Is it possible to reconcile our commitment to the abstract truth at the heart of American politics—that all men are created equal, and endowed with certain unalienable rights—with prudence and restraint in statecraft on the international stage?

In November of 2003—eight months after American forces first put boots on the ground in the Iraq War—President George W. Bush gave a speech making the case that the United States had a moral duty to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East. “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East,” he declared, “will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.” Furthermore, he argued, America’s belief in the universality of our founding principles actually compelled us—as an ethical imperative—to intervene in Iraq:

The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle. We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom—the freedom we prize—is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind.[1]

On one level, of course, Mr. Bush was right. The United States is founded on the belief that our conception of a just political regime derives its legitimacy from universal principles—“an abstract truth,” in Abraham Lincoln’s famous turn of phrase, “applicable to all men and all times.” But nearly two decades after America’s invasion of Iraq, a sober reassessment of the region’s contemporary condition must also come to the regrettable conclusion that Mr. Bush’s hopes for its realization of a functional liberal regime were premature. Many would go so far as to argue that our military intervention, informed at least in part by a belief in the universality of our principles, did more harm than good. In recent years, as the failures of the Iraq War and subsequent American military efforts have come into sharper focus, unlikely political coalitions on both the Left and the Right have coalesced around opposing the interventionist foreign policy consensus that emerged in the post-Cold War era. On the other hand, many still maintain that Mr. Bush was right in principle, if not always in practice: America’s ideals, this latter group argues, require substantial moral commitments to the liberal world order. Is it possible to reconcile our commitment to the abstract truth at the heart of our politics—that all men are created equal, and endowed with certain unalienable rights—with prudence and restraint in statecraft on the international stage?

Some have made the case that the tension between these two impulses is impossible to overcome—i.e., that liberal universalism inevitably begets cosmopolitanism and an aspiration toward an international political order, which is incompatible with a foreign policy that respects national sovereignty. Contemporary thinkers like Yoram Hazony, the prominent Israeli-American intellectual, go so far as to argue that internationalism is a necessary outgrowth of liberalism—a feature, not a bug—that can be traced back to its foundations in the political philosophy of theorists like John Locke:

[Locke] offers a rationalist view of human political life that has abstracted away every bond that ties human beings to one another other than consent. In speaking of ‘consent,’ Locke means that the individual becomes a member of a human collective only because he has agreed to it, and has obligations toward such collectives only if he has accepted them… [this account] is painfully lacking as a description of the empirical world, in which mutual loyalties bind human beings into families, tribes, and nations, and each of us receives a certain religious and cultural inheritance as a consequence of being born into such collectives.[2]

Locke’s conception of human communities, Dr. Hazony writes, “is a far-reaching depreciation of the most basic bonds that hold society together.”[3] On a political level, this emphasis on the abstract choosing individual as the preeminent metric also leads to a cosmopolitan international order that has no time for considerations of national sovereignty and the natural political and cultural diversity between nation-states, seeking to centralize authority in a transnational body that is intolerant of local distinctions. “For all their bickering,” Dr. Hazony writes, “proponents of the liberal construction are united in endorsing a single imperialist vision: They wish to see a world in which liberal principles are codified as universal law and imposed on the nations, if necessary by force. This, they agree, is what will bring us universal peace and prosperity.”[4] In short, Dr. Hazony argues, the universalist implications of liberal political thought necessarily corrode national distinctions; the assertions of the unalienable rights and equality inherent to all of humanity lead to an intolerance for any regime but the singularly liberal one.

Some liberals actually seem to agree with Dr. Hazony’s assessment. Mr. Bush’s high-minded idealism about importing democracy to the Middle East, for example, was explicitly derived from his belief in the universality of the liberal principles that sit at the foundation of American government, and his belief that the human suffering caused by the illiberal and brutally repressive regime of Saddam Hussein was intolerable. More notably still, figures like Woodrow Wilson—famous for being one of the pioneers of liberal internationalist foreign policy—often vigorously made the case for the kind of uniform world order that Dr. Hazony describes, couching their arguments in the language of universal rights inherited from John Locke and the Founding Fathers. In a 1918 address to Congress laying out his reasoning for entering World War I, Wilson was clear about what he saw as the necessarily international character of liberal foreign policy:

All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us. The program of the world’s peace, therefore, is our program; and that program [is] the only possible program, as we see it.[5]

Wilson drew a direct line between the universality of liberal principles and his foreign policy ambitions, justifying the projection of American military power on the world stage and the establishment of transnational institutions like the League of Nations in the terms and language of the American political tradition. In concluding his 1918 speech, he said:

An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle; and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess. The moral climax of this—the culminating and final war for human liberty—has come, and they are ready to put their own strength, their own highest purpose, their own integrity and devotion to the test.[6]

In no uncertain terms, then, Wilson is arguing that the principles that animate the American system—the abstract truths first laid out by the Declaration of Independence—require the kind of interventionist foreign policy that he advocates. This would seem to vindicate Dr. Hazony’s critique of liberal political thought, at least as it manifests on the international stage. But is Wilsonian internationalism—or Bush-era neoconservatism, for that matter—really an inevitable outgrowth of the liberal regime? Or is it a misinterpretation—or, at the very least, one of many legitimate interpretations—of how to apply our universalist principles in the material world?

Answering this question is the central project of the just war theory tradition, which sits at the intersection of abstract principles and political prudence. A just war is directed and informed by universal ideals, but mediated by practical considerations. What this means in practice, particularly for a nation dedicated to an abstract truth such as ours is, is that not all theoretically just causes necessarily call for military intervention. The truths at the core of American politics have always been understood to have universal implications, but the United States does not exist as a mere abstraction alone; we are also a nation, with borders and interests and conflicts with other nations in a fallen world. All of us are ultimately beholden to the crooked timber of our own humanity. The task of American statecraft, then, is to reconcile our commitment to universalism with the worldly conditions in which we find ourselves. In line with just war theory, this requires both an acceptance of the necessary evils of politics and a set of substantive moral commitments that govern our behavior, which is neither the utopian cosmopolitanism of the most ambitious liberal universalists nor the raw, amoral realpolitik of the famous adage expressed by the Athenian conquerors of Melos—that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Locating the just war approach in the space between the two extremes, Jean Elshtain writes:

The tradition of realpolitik, by contrast, insists that the rules that govern domestic moral conduct—here the focus is a body’s internal politics—are inapplicable to the world of what used to be called ‘men and states.’ Politics framed by just war thinking insists that while it would be Utopian to presume that relations between states can be governed by the premises and caretaking apposite in our dealings with family and friends, this does not mean a war of all against all must kick in once one leaves the hearth, or the immediate neighborhood, or even the borders of one’s country. The strategic realist is governed by instrumental calculations and some concept of national interest; the just war thinker is governed by a complex amalgam of normative commitments and pragmatic considerations that overlap in a number of important respects with those of strategic realism, although the starting points vary. The just war thinker is not nearly so harsh in his or her evaluation of what is usually called liberal internationalism with its justifications of intervention in the name of sustaining, supporting, or building a universal culture of Kantian republics as is the realpolitiker. At the same time, he or she would voice considerable skepticism about any such project, not because she opposes making more robust an international regime of human rights and greater fairness and equity but, rather, because of her recognition of the intrinsic value of human cultural plurality.[7]

To be capable of recognizing this plurality on the international stage, however, the just war theorist must incorporate a conception of the role and value of the nation-state. As Dr. Hazony writes in his critique of Lockean liberalism, abstract principles alone—life, liberty and property, equality between all men, and so on—see a world of abstract individuals in lieu of a world of nations. To enact a foreign policy that is reflective of those abstract liberal principles, statecraft requires a richer understanding of politics than liberal political theory alone can provide. In short, a prudent liberal foreign policy requires, among other things, developing and sustaining a coherent idea of a concrete national interest. Many of the United States’ modern problems in its international conduct stem from a loss of a shared conception of this interest, which traditionally helped to counterbalance the universalist temptations that inhere to American politics. Rouven Steeves explains the ramifications of this imbalance in his essay, “The War on Terror and Afghanistan”:

The reality remains that America, for all its missteps and failures, remains a nation committed to the proposition ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ That having been said, what is no less true is that the loss of a coherent national interest—ironically the result of the triumph of the singular national interest of the Cold War, namely defeating Communism—left the U.S. adrift between visions of a globalized utopia and political realities that seemingly revealed little more than that the end for one war is the precursor to the next.[8]

This lack of a shared understanding of the national interest is one manifestation of a larger loss of direction in our foreign policy. Recent failures in this field can be understood as a symptom of a deeper phenomenon, which is a struggle to use material realpolitik considerations in prudently applying our abstract principles to the needs of the moment. Just war theory can provide us with the tools to renew our sense of purpose—not just in terms of regaining a collectively agreed upon national interest, but also in restoring the jus ad bellum principles that we have recently departed from as our conduct in the international arena has become increasingly listless and confused. The widely accepted just war principle of legitimate authority, for example—defined simply as the rule that “the decision to go to war must be made with the proper authority (usually laid down in the state’s constitution) and by a public declaration” by Michael Lacewing—has often been ignored by American lawmakers in recent decades, with the executive branch regularly bypassing Congress to use military force in theaters of war abroad.[9] In this, too, we moderns would benefit from heeding the wisdom contained within the just war theory tradition, which warned of the serious issues with a lack of clear authority dating all the way back to Augustine:

It makes a great difference by which causes and under which authorities men undertake the wars that must be waged. The natural order, which is suited to the peace of mortal things, requires that the authority and deliberation for undertaking war be under the control of a leader, and also that, in the executing of military commands, soldiers serve peace and the common well-being.[10]

In the United States, sovereign authority lies with the people, whose will is represented by their elected representatives in Congress. Studies routinely show that the so-called “forever wars” in which America is embroiled are far more unpopular with the average voter than they are with the political elite who continue to engage in them. But wars have now been waged across the world for decades, by multiple presidential administrations, without the consent of Congress—and consequently, without the consent of the people—using the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a joint resolution passed by Congress three days after 9/11, as a legal pretense. Restoring decision-making power on this issue to the people could be a monumental first step in the return to a more coherent and productive American foreign policy.

All of these insights are perfectly compatible with the abstract truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Both transcendent principle and prudent realism have a place in the just war tradition. Just war theory can and does recognize the universality of principles of justice, but also recognizes the virtues of pluralism, subsidiarity, and a number of prudential questions that depend on the context of a particular situation. Contrary to the arguments of both Wilson and Dr. Hazony, a belief in the universality of liberal principles does not require their forceful imposition everywhere; from the lens of just war theory, the existence of injustice alone is not necessarily a justification for military intervention. Liberalism can recognize the injustices perpetrated against the universal rights of mankind by illiberal regimes while refraining to intervene in attempt to correct them. But this requires a constrained worldview, an acceptance of the profound imperfections and tragedies of human nature, and a commitment to doing justice tempered by an understanding that injustice itself is a constant feature of our mortal condition. Liberals who adopt this humility are certainly capable of restraint and prudence in foreign policy. Their more radical counterparts are not.

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[1] Bush, George W. “Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy” (The Office of the Press Secretary, November 2003).

[2] Hazony, Yoram. The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018) 33.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Wilson, Woodrow. “Fourteen Points Speech” (January 8, 1918).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Just War and Humanitarian Intervention.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law) Volume 95 (Cambridge University Press, April 2001) 2.

[8] Steeves, Rouven. “The War on Terror and Afghanistan.” America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U.S. Conflicts (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019) 276.

[9] Lacewing, Michael. “Just War Theory” (Routledge, 2010).

[10] Fortin, Ernest and Kries, Douglas. Augustine: Political Writings (Hackett, 1994) 222-223.

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