A Return to Christian Realism
Something has got to change. That much is for sure. With a ballooning national debt, political dysfunction seemingly becoming worse by the day, and two unpopular wars that mostly drained American confidence in our foreign policy, there are major changes that must be undertaken in our foreign policy if we are to staunch the cynicism and apathy.
Americans have lost their taste for international interventions abroad, and I don’t blame them. For the record, I am not an isolationist by any stretch, but when I see the unrepentant apologists for the Iraq War waxing poetic about the “liberal international order” and our need to maintain it, we have reached peak cluelessness. Those who want a muscular foreign policy must realize that legitimacy and credibility are essential to get the American people to support long and costly efforts. Public opinion’s turn against a more internationalist stance is the result of foreign policy failures and our politicians’ inability to rally support behind it.
The glory days of the “liberal international order” are over. History has returned. We can either adjust our foreign policy to make it fit with our circumstances, or we can continue to do the same thing expecting the same results. One of those is the definition of insanity.
I am sympathetic with Paul Miller’s desire to stay internationally engaged and to use American power to uphold the rules-based international order. Few can honestly argue that we have not benefitted immensely from this order, and it has also benefitted the rest of the world immensely in terms of political stability and economic growth. But I think Joshua Mitchell’s argument is the more prudent one. We must return to a somber realism, but also a moral one. Less is more, oftentimes. Subtle, cautious, and strategic use of power should be how we steer the ship of state in the coming decades if we want to rebuild the confidence of American citizens and our allies.
Liberal Christians of various stripes seem in no mood to countenance the complexity of international politics, but instead, they seem mostly content to retreat into the snug cocoon of simplistic self-righteousness that has clear theological pronouncements on morally murky situations. As Mark Tooley recently learned in his engagement with journalist Jonathan Merritt, Jesus clearly would oppose the Yemen War, though Merritt offers no guidance on what Jesus would actually have us do in the fraught proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Augustine and Niebuhr were the two best exponents of this sense of tragedy and limits upon what we can accomplish in this mortal life. George H.W. Bush, often criticized for his embrace of the “new world order,” was actually much more realistic and cautious in his use of force in the First Gulf War. He built a coalition, made his military objectives achievable, and stopped when he pushed Saddam back into Iraq. Bush learned these lessons through a long and diverse career in the military, CIA, and politics. It also helped to have the steely-eyed gaze of Brent Scowcroft as your national security advisor.
We are entering a new historical period, and what works in one period of time does not in another. A supple and pragmatic foreign policy does not imagine it can steer events but realizes the accidents—or, better yet, Providence—of history are something that we cannot control. When the winds of history change, we can either adjust our sails or stubbornly insist on keeping them in the same place. We must change tack, and the sooner the better.
The conflict in the Middle East continues to burn, and it shows little signs of letting up in Syria and Yemen. The signs in Afghanistan are not good. The Iraq War, whatever we make of the justice of removing Saddam (a proposition I supported and still believe was just), created immense instability in an already unstable and a tense tug of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The results have not been pretty. The Arab Spring was a failure, with apologies to Tunisia.
America has been in search of an identity and foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. The fall of the Soviet Union brought the joyful end to communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, but it has also unleashed a host of other problems. To victors go the spoils, and America undoubtedly won. But sometimes victory can be disorienting. What are we supposed to do now?
The long struggle against Soviet communism created unity among our political parties and gave us a sense of purpose. Now the menace is gone, and the past three decades have seen America bestriding the globe, sometimes effectively, often not. But something like a vision wedded to effective policy has been lacking. We lurched from moderate Clinton to maximalist Bush to disengaged Obama. Whatever the track record of Trump’s specific policies, we have an opportunity to start afresh with Trump because he is an outsider who is not necessarily beholden to the proclivities and assumptions of a foreign policy establishment that have struggled to cope with the triumph of America and the end of history.
Stephen Walt’s recent book The Hell of Good Intentions describes this problem well. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in foreign policy hell is always creeping at your door. Walt persuasively argues that America’s commitment to “liberal hegemony” in the post-Cold War era has in fact caused us, at times, to act recklessly. It’s Human Nature 101. If you feel free to act as you will, you will probably act more imprudently than if you had pressure and rivals breathing down your neck. And the last 30 years have seen plenty of imprudence.
I too often hear the romantic term “liberal international order” as though it were one single thing that will go away if America changes course. If we want to conserve this order, we must adapt and not persistently romance ourselves about this “liberal order.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the international rules-based order, the international economic and trade bodies that encourage and resolve trade issues, and the security alliances that have benefitted Europe and America immensely. But these institutions are not etched into the heavens. They must be reformed, adapted, or consigned to the dustbin if necessary. The rules-based order must be defended and protected with hard power, but we must also stay engaged politically and diplomatically, seeking to exercise our influence for our own benefit and the those of our allies.
While I find Trump’s railing against our closest allies disconcerting and foolish—they’re our allies!!!—he’s right that America has been too reticent in allowing freeriding and not expecting the Europeans to carry more of the weight. NATO has been a fantastic benefit to Europe and America, but that does not mean the Europeans should not take greater responsibility for their collective security. The recent decision to pull out of Syria, while short-sided and strategically disastrous, is merely the result of electing someone who is following through on his campaign promises. Trump’s appeal was saying what many Americans already think. Prior presidents have done an abysmal job of selling American power abroad, so we cannot blame the public when they fail to see the benefit and only hear about the burdens.
Will our foreign policy class learn from its mistakes? It is hard to say. Judging from the reaction to Trump, it does not seem promising. Rather than learning their lessons from the past couple of decades, many appear to be doubling down.
What do Christians have to offer in all of this? Much in every way, but most important, to my mind, is the basic eschatological and anthropological conviction that we are extremely limited in constructing a peaceful and just world order because we are prideful creatures who imagine we are captains of the ship. We need a return to a sober Christian Realism that appreciates our fallenness, the fallenness of the world, and our limits in shaping world events. The only truly just order will come about when the Creator and Redeemer brings it about. Acknowledgment of that truth will go a long way in reorienting our thinking and actions in foreign policy.
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 coalition soldier provides security near Abu Kamal, Syria, on August 22, 2018. Coalition forces were working together to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). The coalition advised and assisted the Syrian Democratic Forces as they lead Operation Roundup, the military offensive to eliminate the remaining ISIS strongholds in Syria. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christian Simmons.