Morality and Reality: Part 1

In a previous piece, I briefly discuss the conflict between America’s view of itself as exceptional and accepting that other nations refuse to abide by our rules-based world order. What is the problem here, exactly?

Every state has historically comported itself according to two prime factors: how much of the national interest it is able to accomplish, owing to its limited power and the power of other states; and by self-imposed limits made according to its peculiar view of itself. The latter often matters more than the former, and will be discussed here. 

Medieval China, for instance, viewed itself in the historical context scholars have coined the ‘Middle Kingdom’ — that is, the pinnacle of earthly civilization, mandated by the heavens to rule its own people and the peoples of surrounding lands. Thus, Chinese emperors conducted diplomacy with nearby states from the position of hegemon, expecting all others to prostrate themselves as tributaries. (In terms of power, the emperors were able to continue this relationship for as long they were larger and stronger than those around them.)

European diplomacy, on the other hand, has been defined since 1648, when the end of the Thirty Years’ War established recognition of sovereign states - that is, the right of states with independent rulers, laws, and religions to simply exist and maintain themselves. There is a France, they might say, and an England; each is legitimate, and each is distinct. Thus, to the European of old, it was perfectly logical that other continents might have institutions at odds with their own. To the Chinese emperors, however, that view could never be reciprocated, for it clashed with the Middle Kingdom’s universal view of relationships between countries. How can states at all be equally legitimate if there is only one — China — that has been divinely mandated to rule?

A similar conflict exists in regards to modern America. Americans are proud of their shining city on a hill, divinely-inspired and thoroughly unique among the nations of the earth. Our foreign policy has followed from this experience. Friendship unto all nations, until they prove themselves otherwise, was the historical motto — distinct from the calculating attitudes of Europe. An optimistic view of Mankind’s nature, and a belief in the (limited) perfectibility of humanity, and therefore his nations, pervades much of the American psyche. 

Americans during the earliest phases of the Cold War could not countenance the thought of ‘spheres of influence,’ as Joseph Stalin and Western European statesmen suggested should be established. It runs against our understanding of what motivates Man. Such universal maxims as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness inevitably brush up against the baser, but no less real, maxims of other states. Like medieval China discovered, our universal message is viewed as singularly American to much of the globe. How is that conflict to be reconciled?

There are limits to the extent that the United States may walk back its worldview, just as there are limits to how far our actions may follow our maxims. Eternal war with those states which do not share our understanding of the rights of Man is clearly foolish, and something the Founders were careful to avoid. Unlike the Jacobins of revolutionary France, the American revolutionaries intentionally avoided giving their new republic a casus belli for exporting virtue abroad. They also understood that the republic stands with one foot in God’s camp, and the other in Man’s — that is, ours is a republic which seeks consistency with biblical law and principles, but cannot transcend the limits of the Earth. Abandoning that would mean abandoning the American cause. Understanding that foundation is truly the key to understanding American thought. It governs our policies, domestic and foreign, and our actions; yet is very poorly fathomed beyond our own shores. I will provide a recent example.

In the late 1940s the Soviet Union and the United States were busy with scrutinizing the other’s actions and words, in the search for underlying meaning. To Americans, Moscow’s declarations wreathed an inscrutable fog which obscured the communists’ true intentions and ambitions. This was no coincidence. Stalin, infamous for his paranoia, was intentionally opaque, even among members of his own regime. During the Second World War, he loudly sang the praises of the American alliance, though privately fearful of an assault on Marxism’s new motherland from the capitalist West. That tune changed sharply when Nazi Germany collapsed, and with it the Soviet-American wartime alliance. Americans who had once warmly taken Stalin at his word were left confused; the result was a period during which the U.S. struggled to understand Moscow’s true convictions.

On the other hand, Stalin’s paranoia continually led him to misjudge American actions. Where America proclaimed wartime friendship with the Soviets, boldly declaring its heartfelt principles to all the world, Stalin dissected each word, sure he would uncover our ‘true’ goals. The suspicious nature which made the man such a force in Russia blinded him to American actions. Like many statesmen before and since, he interpreted America’s foreign policy through a lens of his own device — failing entirely to grasp the character of the country he was dealing with. In short, he thought of America as another kind of Russia, bound to the same thought processes, and thus as crafty as himself. Likewise, many contemporary leaders in the United States fell victim to the same problem, believing that Russians hold essentially the same core beliefs about Man’s natural rights. That misinterpretation led to many early blunders between the powers; it was only later in the era that Americans like Ronald Reagan came to a superior understanding of Russians than Russians did Americans. Total victory followed.

The complex relationship between this moral understanding of foreign policy and the reality of nations will be further examined in a successive piece.


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