May 4, 2005


Leo Strauss and American Foreign Policy (Thomas G. West, Summer 2004, Claremont Review of Books)

The confrontation of the West with Communism, Strauss wrote in The City and Man, has demonstrated that "no bloody or unbloody change of society can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred, and hence there cannot be a society which does not have to employ coercive restraint." Strauss implies, among other things, that the extravagant hope for permanent progress in human affairs believed in by Woodrow Wilson and his contemporary admirers is a delusion. In particular, Strauss wrote, the ideal of "a universal state, unitary or federative" (Strauss appears to be speaking of the United Nations) is also a delusion. "If that federation is taken too seriously," said Strauss, "as a milestone on man's onward march toward the perfect and hence universal society, one is bound to take great risks supported by nothing but an inherited and perhaps antiquated hope, and thus to endanger the very progress one endeavors to bring about."

To begin with, then, according to Strauss each nation should conduct its own foreign policy, and it should not turn its policy over to international organizations. In current parlance, Strauss was a unilateralist, not a multilateralist.

Strauss concluded the passage quoted above by remarking that the lesson of the Cold War is that "political society remains what it always has been: a partial or particular society whose most urgent and primary task is its self-preservation and whose highest task is its self-improvement."

In his book What Is Political Philosophy? Strauss addressed the grounds of that lesson in the principles of classical political philosophy. For the classics, wrote Strauss, foreign policy is primarily concerned with "the survival and independence of one's political community." For that reason, "the ultimate aim of foreign policy is not essentially controversial. Hence classical political philosophy is not guided by questions concerning the external relations of the political community. It is concerned primarily with the inner structure of the political community. . . ."

For Strauss, then, who closely followed the classics on this subject, foreign policy is ministerial to domestic policy, because "self-improvement" or human excellence is the "highest task" of politics. The purpose of foreign policy is therefore to secure the means, admittedly the "urgent and primary" means, namely, preservation, or national security, to that high end. For that reason, Aristotle singled out Sparta for strong criticism in his Politics. Sparta's error was to organize its laws around the belief that the purpose of politics is the domination of other nations by war.

Thus according to Strauss, the purpose of foreign policy is or ought to be survival and independence, or self-preservation, and nothing else.

In The City and Man, Strauss summarizes one of the very few discussions of foreign policy in Plato's Republic as follows:

the good city is [not] guided in its relations to other cities, Greek or barbarian, by considerations of justice: the size of the territory of the good city is determined by that city's own moderate needs and by nothing else; the relation of the city to the other cities belongs to the province of wisdom rather than of justice; the good city is not a part of a community of cities or is not dedicated to the common good of that community or does not serve other cities.

The last part of Strauss's summary implies that according to Socrates, the foreign policy of a sensible nation is never devoted to the good of other nations, except to the extent that the good of another nation accidentally happens to promote one's own nation's existence. For the same reason, a sensible nation will not engage in imperial expansion for its own aggrandizement—though it might have to do so for its own survival. In Plato's Republic, Socrates advocates a war of imperial expansion in order to acquire the territory needed to sustain the city's material needs. By the time Socrates has finished purging the city of luxuries, its territorial needs are likely to be quite small. This expansionist war, then, is not likely to amount to much.

We must face up to this disturbing Socratic endorsement of expansionism or imperialism in case of necessity. For although the size of the conquest may not "amount to much," it might mean something quite drastic to the neighboring city that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It will definitely require the seizure of property and killing of men who oppose this expansion. Socrates in effect shows that he knows how problematic his open defense of aggressive warfare is, when he says that the government must lie to the citizens about the true origin of the city's territory. The citizens will be told, in a noble lie, that the native land on which they are born was their mother, not that it was taken by force from a foreign nation.

We may sum up the Socratic approach by saying that although foreign policy is in principle amoral, because it is dictated by the selfish needs of the political community, it is also moderate, because the needs of the city are limited, given the primacy of its concern for civic virtue and therefore domestic policy.

Later in the Republic, Socrates proposes a striking mitigation of the usual Greek manner of conducting war: the city that they are founding will no longer kill or enslave the conquered population, nor destroy its property, if the conquered city is Greek. The ground of this policy is that Greeks are ethnically akin. If a city is defeated in war, says Socrates, only those who are responsible for the war will be punished. It is probable that this Socratic suggestion arises from the humanity of his philosophic orientation, which transcends loyalty to a particular political regime. We can perhaps see in this proposal the roots of the much milder rules of conquest established by Locke and other early modern thinkers.

The Perils of Empire

Would Aristotle agree with this Strauss-endorsed Platonic approach to foreign policy? One of Aristotle's arguments against domination of other nations is that it is "not even lawful" for one city to "rule and exercise mastery over" other cities "whether they wish it or not." That is, Aristotle, who is always closer to "common sense" than Plato, speaks as if there is after all such a thing as justice and injustice among nations. Strauss seems to take Plato's view, not Aristotle's, as the genuine expression of the classical approach. Perhaps that is because Plato's analysis goes to the root of the matter, while Aristotle deliberately remains on the level of the perspective of the citizen and statesman (visible in Aristotle's interchangeable use of "lawful" and "just" in the passage quoted).

The classical thinker who seems to be the most obvious exception to Strauss's account is Thucydides. Unlike Plato or Aristotle, he made foreign policy central to his account of the political. Nonetheless, in The City and Man Strauss denied that Thucydides disagreed with Plato about the importance of a good regime at home. Instead, Thucydides showed that the intransigent urgency of questions of survival, conquest, and war often overwhelms what would otherwise be, in Strauss's words, "the overriding concern with domestic politics." As for "the good order within the city," Thucydides "leaves [it] to the moderate citizens."

As almost always with Strauss and his followers, one is struck by how ill-prepared their irreligiosity leaves them to reckon with an America which Walter McDougall has aptly described as torn between the impulses towards being a Promised Land and a Crusader State.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 4, 2005 6:46 AM

Tom West is not irreligious.

Indeed, that's a key distinction between West Coast Straussians like West and some of the others. The West Coasters use Straussian techniques and teachings to understand the American political tradition, but they don't eschew the role of religion in APT. Far from it.

Strauss himself was more enamored of the Greeks, and had little to say about the American political tradition. He left that to his students.

Posted by: kevin whited at May 4, 2005 2:27 PM

Well, Strauss was right abut Thucydides.

(Any of you UofC alums here who took Jock Wientraub's Western Civ classes knew this already of course)

Justice stopped at the gates of the polis -- just ask the Melians.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 4, 2005 3:57 PM