Thursday, August 17, 2017

give me that old-time American Civil Religion-- with respect to foreign policy

A review of Walter McDougall's The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy... (Here's a review by Christopher Caldwell in FT.)

In a nutshell, McDougall labels all of American history-- with respect to foreign policy-- as being driven by various forms of the American Civil Religion (ACR). And he divides our foreign policy at 1898 with the "Spanish-American War". (Bacevich does the same in this essay.) Prior to this time, our approach was "Classical" and non-interventionist.

After 1898, we added two activist/interventionist approaches. "Progressive" is a militant approach grounded in beliefs in "American ideals", democracy, and relatively free markets; the pursuit of empire or to "end tyranny"; Progress, science and technology-- and generally, a high level of optimism about government intervention. "Millennial" debuted after the Cold War and is another militant approach which shares optimism about government intervention, but more in the service of universal "human rights." (I'm going to rely on the framework and the title of this strong review in Reason by Daniel McCarthy.)

With waves of (at least perceived) success and abysmal failure (through sins of omission and commission), the result since 1898 has been a dog's breakfast of C, P, M, and "neo" versions of all three. In a word, McDougall closes his introduction by describing his project as "U.S. diplomatic history in the metaphysical mode." (6)

McDougall opens with our current context: With the Cold War over and post-9/11, what do these various worldviews of foreign policy say about how to proceed? (4-6) Where are we now? How did we get here? And where should we go from here?

In Chapter 1, McDougall details Bush II's blunders in Iraq, including a brief discussion of nine theories for why Bush took us to Iraq: terrorism, WMD, neo-conservatism, Israel, oil, "Bush family dynamics", reelection, Rumsfeld, and wanting democracy in the Middle East (7-10). Whatever the motives, we both "knew what we were doing" and "had no idea what we were doing." (11)

In Chapter 2, McDougall talks about our seeming inability to learn most of the relevant lessons. "All three post-Cold War administrations...were based on dubious assumptions of American exceptionalism, a unipolar world, and democratic peace theory...The three administrations differed only in their styles of governance." Here and again in the last chapter, he describes Clinton's mixed record (11-13, 342-344)-- and in the easiest of contexts. Obama's record is not nearly as different as fans and opponents imagine-- and his approach is (ironically, given his reputation with his opponents) built on ACR (347-352).

In Chapter 3, McDougall features Robert Bellah's "discovery" of the ACR in 1967. "The most surprising feature of Bellah's article and the scholarship it inspired is that there was anything surprising about it at all." (25) But somebody had to be entrepreneurial and put the novel thought to paper! McDougall traces the elements of the ACR but then notes that all of us have had a piece in the authorship: "The American God had no name and a hundred names." (29) McDougall also reminds us of the original intent of the First Amendment: to avoid the establishment of any particular religion, allowing a fluid, non-sectarian ACR to dominate.

In our first century, there were "four powerful checks against zealotry" in foreign affairs: our relative weakness as a "power"; our ability to expand westward at relatively low cost; memory of failed republics and empires; and "residual Christian anthropology." (31)

"Washington's World" (chs. 4-10)
McDougall covers Washington to McKinley-- what he labels the "Church expectant". The U.S. was not particularly active in world affairs, but was already looking forward to a greater future role.  

The U.S. featured limited but effective government. In terms of foreign policy, its stance was defensive. Among early presidents, McDougall features Washington, Jefferson, J.Q. Adams. Manifest Destiny begins to set the tone for 20th century endeavors. Lincoln and the Civil War got people to start fantasizing about military means to various ends. Cleveland kept things modest, but that would soon end with McKinley.

Interestingly, McDougall points to three pre-cursors to what would soon follow-- a change in the dominant ACR: 1.) Darwinism and "its corollary, Anglo-Saxon supremacy" (95); 2.) post-millennialism, a general optimism about the future, and a sense of America's place in that future (96); and 3.) Benjamin Harrison's prominent use of speeches to invent "the rhetorical presidency as bully pulpit" (half as many as all previous presidents combined!; 98-99).

McDougall describe Orestes Brownson's prophetic vision and concern about Deism and Protestantism. "Bent on pursuing their to craft their own religions as if they were gods...might claim the right to force their disparate moral agendas on others, again as if they were gods." (103) Later, he quotes Chesterton-- that America was "a nation with the soul of a church"; that "God was the author of human rights but left it up to the people to fill it with content." (134)

Brownson argued that America needed Catholicism to avoid those devils, but of course, a monopoly creates its own (102, 103). A generation later, Brownson's prophecy had come true with few seeing any danger, because "imagined reforms at home and interventions abroad to be leaps of progress..." (104) No single trend is responsible, but the four checks McDougall had noted before were now gone-- and the U.S. and the world was about to be a very different place (106).

"Wilson's World" (chs. 11-16)
McDougall describes McKinley through Hoover-- what he labels the "Church Militant". With changes in worldview, the emergence of economic wealth, the possibility of military power, and passing the peak of English power, America began to assert itself vigorously toward various foreign policy goals. 

As in other contexts, idolatry toward government was intense. (In my work, I've seen a bunch of this in late-19th century domestic policy and efforts to do education and welfare; I have some good quotes on this in Poor Policy). Through a combination of faith in Progress, admiration for science and experts, Darwinism's license to see people as having different values, an emerging social gospel (both domestic and foreign), faith in government's ability to extend successful private efforts or to create their own successes, people began to embrace government as an ethical and practical means to various ends-- here, including foreign policy. 

In Chapter 11, McDougall details the run-up to the Cuban Independence / "Spanish-American War" fiasco in 1898. Much of the passion came from Progressive "Mainline" Protestants: "the year marked a huge theological shift in ACR born in a prairie fire of righteous Protestant indignation." (112). Even William Jennings Bryan and Walter Rauschenbusch got in on the zeal (113). 

In Chapter 12, McDougall extends the analysis of Progressivism and Protestants. They were enamored with "scientific management through governance informed by credentialed experts." (117) Mainliners "surrendered their prophetic role to the civil religion, surrendered their faith in an inerrant Bible to science, and surrendered their cultural authority to secular Progressives." (118) 

"Social Gospel was the marriage bed wherein mainline Protestantism mated with Progressivism to beget a heretical variant of the original ACR. The new theology devalorized virtue, prudence, humility, and small government in favor of power, glory, pride, and big government at home and, when possible, abroad." (122)

McDougall notes that the US had three options with goals that overlapped and we pursued all three: territorial expansion through constitutional equality; territorial expansion through colonial inequality; and equal status for all (137-138). In a time famous for increased domestic equality, it's interesting to consider our pursuit of inequality through foreign policy. 

Woodrow Wilson gets deservedly harsh treatment in chapters 15-16: two invasions of Mexico and three military occupations of other countries; "startling speeches" and "strange views"; rhetoric that is blamed on his religious upbringing when ACR was his dominant religion (144). He was "ivory tower" (145) and "he despised checks and balances in domestic policies, hated compromise, and resented how hard it was to amend the Constitution" (146).

McDougall has a handful of interesting observations of our brief foray in World War I. (Here's my review of Hochschild's book.) The Senate sent us to war on Good Friday (154). The Russian Revolution caused us to be out-flanked on the left-- "its identity as the progressive nation cast into doubt" (158)! The struggle of our rookie troops (160), as in WWII. And the mess of a peace plan-- a huge, "punitive, nitpicking" treaty (161-164).

"FDR's World" (chs. 17-22)
The GOP Presidents before FDR get two chapters-- in sum, that they "shunned messianic ambitions" but "reaffirmed most of" ACR (182). They were "anything but isolationist" with "their energetic diplomacy." (183) He gets some cheap laughs out of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact that "renounced war as an instrument of national policy" which was ratified by the Senate with one vote against (187-188). 

The outcome? The Japanese expanded in the Pacific and the English and French reneged on their war debts. McDougall's conclusion: "War had solved nothing, and now, it turned out, neither had peace...That is why, in the 1932 presidential election, Americans voted against the internationalist candidate and for the isolationist." (190) This seems like a really strange interpretation-- in contrast to the common and compelling economic argument: that the economy was in the tank and Hoover's many interventions had not succeeded, so the country chose a Democrat instead.

In any case, McDougall spends the rest of the section on FDR-- in a period he labels the "Church Agoniste". Not wanting to follow in Wilson's shoes, FDR tried to remain out of WWII and then felt compelled to enter it-- thus, the "agony". What to do? 

McDougall describes FDR's economic system and approach to politics: "friendly fascism, securing truth, justice, and the American way; freedom in abundance and abundance in freedom, ultimately for the whole human race...the magical synthesis FDR sought in order to reconcile Wilsonian internationalism with American nationalism, the New Deal with Big Business, and materialism with mission in an updated version of Progressive ACR." (170-171)

Once in office, FDR came to feel differently about isolationism. McDougall has a few nuggets from just as the war was wrapping up. The military were not excited about the British or the Soviets winning and two-thirds expected another world war within 25 years, most likely with Russia (225). He cites high rates of desertion, venereal diseases, self-inflicted woulds, alcohol abuse"-- one of those many squirrelly observations about "the Greatest Generation" (225).

"JFK's World" (chs. 23-28)
McDougall describes Truman through Reagan-- what he labels the "Church Triumphant". The post-WWII era was marked by a combination of FDR's failed foreign legacy and the necessary beginnings of a Cold War with the USSR. McDougall is critical of Reagan, but largely sees him as responsible for the end of the Cold War. So, it's interesting that he calls it "JFK's world". I think it's because JFK is in the middle of the time frame and his view is what dominated, even if his efforts did not prevail and arguably set things back. 

McDougall describes the tremendous optimism of the post-WWII Period: we had won all of our wars; the ACR was in fine form; economic growth and the promises of Keynesian economics; and evidence of material progress; corporate culture, labor unions, and the suburbs (237-238). Now, the Soviets were still out there and this became more alarming when they winning the Space Race, but all (well, most) of us were together in opposing the godless Communists (241). 

And two little nuggets I had never heard: McDougall notes that we "never thought twice about the pagan names attached to their [space] hardware." (242) And he notes that Star Trek was an ode to universal human rights and ethics, a diverse crew led by an American captain named Church-- i.e., Kirk! (244)

McDougall ranges quickly through post-WWII history: the English were done as a power; Truman, the Marshall Plan, and the Korean War/Truman; Ike and his explicit contributions to ACR; the use of "American exceptionalism" as the ACR's "creation myth" (270);
back and forth through JFK, LBJ, and Nixon (317-320). McDougall argues that Nixon's Cold War diplomatic success made it "thinkable" to attack him domestically. Then, Ford and Carter's mixed bag (324-327), which set the table (positively and negatively) for Reagan (332-337).

In the final chapter, McDougall describes "Obama's World"-- from Bush I through Obama. Again, the choice of Obama is interesting. One could argue for any of the Presidents, especially Bush II. But putting it in Obama's lap is probably a bow to his current popularity, his recent presidency, and the somewhat-provocative fact that, despite the rhetoric and the Nobel Peace Prize, he mostly continued what his predecessors did. 

What does the future hold? McDougall wonders if the Millennial ACR will become the "the first operational global civil religion", with more power given to national and global entities. If so, of course, it would be sold as pro-democratic, devoted to human rights, and so on (352-354). I doubt this prediction; special interests won't necessarily like that outcome and they have too much clout to dismiss lightly. 

He also pictures greater persecution for dissent-- and this may be more likely, but not because of a global civil religion. Instead, unless there's a correction, our current version of progressive ACR will dominate on domestic matters-- with its faux tolerance, faux intellectualism, selective use of science, penchant for government solutions, etc.

Finally, a note on the subject of our universal penchant for apocalytism, millennialism, and eschatology: With respect to history and policy matters, both domestic and foreign, I could cite a wide literature. (Someday, I hope to write a journal article or two, starting from Richard Landes' excellent book, Heaven on Earth.) For now, I'll look at the top of my pile for that topic and link to a recent essay in Harpers by Walter Kirn.


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