January 28, 2005

In defense of American power and its applications

At the recent "Imperilment of Democracy" panel, Professor Andrew Arato complained that the fundamental problem with American foreign policy is that "the United States is an unbalanced hegemon." In fact, the same argument—that the primary cause of (what these scholars view as) a misguided foreign policy stems from the very pre-eminence of the United States in the world, the view that America has "too much power"—has become more popular as anti-war and isolationist bloggers have reiterated the line, and as publications like Dissent and The New York Times have published essays championing this argument.

Even on the surface, this view raises some significant practical dilemmas. How can we measure power, and by what standard shall we judge how much is too much? Even if we could somehow ascertain that America is too powerful, how can we voluntarily give away our power to another state—should we give part of our army to France, or half our GDP to Sweden? Should we invest in the development of some counter-power like China, as Arato suggested, under the blissful assumption that once its power equals ours, harmony, and not cold war, will ensue?

However, the most alarming aspect of this claim is not its infeasibility, but the implications it has for the role of academia as a relevant shaping force in our country. Great power allows a state to cause great damage, but also to do great good. The view that America is too powerful illustrates a willingness to sacrifice the possibility of achieving the latter out of fear of committing the former. Instead of seizing this brief opportunity the U.S. has to implement positive change here and abroad, and articulating a concrete program for the responsible use of American power, these academics are instead advocating that we return to a position in which we were too weak to do any damage.

It is understandable that few people want blood on their hands, but the eagerness of these scholars to retreat from power and leadership altogether because of the possibility that power may be misused is little short of intellectual cowardice. It is a fear of concretely defining a just end for the use of American power, it reveals a lack of conviction in what constitutes the good, and it is the misguided belief that all strength is wrong in and of itself.

Unfortunately, while some American intellectuals might be unwilling to shape a program for the constructive use of American power, the world is not lacking for competing interests who do have convictions about the good and who are willing to pursue and use power. And if we are unwilling to take advantage of our position on the world stage, these groups will be more than happy to take the burden off our hands and implement their own visions of the good life, whether they be authoritarian visions or religious fundamentalist visions or any of the other modern variations on tyranny.

Instead of debating the best use for the power the United States finds in its possession and offering real directions for the course of American foreign and domestic policy, our intellectuals do us a great disservice by squandering the vast resources of the academy and the trust that our society invests in them with what is merely a lofty case for American capitulation.

In his funeral oration, Pericles gives a defense of the Athenian empire on the grounds that its end was not the mere enlargement of Athenian power, but rather the creation of an open and free city that would become a center of learning and a political example for the world. The question we should be asking is not whether we have surpassed some arbitrary measure of "just enough" power, but to what end we shall use the power we have so that we may leave for posterity a cultural legacy even greater than that of the Greeks.