The Long View 2002-10-21: Culture War and Foreign Policy

The two essays John linked together in his left sidebar for this post are Ecumenical Jihad and Theonomy, Globalism, and Babylon. One of the things John is trying to communicate here is that Christianity is growing rapidly in the Global South, at a pace that still seems to be accelerating. The consequence of this is the historical trajectory of Christianity in the West may be dwindling in importance. What the recent kerfluffle over the Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the breakup of the Anglican Communion have in common is an increasing disconnect between more traditionally minded Christians in Africa and Asia, and the less orthodox believers in the Americas and Europe.

How this links into foreign policy was both sides in the Cold War sought to recruit allies from the Third World to bolster their international reputation and fight in proxy wars. Insofar as the Soviets could tar the West with the Original Sins of slavery and colonialism, the Soviets had a clear advantage. Thus, John claims that desegregation and civil rights in America set the stage for the Helsinki Accords, which the Soviets considered to be a victory at the time, but later were seen as a key factor that weakened the Soviet Union and its satellites from within.

The twist is that the political movements that allowed the United States to claim the mantle of justice in the mid-twentieth century now seem increasingly bizarre to an international audience, let alone to their domestic political opponents. Thus we have an odd collusion of interests both at home and abroad that increasingly see the continuing dominance of America as something at odds with both political order and domestic harmony. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, this shades off into outright identification of the United States with the Whore of Babylon. So far, this remains a minority opinion.

Culture War and Foreign Policy

[I wrote this essay in April 2000. Even I thought it was a little speculative, and it seemed to communicate nothing to the opinion journals to which I sent it, so I let the matter rest. However, an interesting exchange that has begun on FrontPageMag suggests that we may be almost ready to confront this issue. The essay appears here without updating.]

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There are several reasons why the United States began to move during the 1950s to finish the work of Reconstruction. One was the growth of a substantial black middle class that saw no reason why it should continue to put up with apartheid. Another was that the mass media and easy travel make it harder for white people to ignore how other people lived. Not the smallest consideration behind Establishment acceptance of the movement to make civil rights at last universal, however, was the handicap imposed by segregation in the prosecution of the Cold War.

The world has never been predominantly white, of course, but the only governments that mattered in the early modern era had been those of a small number of European states. Even with the end of the Second World War and the beginning of decolonization, the US remained chiefly concerned with how Europeans on both sides of the Iron Curtain acted. Still, in order for the US to present itself as a model for the future to both Eastern Europe and the developing world, it was necessary for Americans to be able to argue that their own society was not merely successful, but also fundamentally just.

The extent to which the US has ever achieved justice or convinced the rest of the world of its own essential goodness is open to debate. Nonetheless, simply putting such questions on the domestic agenda in the 1950s made it possible to raise them as international human rights issues in the 1970s. Though often dismissed at the time as irrelevant to serious statecraft, the "basket of rights" in the Helsinki Accords contributed signally to the successful conclusion of the Cold War. A predicate for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the decision by the Eisenhower Administration to use federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock in 1954.

Today the US faces a quite different international environment, but one in which the "soft power" of moral credibility is even more important. The US is often characterized nowadays as a "hegemon," though perhaps more in the better American magazines than in the wider world. In any case, to the extent that this characterization is true, it is true by default. The only military capable of global force projection may be American, for instance, but that is less a measure of the power of the US military than an indicator of the sense of strategic security that prevails over most of the globe. (To use a favorite expression of one security analyst of my acquaintance, having the most powerful military in the world in AD 2000 "is like being the smart kid in the dumb room.") The US continues to have the largest national economy, but the composite economy of the European Union is larger. Even the "American culture" that is now found so universally becomes more and more syncretic as it spreads, as phenomena like "world music" attest.

The US has the position it does in the world today because it is tolerated. For this situation to continue, one precondition is that the rest of the world must remain convinced that American society is not repulsive or evil. The fact is that the US is not doing a particularly good job of preventing just such a negative image of the US from crystallizing.

There is no need to be excessively worried by such indicators as the front-page story in The New York Times of April 9, "Europe's Dim View of U.S. Evolving into Frank Hostility." If you read the article, you will see that "Europe" means mostly "France," and I will leave it to P.J. O'Rourke to comment on what the French think. (In any case, the fact there was space for such an item on the Times front page of a Sunday is evidence enough that the Pax Americana is not altogether chimerical.) There may be greater cause for concern in the anecdotal evidence for the coalescence of a version of the "Ecumenical Jihad."

This term was coined by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College. In a book of that name which he published in 1996, Kreeft proposed a universal alliance of all persons who continue to believe in natural law. While not a call for a shooting war, the book alleged that the chief opponents of natural law are the American elites, who seek to spread their own perverse system internationally. In this view of the post-Cold War world, the forces of historical darkness are largely coincident with Fukuyama's victorious "liberal democracy." The notion that America is what is wrong with the world is scarcely new, on either the Left or the Right. (Kreeft himself is an orthodox Catholic.) What is different now is that the kind of wrongness of which America is suspected is acquiring an ever more cosmic character.

The most conspicuous example of this, perhaps, is the Green-politics opposition to genetically engineered food. The US has had problems with Europeans regarding food exports for over a century. Those disputes were about manageable, empirical things, like price. The new objection seems to be that America is exporting metaphysical poison, food in which "life itself" has somehow been tampered with. The fact that this poison has no observable bad effects just makes it all the more insidious.

Less well-known, outside of the relevant subcultures, is that the United States is becoming the evil empire of popular apocalyptic. This role is quite different from the part America has played in endtime scenarios since the middle of the nineteenth century, and even as recently as the burst of apocalyptic thinking that accompanied the Gulf War. Judging by some Internet sources based both in the US and in Eastern Europe (not necessarily representative of anything but themselves, of course), America has now become Babylon the Great, the future seat of Antichrist's empire. It used to be that, when the Iranians called the US "the Great Satan," editorialists could safely make light of that sort of invective. Relations with Iran itself may be improving, but the early Islamic Republic's view of the US is arguably gaining a wider audience.

How did this happen? Envy has a lot to do with it, of course. So does the sincere belief (and this is the chief explanation for the attitude of the French) that you can't run an international system without a balance of power. One severe irritant is the tendency of the US Congress to act like the "Parliament of Man" in the service of domestic politics. This is pretty much how Congress acted when it passed the Helms-Burton Amendment, which single-handedly abrogated international law regarding compensation for the expropriation of property. Considerations like this, however, explain antipathy toward America only on the level of strategic policy. Popular anti-Americanism is less likely to spring from specific acts of the American government than from the long-term effects of the image America projects abroad. To the extent the image is negative, it is often not accidental. There is no lack of Americans with the power to make a difference who just do not care how their country appears internationally. There is also no lack of Americans who use their country's position to spread their own fixed ideas. Another way to put it is that America has, to some extent, succeeded in exporting its own culture war.

The problem America has with maintaining moral credibility is not simply the fault of mischievous liberal elites. There are features of popular conservative politics that can be quite as disconcerting as anything that comes out of the universities. For instance, though there is a good argument to be made for the permissibility of capital punishment, the enthusiasm with which notorious criminals are executed in some states is, frankly, an international embarrassment. No ethicist has ever, to my knowledge, argued that there can be situations where the death penalty would be morally mandatory. Capital punishment is the paradigm case of the sort of question about which Americans should consider costless reforms in their own society, made in part with a view to enhancing their moral credibility abroad.

Other examples can easily be adduced of conservative enthusiasms that make America appear to be an unattractive hegemon. On the whole, however, it is probably the case that it is the currently ascendant cultural Left that does the most to make the US look like an occupation force of Martians.

Abortion law in the US is not actually much more permissive than in most of the rest of the developed world. Still, the American constitutional ideology of "personal autonomy" in which the abortion license is embedded is actually quite parochial. Even people who support abortion for demographic reasons are nervous about the ideology's larger implications for questions like euthanasia, human cloning and, more speculatively, recreational drug use. Nonetheless, this ideology is the face of America in most international forums that deal with family life. Similarly, American elites seem determined to promote the interpretation of homosexuality as a universal civil rights issue. This approach is distinctly non-obvious for a phenomenon that clearly has medical, psychological, and moral dimensions, particularly one that seems to be chiefly a feature of the modern Anglo-German culture areas.

Part of the reason we do not usually perceive the American cultural Left as a strategic liability is that so much of international civil society is made in its image. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, international civil society is not coincident with "the Davos people." Most members of this "society" cannot afford to vacation in Switzerland. Rather, they tend to be the folks who belong to the NGOs that have spread through every developed nation, and even to some of the underdeveloped ones for which they so often claim to speak. A large fraction of international civil society, in fact, are members of the really radical Left who have lost out in the politics of their own countries, but who hope to recoup their position by appealing from national governments to international forums.

Until the end of the Cold War, appealing to the UN or other international bodies was usually a bootless tactic, since the major international institutions had little freedom of movement during the superpower standoff. Arguably, international institutions still don't have that much real power, even now that the standoff is over. In recent years, however, there has been a concerted effort to enhance their independence, an effort motivated in part by fear of American hegemony. Thus, we have a situation where institutions that are starting to think of themselves as quasi-governmental bodies are interacting with a new class that thinks of itself as "the people of the world."

No good will come of these mutually reinforcing delusions. Even now, they support a crust of activists and bureaucrats that tends to obscure the real world from responsible statesmen. Paradoxically, in fact, it will often be necessary for the US to oppose what purports to be "world opinion" in order to avoid appearing alien and tyrannical to most of the world's people. These days, the spokesmen for "the world" are usually the real aliens.

The security of the United States is a function of the state of the world. An international system which is only lightly militarized and where goods and people can move freely is the safest imaginable for the US. It is also the cheapest to maintain: all we would normally be called on to do is to act as an arbitrator. For such a system to work, however, it is necessary for the arbitrator to be trusted, and to be trustworthy. One prerequisite is some minimum of military and economic heft. Another, however, is that the arbitrator cannot be the proponent of aggressive ideologies that cut across the human grain. Were that to occur, the rest of the world would surely unite in self-defense, and security could not then be purchased at any price.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


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