December 16, 2009
The steel-cold eyes of Vladimir Putin have a way of unnerving his opponents. When one of those happens to be the President of the United States, the latter might well feel a bit shaken.
Following their meeting, Mr. Obama reported, On areas where we disagree … I don’t anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Welcome, Mr. President, to the real world.
This must be jarring for the former community organizer, whose utopianism was his presidential campaigns stock-in-trade. Shortly before his election in November 2008, he told a Missouri audience that We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.
Earlier his campaign, he went so far as to assert that we can build a form of the kingdom of God on earth (he later disavowed this). This kind of language prompted University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein to argue that during the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama presented an elusive utopian vision of hope and change.
I am asking you, implored candidate Obama, to stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept. Let us reach for what we know is possible: A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again. And, as political commentator Dana Milbank imaginatively perorates, still be home for dinner. This was what candidate Obama promised during the campaign. Elusive, indeed.
Americans are not the only skeptics. Polish journalist Marek Magierowski calls the Presidents foreign policy a mirage. Regarding Mr. Obamas Nobel Peace Prize, Gideon Rachman of Britains Financial Times commented, While it is OK to give school children prizes for ‘effort’ — my kids get them all the time — I think international statesmen should probably be held to a higher standard.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, scholar Eric Cohen comments of Mr. Obamas approach to policymaking:
Brimming with confidence in his abilities and certain of the rightness of his views, he has undertaken a wildly ambitious agenda at home and abroad. He will bring peace between Arab and Israeli, wean Iran from its nuclear ambitions, restructure the international financial system, set us on the path to the abolition of nuclear weapons, reconcile Islam and Christendom, and end global warming, while introducing universal health care at home and bringing the country out of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Happily, Mr. Obama seems to be getting a bit mugged by reality. In his Nobel speech, he spoke forcefully about the intransigent reality of human conflict:
We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified … I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.
For words like this, George W. Bush was burned in effigy and hated deeply. But they are words an Americana President must speak if he is to be true to his most fundamental duty: As Commander in Chief, to defend America in the face of the evil. As President Bush reminded us, good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Its good to see his successor, chastened by the stern authoritarianism he found when visiting Russia and China and the overt threats of Iran and North Korea, is adopting his predecessors outlook.
As Benjamin Kerstein writes in the December 15 edition of The New Ledger:
… no messianic political movement can withstand its encounter with power for very long. Political messianism is inherently uncompromising, absolutist, and obsessed with perfection and the possibility of perfection. As such, it cannot survive politics itself, which is, for the most part, the exact opposite of all of those things. Political messianism must either compromise and thus cease to be messianic or collapse.
Yet Mr. Obama would be, perhaps, less surprised by his tepid welcome from Americas erstwhile partners and the failure of his international charm offensive if he would go back to the very beginning of our nation.
Americas Founders had a decidedly cautious view of the possibilities of the way government conducted policymaking at home and abroad. The reason was there much more wary view of human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary, wrote James Madison, the person perhaps most singly responsible for the original text of the Constitution. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
Madisons leeriness of governments possibilities was rooted in his essentially biblical worldview. As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form, he observed.
In other words, human fallenness permeates human nobility and dignity. Thus, Madisons conclusion: Be careful of what you expect of government; without intentional virtue of character, mans innate depravity will surmount his ability to govern himself wisely or well.
Madisons Federalist colleagues Alexander Hamilton and John Jay shared his view. Hamilton wrote of the folly and wickedness of mankind and of human nature as it is, without flattering its virtue or exaggerating its vices … men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. Jay talked the dictates of personal interest and said men swerve from good faith and justice.
We must take human nature as we find it, warned George Washington. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals. Does this mean we should all be glum, unmoved by the possibility of a brighter tomorrow for ourselves or our children?
No: We should strive to live up to the demands of our Founders that we should be people of such character that we can govern ourselves wisely, mindful that our limitations as sons of Adam are endemic to our nature as human beings. This mindfulness should keep us politically humble, aware that under God and with His help and guidance, we can do great things but that on earth, heaven will never be ours.
We cannot change human nature anymore than we can change the rotation of the earth. We can ennoble our hearts and dignify our conduct in the context of being finite and fallen, achieving a great measure of ordered liberty and economic opportunity, justice in our courts and safety on our streets.
The President called on us to sustain what he called a fundamental faith in human progress as the North Star that guides us on our journey. This faith is unmerited by the witness of the past century, which he himself sited in his Oslo speech.
Rather, as our Founders, taught us, it is belief in the God of the Bible and reverence for Him, informed, in part, by an ongoing recognition of our own innate fallibility, that enables us to do good, pursue justice and create a society in which hope is tempered by the bracing knowledge of human sin.
Our foreign policy can be honorable if conducted consistent with our convictions and institutions, animated by the pursuit of our vital security interests and pursued commensurate with our belief in the principles of human dignity and freedom.
But foreign policy is the application of principles and interests with care, intelligence and prudence. It will not take us to some cosmic destination. And therein, Mr. President, lies a rub we can never eradicate this side of the institution of Gods kingdom.