One of the more curious features revealed by much of the alarmism over Afghanistan withdrawal and cries of isolationism is a profound lack of confidence in a fundamental, material basis for American power among advocates of muscular forms of national greatness. Acknowledging all the risks and caveats of an esoteric reading of any school of thought, it is worth noting that both forms of American internationalism tend to treat America’s benevolent empire as something of an intersubjective entity – if we, or our foes, or allies, stop believing in it, its power is vastly diminished.
There is the infamous quote Ron Suskind recorded from an unnamed aide to the Bush administration – the sentiment, I would argue, is actually quite bipartisan:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out
This sort of rhetoric is apparent in most forms of internationalist foreign policy ideologies. So long as “history’s actor” maintains confidence in the primacy of the act, it bends the reality of the international politics to its will. If America stands up for its values, they will transform the international system. If it ignores the particularities and striations of geopolitical reality, its principles achieve universality. Decline is a choice, but it is a choice no material reality can stop – and indeed, it is a choice that gives substance to nightmares that are essentially impossible.
By sheer act of will, America repudiates politics as is, but, by implication, if its will slackens, it unravels the reality of its own creation. There is little sense that the American international order can survive a betrayal to its values, but every confidence that the act of perpetuating that order can impose self-defeating costs. Think of every speech which posits a world without American leadership – it is not one where any ideals America stands for continue to exist, because immediately, by sheer force of will, hostile powers replace the United States. Somehow, Russia and China overcome their internal problems, radical Islam overcomes its own unpopularity and inability to govern in the cradle of the Islamic world, and these powers combine forces to replace American leadership with their own.
To be sure, willpower and ideals shape the way nations act. But they cannot conduct some emancipatory leap above a supposedly artificial reality to reshape it. Willpower and ideas influence what a country chooses to do within the horizons of real, material factors. However, an abdication of will and idea do not render a country’s geography, resources, and immediate military forces into dust.
The problem with identifying America’s strength first in its will and idea is that it wholly distorts the policy-making process. As I asked earlier today, how is it that the most secure country on earth is filled with so many people who fear that its neglect to oust a garishly-clad nutcase whose relative threat to the United States is arguably less now than when his state was a collection of piratical tribute-seekers will usher in the collapse of its international order? How its inability to pacify a landlocked Central Asian state? If one assesses America’s strength by its ideals and willpower, this makes perfect sense. Ideals do not have borders. There is no limes beyond which they arguably cease to matter. The strength of America’s ideas lie in their universality, and universality and the state which stakes its foreign policy to it has no credibility if it lacks the willpower to delimit them to geopolitical realities it could create, if only it believed. To begin embracing a conception of self-interest that calculates material gain, relative threat, acceptable losses, limits to American willpower and ideals – all this drags foreign policy from the realm of the epoch-making heroic to the “dull catalogue of common things” – borders, budgets, limits, triage, and so on.
In a sense, realists who believe in relative decline are far more optimistic than those who fear the absolute decline of moral error. To a realist, it is quite obvious that American power is going to remain first among equals for quite some time. America is an offshore power, connected to both the world’s great seas. As a primarily maritime power, it has the double advantage of being relatively safe from foreign aggression and a favorable partner in international balancing. The idea that America has allies because America is purely altruistic is ludicrous – we are not. We conquered our way across the continent within fifty years and we conquered a good deal of the country when it tried to leave before sanctifying our cause with emancipation. We became a great power and we inflicted a fatal blow on a rival empire to create our own in the Pacific and Caribbean.
George F. Kennan was not an unabashed believer in American altruism or the inherent worth of the American system. He was a realist who recognized the ultimate incoherence of the regime we opposed, and was perfectly willing to tell entire swathes of the world irrelevant to his plans for containment to fend for themselves. He saw the American constitution as fundamentally flawed and, wherever one bothered to consult his domestic political views, a reactionary figure without any constituency for his ideas. It was his plan that allowed America to survive the Cold War. The altruism was injected from elsewhere.
Germany and Japan did not ally with America after WWII because they saw its actions and thought it wholly altruistic. We incinerated Japan’s cities, strangled its economy, and unleashed weapons of then-untold power as a coup d’grace. This is not to say what we did was necessarily wrong, but to argue it was done purely out of the love of our hearts? Surely you jest. Countries allied with us because we were an offshore power that, however viciously we fought during war, had little interest in absorbing new territory across vast oceans. This stood in stark contrast to a Soviet army that was every bit as brutal as the totalitarian regimes it felled and was perfectly willing to impose its social systems as far as its bayonets could carry them. So nationalists who hated communism and the prospect of becoming a colony of Moscow fell in line with the indirect power of Washington, and still clashed plenty, as the Suez Crisis, the debates with de Gaulle and his vision of Europe, and other incidents demonstrated. But America was still a far away power which could contribute much to their defense but intervene against them only with great difficulty – so the risks of neutrality were higher than the costs of security dependence.
I have yet to see foreign politicians profess anywhere near the kind of belief in American altruism that American politicians ascribe to them in explaining their choice of when to partner with the United States.
Ultimately, despite the popularity of thinkers such as Niall Ferguson and others, muscular American internationalists are very uncomfortable of thinking of themselves as a mere liberal empire rather than a universal harbinger of a transformed world. Democratic, republican, or liberal empires, like Athens in the Peloponnesian war, obey not just honor or altruism, but fear and interest. They acknowledge that the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. Like Rome, they decide limits beyond which the barbarians are not worth pacifying. Their conceptions of virtue recognize it not as mere goodness but as amalgam of skill and strength. Like Britain, they accept that not all subjects are worth keeping in the empire, and the calculus of Adam Smith in knowing there is plenty of room for ruin in a nation.
They falter not when their idealism fails and they crumple inwards, but when their prudence fails and they cannot limit their ambitions. But America’s universalists see their ambition as altruism and their implacability as fortitude. Thus refusal to submit to the prudence of triage becomes courage and seriousness, and vastly exaggerated claims of threat from abandoning minor conflicts become moral catastrophes. It sounds well and good to pretend that the source of our strength is our ideals, that the foundations of our international order are in the sky above the mud, blood, and grime of traditional great power politics. However, political virtue that exists without reference to these realities is merely an exercise in wishful thinking, or worse, a tragedy in the making. To think that only a failure of imagination threatens all the United States has accomplished, and sound the alarm over rational attempts to husband national power, is to place the comfort of ideal narrative over the moral and material lessons of history.