Power in Context: A Response to a Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy
In the summer 2016 edition of the journal Providence, the editors published “A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy.” The declaration was signed by more than 50 eminent Christian scholars and practitioners from around the country. The declaration was followed by a panel presentation and discussion in Washington, D.C. The panel was comprised of three Christian experts in the fields of foreign policy and political science. After the formal presentation, the panel engaged the audience in a very useful question-and-answer session. The article and the panel discussion together provided an excellent explanation and defense of what these experts hope will be the defining characteristics of American foreign policy in the future.
In the declaration, the editors extend a gracious invitation to “engage in thoughtful and sustained dialogue.” It is with this in mind that I am encouraged to respond. The intended aim of the declaration is, indeed, noble. But I do think there are parts of the declaration that either need to be rethought or adjusted. I hope to contribute to the discussion and, thereby, to help in a small way to further consideration of a Christian perspective on foreign policy.
As I read the declaration, the main argument is that the United States “has moved away from its historic, post-World War II role as the guarantor of international peace and security.” During the panel discussion, some of the participants compared what they see as the current absence of American leadership to the abrogation of American responsibility and involvement during the 1930s (i.e. the decision by the U.S. to pull out of Europe after World War I and not to reengage more forcefully as Europe fell victim to fascism and communism). The declaration goes on to say that the U.S. must recapture that role in order to “defend the institutions and culture of ordered liberty among the community of responsible sovereign nations.” America must champion and lead the world to civil liberties, religious freedom, open markets, non-aggression, mutual security, and territorial inviolability. To attain these goals, members of the panel invoked the benefits of hegemonic stability theory, suggesting this as a model for America in the world of the 21st century. The United States, the panelists and the declaration argued, is still the leading power in the world, gifted with “unprecedented power, wealth, and political rights.” Others, they argue, have stepped “into the vacuum created by American passivity.”
As I see it, there is a major difficulty with the vision of “Pax Americana” laid out in the declaration and by the panel members. The underlying problem, in my view, is that it is absolutely necessary to understand power in context. Power and the questions of authority, legitimacy, and sovereignty itself are products of time and place—and those phenomena change fundamentally with time. To view them as somehow static, that the 1930s can teach us how to behave in 2017, is to play a deadly game with history and with people’s lives.
In my view, we can see four distinct eras since the 1930s. Each one of them presents a unique configuration of authority, legitimacy, sovereignty, and power.
First, the 1930s. There is a persistent argument among some contemporary American historians and political scientists that if the U.S. had only “stayed engaged diplomatically and militarily in Europe” after World War I, the chances of avoiding World War II would have greatly increased. The cost of such a venture aside during the Great Depression, there is no evidence to suggest that the American presence would have had a material impact on the trajectory toward a new war. This is an assumption based on wishful thinking. It is the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. The British and especially the French were determined to exact a price from Germany, and the U.S., although a bit more benign, also was prepared to punish the Germans. In short, Wilsonian idealism had no chance to direct the political climate during the 1920s and 1930s.
Second, the post-World War II era had its own ethos—one that was distinct from the 1930s and called for its own, very different security policy and architecture. And, in the event, a very different American involvement than the 1930s. During the bipolar period the U.S. could—and did—lead part of the globe toward what might be defined as “ordered liberty.” That, in any case, was the mantra; in reality it was partly true. It was an era in which the U.S. helped reconstruct Western Europe and stationed thousands of troops there to protect against the communist threat. We reconciled with Japan, encouraged Europe to divest itself of colonies, helplessly watched China fall to the Communists, and hoped that the post-World War I Sykes-Picot accord would hold in the Middle East. But, it was also the era of American support for dictatorships in Asia, Latin America, and Africa—all in the name of anti-communism, but not in the reality of ordered liberty.
Third, the post-Cold War period saw the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, and that period did present an unprecedented opportunity for the U.S. to shape a new world order. The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations declared there would be a future of ordered liberty. But their efforts collapsed because of the reality of the rise of alternative power centers and a combination of American hubris, chest thumping, and arrogance. The unilateral, hegemonic moment was exactly that—a moment. American hegemony had slipped away, and it was very unlikely to return as the fourth security era dawned.
Finally, today we are in an era defined by multilateralism, but now the global stage is comprised of states and non-state actors. We never saw it coming. Before 9/11 we paid little attention to the place of non-state actors and did not take as seriously as we should have the rise of state peer competitors. We assumed that American hegemony was an expression of divinely-ordained exceptionalism and manifest destiny. But, the Russians and Chinese do not see it that way, and their leaders—among others—do not particularly care what Americans say. Our post-Cold War approach to Russia is especially instructive. We dismissed and ridiculed them and tried to teach them what they had to do to become a successful, modern state. As a result the Russians seethed, sulked, and planned revenge, and now we are reaping what was sown in the late 1980s and 1990s. The Chinese challenge is different—certainly a growing military power, but maybe a greater economic challenge in the future. At the same time, we need to understand why Iraq and Afghanistan have been such disasters, a failure that can be shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. Each, in their own ways, never understood how much the Middle East had diverged from the structures and functions our leaders saw in their democratic imaginations or at least in their rear-view mirrors.
As Christians—and non-Christians too—we need to focus on what the context is today and how power can be justly and effectively used. It strikes me that that is where the debate lies.
Steven E. Meyer, Director of National Security Studies, The Daniel Morgan Graduate School for National Security Studies, Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Sgt. Michael Misheff, CH-47F Chinook helicopter chew chief for Task Force Flying Dragons, flies the American flag over southern Afghanistan Aug. 28, 2014. Task Force Raptor pilots and crew chiefs fly American flags to present with certificates to service members as part of aviation tradition. Photo by Staff Sgt. Bryan Lewis, via U.S. Army.