Originally published January 14th, 2015 at Sweet Talk.
I’ve never been partial to the Hegelian nation of nation-specific geist, or spirit, but two recent encounters have made me reconsider. The first was the completion of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, a remarkable book not only for its scope (starting with the Thirty Years War and moving towards the present at the time of writing, the early 90s), but particularly for it’s observation of the dialectic between Realpolitick presidents, as represented most clearly by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and presidents whose foreign policy was value-driven, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and, at least rhetorically, by Ronald Reagan. The dominance of the latter approach was attributed to Wilson’s and Reagan’s recognition of a kind of moral Puritanism latent in the American population itself, and though the expressions differ (the ethic of isolationism and moral autonomy of foreign nations vs. the ethic of bringing democracy and human rights to the world), the orientation is the same.
This observation was seconded last night, at a panel discussion between retired Foreign Service officers Tom Hanson and Bill Davnie, where they bemoaned the lack of a “concept” around U.S. foreign relations, and the insistence of the U.S. to react rather act to events, and usually in principled terms. The compulsive bilaterism (Davnie’s term) of American engagement with other nations exacerbates the problem, and the overall regression to the mean of U.S. capacities, due more to the “rise of the rest” than any U.S. failings, leads to a world quite unlike that of Kennedy, who offered to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
The resulting policies, foreign and domestic, suffer from the dual failure patterns of selecting one value under which all other values are subsumed, in combination with the inconstancy of which value that happens to be from time to time or between separate policies. It’s the result of a pluralism of “divine command” policymakers.
Divine command morality is the response to Euthyphro’s dilemma (“are the gods good because they’re gods, or because they value the good?”) in affirmation of the first proposition: the gods (or God, in a Judeo-Christian context) are necessarily good; to speak of a separation of God and good, or to say that God represents or values the good, is incoherent and meaningless. It’s strongest expression is given in the story of Abraham, who is willing to obey God up to and including sacrificing his son; the value of human life is subservient to the value of obedience to God, faithfulness to God, as the good, being the only true good. Under American exceptionalism, divine command policy is an approach to policy making that refuses to distinguish “the good” from the political. This can be in actuality, with Bush’s reiteration of America as a “city on a hill” and its opposition to the “axis of evil”, or simply aspirational, as single-issue voters punish politicians who are insufficiently ideologically pure and support those who affirm the pro-life, environmental, free market, human rights or other value that is held as the highest.
The results are disturbing. With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them? America has been exceptional, historically, in that it has had both the geographical removal and the overwhelming geopolitical and economic superiority to allow it to consider collective security and human rights over its immediate political interests. This is the prerogative of a monopoly. European, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern nations, abutting their competitors and lacking overwhelming military superiority, did not have the same benefit, and their diplomatic traditions and political histories have reflected that. This is a general principle, not simply limited to nation-states. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel makes the same distinction amongst businesses:
Google’s motto—”Don’t be evil”—is in part a branding ploy, but it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.
However, as we begin to speculate as to the makeup of the world come the twenty-second century (#22C), the kind of guardian syndrome that America has made a core part of its national identity will need to cede somewhat to the trader morality that’s able to understand national interest and a mix of values. The ongoing air strikes against Islamic State means that the U.S. is effectively partnering with Assad and Hezbollah in the west and Iran in the east against a mutual enemy. American political discourse lacks a vocabulary to even talk about this, and as a result, they aren’t. Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation. America similarly shoots itself in the foot when, for instance, it values cooperation fighting terrorism in the Sahel over anything else; the resultant perceived complicity of America with perverse domestic policies can instead motivate terrorism.
The issue is not about simply changing the actions of leaders, but it’s really about changing national sentiment towards one that can recognize diverse values and the need to negotiate between them. This is also the entry fee for empathy, and a counter to dehumanization, for when you can recognize that values are plural, and have different weights, and that these weights can change, then your models of how they may behave in response to your own actions improve. Whether this can happen intentionally or whether it will take a new Thirty Years War remains to be see.