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Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Irrelevance Of Morality In Geopolitics–Ukraine, Realpolitik, And The Failure Of American Exceptionalism

The United States has always thought of itself as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, but it took Ronald Reagan to eloquently express the idea.  Referring to Scripture,  Reagan called America a shining city on a hill.  “It is a tall, proud city”, he said, “ built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

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Reagan built on Biblical scripture by referring to the phrase preached by Puritan pilgrim John Winthrop in perhaps the earliest example of the idea of American exceptionalism. In 1630, while still aboard a ship bound for Massachusetts Bay, Winthrop delivered his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”

We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, continued Reagan. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

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From that farewell address on, exceptionalism  became a keystone of American foreign policy.  Our intentions in the world would no longer be based solely on self-interest, but on moral principle.  At the heart of that political rectitude was Reagan’s belief that democracy was God-given – a belief based on the wisdom of the Founding Fathers who, in the Declaration of Independence, based the nature of free, independent rule on God-given inalienable rights.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

America had the duty and obligation to spread these God-given rights throughout the world.  How could it not? To ignore this missionary purpose would be to ignore God himself.  Not only should America spread the principles, institutions, and means of democracy, but it should fight against those godless, authoritarian regimes which were not only America’s geopolitical adversaries, but philosophical demons.  Reagan’s purpose in precipitating the fall of the Soviet Union had as much to do with moral principle as it did with Cold War politics.

The Neoconservative Movement, at its most influential under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, combined a profound belief in moral conservatism and religious faith with an America-first foreign policy.  In Latin America and Iraq, they argued, both philosophical and practical ends could be achieved.  Communism and Islamic anarchy, threats to the United States and the world could be militarily opposed and liberal, enlightened democratic principles could be established. 

The idea of a just war – one which combines both political and moral purpose - is of course not new. The Crusades were both about religion and the desire to extirpate the Muslim menace from the Holy Land, and about European hegemony. The Turks had been making constant advances in the East, and were now threatening Constantinople itself. The Greek emperor sent urgent letters to the Pope, asking for aid against the infidels, representing that, unless assistance was extended immediately, the capital with all its holy relics must soon fall into the hands of the barbarians.

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The defeat of the Byzantines at the hands of the Seljuk Turks in 1071 set the wheels in motion for the First Crusade. The Battle of Manzikirt resulted in victory for the Turks and the loss of Byzantine territory in Asia Minor and Northern Syria. Indeed, this military defeat saw the Byzantines fall into political chaos and civil war. Fast forward ten years to 1081, and general Alexius Comnenus took control in Byzantine and enacted government control over what was left of the Byzantine Empire.
However his leadership would not be enough to regain the territory lost in the Battle of Manzikirt, and in 1095 he appealed to Pope Urban II for Western troops to assist and “Urban transformed their request for military aid into a campaign of religious revivalism.” However, even before the Battle of Manzikirt, in the eighth century, the Christian world had seen great loss of land to the Muslims which included North Africa, Palestine, Syria, and most of Spain. Add this to the loss of Jerusalem in 638 to the Muslims and tensions began growing between the two religions (Abigail Pfeiffer, ‘The First Crusade, 2011)

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The Eighty Years War between the Dutch and their Spanish rulers was in part religious because the  Protestant Dutch resented the harsh imposition of Catholicism by Phillip II of Spain; but it was really the Dutch War of Independence. There was no doubt that the newly Protestant Low Countries resented the imposition of a now foreign religion upon them, but more nationalistic and territorial imperatives were the principal causes of the conflict.

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The French Wars of Religion (1562–98) were fought between French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). The conflict involved the factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and House of Guise, and both sides received assistance from foreign sources. Once again, although these wars could be called religious since they were fought between religious factions, they were, like all other wars, about hegemony, power, and territorial integrity.

The Thirty Years' War was a series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 lasting for thirty years. It was one of the longest, most destructive conflicts in European history. Initially a war between Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmenting Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a more general conflict involving most of the great powers of Europe, becoming less about religion and more a continuation of the France–Habsburg rivalry for European political pre-eminence (Wikipedia)

Each of these wars was considered just by those who organized and fought them.  The fact that religion was a major factor made such justification more easy.  Protestants and Catholics were both sure that God was on their side and that the superior religion would prevail; but so would the military might of the victor.

The Exceptionalism-based foreign policy of the NeoCons, one which combined moral and practical purposes, led to adventurism.  Wars that might never have been fought ended in quagmires, and ultimate failure.  The toppling of Saddam Hussein, the evil dictator of Iraq, was thought to be enough and the toppling of his statue in Baghdad the righteous end to a brutally authoritarian, anti-democratic regime.  

Yes, oil was an issue, and opening up Iraq’s oil fields was certainly a plus, but the American adventure was principally and primarily a move to show the world that The Shining City on a Hill still had power and moral authority.

However, the United States misjudged the complex religious and ethnic environment of the country, and like American missionaries in the Amazon who believed that once the savages had heard the word of God, they would be forever changed and civilized, the Bush NeoCons assumed that the word of Democracy would be no different.

Of course internecine, sectarian and political conflict only escalated during the post-Saddam period, terrorist groups rose to power, and the world of Islamic extremism was given new life.

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Before Ronald Reagan, the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger, disciple and apologist for Machiavelli, was at the heart of American foreign policy. For Machiavelli, there was no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially coequal: whoever has power has the right to command.

Yet goodness does not ensure power, and the good person has no more authority by virtue of being good; and Kissinger believed that American foreign policy should be based only on America’s clear, observable, practical interests – national security, economic and financial preeminence, and the wealth to sustain them.  

Before embarking on any military adventure, Kissinger counselled, the United States must determine precisely what is in it for America.  Considerations of moral authority, the spreading of democracy or Christian values were irrelevant.  China and the Soviet Union were not to be countered because of their godless, anti-democratic principles, but because they threatened America’s interests.

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So now, what to do about Ukraine? It appears a foregone conclusion that Russia will eventually take over Kyiv, force the exile of Zelenskyy, and install a puppet regime; but America and the West have persisted in egging him on, encouraging him to fight the good fight against the evil empire. 

The result has been thousands of military and civilian deaths, the forced displacement of millions, and the ruin of Ukrainian infrastructure.  As far as real, demonstrable value to the United States, other than being a buffer between a determinedly expansionist NATO and Russia, Ukraine offers little, and it is being used as tool of American exceptionalism.

Little would change in terms of American interests if Ukraine were to become within the Russian orbit.  It’s the principle of the thing. National sovereignty and democracy have inherent, innate moral value and are worth dying for; or more accurately are worth Ukrainians dying for.  The death, destruction, and mayhem are because of moral principle. What threat does a Russian client state on the border of the EU pose to the US, exactly in terms of real – not imagined, moral – self-interest?  Very little.

It is time to persuade Zelenskyy to negotiate with Russia, compromise, and end the killing.  If the United States, locked in its exceptionalist mindset cannot manage to do so, then China will.  President Xi, like Putin is a Machiavellian, and will take advantage of the situation.  China is already buying up Russian assets at rock-bottom prices, purchasing Russian oil and gas, and lobbying to be the honest broker in a peace agreement. 

The US will come out of this unfortunate war smelling very badly indeed.  Not only did we do nothing to stop the Russian invasion, but we urged on a Ukrainian fight that could only be lost.  Not only will we be seen as again playing second fiddle to China, but our adversaries Iran and North Korea will certainly test our resolve.

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