The End of Democracy?”—a symposium published recently by First Things—considers whether in the United States, because of an unprecedented usurpation of power by the judicial branch of government, “We have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”
So constructed, the symposium has touched off a wide- ranging and often rancorous debate among conservative intellectuals. Long after the immediate commotion subsides, however, the issues raised by the symposium, and the fault lines in American conservatism that it has revealed, will remain. Specifically, the potential implications for the conservative vision of America’s role in the world may well be large.
The “theocon” critique—as Jacob Heilbrunn of the New Republic would identify the collective viewpoint of the First Things symposiasts—is as straightforward as it is incendiary. When it comes to the moral issues that define the contested terrain in contemporary politics, the people are no longer sovereign. Power has passed to the hands of an oligarchy, a judiciary at once unelected and unaccountable. Decisions handed down by this oligarchy no longer reflect the intent of the Constitution as written. Instead, they respond to the dictates of a cultural elite that does not disguise its contempt for popularly held views, especially views informed by traditional religious conviction.
To the extent that basic national policies disregard the moral sense of the majority, to the extent that American government no longer embodies the popular will, what are the
One result of this shift is the revival of old arguments about political legitimacy, but with the positions of the chief antagonists reversed. In former days, patriotic conservatives became apoplectic at the antics of radical leftists railing against “Amerika.” Today, it is First Things, a sober and self-consciously conservative journal of implications for the United States as a global superpower? More specifically, how might the “end of democracy” at home affect the views of religious conservatives regarding America’s proper role abroad?
Schooled by the terrors of Hitler and Stalin, religious conservatives over the past half-century have for the most part evinced keen support for an assertive U.S. presence in world affairs. Certainly this has been true of conservative Catholics. From the early days of the Cold War, they accepted the imperatives of American leadership overseas and a muscular military establishment. When things soured in the 1960s, they persevered, insisting that even such a misguided enterprise as the Vietnam War still was an honorable cause. After Vietnam, when Ronald Reagan promised to revive flagging American prestige, they voted for him in droves. When, in the late 1980s, the revival of American power begun by Reagan culminated in a series of spectacular triumphs, they cheered themselves hoarse, historically vindicated by the success of the enterprise to which they had remained faithful.
In the view of most religious conservatives, the United States throughout the postwar era had constituted the irreplaceable bulwark against godless communism. Critics (mostly on the Left) mocked Americans for being susceptible to wildly exaggerated fears and anxieties. Such anxieties, they suggested, fostered paranoia at home and led directly to costly blunders abroad. For those religious conservatives, however, neither the excesses of Joe McCarthy nor the ineptness of Robert McNamara could undermine the basic moral calculus of the Cold War. In a struggle pitting good against evil, America’s cause was righteousness itself.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that clarity has dissipated. To be sure, evil has survived. Indeed, it flourishes. No longer, however, is it plausible to pinpoint evil within a particular cluster of nations or ideological camp or to consign such evil to the far side of some metaphorical “curtain.” In effect, the moral terms of reference underwriting U.S. involvement in world affairs for the preceding half-century—a crusade pitting freedom against totalitarianism—have expired.
Absent global communism as the great emblem of evil, religious conservatives have directed their attention inwards toward America’s own failings, which they find increasingly difficult to stomach: the perpetuation of the abortion “right”; the flirtation with euthanasia; the devaluation of marriage and family; the celebration of nihilistic radical individualism. The crisis posed by totalitarianism having been resolved, the crisis of democratic capitalism—subsumed for many in the phrase “culture of death”—now looms. “religion and public life,” that fears in the United States there lies the possibility of another Nazi Germany.
During the postwar era, religious conservatives were chief among the constituencies embracing American exceptionalism as an article of faith. Concluding now that theirs is a nation of uncertain virtue, they no longer find such notions tenable. Yet to abandon exceptionalism is to forfeit any claim of a global mandate empowering the United States to serve as arbiter of international morality and benefactor for all humankind.
The recent theocon debate notwithstanding, belief in American exceptionalism is far from dead. On the contrary, it lives on among neo-conservatives eager to continue the Cold War crusade by exporting Western ideals to every corner of the globe. More surprisingly, buoyed by events like the Persian Gulf War, American exceptionalism is enjoying a revival among liberals—President Clinton is one example—who once deemed the exercise of American power to be repugnant.
Emanating from the latter quarter, sudden enthusiasm for a reinvigorated American mission to the world should elicit a skeptical response. On matters from partial-birth abortion to gay rights, left-leaning cultural elites provide the cues to which members of the judicial oligarchy respond, cues that reflect a lifestyle patently offensive to traditional religious believers. Those same secularized elites brazenly cite the existence of certain fundamental values, putatively shared by all Americans, that not only justify U.S. global activism but mandate its continuation in perpetuity.
The message to religious conservatives is this: In postmodern, multicultural America, your so-called moral issues are sectarian complaints devoid of standing in the public square; when it comes to the world at large, however, universal values exist and the United States has a unique responsibility to ensure that those values will prevail. Of course, the prerogative of translating those values into specific policies is one that elites reserve for themselves. The role—indeed, the obligation—of the average citizen is to lend support to this mission. To do otherwise, to express reservations about the wisdom, feasibility, or cost of those policies, is to commit the unpardonable sin of isolationism.
Exporting Mickey Mouse
What are those values? Democracy and human rights head the list. Less prominently featured, but hardly less important, is a commitment to market economics and free trade. Virtually unmentioned, but woven inextricably into the fabric of present-day American statecraft, are two “values” of more recent vintage. The first aims at the indefinite preservation of the global status quo by preventing the rise of a peer competitor hostile to the United States. The second fosters the uninhibited spread of American popular and commercial culture: the “McDisneyfication” of the world.
Those who find merit in the theocon critique will question the fitness of the United States, with its own democracy compromised, to export popular government to other peoples. Yet the complaint that judicial oligarchy has superseded majority rule at home only hints at the problems with building the case for U.S. globalism on values selected and interpreted by secularized elites. Just as in domestic politics the religious Right rejects the model of American society advocated by such elites, so too will religious conservatives refuse to defer to these elites in foreign policy. Popular defiance in the first instance animates the culture war; in the second instance, it may well destroy the consensus supporting American internationalism as presently configured.
This is not to say that values will become unimportant. But ready acceptance of the view that the government of the United States is uniquely endowed with the capacity to advance those values—an essential feature of the postwar era’s broad foreign policy consensus—will end.
Thus, as with democracy, so too with regard to the claim that the United States serves as chief sponsor worldwide of human rights. For religious conservatives, that claim collides with the fact that the reigning American definition of human rights, advanced by secular elites and vigorously defended by the judiciary, is fundamentally flawed: It totally disregards the rights of the unborn. Indeed, if the actions of the United States delegation to the 1994 UN Conference on Population in Cairo are any indication, exporting the abortion “right” worldwide has insinuated itself into the agenda of American foreign policy.
So too with capitalism and commerce. That free enterprise and free trade constitute the foundation for continuing American affluence is beyond question. That in the long run they may also hold out the best hope of lifting the masses of the world’s poor out of squalor also may be true. In the meantime, however, many practices to which such economic principles give rise contribute to exploitation, inequality, and injustice, all in the interests of profit. Those who labor in overseas sweatshops producing cheap goods for American consumers and those workers left behind by the sudden shifts of the global marketplace are those whom Catholics will recognize as the least among us. The overall balance sheet of capitalism may well show more lives enhanced than destroyed, but such a scorecard does not appear among the dogmas to which religious believers ostensibly subscribe. The U. S. government routinely justifies its international economic policies by claiming that it acts in the interest of promoting general prosperity, but for religious conservatives to indulge such claims is an exercise in willful self-deception.
Keeping the Trains Running
With regard to the newest additions to the basic agenda of American international policy—thwarting any challenge to the international order and sponsoring the spread of American pop culture—the story is much the same: Self-interest masquerades as lofty principle.
At the end of the century of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, a century in which Americans fought two world wars and succeeded in averting a third only through monumental effort, the United States has good cause to wield its influence so as to thwart the rise of further challenges to the existing order. But the object for which American power is exercised is not justice but stability. Furthermore, the rest of the world knows, however much Americans may be loath to acknowledge it themselves, that the United States maintains the status quo not by demonstrating the exemplary virtues of a City upon a Hill, but through the exercise of hegemony.
As with any imperium, the Pax Americana rests ultimately on military power. Hitherto, the United States has raised a large military establishment only when there existed an urgent need: threats real or imagined. Henceforth, the United States also preserves world-dominant military forces in the absence of threat. Indeed, it employs force to prevent prospective threats from developing—whether that threat be a single nation such as China or a contagion such as ethnic violence. Although this unprecedented reliance on military power may not lead straightaway to Prussian-style militarism, it would be absurd to pretend that the United States can sustain its status as the world’s only military superpower without incurring significant cultural, social, and political costs.
American military policy also serves purposes other than international comity. Those purposes relate less to high principles than to high-stakes corporate interests. The world’s leading arms exporter in the post-Cold War era is not China or Russia; the United States ranks number one and there is no close second. Leading customers of high-tech American weapons include states that make no pretense of being democratic while flouting accepted conventions of human rights: Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example. That such sales advance U.S. strategic interests and that weapons exports keep American defense industries alive may well be the case. From a strictly pragmatic point of view, America’s determination to remain the world’s leading nature. The views of religious conservatives regarding commercial culture generally fall somewhere between loathing and disgust. When it comes to the latest in pop music, movies, and television programming, too much of what passes for light entertainment, they believe, is insidious and corrupting. Parents hoping to provide for their children an alternative to the values of Dennis Rodman, Demi Moore, and Calvin Klein struggle, usually with only modest success, to deflect the invasion of that culture into their homes. Is it any wonder that parents in other countries resent the relentless American export of that culture under the guise of freedom of expression?
In short, examined from the perspective of religious conservatism, the moral content of American foreign policy is not all that moral. Claims, continuously reasserted by President Bill Clinton and members of his administration, that present-day U.S. policies represent a continuation of the defense of moral values that was central to the Cold War are simply not true. Precisely what values are served in expanding U.S. trade with an authoritarian China? In maintaining conservatives to view such policies in a new light—even if doing so invites conclusions about the uses of American power that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to conclusions once touted by the Left.
The response automatically triggered by such a critique is that the real world is not black and white. Policy making involves choosing from a series of imperfect alternatives. Policy makers must serve competing interests. As a result, given American interests and activities abroad, U.S. policy never will satisfy those who expect it to adhere to a strict moral standard. But that is precisely the point: Because the policy world is a world of compromise and expedience, efforts to command continued popular support for American global- ism by citing the superior moral quality of American intentions will satisfy only the gullible.
To be sure, existing American policies are not necessarily wrongheaded. In the cold calculus of Realpolitik, they may be prudent, realistic, even necessary. But to justify policy in such terms is to concede that, the predisposition of many conservatives notwithstanding, the U. S. government in the exercise of power is not inherently more virtuous than is the government of Japan, Switzerland, or even France. No longer an exemplar of democracy at home, neither is the United States the exemplar of righteousness abroad. It just happens for the moment to wield the most power.
This does not mean that cynical calculations of advantage and self-interest alone motivate U.S. behavior. Neither does it imply that the United States should disengage from the world in order to recover its lost innocence. Yet it does mean this: Religious conservatives distressed by moral decay within their own country, while also concerned about justice elsewhere, should reconsider their belief that the vigorous exercise of U.S. power abroad is conducive to correcting the former and essential to securing the latter.
As long ago as 1950, the famous American diplomat George Kennan, already disenchanted with the Cold War strategies that he had helped conceive, was cautioning his countrymen that, “We are not yet ready to lead the world to salvation.” Instead, wrote Kennan, “We have to save ourselves first.”
At the time, Kennan’s counsel was singularly ill-advised. Given the nature of the evil then at large, saving the world properly claimed first call on the energies of the American people. In this new era, however, conservatives may find that Kennan—and other critics of American globalism who have been largely ignored until now—begin to make sense. Only by recognizing the extent to which the United States today is poorly equipped for saving others can Americans make a start at the more pressing task of redeeming themselves.