As I was working on what became the two most recent postings on this site I came across a Charles Krauthammer offering, Decline is a choice: The new liberalism and the end of American ascendancy. In it he offers a cogent critique of the Obama faction's calculated surrender of America's position of leadership in the world. He also suggests an opposing alternative which begins with the notion that we should "accept our role as hegemon" for the simple reason that "we are as benign a hegemon as the world has ever seen." "…resistance to decline," he declares "begins with moral self-confidence."
Mr. Krauthammer accurately summarizes the moral view that undergirds the Obama faction's determination to abdicate America's leadership position.
But the liberal internationalism of today is different. It is not center-left, but left-liberal. And the new left-liberal internationalism goes far beyond its earlier Clintonian incarnation in its distrust of and distaste for American dominance. For what might be called the New Liberalism, the renunciation of power is rooted not in the fear that we are essentially good but subject to the corruptions of power--the old Clintonian view--but rooted in the conviction that America is so intrinsically flawed, so inherently and congenitally sinful that it cannot be trusted with, and does not merit, the possession of overarching world power.
For the New Liberalism, it is not just that power corrupts. It is that America itself is corrupt--in the sense of being deeply flawed, and with the history to prove it. An imperfect union, the theme of Obama's famous Philadelphia race speech, has been carried to and amplified in his every major foreign-policy address, particularly those delivered on foreign soil. (Not surprisingly, since it earns greater applause over there.)
And because we remain so imperfect a nation, we are in no position to dictate our professed values to others around the world. Demonstrators are shot in the streets of Tehran seeking nothing but freedom, but our president holds his tongue because, he says openly, of our own alleged transgressions towards Iran (presumably involvement in the 1953 coup). Our shortcomings are so grave, and our offenses both domestic and international so serious, that we lack the moral ground on which to justify hegemony.
He then proceeds to give an excellent summary of the policies― dangerous and perhaps even fatal to American survival― that arise from Obama's self-righteous degradation of America's moral standing. But while proposing that the reassertion of moral self-confidence is the first step toward correcting these destructive policies, Mr. Krauthammer offers no account of the alternative understanding of America's actions and history that provides the basis for it. He does not address the obvious questions. What moral understanding produced what he describes as America's benign "hegemony"? What morality therefore provides a reasonable basis for the reassertion of moral self-confidence?
In the absence of such an account, Mr. Krauthammer's prescription risks being mistaken for nothing more than a proposal that we cling to American ascendancy for its own sake. Perhaps he believes (understandably so, given the real peril involved) that the mere fact that the alternative is so dangerous makes further moral reasoning superfluous. We may seem to be like the ancient Athenians, whose almost inadvertent establishment of an empire in the wake of the Persian Wars appeared to bring them to a point where they faced an inescapable choice: embrace their imperial vocation or see their way of life destroyed.
Sadly, Thucydides' sobering depiction of Athens' tragic fate in The Peloponnesian War suggests that this was a false appearance that resulted from the failure of statesmanship that in the natural course of things afflicted the Athenians, as it now unnaturally afflicts the United States. The policy consonant with the way of life Pericles so eloquently epitomizes in his famous funeral oration precisely eschewed the ambition of empire, even while acknowledging and relying upon the strength Athens derived from its commerce with the cities that had come together under her leadership to forestall the threat from Persia's perennial imperialism. Thucydides relates that after Pericles' death, shortsighted panderers for power misled the Athenians into "allowing private ambitions and private interests…to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies―projects whose success would only conduce to the honor and advantage of private persons, and whose failures entailed certain disaster on the country…"
It has always been tempting to look for parallels between the situation of ancient Athens and that of the United States during the twentieth century. Ironically, that temptation may in part account for the susceptibility of America's educated elite to the Obama faction's sordid view of America's actions in the decades since the Second World War. (A view largely parroted by some who supposedly stand at the opposite end of the political spectrum, as I mentioned in the article The USA- a special nation with special responsibilities.)
But the United States is not Athens. Its moral understanding differs from that of the ancient polity precisely with respect to the fact that greatness and the prideful sense of honor that results from it do not essentially define or shape the American character. This difference is eminently clear when we compare Pericles' funeral oration with the archetypal American oration for soldiers who met death in battle. Lincoln's Gettysburg address deals not with the habits or achievements of the American people, but with their common allegiance to certain principles of right. The nobility of their war dead does not shine in the light of merely national pride. It rises in light of God's goodwill toward creation, and the lustrous hope of all humanity for liberty, dignity and justice.
It does potentially fatal injustice to this nobility to use the benignity of American "hegemony" as moral cover for a reassertion of American leadership based on little more than an expedient hunger for preeminence. To attempt to restore America's moral confidence by discarding (or is it benignly neglecting?) the morality that justifies it is a project that can only reproduce in foreign and national security policy the fruitless futility and ultimate failure characteristic of the barren, 'hollow Republican' betrayal of our political process and institutions.
After WWII America did in fact show a degree of restraint in the use of its preeminent position of power in the world that is without precedent in human history. The use of unaccustomed power inevitably entails some abuses, just as people who grow into great physical strength or stature sometimes hurt others before they "know their own strength." But had America behaved as every other preeminent power in history behaved, we would not today be living in a world filled with nations robust and confidently independent enough to applaud and ruthlessly exploit Obama's dangerous policies of national derogation and appeasement. Japan would not only have endured the awful experience of the first demonstration of nuclear war making power, it would still languish in subjection because of it; so too would others who only witnessed it, like Germany and even the the countries that once made up the Soviet Union. A whole host of nations, including most of those in the Middle East who now are willing incubators of the terrorist threat against us, would never have tasted anything but perpetual colonial subjection and oppression.
Mr. Krauthammer inadvertently discredits this historically unique American repudiation of power enforced global supremacy with the use of terms like "hegemon" and "hegemony" which imply a Caesar-like dismissal of what is actually coveted and enjoyed. (He even tacitly assumes moral equivalency by using the term "co-hegemon" to refer to the U.S. post-war position in relation to the Soviet Union.) Whatever may have been, and may now be, the arrogant caesarism of America's power elites, most of the good and decent Americans, from all walks and stations of life, laid to rest near now quiet battlefields of wartime sacrifice and courage did not thirst for power, or glory or fame. They simply did their moral duty. Whether they lived or died they did so longing for no possession but the safety of their own home and life and liberty, and to restore to humanity a decent share of hope that all might in peace enjoy the same.
America did not rise to world leadership in the twentieth century because the American people thirsted for domination and preeminence. Neither will we strive to hold on to leadership for such reasons, no matter how often Mr. Krauthammer or others obliquely flatter us with good assurances of what a good master we proved to be. Real American common sense acknowledges the simple truth that people who genuinely reject being slaves to others reject with equal fervor the claim to be their masters. Human nature is as much degraded by the one as the other.
Mr. Krauthammer is right, though, about the benign intention that distinguished and ought still to distinguish America's leadership among nations. But by neglecting to recount the connection between that intention and the self-evident truths from which it arose, he is led to neglect the wise symmetry of the self-evident truths that make this distinction possible. We assert liberty on the basis of moral ideas that constrain power within the confines of justice. It was no accident that in our use of supreme power, we were mindful of that constraint. Being all too human, we were and are from time to time misled, as were the ancients, by people serving only their own power, wealth and pride. But time and again, we withdrew our confidence from such people, sometimes even when expediency would have said it was not wise to do so. I have no doubt that Mr. Krauthammer and others like him are sincerely seeking to oppose the unwisdom of just such a withdrawal from our special responsibility for 'the last best hope' of earth. But there can be no success for such opposition until the false hope of surrender and abdication again faces the true hope grounded in the faithful commitment that defines our identity both as Americans and as human beings. It is not a willful commitment to maintain the hollow ascendancy of power, but rather a reverent determination to keep faith with the principles of liberty, and with the will of the Creator God whose justice makes us free.