In response to a question posed by my publisher -- as part of the Energion Political Round Table -- I posted thoughts on the responses of the two Presidential candidates to the ongoing events in the Muslim world in response to a film insulting Muhammad. I don't want to revisit that particular discussion today, except to raise questions about America's global presence.
There is a strong feeling among some Americans that we should retreat from the world stage, and return to an earlier isolationist existence. We see this on the right with Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, both of whom carry the Libertarian flag. This is somewhat the response to yesterday's question offered by round table participant Arthur Sido. It's also the perspective of many on the left, though their reasoning might be different.
As a Christian who embraces the call of Jesus to discipleship, a call that in his teachings involved pacifism, I struggle with this issue. I opposed both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I was ambivalent about the intervention in Libya. I will confess to my inconsistency. But having said that, I wonder about the role of the United States on the World Stage. Prior to World War II we were fairly content to stay out of the big conflicts in the world. We entered WW I near the end of the war, and then retreated back to an isolationist position until Pearl Harbor. We did have our imperialist expressions in the Caribbean and in the Philippines (as well as Hawaii), but for the most part we were content to stay on the sidelines. After WW II, we emerged as one of the two greatest military powers in the world. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we are the undisputed heavy weight champion of the world -- both economically and militarily. So what does that mean for us as a nation? How do we live with this? I would say that we're having a hard time reconciling this reality with our self image.
I'm reading, among other books, Reinhold Niebuhr's classic The Irony of American History. Published in 1952, Niebuhr was writing in response to what he perceived as a growing threat from communism. Though he had a socialist background, he was concerned that communism as it was expressed by the Soviets endangered the world's future. He held out American ideals, but he also seems (I'm not finished) to want to warn us of the dangers of living at the top of the world stage. This is his realism.
I want to share a lengthy quote and then pose some questions:
There are two ways of denying our responsibilities to our fellowmen. The one is the way of imperialism, expressed in seeking to dominate them by our power. The other is the way of isolationism, expressed in seeking to withdraw from our responsibilities to them. Geographic circumstances and the myths of our youth rendered us more susceptible to the latter than the former temptation. This has given our national life a unique color, which is not without some moral advantages. No powerful nation in history has ever been more reluctant to acknowledge the position it has achieved in the world than we. The moral advantage lies in the fact that we do not have a strong lust of power, though we are quickly acquiring the pride of power which always accompanies its possession. Our lack of the lust of power makes the fulminations of our foes against us singularly inept. On the other hand, we have been so deluded by the concept of our innocency that we are ill prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us. [Niebuhr, Reinhold (2010-09-23). The Irony of American History (p. 38). University of Chicago Press - A. Kindle Edition.]
I think that in some ways that innocency has warn off in the intervening years, but there is at least some sense amongst us that we are an innocent nation. That we're different and special -- exceptional -- and this leads us at times, as a nation, to fail at self-criticism. We begin to see ourselves as the arm of God. And this poses problems.
So here's my question, reflecting on Niebuhr's statements, and the reality that whether we like it or not we are a power in the world, how shall we exercise that power? And I'm assuming that for us as a nation retreating to isolationism is not realistic.