April 5, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
America, on the president’s orders, has intervened militarily in Libya; the president has given a speech explaining the intervention and the manner of it; the country and the world debate the matter as events unfold; the outcome remains uncertain. In his speech, the president insisted that, because the Libyan people faced “the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” America had a responsibility to act. “To brush aside…our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.”
These letters are particularly concerned with “who we are” as a people and what this requires of our politics, domestic and foreign. So I leave aside for now the many other interesting and important questions swirling around the president’s words and deeds, including his deference to the United Nations and his neglect of the United States Congress.
What does “who we are” tell us about how we should act toward the rest of the world? The president doesn’t say much about what it is that makes us who we are, though he seems now to be affirming, on behalf of our fellow human beings, a kind of American exceptionalism, about which he had been studiously ambiguous in the past. We might begin to think about who we are by considering the two most important ideas in American political life. The first is found in the Declaration of Independence, which was cited in the last letter and will surely be cited often in future letters—the idea that “all men are created equal.” The second is derived from this idea and is found in the opening phrase of the Constitution: it is the idea of consent expressed in the familiar words, “We the People of the United States.” These are words and ideas, not to conjure with, but to consider carefully as events demand our attention and action at home and abroad. As long as Americans are Americans, these ideas will certainly continue to be essential ingredients of who we are. So what do they tell us about us?
The immediate practical purpose of the Declaration was to establish the right of the colonists to separate from the British Empire and its hereditary monarchy. In this case, declaring all men equal meant that God did not give one man or his family a divine right to rule other men. Human equality meant that government derived its powers justly only from “the consent of the governed.” The claim that men were equal meant that not the accident of birth but the deliberate consent of men—“We the People”— was the only rightful basis for government.
The Declaration had a larger purpose, a broader reach, than the dispute between Great Britain and the United States of America. Its declaration of human equality denied not only a right to rule based on birth but a right to rule based on race or religion. Declaring all men equal meant that a common humanity was more fundamental than the accidents of race or religion that separated human beings.
The universality of this founding principle explains something of the claim the world has on American sympathies. Having based our national life on the equality of all men, we recognize that in principle any human being is a potential citizen of the United States. We feel an affinity with people around the world, especially those struggling for freedom or stricken by natural or manmade disasters. In our common humanity, we believe somehow that our hopes and fortunes are tied to theirs. These feelings can give rise to a sense of obligation that seems to be what President Obama has in mind—our “responsibilities to our fellow human beings,” which he invokes when he says it would be a betrayal of who we are if we didn’t intervene in the way he chose to do in Libya.
But in fact, of course, only Americans are American citizens. Our revolution began with a universal claim about human equality, but it culminated necessarily in the establishment of a particular nation. “We the People of the United States” are distinct from the other peoples of the world not by birth, race, or religion, but by the deliberate act of establishing ourselves as a different people. By this act of consent, the people of the United States committed themselves to each other, as distinct from all the others who live outside the bond of citizenship. In a world where freedom was scarce and tyranny commonplace (a world, in this respect, very like the one in which we continue to abide), we committed ourselves to establishing our own freedom and preserving the blessings of liberty in the United States, not to assisting the democratic aspirations of others or their recovery from disaster, however sympathetic we may be to the plight of our fellow men and however eager we may be to help them.
No model or mathematical formula can help us strike the proper balance between what we owe to our fellow men and what we owe to ourselves. Such balance is a matter for judgment and deliberation, as circumstances arise. This judgment will take into account the diverging claims of equality and consent, the former what Americans share with other peoples, the latter how we distinguished ourselves from them. These two American principles temper each other as we deliberate about how we as a people should act in a dangerous world of potential fellow citizens.
Our deliberations will be well served by reflecting that the American founders thought the best thing Americans could do for the rest of the world was to succeed in our own experiment in freedom. As the founders thought of it, the American cause—the cause of liberty— is the cause of mankind. If we could show by the success of our experiment that free government could be good government, this would be the greatest gift Americans could give to their fellow human beings—our own political well being would be a constant act of philanthropy. America’s success would be cause for all men to rejoice. By the same token, failure of the American experiment in freedom would “deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
From this point of view, Americans should want to know how our intervention in Libya enhances the prospects of the American experiment. If it does, the world will be a better place. If it doesn’t, it betrays America’s primary responsibility to our fellow human beings.