Fighting Over America’s Interests

Zack Beauchamp kicks national interest off its pedestal:

In getting a handle on the basic foreign policy issues of our day — how to think about the NSA leaks, or what the hell to do about Syria — the basic intellectual divide isn’t the one you’d immediately think of. It’s not the split between Left and Right, or civil libertarians and security state hawks, or interventionists and non-interventionists.

It’s between those who buy into the cult of America’s national interest and those who don’t.

The cult worships at the altar of American selfishness, the idea that the United States is justified in doing anything — including invading a “crappy little country” and ignoring the systematic slaughter of innocent foreigners — if it further America’s “interests” in some vague fashion.

Damon Linker argues instead that American foreign policy is “far more often led astray by an excess of moralism”:

In political terms, it is perfectly legitimate for a resident of Wichita to feel more of a duty to help the victims of a natural disaster in the city’s downtown than for residents of other parts of Kansas, and for residents of Kansas to feel more of a duty to help than residents of other states, and for citizens of the United States to feel more of a duty to help than citizens of other countries. Morality makes no such distinctions, but politics does. And there’s nothing shameful about it. (For more on the legitimacy of politics, I recommend the writings of its greatest living theorist, Pierre Manent.)

None of which is meant to deny that the parochialism of politics needs to be tempered by universalistic moral considerations. It does. But the U.S. has quite enough of it already. The nation’s founding documents and civil religion conceive of democracy in emphatically moral and universalistic terms. The Judeo-Christian faith of many Americans draws on concepts derived from natural law as well as the prophetic tradition of moral exhortation and denunciation. And finally, progressive ideology appeals to universalistic imperatives and ideals of universally accessible public reason.

All of this adds up to an over-abundance of moralism in American public life. And nowhere is its influence more pernicious than in the realm of foreign affairs, where do-gooderism far too often leads to confusion, misguided policy recommendations, and (paradoxically) immoral outcomes.