American Purpose, Our Purposes

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By George Weigel

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Beneath the surface of American public life a great debate is gathering. The great debate is not about the Strategic Defense Initiative, aid to the Nicaraguan resistance, international terrorism, or the viability of “third-force” alternatives to traditional authoritarians—although the great debate, as it evolves, will touch each of these immediate questions on the foreign policy agenda. The great debate is more fundamental: it is an argument over America’s very purpose in the world.

Two generations ago, that argument seemed settled. In the aftermath of the Second World War—”The Unnecessary War,” as Churchill said in reminding the democracies of the costs of appeasement and isolationism—there was broad agreement that the United States should take an active leadership role in creating an international system in which law and politics, not brute force, settled the world’s inevitable conflicts. Those heady days now seem to have been marked by an excessive optimism. But we ought not lose sight of what was right about the intuitions of that confident period.

The world was in fact caught in a profound dilemma: it had become a political arena, but was not yet a political community. America had important contributions to make to a world charting the dangerous path from anarchy to community; our own national experience had demonstrated how pluralism mediated through democratic institutions of law and governance could become an engine of creativity, rather than of chaos. Communism was a basic threat to the evolution of a world safe for free societies, in which conflict was settled without mass violence. Peace and freedom were inseparable.

The problem was not that these ideas were false or unworthy; the problem was that the obstacles to their fulfillment were badly underestimated.

In any event, agreement over America’s necessary and inescapable responsibilities in the world shattered, as did much else, on the hard rock of Vietnam. Isolationism came back into vogue, albeit in new ideological dress. Traditional isolationism had taught that the world would corrupt America. Vietnam-era neo-isolationism, which rapidly became pandemic in the teaching centers of American public life (the universities, the media, the religious community, the popular entertainment industry), taught that a racist, militarist, imperialist America was too dangerous for the world.

Although neo-isolationism remains a powerful force in American political culture, the boat people of Indochina, the genocide of the Cambodians, the Iranian hostage crisis, the relentless military growth of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s concurrent geopolitical maneuverings, and international terrorism have served as tragic reminders that America’s withdrawal from the world did not guarantee peace, security, or freedom—for ourselves, or for others. As the 1980s opened, the question for most Americans was not whether the country ought to be active in the world, but how—toward what ends, by what means, guided by what values?

The great debate, in short, has been recast. The important argument today is not whether “the national interest” is a term of opprobrium, but how that interest is construed. The James Madison Foundation, which is an extension of the work of the World Without War Council and an expression of the intention of the American Peace Society, has been founded in the conviction that a marriage between the concepts of national interest and national purpose is essential today. In our name, we have chosen to honor the American Framer who thought best about the ways in which plurality and community could be combined in a society and polity fit for human beings. Because we take pride in, and are committed to, America as a watershed political community in human history, we would have our country serve large ends in its encounter with an often-hostile world. Peace, security, and freedom are, in our judgment, indivisible. American leadership toward a world that is peaceful, secure, and free is a matter of both national interest and national purpose.

The James Madison Foundation has grown out of the complex history of the American peace movement. But we reject as dangerous misconceptions many of the now-regnant ideas guiding what is described as “work for peace” in America today. We reject grossly psychologized concepts of international conflict. We are unapologetically anti-Communist. We seek the advance of human liberty. We know that there is a connection between Soviet brutishness at home and Soviet aggressiveness abroad. We believe that survivalism is morally degrading, and threatens the very peace it claims to serve.

We affirm just law and democratic politics as instruments of peace and freedom. We believe that “interdependence” and “intervention” are two dimensions of the same contemporary reality. We are more interested in democratic forms of political community in and between nations than we are in micromanaging the evolution of American weapons systems. We wish to contribute to a wise understanding of the relationship between moral principles and foreign policy choices.

We believe, in short, that work for peace, freedom, and security can be an expression of the best instincts of the American experiment, rather than an attack on the experiment itself.

The passage from anarchy to community in the world is a task for many generations. Ideas are going to determine whether that passage is made in ways that enlarge the safety of free societies, or that place us in ever-deeper peril. AMERICAN PURPOSE will report and comment on the debate over the national interest and the national purpose in the opinion-shaping and values-teaching centers of American public life. Ten times a year (with double issues in May/June and July/August), we will summarize and comment on key articles, essays, and books that illuminate or obfuscate one or another aspect of America’s role in world affairs. We shall survey the media as they teach Americans about international conflict and the prospects for peace, security, and freedom. We shall pay close attention to the debate over American purpose in the religious community and among scholars of ethics and foreign policy. We shall monitor and report on the activities of that complex array of nongovernmental institutions in the world affairs field that provide the gathering points for the attentive public’s involvement with foreign policy issues.

Almost forty years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr returned from the fourth annual conference of UNESCO and wrote of “the spiritual problem of modern man, who must find a way of engaging in impossible tasks and not be discouraged when he fails to complete any of them.” It is one thing to give up the illusions that have marred work for a world that is peaceful, secure, and free; it is another to abandon responsibility for those values. If AMERICAN PURPOSE can help gather, in this remarkable country, a party of those who would be neither deluded nor irresponsible as they think through the dilemmas and possibilities of peace, security, and freedom in the world; and if that party helps to define, with wisdom, an energetic American role in the pursuit of those goals—then, we believe, our purpose, and America’s purpose and interest, will have been well served.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.