Paul Miller’s essay is a plea for Americans to persevere in a military undertaking in Afghanistan that began in 2001. I might be moved by an argument that appealed to our national honor. Many people in that country have risked much, personally, to cooperate with the American project; to abandon them to whatever fate awaits them in our wake would be an act of gross faithlessness, not unlike our abandonment of the South Vietnamese in 1975. A great nation cannot treat its friends so shamefully. We owe it to ourselves, in other words.

That, however, is not Miller’s argument. Instead, he speaks of continuing America’s war in Afghanistan in terms of justice and even of moral duty. He argues that continuing to fight, now, in Afghanistan remains a just war in defense of “ourselves, our allies, and the global liberal order,” and that we have an unconditional obligation to leave the Afghans in a situation of lasting peace and justice. While he gestures on occasion to prudential considerations that might restrain America’s righteous hand in reshaping the world, his argument aims to give justification, even scriptural justification, for wars that would never heretofore have been thought just. I did not realize that the goal of just war doctrine was to expand the opportunities for war”at least, for American wars.

None doubt that wars of self-defense are just, and self-defense is also obviously in a nation’s interest. But many doubt that continuing the Afghan war is in our interest, and they find the notion that this distant battle might be a matter of existential self-defense incredible. Miller therefore strives to identify the United States and its interests with the “global liberal order,” so as to maintain the equation of interest and justice in wars of this kind. But he also writes that since the liberal order is just, “defending it is a moral duty, whether or not it is in our interest.” The stern appeal of Kantian duty is a powerful one. And what could be more noble than to risk life and limb in so entirely disinterested a fashion? Still, we have left calculations of interest and prudence entirely behind.

What are the implications of so closely identifying the United States with the “global liberal order”? Here Miller’s use of “global””rather than “international””is important. The liberal international order consists of a system of sovereign states with agreed borders and known rules of trade and statecraft. But “global” refers as well to transnational and supranational institutions and actors that penetrate or envelope state sovereignty. A liberal global order would be one that includes liberal humanitarian norms that reach into the internal life of national communities.

Such an order does not exist. Vast swaths of the globe are currently governed by states that have no respect for elementary religious liberties, for example. What does exist is the liberal international order, the system of states, and it is not clear how jihadists, however repugnant, can seriously threaten that order.

The liberal international order, moreover, differs from an “American empire” in that it allows for the sovereign independence of peoples under their own laws and customs. It superintends only their fair dealings with other peoples and states. Like the classical liberal approach to domestic politics, the liberal international order addresses only a limited sphere of human relations. Its justice is not comprehensive but partial.

But a liberal global order would imply precisely an imperial project, a mission civilisatrice , in which the moral norms of Americans”or rather, of liberal global elites”are made binding on all. Miller is focused on singular horrors such as genocide. But when we consider just how common such “singular” acts are in the world, it is evident that he has concocted a formula for morally mandatory war without end.

There is a further irony in the identification of American interests with a global liberal order. It is at least arguable that, after the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001, the political option most likely to achieve stability in Afghanistan would have been the restoration of the monarchy. Here was a traditional political institution to which many in that fractured tribal society felt a lingering loyalty. With American aid, something durable might have been built upon it. But, alas, the United States, the patron of the “global liberal order,” doesn’t do kings. To the extent that liberal political norms must be made the justice criteria of the whole earth, we have perhaps closed off political options that would have conduced to international security as well as to our own security interests”and to the good of the Afghans themselves.

American military forces intervening abroad for humanitarian purposes do not take the form of a Good Samaritan version of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade”volunteers so drawn by selfless devotion to their cause as to eagerly lay their lives on the line. Those who fight for us are members of the armed services of the United States, young men and women with hopes and dreams for their lives ahead. They will find themselves in Afghanistan or elsewhere at the command of their country’s political leaders, and they will not be free to avoid the brutality, futility, and stupidity of war. On what grounds are we justified in compelling our fellow citizens to undergo that ordeal? The moralistic pursuit of a putative global justice” whether or not it is in our interest ”is not enough.

There was a duality in the older literature of Christian political reflection: There was a literature concerning the duties of subjects aimed at fostering law-abidingness and obedience to just authority, and there was a literature concerning the duties of sovereigns aimed at fostering prudence and tempering vanity, pride, and ambition, the characteristic sins of rulers. In democratic nations today, we are at once both subjects and sovereigns. Most of the time, we experience ourselves primarily as subjects . But we never so much inhabit the role of sovereigns as when we, through our representatives, command that other men’s sons and daughters shall go forth to fight and die in war.

It is a weighty matter to exercise that responsibility, so weighty that, since the Second World War, we have largely abandoned our own constitutional mechanisms for declaring war and left these life-and-death decisions up to the president. We need to recover our Constitution. And we need to prepare ourselves to discharge wisely our sovereign responsibility in this matter. In doing so, we need to hearken to those voices who seek to temper our ambitions, even or especially the ambitions of justice.

Mark C. Henrie , a member of First Things ’ advisory council, is senior vice president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Articles by Mark C. Henrie

Loading...