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Interventionists and “Values” Talk

Zachary Keck reports on some comments at a recent event at the Center for the National Interest:

Kaplan began the discussion by noting that in tackling national security, the editorial boards of U.S. legacy media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, “mostly discuss values.” All three editorial boards adopt the Wilsonian view that if the United States doesn’t actively spread democracy across the globe, “we are not living up to our values.”

Kaplan attributes this to the influence of “quasi-militant Wilsonianism” on our political culture, and that’s certainly part of it, but in addition to that the editors of these pages rely on frequent “values” talk to insert the U.S. into every crisis or conflict that they happen to be discussing. The U.S. has little or nothing at stake in many places around the world, and this is especially true for other countries’ purely internal disputes. “Values” talk gives interventionists an opportunity to assert an American stake in the affairs of other nations when none actually exists, and because they insist that they are merely “speaking out” for “universal values” they can wave off any criticism that they are advocating for meddling in other countries’ affairs. Further, they use the “values” talk to put their demands to meddle in others’ affairs beyond criticism, since no one could want to oppose the affirmation of “our values.”

Talking about the need to “defend” our “values” can make it seem as if interventionists aren’t demanding that the U.S. take aggressive or unprovoked action. By insisting the U.S. must “defend” its “values” anywhere that they might be threatened, interventionists give themselves license to demand interference anywhere they please. Interventionists also use their “values” talk to pretend that the side in favor of interference and “action” is the only side in the debate concerned with morality, and they do this partly to get their audience to believe that the only people that would oppose aggressive and meddlesome policies are amoral or vicious. It’s all part of a consistent effort to define and rig the terms of policy debate so that “action” (however they choose to define it) is seen as the only defensible and desirable option.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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