Rep. Ron Paul is fond of saying that the United States shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, and thanks to irresponsible stewardship of America’s resources and horrific maintenance of its ideals, his wish has already come true. One result is a world that has no functioning opposition to evil, a world at the mercy of chaos with no champion or guiding inspiration in sight. The other result is a United States that no longer stands for its own founding principles.
For proof, we have only to look as far as Syria, where a brutal dictator is killing his own people at an accelerating rate. Although his people have tired of his tyranny, Hafez al-Assad, like Gaddafi before him, seems determined to kill as many of his own countrymen as he has to in order to stay in power. Our President, Barack Obama, has delivered stern admonitions and disapprovals, which is this President’s style and approximately as effective as tossing water balloons. The Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, expresses frustration, for all the good that does. The killing, of course, goes on.
If you think I’m going to advocate U.S. action in Syria, you are wrong. Quite simply, we can’t afford it—not with a Congress and an Administration that appear unwilling and unable to confront rising budget deficits and crushing debt with sensible tax reform and unavoidable entitlement reductions. Yesterday Congress and the President passed yet another government hand-out of money it doesn’t have and refuses to raise elsewhere, among other things continuing to turn unemployment insurance, once a short-term cushion for job-seekers, into long-term government compensation for the unemployed. Part of the reckless debt escalation was caused by the last President unconscionably engaging in overseas combat in multiple theaters without having the courage or sense to insist that the public pay for it, and the current administration is incapable of grasping that real money, not just borrowed funds, needs to pay for anything. The needle is well into the red zone on debt; we don’t have the resources for any discretionary military action.
Ron Paul thinks that’s a good thing, as do his libertarian supporters. President Obama, it seems, thinks similarly. They are tragically wrong. Though it is a popular position likely to be supported by the fantasists who think war can just be wished away, the narrowly selfish who think the U.S. should be an island fortress, and those to whom any expenditure that isn’t used to expand cradle-to-grave government care is a betrayal of human rights, the abandonment of America’s long-standing world leadership in fighting totalitarianism, oppression, murder and genocide is a catastrophe for both the world and us.
There are, you see, three choices: 1.) No world policeman, meaning no entity with the power and the resolve to lead the world to take effective pro-active measures to prevent atrocities, aggression and brutal oppression; 2.) The U.S. in that role, or 3.) Another nation in that role. You will note the prominent omission of a fourth option, the United Nations. The U.N. is corrupt, weak and feckless, with no prospect of being anything else in the foreseeable future. Its unwillingness to enforce and live up to its own resolutions regarding Iraq (with prominent members and officials secretly undermining economic sanctions by under the table dealings with Saddam Hussein) helped propel the U.S. into its Iraq debacle. It is doing nothing to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and is, predictably, deadlocked regarding Syria. An impotent, conflicted and corrupt U.N. is arguably worse than none at all. No, sadly, the choices are only three.
Ethically, it is an easy choice in my opinion. #1 is capitulation to chaos, and chaos is what we will get, in fact what we are getting. There is no Superman, no Avengers; there is no objective champion who can say and mean, “Enough is enough!” in a Rwanda, a Congo, a Syria, during an ethnic cleansing or a Holocaust. When a nation with power, credibility and resolve doesn’t do it, it doesn’t happen, and evil gets a dangerous and deadly head start.
#3 would require that another nation have military power, influence and resources superior to the U.S., which means that it could, in fact police us. It would also require a nation with national ideals that go beyond self-interest to a genuine commitment to human interest, human rights, human dignity, and human freedom.
There is no such nation. Only, in theory at least, America.
Which leaves the United States as the only possible champion to embrace the essential role as, in Paul’s pejorative term, the world’s policeman, or, as defined in the words of many great and wise Americans, “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world”:
“We stand for freedom. That is our conviction for ourselves; that is our only commitment to others.”—President John F. Kennedy
“The issues of the world must be met and met squarely. The forces of evil do not disdain preparation, they are always prepared and always preparing… The welfare of America, the cause of civilization will forever require the contribution, of some part of the life, of all our citizens, to the natural, the necessary, and the inevitable demand for the defense of the right and the truth.”—President Calvin Coolidge.
“A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.”—George William Curtis, writer and orator (1824-1892)
“Where liberty dwells, there is my country.”—Ben Franklin
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”—President John F. Kennedy
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”—Martin Luther King
“There are those, I know, who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American dream.“—Archibald MacLeish, author, playwright (1892-1982)
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.”—President Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America is the only idealistic nation in the world.”—President Woodrow Wilson
Well, it used to be.
Now I am beginning to wonder if there is such a nation any more. It takes security, wealth, power, courage, sacrifice and confidence to be an idealist in anything but words, and generations of reckless leadership and inattention to principles have placed the United States in a position where it cannot act on its idealism, because it cannot afford to. This means that its ideals are a fraud.
A world that does not have the United States as it champion has no champion, and a United States that will not be the world’s champion is no longer the United States.
Happy President’s Day.
11 thoughts on “Reflections On President’s Day, 2012: A United States Diminished in Power, Influence and Ideals”
It’s a good post, Jack. We seem to be heading down the path England took, when it no longer had the national will, belief in itself, or financial resources to maintain a leadership role, internationally. America has grown tired of being the world’s policeman, which is understandable. But those who imagine we can just withdraw from the role without suffering any consequences are engaging in willful thinking. –Chip Deffaa
Thanks, Chip. I don’t have any answers at this point, just sadness and worry.
I can’t agree that #1 leads to chaos. In fact, chaos may just be a term for onlookers who have yet to understand what is actually occurring.
Those that are oppressed have come to rely on intervention as a means to an end. It can not be the de facto result of any rebellious activity. Rebellions must be coordinated and organized with a clearly stated goal in order to succeed, and they need to plan based on the thought that help is not on the way.
That is not to say that they shouldn’t expect assistance, but they shouldn’t rely on it. If option #4 was UN, then I propose option #5: A coalition of not less than 5 nations. You can’t rely on anything that has yet to be built. Additionally, as a rebel, you’d have to be organized enough to demonstrate your case to not just 1 point of view, but to many, in hopes of gaining enough support from other nations to form a coalition.
From the American standpoint, we’ve done a great job of taking over as the only policeman. The British were tired. But I don’t want us to not be a policeman anymore, I want us to be part of a police force. I don’t want us to be John McClane. I want us to be “Southland”. We need to teach other nations how to fill this role, so that we have partnerships, not naked aggression. We don’t need to make the world in our view, but we need to work with others to get their input, and their assistance in making a new nation that is balanced.
We’ve been good at teaching other nations about democracy,peace, and freedom. But we’ve been horrible about teaching other nations about how to fight for it, how to support it, and when to stick up for others.
Good insights, Tim.
I don’t think there are sufficient nations, if any, that are capable of taking on the police function in an altruistic fashion. That’s my point: the US has universal, human rights interests, not just oil, commerce, or domestic peace. What other nation is capable of thinking that ay?
By the way, John McClane is a great analogy.
Two thoughts about your analysis:
1) It’s more the “rise of the rest” than the “fall of the US,” in Fareed Zakaria’s words.
2) The world has changed in many ways that make America as the world’s policeman impossible. But I’m more optimistic than you. I see Libya as a model for collective action. We’ll see if it is applied to Syria. I hope so.
I don’t see any rise in idealism, just real politick. Yes, in terms or power and influence, no in terms of altruism and genuine democratic ideal.
Happy Presidents’ Day Jack. Great post for commemorating the day (and wonderful quotes!). I agree with Bob’s and Chip’s points (though I don’t share Bob’s optimism). And I like Tim’s points very much (love the John McClane analogy – and hope the allegory won’t be missed that even McClane didn’t “do it all,” needing help from a capable, but unlikely, party at the end).
I am sad and uncomfortable in many ways similar to you. I think what I am most uncomfortable about is with applying ethics on a national scale (maybe I should phrase that instead, “applying ethics to the actions of a nation acting ‘ethically as one’ in, or on behalf of, any real or imagined interest”). I feel your pain, Jack – or at least, feel what I think is your pain as it is mine – that we are citizens of a country that has become unable to sustain much of its global influence for goodness. But since so much of your post was (I think, anyway) more about foreign policy considerations (flavored, as one should expect, by an expert in ethics), I don’t want to wade too deeply into that pool. I steer clear of debates about exceptionalistic nationalism.
Flashing back to the “ethics of my youth:” When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, I do recall thinking in my outrage and anger (and probably said out loud, but I don’t recall to whom), “Stupid suicide bombers! They flew into the wrong buildings!” I was referring to the United Nations. (Alas! My complicity in the “9-11 truth” and cover-up are exposed! That is sarcasm.)
I remain hopeful that the 9-11 attacks and all that has followed will be instructive, corrective, and ultimately constructive for future U.S. foreign policy, as well as conducive to a great deal of needed changes in domestic U.S. politics, without which sound foreign policy cannot exist. I don’t think the ideals are (or were) fraud. I think some of the immaturity that accompanied the hubris about being forever able to establish, sustain and promote the ideals has died. In my world view, that is not an all-bad thing.
No doubt. Idealism has led to many misadventures. I still think the stumbles and friascos are worth it, and far better than not having idealism at all.
But there’s a danger that idealism without supreme competence can lead to disaster. I’d argue that George W’s idealism (and that of his advisors) led to the Iraq calamity. When considering military action it’s arguable that the President should leave his idealism at the door, or at least set it aside while he looks the facts in the face.
Correction on the McClane analogy and allegory: I almost forgot about his being helped additionally by the limo driver in the underground parking area – definitely forgot to mention it yesterday.
Egad! I had not previously pondered enough about that first Die Hard movie – how the plot intersected with so many manifestations of stereotypical (for that time) American (plus maybe some European and Asian) racism. Where have I been???