American Timidity?

America’s founding documents — the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers — are, when read, potentially lethal. Debates about American exceptionalism abound. Writing in the Wall Street Journal before the bombings in Libya, Daniel Henninger brought these currents together in the context of present Arab world turmoil as they relate to Chinese power. The reason why the world may not eventually fall to Islam, Henninger suggests, concerns China’s power, not the strength of democracy. “Is U.S. Democracy Just Talk?” Henninger asks, to remind us that a third way exists to respond to both.

“Is it just talk?” is the question. Behind democracy stands the history of regime changes from Aristotle to the French and American revolutions. Ecclesiastical sources constantly echo Pope Paul VI’s phrase, “No More Wars Ever Again!” This approach, like diplomacy itself, often appears as an apology for the status quo, a tacit approval of existing regimes, even despotisms. The only justification for anything is “humanitarian,” the only mode is “dialogue.”

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When President Barack Obama came to power, amid much talk, he assured us that he knew the Arab world. When the Arab world erupted, he was quiet — at least up to Libya, where he apparently followed President Bill Clinton’s model of bombing Bosnia.

President George W. Bush was accused of trying to change things that did not want to be, or could not be, changed. The turmoil in the Arab world, however, was aroused by the appeal to better forms of government launched by this much-criticized president. American founding documents were called to the attention of the world. Something universal was found in them. The main problem with this path is whether, in the name of democracy, radical Islam will come to power democratically.

In George Weigel’s second book on Pope John Paul II, The End and the Beginning, he notes the resistance in the Vatican Secretariat of State to John Paul’s efforts to revolutionize the Marxist world. Neither diplomats nor scholars thought that it was wise to do anything. President Ronald Reagan was given the same treatment: Nothing could be changed. The pope and president thought otherwise.

Henninger’s argument is similar. When the opportunity arose to change things in Islam, our leaders were not ready. The stakes are high, Henninger warns: The next half century will be concerned primarily with Islam and China. America seems to be withdrawing into itself. Europeans are too few and too old. At the moment, the pivotal point is the Islamic world. To some degree, it has already invaded the West in mind and territory.


To the degree that the United States renounces any active effort to reorient oppressive governments, the people of the world will gradually adjust to Chinese dominance. The United States seems to be a democracy that just talks. Islam has no real military power: Its terrorism won’t work against the Chinese.

“If U.S. timidity is seen as U.S. acquiescence to a system of ‘reformed’ Middle East autocracies, the debate between the American and the Chinese models is over,” Henninger writes. Many in the present administration think that we should rid ourselves of the rhetoric of our founding. At home, to have a “government of the people, for the people, and by the people” is fine. But spread too far afield, it only causes trouble. Besides, Islam has little sympathy for self-government, the thinking goes. The people in the streets will only end up founding multiple Iranian and Saudi-type regimes while piously calling them “democracies.” We need the oil; best let the despots sit on top of their unemployed youth. These states have no idea about a modern economy. They prosper because the rest of the world industrialized without them.

The increasing persecution of Christians that goes on in many Islamic states is barely noticed. No one wants to face the ambitions of Islam itself to subject the world to Allah. It sounds preposterous. Nor does a forum exist in which the truth of Islamic doctrinal sources can be examined without fear of retaliation. It goes against “respect” for another’s point of view. Yet this examination is the immediate issue of our time.

Is it just talk? Henninger’s query separates brave from timid men, statesmen from dilettantes lacking insight into the forces that move our time. When oppressed peoples call out in our own words, we barely hear. It would risk changing the world we cannot police. Timidity does seem to be the right word. But the founders did not just talk.

Yet the same founders warned about entangling foreign wars and plots. Moreover, democracy today is based not on a Christian and classical view of man, but on individualist autonomy, unrelated to any transcendence. Is this what the world really needs? Is the world really “safe” with such an understanding of democracy? The root of U.S. timidity may well be rooted in a forgetfulness of its own teachings about what sort of regime it is.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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