Thomas Gordon claimed in his Discourses on Tacitus (1728) that tyranny is worse than anarchy. The situations in Syria and Iraq and the roughly one-third of Africa where no state maintains a peaceable order bring this claim into question.

What does a coherent foreign policy look like in a world where, unless it intervenes, America’s choices often seem limited to either condoning tyranny or turning a blind eye to anarchy? For the past two decades, Robert Kaplan has argued for an Imperial America. Kaplan argues that, “Throughout history, governance and relative safety have most often been provided by empires … Anarchy reigned in the interregnums.” In Kaplan’s view, “empires delivered more peace and stability than the United Nations ever has or probably ever could.” He insists that, “The humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the absence of such interventions in Rwanda and Syria, show American imperialism in action, and in abeyance.” For its empire to succeed, writes Kaplan, America must renounce the influence of Christian just war doctrine and adopt a pagan warrior ethos.

If it were to remain true to its founding ideals, America can never allow its foreign policy to be limited to a thoroughgoing modern realism. And given the extent to which America is connected with the rest of the world (and the degree to which American security and prosperity rely on those connections), the United States will never practice any kind of isolationism. But some kind of imperialism is a grave temptation. And imperialism will corrode the national character of America, undermining civic virtue and straining the constitutional bonds that knit Americans together.

There are coherent foreign policy alternatives to realism, isolationism, and imperialism. After World War II, America chose an alternative informed by an internationalist vision of collaborative peacekeeping. This peacekeeping vision had biblical roots, argues Robert Joustra in “The Isaiah Wall and the World” (an essay included in Democracy, Conflict & the Bible: Reflections on the role of the Bible in International Affairs, edited by Cristian Romocea and Mohammed Girma and published last year by the International Bible Advocacy Centre of the Bible Society in the United Kingdom, with a shorter version appearing more recently in Capital Commentary). In practice, this vision resulted in the establishment of an international human rights regime and the founding of the United Nations as well as other institutions of global governance.

There “was a real success translating the U.N.’s principles of international dialogue as a foundation for world peace into a practical deployment of emergency forces, of peacekeepers, as the world would come to know them,” writes Joustra. “True, it was not swords into ploughshares … but it was an international experiment in fewer swords drawn. And that, in a world of proximate justice and seemingly intractable conflict, is an impressive victory.”

Undeniably the United Nations of today does not live up to the dream of its architects. “United Nations peacekeeping in the present day is in a state of crisis,” writes Joustra. “Peacekeeping is no longer seen as a primary vehicle for many nation’s foreign policies. … Significant players in world politics, especially the United States, have simply not invested in the process the resources necessary to sustain the goals of peacekeeping.” And then there is the sexual exploitation and abuse sometimes perpetrated by peacekeepers, which in addition to its intrinsic horror also has the effect of eroding popular sentiment in support of peacekeeping efforts.

Nonetheless, if America wants to constrain tyranny and prevent anarchy in ways that are both just and sustainable, it must resist the temptation of empire and embrace again a vision of international collaborative peacekeeping. Given its ideals and its resources, America can and must take a leading role in such collaborations, as it has often done in its history. The United States must invest in the slow, hard, subtle, and frequently frustrating diplomatic work of rebuilding an appropriately sized, staffed, and armed UN peacekeeping force. It must help steer such a force towards the establishment of civil order where national governments have comprehensively failed or are too fragile to defend or police their own territories, towards addressing the great humanitarian disasters that result from the failure of national governments (even when no direct, vital American national interests are at issue), and towards the maintenance of civil order over the long decades necessary to build up effective states, functioning markets, and healthy civil societies.

The recovery of such a vision requires something other than the pagan warrior ethos championed by Robert Kaplan. It requires citizens and soldiers who understand and embody a just war ethos inspired by a perspective on reality that is no less honest about the quotidian incommensurability of goods than Greek tragedy, but that is nonetheless oriented towards the eschatological hope of a world restored in Christ to its original good, beautiful, and peaceable order.

Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Photo Credit: The Isaiah Wall across the street from the United Nations in New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.