Caldwell on America’s Fighting Faith

Caldwell on America’s Fighting Faith January 13, 2017

Christopher Caldwell’s review of Walter McDougall’s The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy is sooo good. McDougall explains (as his subtitle has it) “How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest.”

That betrayal arises from several sources. One is the vagueness of American civil religion, which means, Caldwell says, that it “is easily molded to intellectual fads and passing political agendas. McDougall calls it ‘a mystical, magical, shape-shifting civil religion whose orthodoxies can turn into heresies and whose heresies can turn into new orthodoxies.’ These, in turn, get mistaken for moral principles – from isolationism to exceptionalism. If the American civil religion has a credo, it might be the remark that Dwight Eisenhower made to a group in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria just before Christmas in 1952: ‘Our form of Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.’” A religion so un-particular might produce anything.

Like the “Hilary Doctrine,” “according to which any denial of gender equality anywhere in the world is a threat to American order. As this new doctrine has been elaborated, it has meant delivering a series of shocks to traditional sexual morality in the remotest places. There have been attempts to create an international right to ‘reproductive health services’ and family planning, starting with the Cairo population and development conference of 1994. There have been admonitory communiqués to the Russian government about its high school sex-ed curriculum. Czechs have complained that the top priority of the U.S. embassy in recent years has been Prague’s gay pride parade.”

Ideology is one problem. Manipulation of foreign policy to advance the interests of the wealthy is another: “Consider the Marshall Plan, the $13 billion package of American aid to war-wrecked Western Europe. Launched a year before NATO, the plan is presented in American mythology as a ‘gift.’ And yet, the United States needed the economic order of open markets the Marshall Plan helped create as much as Europeans needed the money. As a State Department official described the issue, ‘it was not whether the United States should aid Europe, or even how much aid should be proposed, but how to make the transfer of billions of dollars to countries that had not asked for them and would not ask for them.’ In this sense, the Marshall Plan was less a gift than an effort to restructure the world economy in terms favorable to the victor.”

The Constitution is also at fault, since it leaves many questions about foreign policy unanswered, a large hole to be filled by shifting cultural winds: “Yes, Congress gets to declare war and fund the military. Yes, the president is commander in chief, appoints ambassadors, and makes (with the Senate’s approval) treaties. But almost every other foreign policy responsibility, McDougall shows, lies in a no-man’s-land between the various branches of government: No mention is made of a power to recognize or de-recognize foreign regimes, terminate treaties as opposed to make them, make peace as opposed to war, declare neutrality in the wars of others, annex or cede territory, bestow or deny foreign aid, impose sanctions, regulate immigration and the status of aliens . . . The list goes on. Thus questions of whether, for example, Barack Obama has the authority to end a decades-long trade embargo against Cuba do not have clear-cut answers. This indeterminacy makes foreign policy an attractive arena for the mischievous, the glory-seeking, and the idealistic—one perhaps more attractive than domestic policy. Even presidents who arrive in the White House as rank foreign policy novices are tempted to try their hand at it.”

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