Other than Empire Isaiah Wall United Nations

Other than Empire

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.

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  • If America is going to invest in the United Nations, its first step is to adhere and move its allies to adhere to UN Resolutions. IN addition, if America is to avoid acting as an empire, then it must submit to international bodies like the ICC. America’s intentions of maintaining its empire, it has over 800 military bases spread around the world and has been involved in intervention over 30 democracies since WW II, will be indicated by how it allows itself to be accountable to others.

    • There’s a looong conversation to be had about this all, Mr. Day. I argue against American imperialism and for collaborative internationalism, but to accomplish a sustainable collaborative internationalism the institutions of global governance will have to change even more than the USA. Collaborative internationalism is a means to the end of the global common good (in general) and global public justice (in particular). While I would agree with Robert Joustra (and Daniel Drezner) that the post-World War II institutions of global governance have, on balance, prevented more harm than what they perpetrated, the UN, IMF, WTO, ICC, etc. are made by human hands just like the USA, and as such simultaneously in need of caring conservation and relentless reform, just like the USA.

      • Gideon,
        How are you? I hope well. Been struggling with bronchitis myself.

        I know you argue against Americn imperialism and I very much appreciate that. I disagree with Joustra’s views. The only thing that non-UN global governance has achieved is the rule of force. And that is evident by the fact that while the US has selectively enforced international law and UN resolutions in the world, it has made it clear that it will not be subject to the same rules by which it judges others. And it gives amnesty to certain allies that beak international law and UN Resolutions.

        I would leave out the WTO and IMF since these structures have been primarily used to exploit 3rd world economies and to destroy sovereignty of nations by transferring power from the people to investors. The ICC is certainly an honorable group by note America’s relationship with that international court. It blackmails nations that would put US actions under the review of the ICC.

        We are both against tAmerican Imperialism. The question is whether we share the same analysis over the current state of that imperialism.

        • I am sorry to hear about your bronchitis, Curt, and hope that you are healing well.

          I’m not so sure that you disagree with Joustra. Have you followed the links in my piece and read his essay for the Bible Society and his article for the Center for Public Justice’s Capital Commentary? You may find yourself in greater agreement with his full argument than with my quotes of him.

          Let me also recommend that you reconsider the broader infrastructure of global governance (UN, IMF, WTO), once again with reference to something Joustra wrote but eventually with Daniel Drezner’s argument that this infrastructure recently helped save all of us from a potential replication of the disasters of the 1930s: http://www.cpjustice.org/public/capital_commentary/article/1

          Let me guess that our deepest disagreement is not about the UN or the US or the IMF and WTO as such, but about how we believe political change should best happen at the national and international levels. I am going to guess that with regard to ends we both have high hopes and expectations about what should be possible in human history (proto-eschatologically) but that you are more disappointed in what has been accomplished politically in and by the USA than I am because with regard to means your expectations are revolutionary while mine are reformist. I am happy to cheer when things move from A to B while you are discouraged because things never move from A to Z. Would my guess be accurate?

          • Gideon,
            We have agreement on general goals, but your lumping of the UN, IMF, WTO, and ICC tells me that either we disagree on implementation or we disagree on point B. So maybe our very deepest disagreement isn’t about those institutions, but how we refer to them shows a deep difference either in implementation or analysis. This is not a disagreement between one wanting to go through interim steps from step A to B vs the other one going from Step A to Z.

            And I am not writing this from the evangelical distrust of global institutions. I am writing from observation and the Left’s view of each individual institution. And no, I don’t believe those institutions saved us from repeating the 1930s. Rather, the WTO and IMF are locking 3rd world countries into a caste system in exchange for help. The UN must be distinguished between its Charter and Resolutions from the Security Council and its use of Force. The latter is a tool of US imperialism. The ICC is the only real honorable institution but since we pressure gov’ts from making us subject to its jurisdiction, its reach is limited.

            If you want my idea of a viable step B, then look at making 3rd parties on both the Right and Left viable and competitive with the 2 major parties. Without that, all is lost. With it, we have a chance to control our gov’t.

          • 1. The WTO & IMF are a mix of necessary and good (do read Drezner) and bad (on the issues you mention – do read Joe Studwell).

            2. While UN peacekeeping needs substantive reform, you and I thoroughly disagree if you see such peacekeeping as an instrument of US imperialism (whatever our definitions of empire).

            3. Third parties can only survive if the US shifts to a form of proportional representation, as proposed for decades by my colleagues at the Center for Public Justice. A shift I *thoroughly* support while thinking it extremely unlikely that such a shift will ever happen.

          • Gideon,
            Now we are getting to where we disagree. No, neither the WTO nor the IMF were a mix. The WTO transferred power from people and their governments to investors. And the most recent action that the WTO took toward the US illustrates this. The US had, after a long struggle, just passed meat labeling laws where the law required that the origin of any meat sold here was to be labeled on the package. The WTO threatened the US with sanctions if the US did not repeal the law. Because of the money that could have been lost in the sanctions, the law was repealed.

            The conditions set by the IMF for loans have often enriched those with wealth in a 3rd world nation while keeping the rest of the nation in poverty and under conditions that prevented growth.

            Yes, much of UN peacekeeping was nothing more than US imperialism.

            Finally, since both major parties are heavily funded by those with wealth, the only way we can revive our democracy is to vote in 3rd party candidates. As was recently admitted by a GOP official and is demonstrated by the use of superdelagates in the Democratic primaries, the eventual nominees for each party are really picked by party officials. We then simply vote for what has been made available for us by elites. IN fact, a recent study demonstrated that we have become an oligarchy, we are no longer a democracy.


          • Curt, there is much here to talk about, much on which we can legitimately disagree, and quite a few things on which we agree.

            I think we agree that the WTO and IMF are committed to free trade doctrine to an extent that is not helpful to developing nations. But I believe that the current international trade and finance regime is better than chaos, better than what existed up to WWII, and generally beneficial to developed nations – all of which I doubt you believe.

            I think we disagree about UN peacekeeping. You believe it is a mere instrument of US imperialism, I don’t think the US has functioned much as an empire although I believe empire will continue to tempt America for as long as it retains the world’s strongest military. I am all FOR a strong US military and a strong UN peacekeeping force, working in concert for global peace and justice; I don’t imagine that you’d agree with me on this.

            You’re for third parties in US politics, I’m for multiple parties and proportional representation but I can’t imagine the US ever making such a change in its electoral system and therefore believe it to be morally required of US citizens to join either the Rs or DD and strengthen the institutions of partisan representative democracy by improving those two parties.

          • Gideon,
            I suggest that we focus on one topic. Which one would you prefer to discuss?

          • Let’s talk peacekeeping, since that’s the topic of my piece.

          • Gideon,
            Sounds good. Can you name a time when UN forces were used to fight or hold back American or NATO forces?

          • No. (Enlighten me if I’m just plain ignorant.) So, let’s dig: would you name the times that you believe it would have been a good thing for UN forces to fight or hold back US or NATO forces?

          • Gideon,
            It never has that is despite the time when the World Court found the US guilty of fighting a terrorist war on Nicaraqua during the 1980s. And we could mentiont that there was no UN condemnation of the US during the first Perisan Gulf War when, in violation of the Geneva Convention, the US bombed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure. Or we could talk about the time during the Korean War when the US invaded North Korea after it had fought off an invasion from the North. Or we could talk about the time when the US orchestrated a coup in Chile to overthrow a democratically eected leader in order to replace him with a military tyrant because of business interests.

          • So, to be clear, in those instances you think military action against the the US by UN peacekeeping would have been justified? If yes, would you make your arguments for such action in terms of just war doctrine?

          • Gideon,
            Certainly, you don’t start with military action. But if the offending country does not stop its illegal actions or even atrocities, then military action should be warranted. And you pick Nicaragua as an example where the UN could have sent troops.

          • Okay … what would the jus ad bellum argument have looked like in the case of Nicaragua?