On April 28, the genial, well-meaning David Brooks wrote in the New York Times to lament the end of the New World Order, the fact that Western liberal humanitarian ethics no longer seems to have the power to channel world events, to halt acts of aggression, and constantly nudge other, less enlightened societies to remake themselves along our rational lines. We can see the bones of our failure in the burning streets of Syria, and on the steppes of beleaguered Ukraine.
What Brooks seems to have realized is a truth that is stunningly simple: there is no going back to Eden. A flaming sword still guards the Tree of Life against us. Mankind redeemed is not mankind restored to Adam’s peaceful order. We are told that our culpa was felix, that our Fall was happy, because the gift of Redemption through the Cross is so much greater than our previous happy innocence.
But it sure doesn’t feel that way.
And so we pretend that it isn’t true. We imagine that we can create here on earth a brave new world, a workers’ paradise, a new world order, where conflict will abolished and people can calmly negotiate for their needs. The Left dreams that peace can be accomplished through laws and treaties, the right through gadgets and markets. And it’s certainly true that laws are better than anarchy, and businessmen better than commissars. But nothing we do will straighten the crooked timber of humanity, so that we can build a lasting, peaceful order on this earth. The best that any statesman really can hope to be is a fireman, dousing the worst conflagrations, and letting the smaller ones burn themselves out. There is no fireproofing the planet.
This is the lesson that Americans are learning, very slowly and very reluctantly, in the wake of the Cold War. We need to learn it better, and get the lesson right, if we are to carry on our experiment of a very successful country that is relatively free.
First of all, we must realize that our nation was never meant to be a transformative engine that would change the nature of every human government, and set itself up as the leader of a global revolution of freedom—as the Jacobin Thomas Paine proclaimed in Common Sense, and President George W. Bush proudly echoed in his second inaugural address. There have been regimes that were founded with such a purpose: Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union come to mind. Each one burned itself out in a blaze of aggression and tyranny. Before that, the Spanish Empire tried to expand its brand of Catholic authoritarianism across the face of the globe—and succeeded in wrecking itself in less than a century.
There’s a Greek word for the passion that drives us to imagine that our countries are more than mortal, that they have the power to work a redemption of human nature that only Grace can (fitfully, sometimes) accomplish: the word is hubris.
The best illustration of hubris comes in the story of the English King Canute. A devout king surrounded by flatterers, he called his court to the beach and had his throne set up among the dunes. He sat and commanded the waves to recede and the tide to turn. When the waters went right on flowing, he ordered his courtiers to take due note of the limits of kingly power.
As Americans, we need to absorb this lesson deep in our bones—to see that our country can try something, and fail, and remain America. Much as we like to win (who doesn’t?) and think of ourselves as a “can-do” people, we are not defined by success. Vietnam was a bloody lesson in the limits of liberal social engineering; neither Lyndon Johnson nor any of his coterie of geniuses really could “build a
Great Society on the banks of Mekong River.”
Nor could they build one on the Potomac. We are still stuck in the quagmire of a losing War on Poverty, which made American poor people wards of the government and cordoned them off from the rest of us, where they wouldn’t get in the way. Much of the passion for immigration “reform” comes from well-heeled employers who would rather hire eager, obedient immigrants than poor people who grew up in American slums. Let “those people” collect their government checks, and stay in their own neighborhoods.
The Iraq war, and occupation of Afghanistan, taught us the limits of American triumphalism. No matter how committed we are to a project of transformation, we really cannot bomb or bribe any given country until it turns into Switzerland. Not the bravest soldiers or cleverest foreign service personnel can replicate in hostile soil, at lightning speed, the hundreds of years of slow, organic development of free institutions that grew up in the West. Such experiments are typically as sterile and unhealthy as a sex change operation.
Our failures should teach us humility, but instead they might teach us contempt. We might start to look at other countries with different histories as hopeless basket cases, whom we regard through the narrow eyes of short-sighted self-interest. While such a “realist” view would do less damage than our incessant interventionism, it’s a brittle mask to wear: the moment that any country threatens us with serious harm, a “realist” is ready to step forward and threaten that nation with overwhelming force—because while he might be humble about America’s ability to do good, he has no such limits about our willingness to wreak vengeance.
But Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as vengeful; if we strike a country hard, we will quickly begin to feel guilty, to say with Gen. Colin Powell that if we “break” a country then we have “bought” it. At that point the liberal internationalists and neoconservatives will step forward, with a brilliant 12-point plan for transforming Godforesakenhellholeistan into a modern, democratic American ally. And the whole cycle will repeat itself, until our nation finally runs out of money and collapses. Because we will never run out of enemies—something that David Brooks just seems to have realized.
here is a deeper lesson here than the deadliness of hubris. The truth is not simply that we are not all-knowing or all-powerful. In another striking distinction between our nation and almighty God, we aren’t all-good either. This a sobering fact that each of hates to admit about ourselves, much less our beloved country. But it is simply true, and when we attempt to deny it, we earn the cynical scorn of other countries, and make our own ideals seem like empty rhetoric. We also render ourselves unable to appreciate the fact that other countries have vital interests of their own, which sometimes they will commit crimes to protect. Just like America.
We have done some ruthless things in our history, and it is no part of patriotism to pretend otherwise. Leave aside the really big sins, like slavery and the ethnic cleansing of Indians. Let’s stick to foreign policy, and the way that our government has acted toward its neighbors. When we damn Putin’s Russia for ravishing its largest neighbor, Ukraine, do we forget the many times that we have invaded Mexico? Our incessant meddling in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Cuba? Our coup that installed the Shah of Iran?
Certainly, there were “realistic” reasons that our presidents felt that it suited America’s interests to act as they did. We need to admit that sometimes in our history, our actions have widely diverged from our stated ideals—and that this very well might happen again. We are not, and cannot be, perfectly disinterested soldiers of an abstract moral philosophy. No country survives that way.
Of course, we ought to give America credit where it is due: we followed our crushing victory in World War II not with savage vengeance but far-sighted benevolence that served our long-term interests. In Germany, we sought out the surviving enemies of the Nazis from the prison camps where they languished, and helped them to build a free society—in a country that had hundreds of years of experience with decentralized and limited government, a land that had in fact developed the first Western printing press. My father served under General Patton guarding Army coal-dumps from freezing German civilians. His rifle was never loaded.
In Japan, our apocalyptic attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the humiliation of unconditional surrender, snapped Japan’s spinal column; we even forced the Shinto god-emperor Hirohito to admit that he was merely a mortal marine biologist. We created a cultural vacuum, which we filled with pacifist commercialism and technophilia. (We also, perversely, legalized abortion.) The Japanese have stopped making war—and also, it seems, making love. But at least they’re not invading Korea.
Even when American self-interest was enlightened, we were still pursuing our national interests—not Christian ethics or Kant’s “categorical imperative.” When other countries act in ways that outrage our ideals, in the service of their own interests, it really is unseemly and ineffective for the United States to start pretending that for more than 200 years we have been a harmless and selfless charity, a giant and well-armed auxiliary of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Instead, we need to attempt a little empathy, to put ourselves in the place of foreign citizens and leaders. Would we put up with a Chinese-sponsored coup in Mexico City? Then why should we expect the Russians to stand idly by when we help engineer a revolution in Ukraine?
As much as we sympathize with a nation that suffered its own holocaust at Russian hands in the 1930s, it’s absurd for us to pretend that what is stake here is abstract ideals, or political philosophy. Russia wants control over its own backyard, such as we demand over ours. If we intend to deny that to them, the rest of the world knows what is going on: a Western power-grab, designed to humiliate Russia and cripple it—as a prelude to remaking Russia itself in our own image.
Now maybe that is exactly what America needs to do, for its own interests. (I think it’s a crazy and useless risk to take, myself.) But let’s not dress up as Cub Scouts while we do it.
No one is fooled.