Foreign-policy experts tend toward blindness to the moral aspects of what they analyze, and theologians are typically without expertise in geopolitics. George Weigel is one of the few people able to offer informed discussion of both morality and geopolitics, and he does so with his usual panache in “Through a Glass, Clearly” (August/September, 2010).
We are, however, unconvinced by his argument. The principles he sets forth for shaping debate are: 1) theologically obtuse and therefore questionably Christian; 2) uncritical in their axiomatic assumption that the United States is a force for good in the world and therefore jingoistic; 3) insufficiently skeptical about the human capacity to predict effects and therefore Pollyannaish; and 4) insufficiently alive to the current state of geopolitical theory and therefore old-fashioned.
As to the first of these four, Weigel is right that nation states have both interests and purposes and that it is important to distinguish between the two. He is right as well that the moral norms governing interpersonal relations are not identical with those governing relations among states or transnationals.
But for Christians it does not follow that the morality of foreign policy can be discussed as if it had nothing to do with the morality of interpersonal relations. To reason from x is not y to nothing said about x should have any effect upon what is said about y is an elementary logical error. The demands of love and the morality of corporate action are not identical, but they are intertwined, and intimately so.
In fact, there are two kinds of Christian response to the divergence between the demands of love and what corporate entities do. The first is to acknowledge that such a divergence is unavoidable, to locate its necessity in the damage produced by the Fall, and to lament it. Augustine, in discussing the regrettable conditions under which Christian magistrates must labor, quotes the psalm’s lament: “Deliver us from our necessities.” And both the last pope and the present one have been clear that when states use violence, they must lament the necessity of doing so. The second Christian response to the divergence is to refuse it—to refuse, for example, the use of torture and lethal violence.
Either lament or refusal: Those are the options for a Christian thinker. Weigel chooses neither. He is both sanguine and sanguinary about bloodshed. There is no tincture of tears in what he writes about “seeing off Saddam Hussein in Iraq,” or about our failure to stay in Vietnam, or about George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, with its implicit support of the doctrine of preemptive war (as enshrined in the 2002 strategy document issued by the National Security Council).
As to the second point—that Weigel is uncritical in his assumption that the United States is a force for good—he says that getting our foreign policy right “would be a Good Thing, for us and for the world.” Would it? Weigel has confused some ideal United States with the actual one. The actual one is bloody (more than one and a quarter million legal abortions yearly), violent (a rate of violent crime high by world standards), given to imprisoning its citizens (at a higher rate than all but one or two other nations), and so on and dismally on.
Getting our foreign policy right, which in Weigel’s view involves exporting democracy and all that goes with it, will also involve, in complex and unpredictable ways, exporting these things, too. The United States is, like every nation, a complicated mix of the wonderful and the dreadful; we see no evidence that Weigel is alive to the latter.
As to the third point, about Weigel’s Pollyannaishness, he thinks history can be bent to human reason and will, and he cites Hitler and Mao as negative examples of people who knew this, and Churchill and Thatcher as positive examples. It is a bit puzzling why the second pair would be thought positive.
Churchill was, by any reasonable—and certainly by any Catholic—standards, a war criminal (see Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” which provides the reasoning applicable, mutatis mutandis, to Churchill), and Thatcher authorized the use of torture in Irish prisons. Neither of them lamented what they took to be their necessities, so far as we know, and in neither case was what they did a necessity.
But our problem with Weigel’s view is more fundamental than this. Neither he nor anyone else is good enough at predicting results to be confident about what will follow from policy positions. Hitler predicted a thousand-year Reich; it lasted twelve. Mao thought the Great Leap Forward would positively transform China; it didn’t. Weigel thinks we can get American foreign policy right and then good things will happen. He is about as likely to be correct in this prediction as Mao and Hitler were in theirs. We recommend to Weigel that he look back at his own predictions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and see what he thinks of them now.
As to the fourth point, Weigel’s analysis of the pendulum of debate between idealist isolationism and realist interventionism has something to be said for it. But it has a deeply old-fashioned feel to it, most dramatically in his sense that the United States is of central importance to what happens in the world. This is increasingly not the case. The European Union now rivals the United States in economic power and is larger in both square miles and population. China has already exceeded the United States in some economic measures and will likely soon do so in more.
We live now in an economically multipolar and decentered world to which the United States is much less important than it was a generation ago. Those who travel in Asia and Europe know that the United States feels technologically backward: Returning to Chicago after a week in Seoul or London or Copenhagen is a bit like going to Mexico City after a week in New York.
And while the United States is certainly the preeminent military power in the world, it cannot sustain even the military engagements it now has. It is extremely unlikely, we think, that state-department policy discussions ever use the dialectic between realism and idealism that informs Weigel’s essay. Things are both more complex and more interesting than this dialectic suggests.
A questionably Christian, old-fashioned, jingoistic Pollyannaishness—these are harsh words, but we think them justified. We commend their contraries to Weigel and to readers who want to think seriously about foreign policy. Moral engagement with these important issues requires no less.
Paul J. Griffiths
duke divinity school
durham, north carolina
George Weigel replies:
Despite its tone, and its curious assumption that the authors have a window into my soul and my psyche, the latest Bull (of excommunication?) from Durham raises several interesting points to which I would like to respond, in order to further a conversation in which Professors Griffiths and Hauerwas play an important role, if not quite the pontifical one their rhetoric occasionally suggests.
War always represents a failure for humanity. As Christians have long recognized, however, it is sometimes necessary to take up the sword to vindicate justice, secure freedom, and restore the order that is the meaning of peace, this side of the kingdom of God. We may, as Griffiths and Hauerwas argue, “lament” the resort to the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force in a just cause, but can a nation engage in a just war in a posture of “lament”? One nation did, as recently as seventy-one years ago. Should my correspondents wish to reflect on what happened then, let me refer them to Lynne Olson’s study, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England.
Olson’s portrait of the utter fecklessness of the Chamberlain government’s prosecution of the first nine months of World War II—a fecklessness that arose precisely from the prime minister’s lament over the necessity of meeting Hitlerian force with counterforce, and that precipitated a crisis in world civilization greater than any in centuries—offers us a telling, and chilling, reminder of what an exclusive focus on the evils inherent in even a just war can lead to. And what they can lead to is the furtherance of the deaths of innocents.
Pope Benedict XVI, leaving the United Kingdom in September, thanked the people of Great Britain for winning the Battle of Britain seventy years before; he did not ask them to lament (although he surely grieves the human carnage of World War II), and he certainly did not ask them to consider that refusal to fight Nazi aggression was the more Christian course at the time. Given the pontiff’s background, this remarkable gesture of acknowledgment is all the more telling.
The choices before the Christian facing the moral imperative of the use of armed force cannot be reduced to “lament or refusal.” How to sustain the cardinal virtues of courage, prudence, and justice amidst the temptations of war is, was, and always will be a serious problem: for theology, for the Church’s pastoral ministry, and for those statesmen whose decisions the just-war tradition seeks to clarify. History suggests, however, that the binary choice offered by Professors Griffiths and Hauerwas will not be of much service to either Church or state.
As for whether the United States is a force for good in the world, albeit a flawed and not infrequently clumsy force for good, readers of First Things will likely find the charge that I am inattentive to the export of grave evils such as the abortion license unpersuasive, as they will the rather crude caricature of my views on “exporting democracy.” What is worth reflecting upon here, though, is the suggestion that the recent travails of U.S. foreign policy, as well as changes in the correlation of economic forces in the world, compel an American retreat from international leadership, of the sort we have exercised since December 1941. This, interestingly enough, is precisely the posture taken by the current American administration and its various “re-sets.”
Two years into the re-setting, however, we may observe the following: Iran on the brink of a nuclear weapons capability; Hamas dug in further in Gaza, like Hezbollah in Lebanon; an increasingly aggressive China, flexing military muscle throughout East Asia; a Russia seemingly determined to reconstitute the old Stalinist empire, de iure or de facto; Europe sinking further into irrelevance (and, in some cases, ungovernability); Mexico on the brink of becoming a failed state, at least in its northern provinces; North Korea behaving in a more bellicose way; and the United States back in the business of funding abortion and useless approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention abroad.
One need not ignore the foreign-policy mistakes of recent Republican administrations to conclude that the Carter 2.0 foreign policy of the Obama administration has made the world a more dangerous place. Yet the concept of American incapacity in the world shaping the administration’s policy seems quite similar to that proposed by Professors Hauerwas and Griffiths.
Pollyanna is as Pollyanna does.
Failing the Barr
In “Fearful Symmetries” (October 2010), Stephen M. Barr tries but fails to undermine the scientific case for the New Atheism. His opponents base their case on the epistemic naturalism of late modern science, but he follows suit by presenting mathematical physics as if it were sufficient for understanding the depths of creation. He strains to read the complexity of contemporary physics through a mysticism of simplicity. And he falls into historical amnesia by claiming science does not require any metaphysics.
It’s just as well he fails, because if we can plumb the depths of creation by contemplating quantum levels, who needs history? May God keep us from the single vision of imagining that the abstractions of natural science delineate creation.
Stephen M. Barr replies:
I agree that there is more to creation than mathematical physics can account for—most notably, the human spiritual powers of intellect and will, and even mere consciousness. This is indeed the most basic objection to physicalist reductionism, and perhaps I shouldn’t have left it unstated in my article (though I have urged it in many other articles in First Things).
I wished, however, to call attention to a point that is less widely appreciated, namely, that radical reductionism doesn’t even get the physical world right. It is the belief that it does which seduces many into adopting it in the first place. Imagining it to work well in the physical realm, many are tempted to extrapolate it to all of reality and erect it into a metaphysical principle. But mathematical physics does not really “reduce” in the way they think it does; rather, as I attempted to show, it points to something higher.
As far as my “amnesia” goes, it doesn’t prevent me from noticing a fact daily before my eyes, which is that people can have a deep grasp of physics and make fundamental contributions to it while holding erroneous metaphysical beliefs.
An Imperfect Storm
Natasha Trethewey observes in “After the Storm” (October 2010) that a cleansing of New Orleans took place five years ago. In Chapter 13 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his hearers to view two events of that day—the collapse of a building with eighteen killed and a massacre of Jewish worshippers by Roman soldiers—as opportunities for everyone to repent of sin. He warns them not to conclude that victims are more sinful than onlookers. Just days after Katrina, a writer observed that Hurricane Ivan (meaning “God is gracious”) spared New Orleans a year earlier, perhaps in response to the prayers of the ministers of that city.
It makes one wonder, and it should. I can attest that God used the events of those years to cleanse my life. I wonder how many others had a similar experience, as well as how many instead went on “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” as if nothing had happened.
I can’t speak for New Orleans, but I sure didn’t see any widespread signs of repentance, or any change in the culture of Washington, D.C., after the terrifying three-week scourge of the D.C. sniper. Perhaps someone else did.
Although I don’t disagree with the conclusions in “Human Embryos in the Age of Obama” (October 2010), the problem is more complex than the statement suggests. The better argument of the Obama administration in favor of its policies is that the embryos in question would likely die anyway. This does not give us a license to kill them, but shouldn’t we be giving more focus to not creating them in the first place?
In a society that permits in vitro fertilization and abortion, it is hard to find logical arguments against doing stem-cell research using human embryos. We have already decided that until an infant is born it has no right to life.
des plaines, illinois