[This post begins a series on Foreign Policy and National Security issues that I'll add to periodically over the next two weeks. I will call the series "Liberty for All", for reasons made clear below. By the way, when I settled on the title of today's post, I had the species in mind.]
"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force….a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind." (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1)
Over the years I've noticed that many black Americans seem to regard their ethnic identity as a bitter burden. I know that from time to time I've certainly felt the way. But I have also felt it to be a special responsibility. That's probably because, when I was growing up, my parents found ways to make that responsibility clear to us, especially when it came to speech and behavior. What we said and did reflected on the family. It affected what people would think of black folks in general. It would shame or encourage others. I have learned over the years that this sense of responsibility for the good or bad name of the community is part of what it means truly to belong to a community, because human communities form in light of common moral ideas and sensibilities. As we embrace the communal identity, our respect for that common sense of right and wrong affects what we say and do. In the way that we carry ourselves, we acknowledge that we carry the community as well.
Obviously, in some respects this has to do with incidental things- eating habits, accents, patterns of speech and expressions that by themselves may have no moral significance. But it can also have to do with how we treat other people; how we assess the impact our words and actions have on them; whether we feel bound, as we set goals and priorities, to take account of the contribution we make to their welfare or misery.
Since the United States first emerged as a nation, its best statesmen have found ways, as they dealt with its affairs, to make it clear to the American people that they have a special responsibility to humanity as a whole. Though many of the Founders thought and wrote in the context of an English heritage, during the Revolutionary period they consciously chose to frame their arguments for independence in terms of unalienable human rights, rather than the rights of Englishmen. In such terms they enunciated the founding principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. In such terms they debated and framed the provisions of the Constitution.
They consciously chose to accept their responsibility for the welfare or misery of the human race, not just their own. These days shallow politicos from left and right just as consciously reject the choice they made. On the left, they reject the moral concept of our humanity in favor of a materialist conception that literally dehumanizes everyone, beginning with human posterity in the womb. On the right, they reject the comprehensive moral concept of our nation in favor of a narrowly ethnic conception that betrays the special American responsibility to humanity heretofore acknowledged, in some way, by each new generation, sometimes at the cost of much blood, treasure and sacrifice.
The tragic consequence of their abandonment of the principled American commitment to do right by humankind is an approach to foreign and national security policy that abandons the challenge of prudently thinking through a global strategic vision; prudently maintaining international relations that serve and support the prospects for liberty; and prudently using the strength and resources Providence has granted to our labor and ingenuity to safeguard and promote the moral ideas, practices and institutions that have been recognized as the special trust of the American nation since it first resolved to establish for itself a free and independent state.
Not coincidentally, this abandonment of strategic vision leads to policy decisions that damage the national security of the country. The original sense of acting on behalf of all humanity has encouraged the true statesmen in each succeeding generation to see America in the context of the larger world for which its ideas and actions can serve as inspiration, encouragement and aid. Long before we actually had the power to make good on our intentions, the most prudent American leaders took an interest in the fate of other people, starting in our own part of the world, but extending with our commerce to faraway places as well. Great ideals and good intentions were by no means always the motives. In fact, in ordinary times Americans were prone to fall into the selfish, narrow minded patterns of ordinary nations. But like the outwardly cynical, self-serving heroes common in our books and movies, the hard-boiled everyday exterior harbored a persistent sense of humanity, lurking to surprise the oppressors and enslavers of mankind in the periodic crises when injustice comes to a head, and the human path is decisively marked out for good or ill.
The point is that we never lived permanently with the delusion that we could cultivate our happiness in our own little corner of the world and let the rest be saved or damned as may be. Even in the midst of continent subduing self-absorption; even in the grip of fanciful isolationism and post-war traumatic withdrawals, voices were always raised on behalf of our commission for humanity, even when they dared recommend as policy little more than the good wishes we could convey by our example. And when the great crises came the American people rose time and again to the occasion. Whatever the demoralizers may try to argue, people don't suddenly conjure up from nothing the willingness to sacrifice and die for supposedly noble ideals they never really cared for. They sustain hardship; they endure to victory precisely because somewhere in the midst of their ordinary selves they doubted that the satisfaction of their own needs and material desires fulfilled the whole meaning of their existence as individuals or as a nation. Something in them waited for the call, and knew it when it came as the echo of a truth that whispered in their spirit all along.
Whether it's Barack Obama's treacherous apologies, retreats and clear betrayals, or Ron Paul's rhetorical surrender to cynical misinterpretations of our willingness to care for the fate of liberty throughout the world, from right and left the mere politicians of our times willfully ignore this spiritual dimension of the American identity. Sadly, those who will not, for popularity's sake, mimic their willful ignorance, gain favor from neither extreme. Unlike Obama, I will not surrender my allegiance to America's special vocation, its responsibility to uphold the moral ideas that define justice for humanity; its record of service and sacrifice in the name of those ideals. For these reasons, I believe we need apologize to no one.
But unlike the supposedly conservative or libertarian purveyors of a cynically narrow nationalism, I cannot forget that America's liberty is not now and never was properly defined as the possession of one community, race or nation. The freedom we assert, the liberty we conserve, is rooted in the nature we share with all human beings. It calls to them as to us with the quietly powerful voice of our Creator God. We love, serve and conserve it more for His sake than for our own, fully becoming Americans only when we act, as He does, not for ourselves alone but for all the world.