In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Richard Jordan’s “Where Are the Playful Realists?” Mark Tooley’s “Global Backstop for Democracy,” and Brian Stewart’s “The Syrian Revolution Turns 10.”
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. We’re reviewing three Providence articles from this week. Firstly, one that I thought was especially insightful by Richard Jordan at Baylor University about playful Christian realism, a phrase you don’t typically hear, making the point that utopians and idealists tend to construct their castles in the sky, which can become very dangerous if taken too seriously. And yet Christian realists should also feel even freer to construct visions of ideal societies, knowing they will not be completed in this world, knowing that we have the authentic ideal society, i.e., the new Jerusalem constructed by God himself at the end of the age. But nonetheless, keeping his visions in mind can help us to work towards an approximately more just and better society, and certainly enliven our own imagination. So, Marc LiVecche, as a Christian realist, can you become playful?
LiVecche: Oh, I’m hurt that’s even a question. I would have thought you knew me as a child-like scholar of Christian realism. Great article. I think it’s his first article for us, and I mean, he’s like a ready-made Providence friend. We don’t even have to make him a little bit. So, that was exciting. And Melton, I have to say, best picture corresponding to an article that I’ve seen in a long time. I pictured Mearsheimer bouncing the ball in the woods with those children, and just the cognitive dissonance is profound. He does a number of things well in the piece. He rightly identifies a paradigm that I’ve long worked with, and Elshtain long worked with, that has always been important to me. And that’s that there are two ways of misdescribing reality, right. There’s the idealist. I could also call them the romantic. I don’t like that term too much, because the romantic has a lot of balances. You can also call them the sentimentalist. That’s one way to misdescribe reality. And the other way is the cynic. It’s the jaundiced naysayer who doesn’t believe that maybe morality has a role in a given situation or that any good can come of something. And you see these twin errors operative in all sorts of fields, and you certainly see them in political theory. As you know, I take an Aristotelian view. There is something in the middle, we can call it moral realism, and then we participate in that moral realism through Christian realism. That’s the original thesis, and you can revert that thesis either with a deficiency or an excess. And those deficiencies and excesses are sentimentalism and cynicism, and the Christian is duty bound to resist both. Because we know that the tragic obtains in life; we see that all around us. And he rightly points to that. He also recognizes that the tragic doesn’t have to mean tragedy, like we’re not living in a tragedy. The world is tragic, but as he says, we know how this ends. And all will be well, right. All manner of things will be well, we know that. So, that allows us the freedom of playing a little bit with a loaded hand, right. We know how it ends; that gives us a certain kind of confidence and a certain kind of flexibility. I appreciate his prescriptions that he gives us at the end, some practical ones. If I had a word of caution in anything that he says, it is, and I think he would agree with this, but we mustn’t, when we say oh, the world’s tragic but we don’t live in a tragedy, we have to be careful not to downplay that tragedy and act as if simply because we know how this all will end, that the tragedy itself doesn’t matter. So much because, obviously, the tragedy matters a great deal when you contemplate, as I do in a conversation with Paul Miller that’s up today, when you contemplate the potential tragedy that is awaiting some of the folks in Afghanistan after the US pull out. The girls, those who have helped the American coalition, tragedy is probably in their future, and that is going to be a horrific bloodletting. So, that’s grievous. I think he says tragedy is only one act. I would push back on that. In a good Shakespearean tragedy, tragedy goes through to climax to at least act three, and then the denouement in the final two acts is still nothing to celebrate about. But great article. Christian realists should be playful. We should imagine worlds, if for no other reason than simply to know where it is we’re trying to go, and then to proceed there with sobriety. There’s much more to be said about it all, but yeah, great article. And I take him up on his offer that we should be a hub for great book recommendations, and I would add to that movie recommendations, etc. So, game on, let’s play.
Tooley: Well, speaking of Christian realism and tragedy, Brian Stewart’s article on the Syrian civil war of over a decade now, with possibly one million killed, his perspective is that there should have been US intervention at the start, which could have prevented many, if not most, of those half a million deaths. It could not have been more tragic as it already has been. Other more traditional realists would certainly argue, or say, thank God the US didn’t intervene in the Syrian civil war, and prototypical realists would cite Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya as situations where US interventions, from their perspective, only made tragic situations more tragic. So, Mark Melton, your thoughts on this Syrian tragedy. Should we share Brian Stewart’s lament that the US didn’t intervene early on in Syria?
Melton: I think he’s certainly right that the situation would have been better if the United States had gotten involved earlier, but at the time there was no real domestic support for that. Now, I think the president is responsible for building the support necessary when the president believes that we should do something. The public isn’t necessarily going to get on board with a war if the president is downplaying it. The fact is that Obama was not going to do that. He created a red line that he wasn’t willing to follow through on, and that’s in and of itself a massive mistake. But yeah, there were a lot of tragedies there. I know that intervention would have been more difficult than Libya, but even Libya, a lot of mistakes were made there too. So, yeah, it’s a difficult situation. You have to be able to build up enough domestic support, and American presidents tend to only respond after massive tragedies. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but we only got involved in Bosnia because of the massacres that were suddenly photographed. They’d been going on, we had known they were going on, but we didn’t get involved until media started to post pictures of it. When we did get involved in Syria, we only got involved half-heartedly. And there were the ISIS videos that really got us involved. I remember talking to people before, saying we should probably get involved, and they were like oh, we don’t care. Then we got involved and we weren’t really concerned about Assad, we were concerned about ISIS, and to me, that felt like going after a symptom and not the cause of the disease. My attitude is if you’re going to get involved, you have to get involved full heartedly. You can’t go half-heartedly into something. You have to know what your end goal is going to be. And so, the idea that we didn’t get involved, we did get involved in Syria. We did have troops there; we actually killed a bunch of Russians there a few years ago, which is a very interesting battle that occurred. And so, there was fighting there, there were US troops there, we just were not full heartedly involved. One of my first articles for Providence, back in 2015, was actually three different policy proposals for what the US could have done at that moment. There were policy suggestions that people were talking about, and there was one that I thought was the most reasonable. It was this inkblot strategy of like we could go in, have some territory that we work with, have partners there, and from there we expand. And that’s kind of what we did with the Kurds, but again, we’ve only done this stuff half-heartedly. And kind of dovetailing into LiVecche’s conversation with Paul Miller, I think there are similar things we did in Afghanistan. We only got involved halfway. If we’re going to get involved in a war, we have to get involved fully. I’m against half-hearted measures.
Tooley: Well, typically critics focus on the tragedy of US intervention or the tragedy of US non-intervention, but are unable to appreciate that it’s a choice of pick your tragedy. And which tragedy is less tragic than the other tragedy, there’s never an ideal situation that fits into the compartmentalized views of these absolutist perspectives. Well, finally, I wrote a brief piece about what I think is a wonderful new PBS masterpiece theater series on the Nazi conquest of Norway and its crown princess fleeing to the United States at the invitation of FDR. He dispatches a ship to pick her up, and her family, and 800 other refugees from Finland. And very movingly, as she’s moving through the harbor on the way to the US ship, Norwegian fishermen begin to sing the Norwegian national anthem as she holds up her little son, the future king, to give them hope and inspiration for the future. As she approaches this giant US ship with a giant American flag painted on the side to deter attacks by German U-boats, it all calls into question in terms of US interest and responsibilities towards offering refuse to persons around the world fleeing persecution, tyranny, and aggression. There’s been a lot of debate the last several years over the very tight quotas on refugees instituted by the last administration, which remain in place. I believe the figure remains at 15,000 refugees per year. When you compare that to the about one million people who typically migrate into the US every year, that’s a tiny, tiny figure that I think should be larger. But at the same time, of course, we must remember that the US has finite resources that can only accept so many. So, national interest and humanitarian concerns must be in play at the same time. Marc LiVecche, any thoughts?
LiVecche: The series sounds like a perfect example of the kinds of movies that we ought to watch to fuel one’s moral imagination, right. So, that’s one thought. I think your closing comments on the power of American ideals, our aspirations, the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and we might not always be that nation, but the aspiration itself says something about what is at heart in the American. If it’s still an experiment, then in the American experiment. When we say all men are created equal, we never meant just a handful of white dudes on the eastern seaboard. We meant everyone. And our foreign policy alignments have often shown that. I think those are worthy aspirations. How you go about it, how you how you balance aspirations with reality and a reality that you can affect, I think that’s at the heart of Christian realism. So, that’s critical. Also, take a narrow view of interests as to misunderstand what those interests are. It is in our interests that when our ships anchor off a besieged coastline, that the people in that coastline rejoice and they know that help is on the way, or hope is on the horizon, or any of those aphorisms that are often actually true. That matters when we exert our power. I’ve said this a thousand times, but when we exert our power in ways that are as beneficence as we can, when we try to do no harm, when we try to rescue the hurting, when we try to help where we can, that makes that power that we rightly cultivate, or at least gives it the best chance of being sufferable to those who are beneath it. So, it is in our interests to be self-donating and other-centered. It contributes both to the acquisition of virtue, which is a national good. I think it may be very indirectly, but when it comes full circle, it contributes to our security.
Tooley: Excellent points. Mark Melton, can you give us a preview of what to expect from Providence next week?
Melton: So, I have one article from Christianity & Crisis by Reinhold Niebuhr, talking about world government and world community. It’s interesting because he’s arguing against world government. There’s this proposal in 1946 that said that the president should call a constitutional convention so that we can rewrite the Constitution, so that we can join a world government. This is being written, or this was being proposed, when the United States was very optimistic about what relations with the Soviet Union would be like. Slowly in government though, a lot of people were realizing that the Soviets were not going to play nicely. But because of years of World War II, being allies with them, the United States was not ready to really fully understand that this uncle Joseph Stalin is not a nice player, even though we had just fought a war with them. And even in Christianity & Crisis, you see articles from Niebuhr and others who are sympathetic to the Soviets. Anyway, so at this time, you have this proposal for world government, and Niebuhr is criticizing it. But he’s criticizing it not because world government is impossible, especially with our current levels of administrative capacities and technology it’s just not possible, his argument was it’s not possible because we don’t have the right community. My thought is that even if there was a world community, it’s just not going to be possible to get that many people together. It’s hard enough to govern a territory the size of the United States coherently and justly. So, that’s one article we have coming up. We have a piece by LiVecche and Daniel Strand about just cause, we have an article by Kennedy Lee about Lebanon, and we have a couple others that escaped my mind right now.
Tooley: So, stay tuned. Mark Melton, Marc LiVecche, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.