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Nations fail, Augustine argued, because peoples fail, and peoples fail because they love the wrong things. A people defines itself by what it loves, and false love produces a frail and fragile nation. America’s exceptional history as the only nation in the world with two centuries of political continuity stems from its people’s love for individual rights, which they hold to be inalienable because they are granted by a power that no human agency dare oppose.

Americans selected themselves out from among the nations of the world to enter into the political covenant that is the American constitutional state. It succeeded because it is “a country with the soul of a church,” as G.K. Chesterton observed. Individualism founded on God-given rights has triumphed over the alternative—the collectivist premise for the state in its various manifestations: Rousseau’s “will of the people,” for example, or Marx’s proletarian dictatorship, or the blood-and-soil nationalism that led Europe and Japan into the world wars of the twentieth century. The only form of collectivism still embraced by a large part of the world’s population is integralist Islam, which dominates most Muslim-majority countries.

Other great nations have adopted some parts of the Western principles that define America and therefore something of what America loves. India, for instance, has become the world’s largest democracy by co-opting the parliamentary system of its former imperial overlord, and China is trying (though in service of a one-party state) to harness the free market. What the fall of Communism showed to be true remains true: States that suppress individual rights on behalf of some expression of the collective will fail, even as globalization and technological advance accelerate the pace of state failure. Those that support individual rights have some chance of succeeding.

What we might call “Augustinian realism” is this premise, borne out in the world around us. To the extent that other nations share the American love for the sanctity of the individual, they are likely to succeed. To the extent they reject it, they are likely to fail. Our actions in the world can proceed from American interest—precisely because American interest consists of allying with success and containing failure.

Augustinian realism begins with the observation that civil society precedes the character of a nation. The American state can ally with, cajole, or even crush other states, but it cannot change the character of their civil society, except in a very slow, gradual, and indirect fashion—for example, through the more than 100,000 American Christian missionaries now working overseas. This realism insists that the state should not try to do what it cannot do.

It is not necessary to hold Augustine’s evangelical purpose to grasp the instrumental value of his observation. To take America as the measure of an Augustinian state, moreover, does not necessitate triumphalism, for America cannot take for granted that it will remain the only, or even the most important, instantiation of its own founding idea. Realism, though, requires a gauge by which to separate prospective success from incipient failure.

This is the instrumental dimension of Augustinian realism. It has a moral dimension as well. America has a moral obligation toward citizens of other nations who share our civic love, for the same political friendship that binds together our civil society must include prospective friends in other countries. America has a moral obligation to allies and a moral interest in the welfare of people who are linked to our civil society—Christians in the global South, for example. But we have no obligation toward states and peoples who have no part in our civic love. We wish everyone well and prefer that all succeed and none fail, but realism demands that we ration our attention.

Israel is the example par excellence of a state with a moral claim on American friendship. America’s founding began with the Pilgrims’ vision of a new Exodus and a new mission in the wilderness, and the new nation learned from the Jews to regard every human being as a living image of God. Israel, moreover, is an example to the world of how moral greatness corresponds to practical success. It is a crucial American ally not only because Israel is the leading military power in the Middle East and a technological powerhouse with more venture capital investment than the whole of Europe (the instrumental dimension of Augustinian realism) but also because of the deep ties between the American founding and the Jewish religion and the strong bonds between Israelis and America’s 6.4 million Jews (the moral dimension).

Consider the winning policy of the Reagan administration during the Cold War, which overcame the most prominent collectivist alternative to American democracy. America did not set out to persuade the Soviet Union to emulate us. We set out to ruin it, and ruin it we did. After Russia repudiated Communism we proposed to assist its reconstruction. In other words, American interest consists of allying with success and containing failure.

The value of Augustinian realism might be more easily seen in its absence. In the tenure of two administrations, our foreign policy has passed from adolescence—the Wilsonian fancy that America could remake the world in its own image—to senile renunciation of world leadership, without ever having passed through maturity. Instead of the uncertain, meticulous work of containing failed states, nurturing prospective allies, and deterring prospective enemies, Washington has swung from a utopian effort to fix the world, to the baffling pretense that the world somehow will fix itself if only America leaves it alone. The result is a self-inflicted wound to America’s world standing—to the anguish of our allies and the undisguised contempt of our adversaries.

Instead of a president determined to use American hegemony to rid the world of evil, America has a president determined to rid the world of hegemony. As Barack Obama told the United Nations last September, “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” Since America is the only nation capable of exercising hegemony on a world scale or maintaining the balance of power among other powers, President Obama’s doctrine is the self-liquidation of American influence—an unprecedented and, on reflection, astonishing position for an American leader.

American foreign policy baffles the rest of the world. Look, for example, at the damage to America’s world position during March and April of this year. First came the Obama administration’s staged quarrel with Israel over a routine zoning decision for homes in northeast Jerusalem, which is a neighborhood where Arabs had never lived and an area which every proposal for the division of Jerusalem has assigned to the Israeli side. Over thirty years, American administrations have avoided making an issue of Israel’s claim to an undivided Jerusalem; Obama broke with that precedent in a staged crisis. The White House threatened Israel with an imposed solution, something no previous administration had undertaken, and threatened to demand that Israel abandon nuclear weapons.

Then came the United States’ cosmetic nuclear-arms reduction agreement with Russia, after canceling the Bush administration’s promise to base antimissile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. On receiving this diplomatic reward, Russia staged a coup in Kyrgyzstan that erased the American-sponsored “Tulip Revolution” of 2005 and left the air resupply of American forces in Afghanistan subject to Russian good will. There were valid objections to the Bush proposal, but Obama removed it without exacting anything in return from Russia, and he did so in a way that undercut the position of American allies.

And then, in a third blunder, the president indicated that he might not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, when he told a television interviewer, “The history of the Iranian regime, like the North Korean regime, is that, you know, you apply international pressure on these countries, sometimes they choose to change behavior, sometimes they don’t.” To the extent that America’s desultory efforts to impose sanctions on Iran had credibility, Obama lost it the moment he began to speak.

Some of this, all accomplished in sixty days, has been defended in the name of realism—for, in common parlance, realism in foreign policy denotes the amoral acceptance of the way things are. But the way things are is not necessarily the way they will remain, and it can be unrealistic in the extreme to expect them to do so. During the Cold War, the “realist position” accepted the Soviet Union as a permanent feature of the world scene and sought a long-term accommodation with its interests—while Ronald Reagan was regarded as a reckless visionary for his dangerously “unrealistic belief” that the Soviets could be defeated.

Yet the Soviet economy turned out to be a Potemkin village worth less than its scrap value after the fall of Communism, unable to support Russian military power when forced to compete with an American build-up. The Soviets loved the wrong things, and that false love made them weaker than anyone, except Reagan and his allies, could see. Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II were the “realists.”

Realism today centers its attention on placating the Muslim world as it is, in opposition to the Bush administration’s “idealist” project of exporting democracy. Yet this form of “realism” has no more to do with reality than the “realism” of the early 1980s. There are nearly a billion and a half Muslims, but their footprint on world events is small. Globalization and technological advance have given us a world which multiplies the power of innovative individuals. Mass armies have no more military relevance today than horse cavalry in World War I, as Saddam Hussein learned during the First Gulf War. Computation and communication technology, meanwhile, have turned formerly backward parts of Asia into economic giants within a single generation.

This great transformation has left Muslim countries almost untouched. “According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants,” observed Bernard Lewis. Not one scientific discovery of note, innovative firm of international importance, or contribution to universal culture has come from the Muslim world in the past century. In 2008, only 133 patents were filed in Muslim-majority lands, about a tenth of the number in Israel, while the Israeli total exceeded that of India, Russia, and Singapore combined.

It is not only that the emperor has no clothes, but that the empire has no tailors: Except for hydrocarbons the Muslim world is of small interest to America. Only the multicultural conceit that all cultures deserve equal esteem and should enjoy equal success contravenes the obvious facts. It is America’s misfortune to have elected a president at this juncture who bears a deep sentimental attachment to the Muslim world. The Bush administration’s idealism stands in deserved disrepute. But the impulse behind its approach to the world—the belief that America’s exceptional character is the standard by which all political systems should be judged—is a baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

Why have the past two administrations put the Muslim world at the top of their foreign-policy agenda? Part of the answer, of course, is oil, although we have yet to counter a regime that, however ill-disposed to America, declines to sell oil on the world market at the market price.

But there is a more significant reason. The paradoxical answer is that the claim of Muslim states on American attention rests on their propensity to fail. Many were contrived from Ottoman, British, or Dutch imperial detritus and rest on the uneasy cohabitation of a welter of contending tongues and tribes. None of them foster the kind of entrepreneurial and scientific innovation that success in the global economy demands; most establish a religion hostile not only to individual initiative but to religious freedom, the education of women, and other indispensable aspects of modern society.

For these and other reasons, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Pakistan are at near-term risk of state failure. To repeat a point, their loves produce frail and fragile states. Half of Pakistanis live on $1 a day or less, and half cannot read, and ethnic rivalry remains a perpetual threat to the artificially constructed state. Iran, whose theocratic ruling stratum crushed the political aspirations of the country’s educated youth with violence, is trying to avert a breakdown at home by breaking out into regional hegemony.

Pakistani intelligence helps the Taliban, Iran, and Syria support Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Saudis pay protection to al-Qaeda. This implies state failure. To obtain visas, weapons, intelligence, and so forth, terrorists require the assistance of someone in government, if not the complicity of the highest state authorities. Such assistance may be a matter of state policy or a matter of sympathetic officials aiding terrorists for ideological reasons or corrupt officials selling weapons or even fissile material.

To use force against governments that support terrorists surely lies within the proper scope of American policy as well as the definition of just war. But there has been no greater folly in American diplomacy—no better example of the cost of ignoring Augustine—than the conceit that American intervention could make modern democracies out of states with a premodern civil society. The Bush administration acted properly to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq but overreached when it occupied both countries in order to foster democracy. We cannot do that, and American troops must leave some day, and then Iran or Pakistan will step in to assert influence, Iran through its Shi’ite auxiliaries and Pakistan through its longtime Taliban client.

America has neither the means to transform failing Muslim states into entities compatible with our civil love nor the moral obligation to do so. The attempt to do so can be disastrous. The Obama administration hopes for “reconciliation” with the Taliban as American troops depart, to the consternation of India, the victim of other terrorist attacks launched from Pakistan. What began in 2002 as an expedition to suppress terrorists appears likely to end with the Taliban control of Afghanistan supported by pro-terrorist elements in Pakistan.

We have urgent security interests, though, that arise from state failure, and are justified in employing force to protect ourselves. Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is and should be the central concern of Western diplomacy; a rogue state can be contained, but not so easily if it can deliver a fission bomb. The vulgar “realism” of the Beltway argues that deterrence proved effective in avoiding nuclear exchanges during the Cold War. It is true that deterrence did not fail utterly—if it did no one would be here to debate the matter—but it came very close to failing, for example during the Cuban Missile Crisis and again during the early 1980s. It is utterly unrealistic to assume that deterrence will continue to avoid actual nuclear war, all the less so when powers considerably less rational than the Russians are involved.

Realism demands our preventing Iran or other rogue states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Excising the Iranian nuclear program through targeted air attacks and subversion directed at regime change are the fail-safe means of defanging the Iranian threat.

Yet America has become so entangled in unrealistic objectives that it appears unable and unwilling to use force for the most pressing and transparent goals. America’s military leaders, notably the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, now argue that because American soldiers are deployed within the range of Iranian retaliation, an attack on Iran would result in American casualties. General Hassan Firouzabadi stated Iran’s intentions plainly in early April: “If America presents Iran with a serious threat and undertakes any measure against Iran, none of the American soldiers who are currently in the region would go back to America alive.”

The Bush administration set out to drain the swamps of terrorism by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq and constructing democratic regimes in those countries. As a result, hundreds of thousands of American military personnel serve within the reach of a terrorist regime that openly threatens to kill them. And to prevent them from being killed, America’s military leaders argue that force cannot be employed to prevent the murderers of American soldiers from acquiring nuclear weapons. A punitive expedition against a prospective threat to American security turned into an exercise in nation-building, the nation-builders turned into hostages, and the hostages to Iranian threats become the excuse to concede nuclear capability to a terrorist state.

Meanwhile the old foreign-policy “realists,” for example Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of the Carter administration’s foreign-policy debacle, conclude from this perverse result that America requires “constructive engagement” with Iran. And the president concedes on television that his policy may fail to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The world looks on in confusion and contempt.

Disasters of this magnitude should inspire a reconsideration of first principles. First among these principles, as I have suggested, is that the prospects for state failure or success flow from the character of its people and its civil society. A sound congregation can correct a deficient state, but the best-designed states will founder upon a deficient civil society. It follows that America should seek alliances with states that in some way approximate its own exceptional character—that love what we love—employing its good offices to help them succeed after our fashion, and should isolate and contain the malignant influences of states that repudiate our principles and love other things.

America should look to the founding principles of the West, which proceed from the character of the society rather than the political form it adopts. A republic, Augustine argued against Cicero, cannot endure unless it is founded on a common love made manifest in a congregation. Something deeper than Cicero’s notion of commonality of interest defines a people, Augustine writes in The City of God:

If we discard this definition of a people, and, assuming another, say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love . . . it will be a superior people in proportion as it is bound together by higher interests, inferior in proportion as it is bound together by lower.

Rome, he continues, “declined into sanguinary seditions and then to social and civil wars, and so burst asunder or rotted off the bond of concord in which the health of a people consists.”

It did not seem strange to him to consign his own polity to the dustheap of history along with the pagan empires of the past. This seems harsh to us today, yet it is likely that many more nations will disappear during the next two hundred years than during the decline and fall of Rome. At present fertility rates, the Ukraine will lose half of its population by the middle of the present century; in two hundred years the population of Germany will decline by 98 percent. For the first time in recorded history, most of the world’s peoples are failing of their desire to live.

The European nations after the Treaty of Westphalia too often founded themselves upon the wrong kind of love, that is, that of their own ethnicity. Post-nationalist and post-Christian Europe no longer worships at the altar of its own blood and soil, but without its old self-love, it sees no reason to persist into the next century.

People are failing of their desire to live, fastest of all in the Muslim world. Birthrates are declining faster there than anywhere else. A generation ago, for example, the average Iranian woman had six children; her daughters will bear one or two. The Iranian womb has closed shut, and the demographers, in wonderment and awe, are trying to explain why. Never on record has observed fertility fallen so fast or so far, from extreme fecundity to predictable extinction.

Iran is the most extreme case, but it leads a trend that envelops most of the Muslim world; Turkey and Algeria, in particular, are not far behind. Birthrates in the Muslim world still exceed those in moribund Western Europe by a large margin, but the rate of decline of Muslim fertility is far and away the fastest in the world. For the afflicted countries, this is a slow-motion train wreck. As a practical matter, a generation hence, some of the world’s poorer societies will be saddled with an elderly-dependency ratio like Europe’s, as today’s shriveled generation succeeds the very large generation of Muslims now in their working years.

It follows that America’s most important allies of the second half of the twentieth century, the Western European nations, will lose importance in foreign policy as they wither away. A generation later the Muslim nations will suffer the consequences of their present demographic implosion, as the bulge generation now in its working years ages and the drastically shrunken generation that follows proves too feeble to support the burden of elderly dependents.

What, then, is America’s fundamental interest in foreign policy? It is not to remake the world but to manage America’s leading global position in a world made unstable by the sharp juxtaposition of winners and losers. Where the common love of other polities coincides with ours, America has a strategic opportunity to foster friendships that will make the world a stabler and safer place and a moral obligation to help other countries who to some extent emulate our founding principles. We cannot implant this Augustinian love on barren soil; we only can respond where other peoples embrace it of their own volition.

First, in the Middle East, America should cut its losses in “nation-building” and remove the bulk of its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, with limited exceptions, including sufficient troops to deter Iranian efforts to encroach on Iraqi oil fields near the common border and Special Forces assisting cooperating local elements. Sent out as nation-builders, American soldiers have become hostages rather than peacekeepers, and their continued presence is detrimental to American interests.

Second, America should not allow rogue states to acquire nuclear weapons and must employ force to prevent them from doing so where required. North Korea has been contained with Chinese help, but Iran presents an unacceptable risk to America and its allies, including the Arab oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf as well as Israel. America should make clear its willingness to use force to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program and, if Iran does not comply, neutralize the risk through air attacks and aggressive efforts toward changing the regime.

Third, America should contain security threats from failed states through the direct use of force where required, through limited intervention by Special Forces and similar units when possible, and the isolation of countries that can or will not suppress terrorists. It is cheaper to seal off the failed states from the rest of the world than to attempt to occupy them and control the travel and residence of their citizens. America should seek the agreement of other powers for such operations but not fear unilateral action under exceptional circumstances—in the case of Iran’s nuclear program, for example.

Fourth, America should abandon balance-of-power politics in southern Asia in favor of alliance with our natural ally India, a democratic nation with little divergence of interest from American goals. American policy seeks to maintain a balance of power between India and Pakistan, but to what end? India ranks fourth in availability of scientists and engineers in the World Economic Forum Survey for 2010, whereas Pakistan ranks eighty-third, after Cameroon and Benin. India also ranks fourth in terms of Gross Domestic Product on a purchasing power parity basis, where Pakistan ranks twenty-sixth. India is one of the most stable states in the world; Pakistan is at risk of state failure. India fights terrorism; Pakistan’s intelligence services gestated the Taliban from the outset and continue to sustain it along with terrorist organizations that threaten India.

In exchange for American support, India would have to accommodate itself to American interests in a number of (mutually beneficial) ways. India should accept American good offices to defuse potential conflict with China. Half the world’s population and the bulk of its economic growth are concentrated in India, China, and their periphery.

India should also support America’s anti-Taliban efforts in Afghanistan, something New Delhi has offered and America has rejected in the misplaced fear of antagonizing Pakistan. India should replace its dependence on Iranian oil through cooperation with America in nuclear-power production and cease its dependency on Russian airframe technology by buying advanced American military aircraft.

Fifth, what of China, which attempts to combine elements of economic freedom with political dictatorship? Its paradoxes are too complex for America to attempt to resolve. Elements of repression, worst of all the one-child policy, vie with aspects of freedom, including partial religious freedom under which a tenth of Chinese self-identify as Christians without, however, allowing for toleration of Falun Gong, which the authorities consider a subversive anti-Western movement.

America’s economic interdependence with China requires no explanation here; recently in this journal, Reuven Brenner and I proposed a currency agreement between the United States and China that would help free the semi-closed Chinese capital market and expand the market for American exports. China’s savings rate in excess of half of personal income reflects the residual insecurity of a people that for generations has suffered expropriation by the state, as well as distrust in an inconvertible currency. Opening China’s capital markets and unlocking pent-up import demand is in America’s urgent economic interest.

China’s chief political concern is territorial integrity. China has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empire rather than a nation-state. Its regimes historically have been undone by provincial rebellions. Beijing understandably displays extreme sensitivity to the prospect of a “breakaway province,” which is how it views Taiwan, and what it fears for Tibet and its largely Muslim far west. The Bush administration accomplished a great deal in winning Chinese trust for the proposition that Taiwan will be considered part of China, although its prospective incorporation into the mainland will remain a matter for the indefinite future. America has no interest in Tibetan or Uyghur independence movements and should reassure China of its support for Chinese territorial integrity.

China’s concerns for energy security can be allayed in part through cooperation in nuclear power, where America still has a technological lead. Economic relations between China and the United States should be a positive-sum gain: Both sides stand to gain from an economic alliance that leads to currency convertibility and an opening of the domestic market.

In return for this support, America must require Chinese support for its own objectives, for example, the suppression of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In practice, China will respect American exercise of power so long as it does not impinge on core Chinese interests.

Despite its prosperity, Asia remains unstable. America has squandered its resources in the pursuit of a balance of power in the small. But America is the only power capable of maintaining a balance of power in the large—between India, China, and Japan. If America makes clear its intent to lead, other powers in the region will grudgingly acknowledge its role. If America renounces leadership, the potential for mishaps will become unacceptably high.

Finally, what of Russia? It is a more difficult case: a spoiler, but a rational spoiler, that suffered a catastrophic blow to its world position with the fall of Communism and is in rapid demographic decline but remains a world power. Relations with Russia offer a crucial test case for Augustinian realism. America has limited interests in the so-called Russian “near abroad,” but it has deep civil ties and consequent moral obligations to countries formerly in the Soviet sphere. Under the Bush administration the United States treated the former Soviet sphere as a geopolitical Monopoly board on which to acquire real estate, without, however, distinguishing between vital American interests and the opportunistic exercise of power.

The expansion of American influence has proven ephemeral. The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, half of whose inhabitants are native Russian speakers, persuaded Moscow that America would ignore perceived Russian interests. Russian-American relations reached a nadir as a result. Ukrainian voters elected a pro-Russian government this year, effectively burying the Orange Revolution. As noted earlier, Russia reversed the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan by supporting a coup against the American-sponsored government. America’s attempt to build up Georgia as a toehold in the Caucasus came to grief after Russia’s military intervention in 2008.

Whereas America has limited interests in Ukraine, it has a profound interest in Poland. Poland freed itself from Soviet rule through the resurgence of Christian civil society, and the heroism of its people was a crucial factor in the West’s winning the Cold War. The strength of Poland’s civil society manifests itself equally in economic success: Poland was the only country in Europe to sustain economic growth through the present world recession.

The Obama administration humiliated Poland last October when it abandoned the Bush administration’s pledge to station antimissile systems there and in the Czech Republic. By failing to draw a clear line between the fundamental American commitment to Poland and targets of opportunity on the Russian periphery, Washington in effect invited Russia to deal with Poland as another wayward element in its sphere of influence, on par with Ukraine.

Bonds of blood, history, religion, and alliance during the critical moments of the Cold War bind Poland to America. America must make clear to Russia that while it understands the Russian interest in neighboring countries with a large proportion of native Russian speakers, Poland is a Western nation that must remain secure under the wing of American friendship and that no form of intimidation will be tolerated.

Augustinian realism draws a bright line between friendship based on shared foundations in civil society and the opportunistic exercise of state power. It attempts instrumentally to distinguish successful states from failing states and morally to distinguish those who share our loves from those who do not—whose love of other things is often the source of their incipient failure. America can and must compromise on many issues, but we cannot abandon alliances with nations founded on the principles that define our unique character as a people. Countries with whom we share a common love in Augustine’s understanding we draw near to us. Others should respect us, and if need be, fear us.

David P. Goldman is senior editor of First Things.