June 21, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
Does America have a unique right and duty to lead the rest of the world? Many decent, patriotic citizens, with no wish to be boastful or presumptuous, and without probing the question too hard, might be inclined in some general way to answer in the affirmative. And if these citizens have been heeding the pronouncements of their elected and appointed representatives recently, they may be forgiven for getting the impression that their affirmative should be emphatic.
“The world is counting on us,” Secretary of State Clinton said a few months ago. “The United States can, must and will lead in the new century.” Secretary of Defense Gates made a similar point when talking about the defense budget, reiterating his “fundamental belief” that “America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet.” Congressman Paul Ryan echoed the sentiment in a recent speech about the effects of America’s deficit and debt on our place in the world. “We must lead,” he said, “and a central element of maintaining American leadership is the promotion of our moral principles.”
One advantage the American Founders hoped for from a large and diverse representative republic was that our elected and appointed representatives might “refine and enlarge the public views” when they chose to honor a subject with their attention. But we all know that there is a relentless demand for public officials to make public pronouncements, and it is not surprising when under such pressure their pronouncements do not always display the wisdom or even the good sense we might hope for. Still, these letters optimistically take the speech of our public officials seriously, in the determined hope that they too will take it seriously and not wantonly strew sound bites around in the word-cluttered world. So when, in the interest of the public views, we take seriously the sentiments quoted above, we can’t help wondering whether they could use a little more refining and enlarging.
If we follow the logic of the argument, and we are not sure we do, America is to be understood to have this right and responsibility to lead because of some combination of its power and its principles, and it would appear that its power in some way and some degree flows from its principles. The happy reflection occurs to us that America’s principles are more broadly shared today than when they were declared over two and a quarter centuries ago to the world of hereditary monarchs and aristocracies of Europe. Regimes of political and economic freedom like America’s have become the practice in many places around the world. If our principles confer a right to lead, then wouldn’t many other nations have that right as well?
But, it might be said, these other nations do not have our power. It is our power, then, that uniquely qualifies us to lead. Does this not come uncomfortably close to the distasteful claim that might makes right? What could be further from our principles? This is a claim for bullies and tyrants, not for a free people.
Our power and principles cannot be separated, it might be argued. We are most powerful when we are most principled, and the unique combination of our power and principles makes us uniquely fit to lead. There is surely something appealing—and true!—in the idea that “right makes might.” When Americans appealed in 1776 “to the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” we were acknowledging that our justice would be an ally in our struggle for independence and in all else we could hope to do as a nation. But everyone knows that adherence to principle can also be costly, that it can and often does, therefore, decrease one’s power and may even take one’s life. Adherence to principle despite the cost is noble, but nobility is not the same as power. We are most noble, perhaps, but not necessarily most powerful, when we are most principled.
There is another way in which adherence to our principles makes us less powerful, at least relatively. The most fundamental principle of our politics is the idea of human equality. From this principle we derive our commitment to human freedom. Human freedom, political and economic, leads in turn to greater wealth and, to the extent that wealth is power, to greater power. As our principles become more widely shared around the world—our constant hope—others will become more wealthy and powerful, too. So, the more widely our principles spread, the more our power will decline relative to others, diminishing our capacity to lead.
The notion that America has a unique right and responsibility to lead the rest of the world thus seems in various ways to be factually problematic; seems to tend toward the unwelcome view that might makes right; and seems at best confused or disheartening about the relationship between power and principle. One cannot help thinking that, under the constant and almost irresistible pressure to say something, our nation’s spokesmen have spoken on this subject more from reflex than reflection. It is always regrettable when those who should be refining the public views muddy the waters a bit instead. But the reflex was understandable, arising as it seems to do from an idea, if a confused idea, of an age old American theme—the theme of American exceptionalism, which we will take up in earnest in our next letter.