manage will resent it. The certainty that nations will disagree on their relative importance further guarantees that any would-be hegemon’s attempt to impose its own view of order must further expose it to war. But hegemonic powers intent on managing and ordering others seldom affirm their own peace by winning wars that eliminate enemies. By thus erasing the difference between war and peace, they guarantee perpetual strife.

In our America, the ruling class consensus appears to be that many, endless, inconclusive military-political conflicts all over the world are a permanent, sustainable feature of life. But these involvements are unsustainable above all because they lead America to forget what it is about and because they worsen the worst of evils, strife among ourselves. Understandably, the foreign partisans of causes that the U.S. government opposes abroad (and their domestic sympathizers) have sown terror among us.

The need for protection against them has empowered a vast apparatus of “Homeland Security.” It refuses to focus on (to “profile”) the obvious sources of the terror, but treats all Americans as potential terrorists. Yet by branding the obvious as politically incorrect, our ruling class has made the designation of “dangerous extremists” a matter of subjective likes and dislikes. Persons in power in government and society have the opportunity to direct blame and distrust, even mayhem, onto those they like least. It is impossible for officials who make up standards implicitly and unaccountably to do so apolitically. When the line between peace and war is blurred, when the definition of enemies is anybody’s guess but in practice is the prerogative of unaccountable high officials, it would be surprising were these not to deem their own sociopolitical rivals as enemies of the state.

No surprise then that since 2006 the Department of Homeland Security has used its intelligence fusion centers to compile ominously worded dossiers against such groups as “pro lifers” and such “antigovernment activists” as “homeschoolers” and “gun owners.” Why should not officials all across the U.S. government — from the IRS to the EPA to the Federal Elections Commission — act according to their superiors’ opinions, to what they hear from the best people, what they get from the best media, and according to their shared beliefs about the conservative forces that really endangers America?

Thus, our ruling class’s failure to keep our peace and to win our wars, its blurring of the distinction between war and peace, have strengthened its capacity to hurt its domestic opponents. It is drawing us into a spiral of domestic strife the exit from which will surely be more painful than the entry has been.

Ted Galen Carpenter is well aware that all this is the consequence of our foreign policy establishment’s promiscuous espousal of causes around the globe. Dealing with the world’s problems, he writes, is “beyond the capability of any country.” It “suggests a frightening inability or unwillingness to set priorities…it should be apparent to any realistic official that some [situations] are less relevant than others.” Quite so.

Carpenter is clear that America is compelled to work with some nations against others: “Washington should always aim to have better relations with both Moscow and Beijing than they have with each other.” But he does not seem to acknowledge that doing this sort of thing all too often requires making war or at least being ready and able to do so.

As per libertarian doctrine, Carpenter gives the impression that all nations tend to recognize their own interest, and that the “incentive structure” inherent among nations naturally produces something like world order. Just remove U.S. interference, and all will be well. For example, he supposes that if we had not provided Europe with security, gratis, the Europeans would have provided it for themselves.

But, regardless of whether the Europeans cared for their security vis a vis the Soviet Union, that security was of vital importance to America’s freedom. Carpenter writes: “Perhaps the Europeans would seek to appease an increasingly assertive Russia, but conversely, the European Union might finally grow up and apply its considerable wealth to developing an independent geopolitical center of power.” That and similar questions are anything but academic.

By the same token, Carpenter wonders “whether Codevilla is worried more about a Chinese bid for regional hegemony or a vigorous response by Beijing’s neighbors.” I suggest that the prospects for war and peace in the northeastern corner of Asia are of vital concern to every American. What is to be done in our own interest as China’s strategy and its neighbors’ responses unfold is to be decided according to circumstances. But I would hope that Carpenter and other libertarians would agree that we do not have the option merely to hope that this looming conflict does not affect us.

Carpenter’s just antagonism to our foreign policy establishment’s hubris led him to misinterpret my statement that “minding America’s business is no demotion from the rank of global leader.” He calls it “wishful thinking” because he mistakenly supposes that concentrating on America’s own liberty and security nevertheless endorses what he calls, correctly, “the conceit of global leadership.” Doing that, to my mind, would be worse than what Carpenter calls “wishful thinking.” In fact I explained – clearly, I thought – that minding America’s business, minding any nation’s business, is a calling that absorbs the highest human talents, and is the only proper, the only feasible, objective of statesmanship. It is no demotion from the rank of global leader, which is illusory at best.

My only substantive difference with Carpenter is over the importance of cultures. Unlike libertarians, I do not believe that cultures are ephemeral superstructures over bedrock self interest defined in terms of homo economicus. Human beings are not mere products of incentives, never mind economic ones. Carpenter writes: “Codevilla should recognize that support for the values of individual liberty, limited government, and the avoidance of unnecessary wars transcends racial, ethnic, and religious considerations.” For me, it does so transcend, unequivocally. But I know all too well that individual liberty, limited government, and peace are the objectives of only a tiny portion of mankind.

The Declaration of Independence states “self-evident” truths, among them that “all men are created equal.” But, like the truths of mathematics, the Declaration’s truths are self-evident only to persons who have been acculturated to noticing them. America’s Founders were blessed with a culture that recognized and cherished these truths. Defending the nation founded on the recognition of these truths “against all enemies foreign and domestic” has ever been the oath of office among us. Race is irrelevant to fulfilling this oath. Culture is supremely important. Whether in our relation with foreign nations, in our policy toward immigration, or with regard to anything else, furthering the recognition of the self-evident truths on which this country is founded must ever be job #1.