Minding America's Business

We read in the Wall Street Journal (April 8, 2014) that the nation’s debate on how we Americans ought to deal with problems arising from China, Russia, and the Muslim world will be set by the contrast between such as Senator Rand Paul, who “is struggling to reconcile a libertarian’s skepticism of foreign entanglements with a party that still holds a good chunk of interventionist sentiment – and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, aligning himself more with the party’s hawks, has called him out on the gap.”

We do not know whether this language, defining as it does international affairs as a choice between “interventionism” and “isolationism,” between “leading the world” and “leading from behind,” between military power and diplomacy, reflects what is in the mind of Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. Whether either of these contenders for the presidency have read or thought outside the framework set by this language, which reflects the mentality of our ruling class, is less important than it is for us to realize that this intellectual framework is false to reality and warps our capacity to understand the choices that face us in foreign affairs.

That bipartisan mentality – of the Kennedys and Johnsons, of the Nixons and Bushes, the Clintons and the Obamites – is committed to managing the globe but mindless of what it might take to achieve any of the grand items wished for. It has wasted America’s strength. Once powerful, peaceful, secure and feared, America has become a nation on a permanent war footing, ever less secure at home, ever more disrespected abroad. As we disarm, old allies bend to growing threats.

Alas, we can be sure that America and Americans will be disrespected more and more with each passing year, that we will have ever less peace and more war, unless the people who end up managing our international affairs transcend sound bites that represent mere inclinations, tropisms.

To earn the respect that alone secures peace, contenders for the presidency and their entourages had better return to the substance and the language of the men under whose guidance the United States earned “peace among ourselves and with all nations.” The words are Lincoln’s and the substance is that pursued by – among others – the men whose faces are also carved on Mt. Rushmore: Washington, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. That substance is quite simply a commitment to minding America’s business.

For these authors of American greatness, minding America’s business was anything but a formula for retreat any more than their commitment to peace was pacifism or aversion to force. Because they understood that any and all nations can enjoy only such peace as their capacity to win wars can earn, they prepared for – and, when need be, fought – wars to win peace.

Whereas in contemporary language minding America’s business means renunciation of greatness, some kind of demotion from the role of global guide, the men who made America great regarded minding its business as the very key to greatness, and imagining one’s self as more than the American people’s fiduciary representative as simple foolishness. This was the bipartisan consensus until Woodrow Wilson’s time.

The essence of wisdom in foreign affairs is to distinguish between America’s business – the smallest of which may demand the cost of war – and business that is to be left to others regardless of its size. Thus Richard Olney, who as Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of State had raised the real prospect of war with that age’s super-power Great Britain because of a matter of honor in Latin America, warned against nation-building the Philippines. America was not, he said, “a 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.” Securing respect in an area we judged vital was worthy of war. A long term presence in the Philippines invited an unnecessary war with Japan.

In our time, however, a ruling class that deems itself sophisticated is involved the world over with words and pretenses bigger than the forces that it can or is willing to bring to bear. It neither prepares nor wages war in the dictionary meaning of the term – that is, as a temporary expedient to win peace – nor does it enjoy peace. That is what so often happens to great powers, which use force to manage peoples rather than to eliminate enemies. Nor can anyone ever be really at peace with those they seek to manage. Having erased the distinction between peace and war with foreigners, they are also consumed by domestic strife.

That strife among us has followed from the intentionally inconclusive ways with which the U.S. Government has dealt with the threat arising from the murderous sentiment that has arisen in the Muslim world. Not only has that indecisiveness strengthened that sentiment, the Homeland Security apparatus that has mushroomed among us to prevent the soldiers of this sentiment from attacking America is arguably more dangerous to us in the long run. That is because the increased powers that “Homeland Security” grants to the ruling class are proving an irresistible temptation to be used against the persons it likes least.

We should hope that Senators Paul and Cruz think more of what may be America’s business in Eurasia, the Pacific Ocean, the Middle East, or the Americas – and about measuring that business against forces they are willing to call forth and use –­­­ than about “positioning” on either side of a rhetorical “gap.” It would be interesting to hear how, precisely, these pretenders to the presidency presume to lead their country to the peace that we desire among ourselves and with all nations.