November 2, 2016


A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy (The Editors, Summer 2016, Providence)

There is no perfect human political system, but we believe the liberal order is the least flawed of all presently available options and constitutes the best means for accomplishing the ends for which government was ordained. Politically, liberal order comprises accountable self-government, the rule of law, civil liberties, and religious freedom. Economically, liberal order means relatively open markets, freedom of the seas, the sanctity of contract, and peaceful rule-based dispute adjudication. Internationally, liberal order means nonaggression, mutual security, territorial inviolability--with limited exceptions for humanitarian intervention--and favors intergovernmental cooperation on issues of global concern. Liberal order is especially powerful where these overlap--as it does among the community of economically open liberal democracies that participate in mutual defense and cooperative security arrangements. Other goals at which governments aim--including providing for the poor and disadvantaged, and promoting the flourishing of all citizens--are most effectively pursued within the framework of liberal order.

America's Role

We believe the United States should continue to lead the world towards these goals--as it has done since the end of World War II--for two reasons. First, it is in America's own best interest because liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security. The American government is morally responsible for the safety of the American people, rightly prioritizes their security, and rightly maintains an effective military to deter and defeat those who would attack the United States. But the United States' safety and prosperity is most strongly assured in a world shaped by liberal norms of accountable governance, open economies, and cooperative security--a world in which military force is less likely to be called upon in the first place.

Second, the United States is still the leading power in the world, especially in partnership with its democratic partners and allies: No other nation or alliance has the economic, military, or political resources required to provide the organization, administration, and coordination required for global leadership. Without American and allied leadership, much of the garden of world order would go untended--evidence of which we have seen in recent years as actors with scant regard for the responsible use of power have stepped into the vacuum created by American passivity. While America's leadership is imperfect, we do not see a plausible alternative and are concerned about what kind of world would grow under different leadership. American leadership should not be taken as an excuse for other states to abdicate their own responsibilities. But the past century has amply demonstrated that if the United States does not do its part, other states will not do theirs. When the United States does step up, that increases the likelihood that others will do the same.

To accomplish this, the United States must use its power responsibly. This has been a source of considerable confusion. Americans have often erred in applying ethical principles to their national life. Some Christians tend to equate the United States with ancient Israel and argue the former shares the latter's unique providential tasks, a tendency which blurs the special status of Old Testament Israel and blinds Americans to the sins and errors in their own history and their own government's policies. Other Christians have erred by holding the state to the same standard as the church or the individual, resulting in pacifism and, we believe, an abdication of government's rightful responsibilities.

Yet others excuse the state from ethical considerations altogether in the belief that morality does not apply to politics. No nation is excused from the obligation to act justly. We do not believe that raison d'├ętat is a self-justifying principle or that the pursuit of power at other's expense is the sole guiding principle in statecraft. The Old Testament prophets regularly held the pagan nations to account for their acts of oppression and violence. The book of Proverbs clearly expects rulers to govern justly: "It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness," (16:12), and "Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people. A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days," (28:15-16). The United States, like every nation, should pursue justice and order.

Uniquely among nations, Americans have been given unprecedented power, wealth, and political rights--and thus have an unprecedented responsibility to use them well. Reinhold Niebuhr rightly warned against exercising power without consideration "of the interests and views of those upon whom it impinges." As the most powerful nation in history, American power impinges on the interests and views of peoples and nations around the world. American statesmen should be sensitive to the effects of American power on those outside American borders--both to avoid unintended harm and to recognize opportunities to serve others. Like the man who hid his talent in the ground, refusing to invest it for fear of failure, the United States would be irresponsible if it stood idly by, abdicated its global responsibilities, and refused to put our power in the service of the common good.

We leave open the question as to how, when, and where the United States should most prudently exercise its leadership and advocate for a culture of ordered liberty abroad. Such decisions involve difficult trade-offs under considerable time pressure with imperfect information and are best evaluated on a case-by-case basis. A world of ordered liberty is an aspiration: policymakers are often compelled to compromise such aspirations because of the limitations imposed on them. Pursuing ideals heedless of limitations is foolish and, often, dangerous.

We recognize the United States' inescapable leadership role presents a temptation to hubris and selfishness--a temptation to which it has sometimes succumbed. American policymakers can guard against these temptations in four ways. They should heed the counsel of voices outside government, especially in America's religious communities. They should cultivate an awareness of history, replete with the folly of self-aggrandizing power. They should respect the checks and balances of our system of government, explicitly designed to make "ambition counteract ambition." Finally, when possible, they should expose American policy to the iron-sharpening-iron accountability of multilateralism, especially with allies that share our aspirations for liberal order. We do not believe unilateralism is wrong in principle, but we believe that acting in concert with others is a powerful check on the temptation to strategic and moral myopia.

Our approach to American foreign policy rests on a biblical understanding of human nature, the purposes of government, and the use of force. And here we stand in the tradition of centuries of Christian reflection on the role of the state and the just use of force, from Augustine to Aquinas, from Luther and Calvin to Niebuhr and Elshtain.

Posted by at November 2, 2016 3:08 PM