The idea of sacrifice has been on my mind for the last couple years. Americans are questioning whether the sacrifices our country makes around the world are worth it. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have shaken that sense. Globalization, though it has brought great benefits for America, also has a downside that came to the fore in the last presidential election. The idea of sacrifice, once a noble word, has fallen on hard times.
To become great at something you must sacrifice—time, relationships, energy, hobbies, etc. Great athletes devote an inordinate amount of time focused on becoming the best they can be at their particular sport. Tom Brady is a perfect example. Not only does he spend his offseason in a rigorous skills and physical training program, his diet is extremely disciplined. So disciplined that he gave up pizza. My kids can’t believe it. Watching the Olympics this past winter was instructive. These athletes live, breathe, and sleep their individual sport for one shot at winning a medal. In doing so they give up living a normal life. They forgo the normal enjoyments and pleasures that the average person enjoys on a daily basis, like hanging out with friends and eating pizza if you feel like it. They sacrifice a large portion of the prime of their life in order to achieve greatness.
When it came to World War II and the ensuing Cold War, the US sacrificed immensely in order to build a peaceful, prosperous, and secure world order. The Korean War, in which 36,000 Americans and roughly one million Koreans died, is a good example. No other country except the US was willing or able to oppose communist aggression in places like Korea, and we were willing to sacrifice our sons and resources to push back against the Russian- and Chinese-backed Kim Il-sung regime. Though it took some persuading, there was a firm belief among American leadership and the public that the sacrifice was worthwhile.
Being the one superpower left standing after the Cold War imposed burdens on America. Leadership was not easy and was often extremely dangerous. Enough of America’s leadership and public believed that the substantial sacrifices to protect Europe and other American allies were worth it because freedom was a transcendent idea that Americans believed should be cherished and defended, even at great cost.
The fledgling new order that was being built around institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, NATO, and United Nations were protected by American power and shepherded by American leadership.
There is a bit too much romance lately for the idea of the “liberal international order” amongst critics of President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. There was not one order, as Graham Alison recently points out. It was a series of institutions and arrangements that were often independent of each another. Some were more important than others. And in order to make Trump’s foreign policy more apocalyptic than it in fact is, we must sugarcoat the past with the most glorious and nostalgic accounts of post-war order.
That said, World War II and the Cold War produced a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that has proved durable for many decades. The American government and people were willing to exert great effort and resources to oversee and safeguard global security and stability. That consensus began eroding in the late ’60s during the Vietnam War, even though it later increased and held together through the George H.W. Bush administration.
But the world still requires order, and that still requires sacrifice. Somebody must pony up. The belief that appears now to be a consensus is that we can have world order, peace, stability, and prosperity on the cheap. We can coast merely on soft power (Democrats) or by promoting national interests (Republicans) without the hard work and heavy lifting required to actually maintain that order, whether through diplomacy or hard power.
On both sides of the political spectrum, Americans are losing their will to be the guarantor of order in the world. For many this is a good thing. On the left, there is great support for universal engagement and international institutions but no support for the means to support that order through the use of hard power and the military. They want a rules-based global order and institutions without the sacrifice.
On the right, there is a growing isolationism and nationalism that questions why we should be abroad spending our blood and treasure in support of an international system that seems to not benefit us or like us very much. Republicans and conservatives have little hang-up about the use of power but question the value of international institutions and the sacrifices we have made to sustain them. They are wondering whether it is worth it.
American pastor Tim Keller in a recent talk at the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in the UK argued that the inability of modern people to see sacrifice as meaningful has to do with a loss of faith in a God who calls us to sacrifice for other people. Christ sacrificed his life for others, setting a pattern that became an ideal in the West. But our culture today says the opposite. Do not sacrifice yourself for anything. Rather, we teach self-actualization, which is a more consumeristic and therapeutic value and anathema to sacrifice. Under that paradigm, sacrifice is not only offensive; it’s unintelligible.
Our current president and both major political parties increasingly are moving away from the conviction that sacrifice is a noble thing and toward the conviction that sacrifice is not worthwhile. Without someone’s sacrifice, it’s hard to see how our world order will continue to hold together.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: A US Special Operations soldier returns fire while conducting multi-day Afghan-led offensive operations against the Taliban in Mohammad Agha district, Logar Province, Afghanistan, July 28, 2018. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Byers.