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Jewish World Review
March 7, 2007
/ 17 Adar, 5767
American idealism and realpolitik
America is the reluctant sheriff of a wild world that sometimes seems mired in wrongdoing. The UN has nothing to offer in the way of enforcing laws and dispensing justice, other than spouting pious oratory and initiating feeble missions that usually do more harm than good. NATO plays a limited role, as in Afghanistan, but tends to reflect the timidity (and cowardice) of Continental Europe. Britain and a few other nations such as Australia are willing to follow America's lead but are too weak to act on their own.
That leaves the U.S. to shoulder the responsibility. Otherwise what? Is brute force to replace the rule of law in the world because there's no one to enforce it? I wish some of those who constantly criticize America's efforts and the judgment of President Bush would ask themselves this simple question: Would you really like to live in a world where the U.S. sits idly by and lets things happen?
Life in such a world would be like the bestial existence described in Thomas Hobbes' great work, Leviathan. If people "live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man." In that lawless state there will be "continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
In the 350 years since Hobbes wrote his book nothing essential has changed. For proof, look at the poor people of Sudan, in whose struggle the U.S. has not been willing to intervene and whose lives are exactly as Hobbes described. The same is true in Somalia, where the U.S. has been indecisive and vacillating. And this was the case in the former Yugoslavia until the U.S., with great misgiving, finally responded to pressure and sent in its forces.
It's fortunate for the world that in areas in which international law doesn't operate and rogue states do as they please, America will sometimes agree to play Leviathan in order to establish law, at the risk of huge financial expense and its soldiers' lives. It does so because it is a country founded on idealism. A majority of Americans have always believed that a society, under G-d, must come to the rescue of the poor, weak and oppressed if it has the means to do so. The U.S. has applied this idealism systematically to the world as a whole and in many different ways, from the Marshall Plan, which helped raise Europe from ruin in 1948, to declaring war on international terrorism five years ago.
ON THE HORNS OF A DILEMMA
America is fundamentally and instinctively idealistic. But following these ideals and acting as the world's policeman raises moral issues. We all agree that the sheriff must be righteous, brave and resolute. But should he also, if the situation demands, be cunning, devious and Machiavellian? In short, should America, along with its idealism, also practice realpolitik? And won't these two forces be in constant practical and moral conflict?
It's difficult to exercise authority in large parts of the world and, to use Hobbes' phrase, "keep them all in awe," without a touch of realpolitik. Britain discovered this in the 19th century, just as the Romans had two millennia before. Moreover, as British statesmen such as Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, found, imperial realpolitik expressed itself principally in two cynical maxims: "Divide and rule" and "My enemy's enemy is my friend." These two maxims are rearing their heads again in the Middle East, and almost unwittingly and certainly not from any set purpose the U.S. finds itself following them.
U.S. intervention in Iraq has had the inevitable consequence of fueling the Sunni-Shia feud, which has raged in Islam for 1,000 years at varying degrees of intensity. It's now running hotter than ever, and likely to get worse, as more and more of the Middle East is drawn into it. Of course, with the Sunnis fighting the Shia, they have less time and energy to fight the West, and America finds it easier to rule. But this raises moral dilemmas that the U.S. has so far failed to resolve or publicly recognize.
Another situation where realpolitik could come into play is Iran's nuclear power quest. The moment Iran possesses and can deliver nuclear bombs it will use them against Israel, destroying the entire country and its inhabitants. If this danger becomes imminent, Israel has the means if suitably assisted to launch a preemptive strike. Should the U.S. provide such assistance and moral encouragement?
China's progress in advanced military technology, especially Star Wars-like rocket defenses, is also giving American strategists problems: How should the U.S. react? The realpolitik answer would be to assist India, China's natural rival and potential antagonist in east and central Asia, to achieve technological parity. But would it be right to do so?
These kinds of questions can arise almost anywhere but do so especially around ruthless totalitarian regimes that are attempting to acquire more military power than is safe to allow them. North Korea is a case in point. It's one thing for the U.S. to make clear that it will defend its allies, such as South Korea and Japan, from nuclear threats. That is straightforward and honorable. But the realpolitik solution would be to assist and encourage China to deal with the problem of a nuclear-armed and aggressive North Korea, the strategy being based on another old maxim: "Set a thief to catch a thief."
I don't envy those in Washington whose duty it is to resolve the dilemma between idealism and realpolitik. But they will not go far wrong if they respect the great tripod on which all geopolitical wisdom rests: the rule of law, the consultation of the people and the certitude that, however strong we may be, we are answerable to a higher power.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson