Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Universalism and Great Power Competition

Which gospel our foreign policy preaches may matter just as much as men and arms.

It is tempting to confuse realism in foreign policy with a certain kind of materialism. National interest becomes defined in basic economic terms, territory reduced to access to resources or cost of capture, and strength something measured only in force structure and weaponry.

This flattens another very real side of human nature, one expressed in religion, ideology, patriotism, and spirit, all of which can and do contribute to the objectives, threat assessments, and affinities that make up any particular international order. Free men have long said, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”—or religion, or tribe, or little plot of land.

The United States, thus, cannot change the behavior of other actors on the international stage with purely material means, since those actors do not respond to a purely material reality. To shift the global dynamic we must also shift the order that we currently lead, and to do that we must amend the character of that order. In concrete terms, if Americans want Russia’s help in counterbalancing a rising China, we cannot simply restrain NATO expansion or rearrange our force structure to make the Kremlin see we are no longer its larger threat, that the more immediate danger lies in the orient. We must also reform the spirit of our foreign policy, and limit the missionary zeal with which our country’s liberalism is proclaimed unto the nations. 

While there are plenty of recent real-life examples of the spiritual side of human life confounding the calculations of the vainly separated material—the triumph of the Taliban, with its wild images of ice cream parties, dancing, trampolines, and bumper cars come to mind—I am also left thinking about realistic assessments of the human soul in light of this last week’s “Christianity and National Security Conference,” put on by Providence magazine, a publication of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. 

In Thursday remarks at the conference, which was largely attended by groups of students from various Christian colleges across the country, Elbridge Colby, principal at the Marathon Initiative, presented his case for countering China now rather than later. Colby’s work is, in more academic terms, focused on American strategy in a multipolar future of great power competition, but in practical terms that means China. Colby wants an all-hands-on-deck response to the Middle Kingdom, with Taiwan and India and Japan all pulling their weight. During the question and answer period, a student asked about Russia’s place in the rivalry that Colby believes defines this century. Shouldn’t we in the United States want Russia’s help in countering a strengthening China, too? Of course, Colby said, but to do that Russia must consider China a more important rival than the United States. 

On Friday, Jon Askonas, a political science professor at the Catholic University of America but who like myself happens to be Anglican, presented on the Church of England’s influence on statecraft. The British Empire, Askonas reminded the audience, was an Anglican one, and so characterized by neither the puritanical zeal of the radical reformers nor the ultramontanism of the Catholic Church. It considered the protection of Christian missionaries and churches a legitimate use of earthly force but in its increasing ecumenicism over time did not claim to be the one true guardian of the deposit of faith nor to possess the only presentation of the gospel worth preaching.

It is the conjunction of those two talks that has me thinking about Russia and American liberalism. When over the course of the 20th century, the British Empire and its naval domination became the Anglo-American empire and then simply the American-led global order, it ceased to be Anglican (which even members will agree is liberal enough) and instead became liberal full stop. But it did not retain Anglicanism’s attitude of big tent ecumenism under American protection. No, the United States’s liberal empire has all the fervor of the anabaptist tradition, eagerly seeking a purer faith, and holier congregation, more removed from the benighted errors and trappings of the past. The American State Department, with its pride flags and women’s studies classes, is as evangelical as any other missionary. 

Political theology, which seeks not just to understand what theology preaches about politics but also to study the way our cosmic conceptual commitments inform and shape our moral and political imaginaries, is a fundamental framework for understanding a world dominated by liberalism and communism, two secularizing views of the world that attempt to negate the unity of the material and spiritual. The human being is both, though, and a religious creature, and these heretical post-Christian sects cannot satisfy the deep desires of the human heart. 

U.S. foreign policy will not cease to be the primary threat to a nation such as Russia, no matter if we dramatically scale back our military presence and activity in Europe, until it ceases to wage holy war for liberalism. Russia has tasted both communism and liberalism and found neither to its liking, and it has a long and noble history in its Orthodox Christianity from which to draw different answers to fundamental questions. If we in a post-Christian America are to build a more cooperative, multipolar future, and to counterbalance China, we must find the humility to set aside our liberal universalist aspirations and rediscover what we already share with other poles of civilization. 



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