This symposium appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Russell Kirk founded Modern Age in order to publish a wide range of scholarship, exhibited in the writings of American conservatives, that might not be published in other, more specialized journals. The six essays in this symposium on American foreign policy fulfill Russell Kirk’s vision of a publication that offers contrary opinions and that challenges commonly accepted views. Kirk himself worked from his home in Mecosta, Michigan, where his family had lived for many years. He wrote from his perspective as an American citizen, and the sum of his scholarship is a reflection on the affairs, hopes, and interests of a particular country, the United States, and the citizens of the American nation.
Though a world traveler, Kirk did not view himself as a citizen of the world. Nor did he aspire to become a member of that New Class of humanist intellectuals whose claims transcend the particular and unique relationships that root us in American soil and in what Kirk, following Edmund Burke, called “our little platoon.” A foreign policy rooted in the pursuit of the national interest was once, in the early life of the American nation, the only foreign policy we could pursue that would preserve our independence. How, then, did American foreign policy burst the bounds of our particular national interest and become universal, aspiring to complete a redemptive democratic mission? This symposium is a summing up of historical and theoretical trends by six conservative scholars whose works represent a classic, conservative response to spiritual and intellectual disorders that have adversely affected the conduct of an effective foreign policy focused on the national interest.
In my own contribution, I see the development of a supranational American foreign policy that ignores the national interest in the influence of Leo Strauss’s seminal work Natural Right and History. I argue that conservative attempts at recovery from Progressive ideology in the twentieth century that motivated conservative scholars to master classical political philosophy was derailed by Strauss’s influential treatise on natural right.
Walter McDougall sees the development of a supranational American foreign policy as a feature of an American civil religion. Beginning with the Spanish American War, that civil religion inspired the “Progressive imperialism of the Teddy Roosevelt sort; Wilsonianism or liberal internationalism; Cold War containment; and global meliorism.” American statesmen who were tempted, McDougall writes, “to charge into ideological wars” were Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, William Seward, and U. S. Grant, among others.
David Corbin examines the consequences of the loss of influence of the compelling, particular interests of the United States in an ideology of “global citizenship.” Citizens of an imagined “global city” affirm common “global premises” that hold real cities in captivity to unreal ideals. Those who cling to their particular, national interests are portrayed as enemies of global imperatives.
Angelo Codevilla explores how civil servants entrusted to administer American foreign policy lost consciousness of their obligation to represent the United States and instead shaped a universal, ideologically driven supranational foreign policy. Young Americans desiring to prepare for foreign service careers can overcome that disorder by engaging in serious study of the principles of statecraft.
Richard Gamble examines the influences that shaped Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic and finds the origins of a redemptive religion of democracy in the response of American intellectuals to nationalist movements in Europe in the 1840s. Even before Abraham Lincoln sketched a civil religion of equality and redemptive national purpose in the Gettysburg Address, humanist intellectuals had shaped a transnational democratic religion. The American civil religion, Gamble argues, was international before it found expression in the abolition of slavery in America.
James Lucier examines the historical development of English common law and sketches three phases of development of America’s independence from the English Crown. The system of law, representative government, and foreign policy that was formed by that history, Lucier writes, “has always rejected ideology as the basis of governing.” American foreign policy, when based in an ideology of international law that transcends the laws of the United States, places the survival of the American nation in serious doubt. —Richard J. Bishirjian