A half century ago, John Courtney Murray’s response to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris raised issues that, as Paul Miller’s essay makes plain, remain at the center of the foreign-policy debate. The pope’s “acute sense of the basic need of the new age is evident in the word that is so often repeated in the encyclical and that sets its basic theme,” Murray wrote.

I mean the word “order.” This does seem to be the contemporary issue . . . . The issue is not whether we shall have order in the world; the contemporary condition of chaos has become intolerable on a world-wide scale, and the insistent demand of the peoples of the world is for order. The question is, then, on what principles is the world going to be ordered.

From Versailles through the mid-1960s, the world’s quest for order was mediated through international institutions putatively based on liberal political and economic principles, and that way of “ordering” world affairs continues to some extent through agencies like the World Trade Organization. But while such institutions have had some success in bringing order out of chaos in global economic life, the quest for political order through international institutions has been consistently frustrated. The League of Nations singularly failed to bring order out of chaos in the wake of the Great Depression and the destabilizing effects of the rise of totalitarianism. No serious analyst of world politics looks to the United Nations today as a primary instrument for building a just political order within or among nations and states.

Yet the forces of chaos”high among which must now be included the transnational phenomenon of jihadism”continue to threaten the minimum of peace, security, and freedom that has been established in the post“Cold War world. And thus the quest for a measure of principled order in the world remains as urgent in the early twenty-first century as it was when the pope wrote Pacem in Terris in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, issuing the document just weeks before his death in June 1963.

Miller argues that the United States bears a distinctive responsibility for bringing a measure of order out of chaos and justifies that leadership role through a development of just war doctrine. Both the claim and the justification seem to me essentially sound. Absent American leadership, gross human rights violations intensify (Syria), postwar reconstruction lags and post-tyranny disintegration looms (Iraq), threats of nuclear proliferation and even nuclear war metastasize (Iran), and jihadism terrorizes populations and establishes base camps from which to conduct operations against the infidel (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and numerous other venues).

These situations will not resolve themselves, at least according to any morally acceptable norms of order. And it takes a special kind of political fideism, born of an ideological commitment to what we might call post-nationalism, to imagine that the United Nations, or even a reasonably strong alliance like NATO, can successfully address and resolve such problems absent American leadership. There are outlaws abroad; someone has to organize the posse to deal with them, and the only plausible candidate for sheriff is the United States.

This is less a matter of American exceptionalism than a matter of morally serious political realism. The United States has not been “ordained” to bring a measure of order out of the chaos of post“Cold War international life, and in many ways the national temper is ill suited to the task (especially in moments of national economic distress, such as the present). Revisionist historians of the Cold War notwithstanding, the United States is the least “imperial” great power known to world history, and there is an abiding cultural temptation, deep in the American character, to respond to chaotic twenty-first-century situations in a Chamberlainesque mode, bemoaning our entanglement with peoples “far away, of whom we know nothing.”

The events of 9/11 ought to have buried the temptation to withdraw from world leadership for a generation. But the difficulties America has experienced in bringing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a definitive and successful conclusion, coupled with the inward-looking instincts inevitable in the wake of the Great Recession and during an administration that takes many of its cues from the neo-isolationism of the sixties new left, have left many Americans exhausted, cranky, and unwilling to invest in Afghanistan (and Iraq) the kind of long-term resources and military assets the United States was once willing to invest in Western Europe and the Korean peninsula.

Yet while many Americans (and their elected leaders) may be tempted to withdraw from the world, the world is not going to give America the luxury of detachment. At this moment in history, and for the immediately foreseeable future, there is no alternative to American leadership of the forces of order”that Augustinian synonym for the peace that is composed of justice, security, and freedom”in world politics. Either the United States leads, and leads out of a sense of responsibility rather than divine right, or the forces of chaos will be emboldened and tempted to ever greater recklessness”especially those chaos breeders who believe themselves to be acting in godly ways by murdering innocents.

The moral template for thinking through these issues, Miller rightly reminds us, is a developed just war theory that complements the traditional dyad of the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello with what Miller calls the jus post bellum (or what I once dubbed the jus ad pacem ). Forming the posse to round up and subdue the outlaws does not exhaust the responsibilities of leadership, which must also include the building of sufficient political community to sustain a morally acceptable minimum of public order in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and a post-ayatollah-led Iran. Building that kind of political community is the real (and realistic) peace movement of the twenty-first century, and American instruments like the National Endowment for Democracy (on the board of which I am privileged to serve) are a low-cost way for the United States to take the lead in coaxing morally acceptable order out of chaos in post-tyrannical nations.

Thus moral theorists ought to consider not just the traditional just war issues involving the legitimate use of military force ad bellum and in bello but also the ways in which the real-world peacemakers can complete the work of “ordering,” which often begins with the proper use of military power in restraining the forces of chaos but cannot be completed by military means. In doing so, they might reflect on the conclusion of Murray’s response to Pacem in Terris , where he spoke to morally serious humanity in the early 1960s. His message might well be addressed to morally serious Americans pondering their country’s global role today:

All men of good will . . . believe that there are energies in the free human spirit whereby man may fulfill his destiny on earth, which is to be, not God, but the image of God. All men who believe in God are agreed that He is the Master of history. Man, therefore, manifests himself as the image of God chiefly by his intelligent, confident efforts to master the course of historical events and direct it toward the common good of the peoples of earth.

George Weigel , a member of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church is published this month.

Articles by George Weigel

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