The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest
by walter a. mcdougall
yale, 424 pages, $30

What are the principles for which America fights? This is a trick question. Countries can pursue principles to the point of sparking conflict. They can invoke principles to raise morale. They can follow principles in waging war. But few principles can be turned into a casus belli without driving a country headlong into fanaticism.

It is fanaticism, America’s fanaticism, that the Pulitzer Prize–winning University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall blames when he considers the strategic advantages the United States has squandered since Osama bin Laden led an attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. George W. Bush, whom Americans had elected to the White House a year before the attacks, really did say in their aftermath, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” His administration named its original Afghan invasion plan Operation Infinite Justice. And McDougall has a particularly bleak assessment of the Iraq invasion that followed the attack on Afghanistan. “To speak of draining the swamps of Islamo-fascism through democratization of the whole Muslim crescent,” he writes, “was mad.”

If so, it was a madness that has been a signature of American foreign policy at least since the end of the Cold War. In our specialized age, we often consider statesmanship synonymous with skills learned at the Kennedy School. But a country’s religious culture and higher yearnings condition what it can do, and what it is inclined to. In The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, McDougall argues that President Bush’s behavior was the latest iteration of the “American Civil Religion.”

Sociologist Robert Bellah first applied the term “civil religion” to American politics in a 1967 essay. Americans, as Bellah saw it, sense that their nation arose out of transcendent ethical principles. They aspire to act in accordance with those principles, and presidents exhort them to do so.

But what principles are we talking about? Things that seem sharp in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence are vague in the American civil religion, which is easily molded to intellectual fads and passing political agendas. McDougall calls it “a mystical, magical, shape-shifting civil religion whose orthodoxies can turn into heresies and whose heresies can turn into new orthodoxies.” These, in turn, get mistaken for moral principles—from isolationism to exceptionalism. If the American civil religion has a credo, it might be the remark that Dwight Eisenhower made to a group in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria just before Christmas in 1952: “Our form of Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Of course, if you don’t care what it is, there’s no telling what you’ll get. McDougall is keen to figure out what we’ve got. In Promised Land, Crusader State (1997), he laid out the “eight foreign affairs traditions” of the United States. Here he shows a similar zeal for classification and taxonomy. The reader will find nine theories of the Iraq war, four spirits of English expansion, four checks against zealotry, and so on. The experience is rather like that of reading the Book of Revelation. There have been, in McDougall’s view, six different iterations of the American civil religion:

  • a classical civil religion of the Founders, laid out in Washington’s first inaugural address and exemplified by John Quincy Adams;

  • a neo-classical version created by Abraham Lincoln, who in the Civil War “re-baptized the United States a teleocracy, a nation governed by its pursuit of an abstract idea, a nation with a purpose-driven life”;

  • a progressive one that, in effect, held faith without works to be dead and was typified by Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to remodel the world in accord with American (or his own) morality;

  • a neo-progressive civil religion, that of Franklin Roosevelt, which is less a new dispensation than a more pragmatic version of Wilson’s internationalism;

  • a Cold War civil religion, of which John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s crusade in Vietnam was the chief expression and which, contradicting John Quincy Adams, “positively required the United States to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”;

  • a universalistic millennial civil religion, the meddlesome vision of democracy, peace, and human rights that we live under today, “the first global civil religion.”

McDougall describes the way civil religion changed over time. The country’s founders had a bias towards restraint in foreign affairs that held firm for a couple of generations. John Quincy Adams warned of the “inevitable tendency of a direct interference in foreign wars, even wars for freedom, to change the very foundations of our own government from liberty to power.” These sentiments were widely shared, but they did not last. Moreover, they were not reflected in the Constitution, which leaves the conduct of foreign policy up in the air. Yes, Congress gets to declare war and fund the military. Yes, the president is commander in chief, appoints ambassadors, and makes (with the Senate’s approval) treaties.

But almost every other foreign policy responsibility, McDougall shows, lies in a no-man’s-land between the various branches of government: No mention is made of a power to recognize or de-recognize foreign regimes, terminate treaties as opposed to make them, make peace as opposed to war, declare neutrality in the wars of others, annex or cede territory, bestow or deny foreign aid, impose sanctions, regulate immigration and the status of aliens . . .

The list goes on. Thus questions of whether, for example, Barack Obama has the authority to end a decades-long trade embargo against Cuba do not have clear-cut answers. This indeterminacy makes foreign policy an attractive arena for the mischievous, the glory-seeking, and the idealistic—one perhaps more attractive than domestic policy. Even presidents who arrive in the White House as rank foreign policy novices are tempted to try their hand at it.

It was the energy of James K. Polk in the mid-1840s that put the presidency at the core of foreign policy, and thus turned the president into a promulgator and priest of the American civil religion. The president gets to lay down the principles for which the country binds itself to fight. He gets to decide which slights will not go unavenged, and rewrites history as he does. Presidential oratory provides much of the supporting evidence for McDougall’s ideas about civil religion, from President William McKinley’s implication that the United States had not so much conquered Cubans as it had ministered to them (“Are we not made better for the effort and sacrifice, and are not those we serve lifted up and blessed?”) to President Obama’s second inaugural, in which he cast the holy places of women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights as the postmodern Bethlehem (“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall”).

Polk’s innovations are best thought of as constitutional tricks. When he sought to expand the United States into territory controlled by Mexico, he found an easy way around Congress’s war power. He used his authority as commander in chief to send troops into danger, and then, when they came under attack, dared Congress to vote against a military action to relieve them. Those who think Congress can easily reclaim war powers that presidents have usurped since then don’t see how powerful Polk’s method generally proves in a democracy. Lyndon Johnson used it with particular flagrancy in 1964. His misrepresentation of a naval skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin induced Congress to grant him carte blanche in Vietnam. Franklin Roosevelt, too, McDougall believes, used such geostrategic chicanery to maneuver the United States into World War II.

For McDougall, the Spanish-American war was the moment when the American civil religion came into its own. In 1898, McKinley attacked Spanish imperial rule in Cuba, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Borrowing a secular eschatology from the Progressive movement, the next few American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson—gave themselves over to schemes to reform and moralize the world. Protestant clergy, far from urging humility, goaded the country forward. Religious thinking on foreign policy soon became another strand of Progressive doctrine. “To more radical Social Gospel adherents, like Chicago’s Raymond Robins,” McDougall writes, “the Bolsheviks seemed to be practicing effective Christianity, their atheism notwithstanding.”

A sense for this kind of paradox is what is really splendid about McDougall as a historian. Based on his narrative, one could list a few more ironic truths about international power politics that resonate in our own time:

  • A mishandled victory can be as harmful as a defeat. Britain’s triumph over the French and Indians in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) did not win the gratitude of American colonists. It made it safer for the colonies to revolt. In a similar way, the United States over the last quarter century has weakened itself as no foreign enemy could have, largely because “the death of the Soviet Union endowed the United States with too much power for its own good.”

  • Territorial expansion is as likely to be accompanied by outward humility as by jingoistic stridency. The United States declined to provoke the European great powers between 1812 and 1898, but not because its ambitions were modest. On the contrary. “No sane American wanted to risk the nation’s Manifest Destiny by picking ideological quarrels with overseas monarchies,” McDougall writes. The same may be true of China’s twenty-first-century “good neighbor” policy.

  • Racism is not necessarily an aspect of imperialism, and may even be a check on it. At the turn of the century, “almost all prominent Progressives were imperialist and vice-versa.” The precedent drawn from westward expansion, that “the constitution follows the flag” and that inhabitants of settled territories would therefore become not just subjects but citizens endowed with rights, was long a powerful disincentive to conquest in, for instance, the Caribbean.

  • Insisting on “universal values” will constrain friends who share them more than enemies who do not. The compromise worked out at the Yalta conference of 1945 between the Western and Soviet victors in World War II did not upset the world system as much as Americans liked to complain during the Cold War. Russia was never likely to give up lands for which it had paid with tens of millions of casualties, and Churchill did win control of the eastern Mediterranean, and thus maintain a vital connection to Britain’s empire. The problem was that Britain soon wound up with no empire to speak of—not because Russia threatened it but because American anti-imperialism was far more effective at removing British, Dutch, and French viceroys from Asia and Africa than Russian satraps from Eastern Europe.

In 1901, eleven years before he drowned on the Titanic, the English newspaperman William Thomas Stead wrote a book called The Americanization of the World: The Trend of the Twentieth Century. Noting that this Americanization both fascinated and disquieted Stead, McDougall highlights one passage in particular:

The temptation to believe that we are the Viceregent of the Almighty, charged with the thunderbolt of heaven, for the punishment of evil-doers, is one of the subtle temptations by which the Evil One lures well-meaning people to embark upon a course of policy which soon becomes indistinguishable from buccaneering pure and simple.

Americans sometimes distinguish their own adventurism from that of history’s villains by invoking some form of “American exceptionalism.” What is exceptional about the United States from a strategic viewpoint, McDougall argues, is not its ideological project but its geographic circumstances. Transoceanic isolation has allowed it “to postpone belligerence until its enemies were already trapped in exhausting wars of attrition,” reaping enormous strategic gains at a relatively low price in blood and treasure.

Since World War II, the United States has taken on a dual role that makes distinctions between holiness and buccaneering harder to draw. It has sought to build an order of liberty for the world, and it has pursued its own strategic and material interest. The world’s citizens and America’s own both appear to feel shortchanged.

The sections in McDougall’s book that describe the building of Pax Americana are among its most uneven. Fury radiates from the pages when he notes that, by mapping out a U.S.-led postwar order in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt “was already plotting a peace only total war could produce.” This sounds like the echo of tirades that rolled across dinner tables and bars throughout the mid-twentieth century. And when McDougall criticizes the Roosevelt administration for “pretending its own war effort was a civil religious crusade for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” he ignores that all leaders in all wars present their efforts as a heroic quest rather than a pointless slaughter.

But McDougall is quite right to lay out the tangle of contradictions that a principled foreign policy can produce. Consider the Marshall Plan, the $13 billion package of American aid to war-wrecked Western Europe. Launched a year before NATO, the plan is presented in American mythology as a “gift.” And yet, the United States needed the economic order of open markets the Marshall Plan helped create as much as Europeans needed the money. As a State Department official described the issue, “it was not whether the United States should aid Europe, or even how much aid should be proposed, but how to make the transfer of billions of dollars to countries that had not asked for them and would not ask for them.” In this sense, the Marshall Plan was less a gift than an effort to restructure the world economy in terms favorable to the victor.

Domestic economic problems do not preoccupy McDougall, but one of them is worth mentioning. While Marshall aid was “good” for the United States, it was also a step toward a political order that would wind up generating inequality systematically half a century later—a problem that now roils our politics. Taxpayers as a whole began paying (through aid) for access to foreign markets, from which captains of finance and industry drew disproportionate benefits.

The path of least resistance, the path of common sense, seemed always to exacerbate the problem. At the Washington Energy Conference of 1974, convened in the wake of the first Arab oil embargo, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prevailed on Saudi Arabia to buy U.S. arms and Treasury bonds, and to invest its “petrodollar” profits back in Western banks. Expensive oil thus meant losses in American manufacturing but gains for banking, the arms trade, and mass consumption. Perhaps the U.S. would even come out ahead on the deal. But over time, McDougall says, “American consumers and Rust Belt industries got clobbered.” Wheeling and dealing on the world stage was now exposing whole sectors of American society to outright harm. At the controls of the world order, the United States was starting to mistake its power to compel for a power to inspire.

The United States, as McDougall sees it, is not merely struggling with the problems that beset great powers in every age. In recent years it has shown itself especially ill-equipped to handle such problems. “The frustrating, protracted Cold War demanded vigilance, mobilization, global engagement, steely nerves, strong stomachs, and patience,” he writes, “traits very unlike those that Americans habitually took into war.” The gap was filled with mythmaking, and the American civil religion began to take on traits of a religion tout court. The space program that John F. Kennedy launched in the early 1960s was carried out by ships named after Roman gods: Jupiter, Atlas, Titan, Apollo. “Americans never thought twice (or even once) about the pagan names attached to their hardware,” McDougall writes. Such little things can be telling, much as using the word “czar” to describe a presidential appointee who wields unaccountable power is a metaphor that may disguise a literal truth.

McDougall describes the “millennial” American civil religion of the Obama years as a “grand bargain, according to which big business agreed to support radical social equality, in exchange for which cultural authorities agreed to tolerate radical economic inequality.” He is right. He does not even touch on what the political scientists Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl have called the “Hillary Doctrine,” promulgated through the Office of Global Women’s Issues established by Mrs. Clinton at the State Department, and according to which any denial of gender equality anywhere in the world is a threat to American order. As this new doctrine has been elaborated, it has meant delivering a series of shocks to traditional sexual morality in the remotest places. There have been attempts to create an international right to “reproductive health services” and family planning, starting with the Cairo population and development conference of 1994. There have been admonitory communiqués to the Russian government about its high school sex-ed curriculum. Czechs have complained that the top priority of the U.S. embassy in recent years has been Prague’s gay pride parade. Meanwhile, the wealthiest percentile, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has prospered to an unprecedented degree.

“Civil religion” may once have described a kind of ecumenism. It now means little. It is a set of oratorical and political habits that developed in societies built around transcendent truths—religious societies. In our time, those truths have been jostled from public view by various secular principles, from hedonism to consumerism to human rights. The problem is that citizens are unlikely to rally to faddish principles as they once did to transcendent truths. “Civil religion” describes the effort to pass off the former as the latter. It cannot succeed indefinitely.

Christopher Caldwell is senior editor of the Weekly Standard.