America's Global Presence -- Some Thoughts

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. 


John said…
We are not special.

I think that we are just the next great empire. As a nation we DO have pride of power, and there are many among us who possess a lust for power and who would propel us into hegemony (including but not limited to the ”Neo-Cons"). The 2003 war against Iraq as well,as the re-energizing of the engagement in Afghanistan in 2009 illustrate the continued vitality of these imperatives as promulgated by both conservative and liberal elites in this country.

We ARE unique in certain respects, but so was each of our predecessors in the history of global empire. While some Americans may cling to delusions of innocence, we are not that either. Our leaders and our warriors and our military industrial complex is very professional, and very aware of what we (and they) are about - they are all, when they operate at their best, "ends justify the means" pragmatists. And the end is American hegemony.

Are we in any way elevated by our uniqueness? Only the consequences and results of our presence on the world scene can adequately answer that question. That answer will have to await the judgment of history. In the meantime, when our intentional international actions are best described as militarily adventuristic, or otherwise motivated by economic interests (often euphemized as "strategic interests") then we do nothing other than walk in the footprints left by our imperial forerunners.

If we as Americans claim uniqueness, we need to identify how we are unique in the history of world empires, what we want to accomplish and leave behind as a unique legacy, and then we need to constrain the ways means we employ to accomplish that legacy so that we avoid the monstrous and usually brutal excesses of past empires.
Robert Cornwall said…

Besides the issue of uniqueness -- how do we as a nation take our place in the world. I don't think we can retreat to isolationism, but we must be careful how we express power.

We have power, whether we asked for it or not, but a myth of innocency has kept us from recognizing the dark side of that power.
John said…
Short answer, we take our place as Peacemakers.

Genuine peacemaking comes not through the expression of power but through the intentional decision not to exercise power, through self-sacrifice, through non-violence, and through lives of integrity, faithful to will of God as modeled in the life of Jesus, as best we can discern it.

As a practical matter how can that be done in a world of intense competition for resources - not a simple thing to do. It requires at the very least, leaders committed to the idea that use of force is a last resort, who are aware that force is demonstrative evidence of human failure. History demonstrates the truth that the use of force does not produce winners and losers but instead it produces oppressors and the oppressed. And in the oppressors it produces a sense of arrogance, entitlement and validation and in the oppressed it produces resentment and a commitment to vengeance.

Striving for peace is far more work than resorting to force, but the results are far more long-lasting.

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