Something is rotten in the staggering arrogance and puerility of America’s political culture.
During the third presidential-candidate debate, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama bugled that the United States is, must be and should be the world’s leader. Romney insisted that our starry-eyed forefathers brought forth a new nation for the heavenly “purpose” of making the world “peaceful.” In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush similarly counterhistorically and counterfactually sermonized as military and civilian deaths mounted from Kabul to Baghdad:
From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
Romney bettered Bush’s ill-conceived instruction by maintaining that the purpose of the United States was to inaugurate not simply a world without tyranny but a world without war, sadness or privations:
We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war. That’s our purpose. And the mantle of leadership for the-promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it. But it is an honor that we have it.
Barack Obama did not quarrel with Romney’s assertion that America’s founding mission was and remains a global crusade for peace, jubilation and jollities. He chorused, “America remains the indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America.” Not to be outdone, Romney retorted that “This nation is the hope of the earth.”
Obama and Romney were echoing the arrogant and condescending sentiments of imperialist Rudyard Kipling, who wrote The White Man’s Burden as the British Empire began to crumble. The words of the twin presidential candidates betray a common psychology of empire and intellectual emptiness that contradicts the letter and spirit of the nation’s charter documents. The Founding Fathers would be stunned and appalled.
Not a word in the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution nor President George Washington’s Farewell Address nor any early presidential inaugural or state of the union message even hints that the purpose or goal of the United States is world peace or world leadership. The Constitution’s preamble modestly confines the United States government to enabling the “People of the United States” to become wise and virtuous in the exercise of individual liberty.
When Central and South America were in revolt against Spain and Portugal in the early 1800s, the United States did not take up arms in the name of peace. It stayed neutral. Then secretary of state John Quincy Adams elaborated on United States foreign policy during its initial fifty years in his July 4, 1821 address to Congress:
She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.
She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.
She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right.
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
In other words, the United States was not founded to make the world peaceful. It was not founded to become a world leader. It was created to enable Americans to be wise and virtuous. That was the social compact among its people that gave birth to the United States. Its influence abroad was to be the influence of example, simpliciter.
Romney suggested that “the mantle of leadership” for promoting peace “has fallen to America.” How does he know? What are the dimensions or color of the leadership mantle? What is the evidence? Did the mantle fall from heaven? Do other nations or peoples agree? Do a majority of Americans agree? When did the mantle fall? Is there a time deadline for bringing peace to all corners of the planet? Romney has no answers.
The governor continues: “We didn’t ask for it.” But who thrust the mantle on us? What empowered him to do so? How and why were we chosen for the mantle? Did we have a right to reject it? Can the mantle be stolen away like Prometheus stealing fire? Is Romney telling a fairy tale?
Romney concludes: “But it is an honor that we have it.” But how does the mantle confer honor? Do persons and nations genuflect before it? Do they pay tribute? If the leadership mantle means spending trillions of dollars fighting perpetual wars under the Orwellian banner of peace, is the honor worth the price of admission?
Obama is equally sophomoric and arrogant: “America remains the one indispensable nation.” Indispensable for what—predator drone assassinations, indefinite detentions without trial, perpetual war, limitless executive power, Big Brother surveillance? Who voted us the accolade? What did the United States do to deserve the encomium? Do other nations or peoples agree?
World leadership or world peace as the mission of the United States government is a variation of Kipling’s white man’s burden. It promises the same ruination. The United States will crumble like all other empires unless the political culture embraces virtue and wisdom as the summum bonum in lieu of power, money, sex, creature comforts and survival for the sake of survival. Socrates took the hemlock to dramatize the gospel that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Bruce Fein was associate deputy attorney general under President Reagan and is author ofAmerican Empire Before The Fall. His current law practice is Bruce Fein & Associates, Inc.