A fortnight ago, I suggested in these pages that we ought to conceive of the national interest of any nation—and of American national interest in particularly—more capacious than sometimes framed. For certain, I mean for national interest to encompass more than merely the pursuit of power, security, and wealth. National interest is that, of course. We should be concerned to prevent, deter, and reduce military threats—whether conventional, nuclear, biological, chemical, or cyber—against the US, our forces deployed abroad, our allies, and our defense pact partners. We should prevent the emergence—or intrusion—of hostile powers and failed states in proximity of our borders. We should protect global trade, financial, energy, and environmental systems. And so on. But while that, national interest is more than that.
I argued that national interest encompasses the pursuit of virtue. As with individuals, nations too, if only in an analogous way, can develop the habit of—and the reputation for—virtuous behavior. Specifically, America ought to develop our miliary, financial, cultural, diplomatic, scientific, industrial, and technological power in order to deploy that power—when both duty and prudence align in doing so—to aid our international neighbors—including both discreet people groups as well as states—even if doing so is not strictly in defense or support of those kinds of national interests elaborated above. This is to say, I believe it is sometimes right to hazard American lives and treasure even when our own immediate power, security, or wealth is not threatened.
My grounds for believing this include theological soil—specifically the Hebraic kind—but not only. The theological grounding takes its cue from the theological norm that most directly promotes just war thinking: the command, by King Jesus, that we are to love our neighbors. This dominical norm, like all norms, points to a particular good. Neighbor is to love neighbor because it is good to do so. How loving our neighbor might benefit that neighbor is easy enough to imagine. How loving him might rebound to our own good isn’t always so clear—especially if the neighbor in question is an adversary or resides in a distant nation with seemingly no immediate relevance to me or for which I have no special obligation.
So how does it? Here we need to recall that the basic character of Christian norms is eudaemonic. Christian morality is concerned with human flourishing. To love something is to desire that the beloved should flourish. But the command “to love” also has in view the flourishing of the one who is commanded to love. For the human individual, to love another person is to orient our loves away from cupidity—from that kind of self-love characterized by using others for our own good—and toward charity—that kind of other-centered love characterized by acts of self-donation.
Is it so strange a thing to suggest a nation can love another nation in such a way? Well, Augustine, remember, defined a people as an association of rational beings united by shared loves. Some might argue that “people” here is not directly synonymous with “nation” or “state,” but the Bishop of Hippo, immediately going on to examine the objects of Rome’s love, himself suggests the synonym. So, nations, in the Augustine view, can love—because a nation is simply a collection of people who love.
But how can flourishing come to that nation deploying power on behalf of another nation when doing so does not profit that nation through the increase of our power, security, or wealth—indeed, when doing so may well jeopardize those very things? Simply this: not all profit is external. Loving our neighbors—whether as individuals or as a nation—profits us through the acquisition of—and the reputation for—virtue. It is good to develop magnanimity, benevolence, and justice. Doing so aligns our loves toward their proper objects. Only the virtuous, however poorly virtuous they are, can ever really love and desire the virtues that find their perfection in God. God made human beings to love. That required human freedom—because love cannot be forced. It must be free or it is not love at all. The virtuous, learning to love the right things in the right way for the right reasons, are slowly turning into being the kinds of beings they were made to be. Such a good is very nearly its own justification. Even better, such a good might well be the only means of developing a taste for heaven—a desire to spend eternity in the company, and under the kingship, of the Godhead.
Of course, in all likelihood, spending a measure of our national power—and jeopardizing or even spending a measure of our security and wealth—will profit us in more immediately tangible ways—even ways recognizable to and valued by those who believe our nation—any nation—should only be interested in its own interests. As I insisted in my initial essay, among much else, advancing the flourishing of other nations—through advancing allied and partner nations’ power, security, and wealth, serves America’s own power, security, and wealth by providing a stable international community for commerce and by serving as the outer perimeter of our own national defenses. In an outstanding essay in the latest issue of First Things, Nigel Biggar, Providence contributor and Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford put it this way:
The defense and promotion of the domestic security and well-being of one people depends upon making and keeping the international environment friendly rather than hostile.
One way to do this, Biggar points out, is to promote and defend abroad what is defended and promoted at home. This will include those “values and institutions generally important for human welfare—such as the rule of law, an incorrupt civil service, and legal rights.” This exhortation is no gassy idealism. It is deadly practical and comes with a crucial warning:
The United States is not the only trustee of such values and institutions, but, thanks to the gifts of providence and its own achievements, it happens to be the most powerful global actor at this time. Its primary duty to its own people obliges it to sustain its power. But that duty implies a secondary one to promote the weal of other nations. For if it should surrender its dominant international power, other states, less humane and liberal, will pick it up. The U.S. has a vocation to shoulder the imperial burden, certainly for the sake of Americans, but for the sake of the rest of us as well.
American national interests and our willingness to spend power for global common good are more closely aligned than many seem to believe. Wherever America retracts abroad, an adversarial power will take our place. It would not only be irresponsible to for America to let that happen. It would be against our interests.