America Doesn’t Have to do Stupid Stuff

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt explains why America can’t help “being stupid.”  He backs his point with an analysis of American characteristics and situation in the world.  Walt is addressing systemic problems and his analysis goes beyond the shallow discourse of polarizing complaints and clichés.  Does he go deep enough?  Are his premises robust enough to withstand today’s dysfunctions and the upheavals they may portend?    

Walt cites four causes that push America toward excessive intervention abroad.  First is the nature of liberalism; its universal claims for rights automatically puts us at odds with any authoritarian.  Second, we have so much power that we can easily “fix” oppressions and other ills, at little cost to ourselves.  Third, we have built up many interests that have a stake in keeping our “outsized global role”.  And fourth, many foreign interests seek, and gain, influence in U.S. policy circles, and pull us into their issues.

The last three points might be summarized as Walt’s case that power corrupts.  We face no constraint of limited capacities, and so can afford to indulge impulsive, even whimsical, actions abroad.  This in turn can be expected to generate efforts to recruit US power, by foreign and domestic interests, to their purposes.   Advocates and policy professionals, all following our ethos of striving in our careers, are certainly programmed to turn this structural potential for thoughtless over-assertion into reality at every turn.  But is this an endemic feature of America?  Is it impossible for us to manage our power and our policy makers?

Walt’s first point names the root of the problem he sees.  We believe that all persons have unalienable rights, and thus we view any system that denies people their rights as illegitimate.  Any believer in a universal doctrine of government, he says, will be driven to convince or compel others to adopt the same doctrine.  This is true of liberals, Marxists, and various religious doctrines, according to Walt.  And, it seems, we are arrogant in our ideals.

Is active projection necessary for our values?  Is it good or bad in itself?  Is it necessarily tied to the exercise of power?  

Answers to questions like these tend to follow partisan interests.  The drives to fight any potential threat, or to expand our economic opportunities, are of the right.  The impulses to sanction human rights abusers, or to introduce new social doctrines abroad, are of the left.  Active projection of our values depends on which of those values we are talking about; power is a useful tool for my cause, or a sinful requirement for the other sides’ schemes.  

But what exactly do we want to project into the world?   America’s founding tenets, named in our very Declaration of Independence, are abstract.  Though they carry a clear and compact idea, they take living form only as circumstances and human foibles permit.  They are easily ignored or co-opted by crass interests, or mis-applied – or despaired over – by unattainable idealism.  We face a constant and hugely complex challenge, to preserve them as America’s essence, to live up to them in our national life, to protect the progress we make while continuing in that progress, and to support them in our conduct abroad, all at once.

The world, and our own society, grow more complex and perplexing every week.  Interventions abroad are useful or pernicious depending not on whose politics are served, but on how well our actions do or don’t carry our core creed.  We love it when others develop into democracy – which may be served by sponsoring elections, or belied if elections are imposed on an electorate that is not really a political community.  A dictator may or may not pose a threat to our country, or to the very idea of freedom, or to basic international order needed for people to grow.  Or may serve some social need in his (or her) country.  The complexities proliferate, and some, from climate to genetic engineering to artificial intelligence, raise unprecedented conceptual difficulties.

What America cannot afford is for different ideas of how to live up to our common creedal identity to lose track of that commonality in our profound and revolutionary national identity.  The idea of a consensus seems in itself an idealistic and naïve pursuit today.  But even the best of our policy thinkers have trouble keeping our common tenets in the bedrock position where they belong.  The hugely complicated exercises of constructing consensual American actions (or non-interventions) will only deepen our political divisions unless we start the discourse with our core tenets.

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