Saturday, September 17, 2022

Power abhors a vacuum

I taught a high school international relations class for several decades and have long had an interest in the subject. I found this long article, "A Christian Defense of American Empire," by British historian Nigel Biggar, very interesting. Read it all if you have time. This is only some of what he has to say about American international responsibility:
.... Since the American imperial system offers a far better future for the peoples of the world than do its Russian or Chinese alternatives, Americans need to be clear-minded about its moral legitimacy and their duty to defend it. ....

.... American Christians need to reckon with the reality that the United States in fact ­possesses imperial power—and they should argue in the public square that America has a duty to retain that power and to wield it well rather than badly.

The truth is that international affairs have always been characterized by the dominance of some states over others. Asymmetry of power is a fact of international life. .... And some nation-states are more powerful than others, dominating regions of the globe either formally through direct territorial control, treaty, or alliance or informally through economic clout or cultural power. Whether formal or informal, this international dominance is imperial. From 1815 to 1914 the dominant global power was Britain and its empire. Arguably from 1919, more so from 1945, and most clearly so from 1989, the dominant global power has been the United States.

To many people of Christian or liberal conviction, “domination” and “dominance” connote oppression and tyranny. Certainly, dominating power is prone to abuse, but an inclination is not a necessity. To dominate need not be to domineer, and in a world of inevitably unequal power, it is clearly better that the just (all things considered) should be more powerful than the unjust. Surely, we want the police to dominate the mafia, liberal democracy to dominate autocratic tyranny, self-defensive ­Ukrainians to dominate unjustly invading Russians.

It is true, of course, that empires, like ­nation-states, municipalities, and churches, are run by sinners. Consequently, they can do bad things, sometimes very bad indeed. ....

So, yes, those who possess dominant power are tempted by hubris. Some would argue that the U.S. succumbed to that temptation in the years following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the result being its overambitious plan to transform Afghanistan after 2001 and its overoptimistic invasion of Iraq in 2003. Certainly, America’s staunchest allies felt slighted when she started to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2021 without informing them of her plans. Arrogance is a natural temptation for those on top.

Nevertheless, the fact that power can be used badly does not mean that it should be abandoned. Rather, it should be used well. .... The quest for clean hands, if pursued without due regard for our responsibilities, can be a culpable form of moral vanity. This vice is a clear danger, given present realities. Moreover, what the U.S. jettisons, its rival—China—will pick up. International politics abhors a vacuum. And there is no reason to suppose that Beijing would be a better steward of dominant imperial power than Washington. Indeed, if the plights of Hong Kong and the Uighurs are anything to go by, there is good reason to suppose that it would be a lot worse.

Being an imperial power is burdensome. .... But the burden must be borne. It must be borne in part to ensure that one’s own national people and their way of life are kept secure. For those who do not dominate will themselves be dominated. And it should be borne so that other peoples who lack the privileges of superordinate power will not be dominated by a less just, less benevolent hegemon.

Ultimately, the justification for wielding dominant, imperial power depends on the value of the goals it seeks to serve. Of course, the first duty of a national government is to defend and promote the security and prosperity of its own people—and to do that for 332 million Americans is hardly a selfish act. But the defense and promotion of the domestic security and well-being of one people depends upon making and keeping the international environment friendly rather than hostile. So, what is defended and promoted at home must be defended and promoted abroad. And if what is defended and ­promoted includes values and institutions generally important for human welfare—such as the rule of law, an incorrupt civil service, and legal rights—then foreign peoples will benefit as well, as indeed many have since 1945.

The United States is not the only trustee of such values and institutions, but, thanks to the gifts of providence and its own achievements, it happens to be the most powerful global actor at this time. Its primary duty to its own people obliges it to sustain its power. But that duty implies a secondary one to promote the weal of other nations. For if it should surrender its dominant international power, other states, less humane and liberal, will pick it up. .... (more)
Nigel Biggar, "A Christian Defense of American Empire," First Things, Oct. issue, 2022.

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