In a recent, powerfully argued column for The Week, Zack Beauchamp denounced "the cult of America's national interest" and those foreign policymakers, like Henry Kissinger, who "worship at the altar of American selfishness." Beauchamp claimed to focus attention on Kissinger and his legion of admirers in the Washington establishment merely to delineate one end of a "diverse spectrum" of foreign policy thinking — the end that sits opposite from "cosmopolitans who believe American national interests should hold no special pride of place." But there can be no doubt about which end of the spectrum Beauchamp prefers. He inclines toward cosmopolitanism and thinks American foreign policymakers should do the same.
I take a different view. American foreign policy doesn't suffer from a surfeit of self-interested statecraft. On the contrary, it's far more often led astray by an excess of moralism.
To see how, consider Beauchamp's praise for Glenn Greenwald, "an extreme left-wing cosmopolitan," who "thinks there's no reason for the United States to value the lives of its citizens over those of foreigners." Beauchamp considers this one of Greenwald's "most appealing qualities."
I have to say I find it to be one of Greenwald's most foolish qualities, since it shows that he fails to grasp the fundamental distinction between morality and politics. Yes, they overlap in numerous ways. But the one can't be reduced to the other.
Broadly speaking, morality is radically universalistic. This is true of both its religious (often Christian) and secular (often Kantian) modes. Our moral duties are primarily concerned with how we treat individuals, without regard for who they are or where they come from; whether or not they're members of our family, our community, our race, our religion, our ethnic group, our nation, or our civilization (or perhaps even our species) makes no morally significant difference.
Politics, by contrast, is always exclusionary — at its most basic level distinguishing between who is and who is not a citizen of a particular political community. It builds on a natural love of one's own — one's own family — and moves outward from there, in concentric circles of attachment, first to the village or other local community, then to the region or (in American terms) the state, and finally to the national community as a whole. (There is and can be no political attachment or duty to "humanity" in the abstract.)
Ancient and medieval city states made attachment to one's local community (in Latin, the patria, or fatherland — the root of "patriotism") the nexus of politics; modern states typically go bigger, focusing on national attachments and using nationalist ideas and ideologies to galvanize these much larger communities.
In political terms, it is perfectly legitimate for a resident of Wichita to feel more of a duty to help the victims of a natural disaster in the city's downtown than for residents of other parts of Kansas, and for residents of Kansas to feel more of a duty to help than residents of other states, and for citizens of the United States to feel more of a duty to help than citizens of other countries. Morality makes no such distinctions, but politics does. And there's nothing shameful about it. (For more on the legitimacy of politics, I recommend the writings of its greatest living theorist, Pierre Manent.)
None of which is meant to deny that the parochialism of politics needs to be tempered by universalistic moral considerations. It does. But the U.S. has quite enough of it already. The nation's founding documents and civil religion conceive of democracy in emphatically moral and universalistic terms. The Judeo-Christian faith of many Americans draws on concepts derived from natural law as well as the prophetic tradition of moral exhortation and denunciation. And finally, progressive ideology appeals to universalistic imperatives and ideals of universally accessible public reason.
All of this adds up to an over-abundance of moralism in American public life. And nowhere is its influence more pernicious than in the realm of foreign affairs, where do-gooderism far too often leads to confusion, misguided policy recommendations, and (paradoxically) immoral outcomes.
Recall Paul Wolfowitz and Christopher Hitchens preaching about our solemn duty to invade Iraq to atone for the sin of allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power after the 1991 Gulf War. Or, more recently, the thundering condemnations of President Obama for failing to intervene in the Syrian civil war.
Duties to expiate sins and render aid apply to people, not to states. As a private individual, Barack Obama can have a moral duty to come to the aid of a person under attack. As the duly elected president of the United States, however, his singular, overarching duty is a political one — namely, to protect and defend our nation and its citizens. Not any other nation. Not any other citizens.
This doesn't necessarily mean that our leaders should follow the example of Henry Kissinger and cavalierly support thugs and dictatorships around the globe and then justify it by appeal to American national interest. But it does mean that American national interest should be the primary consideration in foreign policymaking, with morality playing a smaller role than Beauchamp — along with an array of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, as well as leading politicians of both political parties — would prefer.
A little less moralism in America's relations with the world just might lead to a lot less folly.
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