Though the phrase “in the interest of national security” may be a ubiquitous sound bite, national security is anything but a superfluous talking point for Americans. Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, or President Joe Biden may claim that it is in the interest of “national security,” to financially aid Ukraine and support our ally Israel against Hamas. Yet in the past, “national security” has been used to justify quite a few things of dubious benefit to American citizens. When politicians say something is necessary for national security, is it really for our immediate safety? Or, are we just defending political and economic powers that are indifferent to our personal lives?
America has long been a very secure nation, and we still are in many ways. Bordered by oceans and unthreatening Mexico and Canada, we feel safe. With the largest military budget in the world, and a nuclear arsenal at our disposal on land and at sea, we no doubt feel some immunity. Events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 have shocked our collective system, yet even the pain of the latter has slowly faded. Bin Laden is dead, ISIS is nearly defunct, and though the Taliban unfortunately still exists, they seem far away and easy to ignore. It is easy to climb into our SUVs, get the Starbucks coffee, watch an entertaining net flick, and just pretend that things like “national security” are only a concern for fictional characters like Jack Ryan. This is but an illusion, as the recent Hamas terrorist attacks have shown. Even so, many Americans take our sense of safety at home for granted, including prominent politicians.
The victims of the Hamas attack did not know that they were being sized up for a brutal assault. Some were, ironically and tragically, attending a peace celebration when they were murdered. Only those working in the national security apparatus know the full measure of invisible eyes watching us, and whether the threat is more pressing internationally or domestically. Yet it is real, and we must take it seriously for several good reasons.
Our security is a subset of national interest. National security is the safety of all our citizens, here or abroad. It is the fight for a stable, free, and just political order; the attempt to realize a peaceful climate in which those Starbucks are plausible. That people can travel safely, enjoy free exchanges of culture and experience, and live in a world free from strife and conflict is not an abstraction; it is the best dream we have yet to realize. Yet, in a world where Putin can invade Ukraine and Hamas can wreak havoc in the Middle East, we have clearly not realized that dream. The basic safety and security of our citizens and allies who embrace freedom and democracy, is necessarily a paramount concern. It is the attempt to make a secure footing for our national interest.
And what is our national interest? Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best at Gettysburg: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” There is still a war for the idea of God-given human rights and democracy yet unsettled, at home and abroad. Domestically, the biggest threat to this idea may be Donald Trump. Internationally, there is autocracy in Russia and China, among other governments across the world that do not recognize the sacred idea of living with freedom and virtue. We take these freedoms for granted when we have them. They are not an abstraction but rather the very ground beneath our feet. But, if we lack the commitment to fight for them, these freedoms may wither before our own eyes.
If humankind could be governed by philosopher-kings, the crown of reason would guide every action with wisdom and justice, and we would have no need to fight. As it is, however, a sinful, imperfect world, we still have need to stand up for just causes. Modern tyrants use reason as a tool to justify their own will-to-power. Reason is not a crown which education can bestow upon the head of a ruler forever. Tyrants still have contempt for the idea of a God-governed world where justice should be the norm we expect. A world where the law of love governs and guides the hand of reason more steadily. Christ showed us that it is the crown of love, and sacrificial giving to uphold justice that must rule, and not tyranny.
Our national interest is the cherished idea of free world, ruled by just and democratic government in a lasting peace. It is the same idea which Lincoln gave voice to over 160 years ago at Gettysburg. Yet, in our forgetful habit of isolationism, we pretend that our revolution and civil war were only about America as opposed having consequences for all of humanity. Those painful struggles gave a gift to the whole world which yearns for similar freedom. This was the reason soldiers from our country gave their lives to help defeat Nazi aggression in Europe. Sadly, the legacy of Cold-War authoritarianism is not yet ended, despite the best wishes of many in Eastern Europe. Should we then capitulate, turn away from Ukraine, make support for Israel conditional, and in essence balk at the sacrifice in blood which so many have given? To do so would be sheer hypocrisy. Was our recent failure to ultimately bring order to a land controlled by warlords in Afghanistan not enough to shock us into reconsidering our role in the world? For America to proclaim God-given human rights and democracy and then refuse to support these values internationally is both hypocritical and counterproductive to our national interest. It is the surest way to multiply our enemies.
No one wants wars. No one wants to whip the nation into a belligerent fervor. Sometimes, however, we must recollect the sad, sinful reality of the world we inhabit. The reality of our history is that the American Revolution, Civil War, and WWII, all did happen, and were at their core about a just and free world. Has America always been just? No. But our dream has never been falsified, nor is our national security just an abstraction. To say that national interest does not matter is to forget what it actually means. It means the ongoing historical battle for freedom, justice, and democracy. Unless I woke up in a different world this morning, that struggle remains ongoing and America still has a leading role and a moral obligation to promote it, not just for ourselves, but for the world about us. Hopefully, as 2024 approaches, we can make it a more peaceful world, but above all we should hope that our role in it is a more active, just, and realistic one.