24 February 2016

A constructive rant, continued

Civic realism:  an inspiring alternative

In place of an unbalanced interventionism that I have just criticized, I suggest the United States pursue a restrained yet morally rigorous course of "civic realism."  This realism is best exemplified, I think, by two presidents in our history - one of whom is still living and a continuing source of moral inspiration to me and many other Americans.

The first presidential model for civic realism is John Quincy Adams.  Introduced to international diplomacy at an early age by his father, he eventually became Secretary of State under President Monroe.  It was during this period, in a July 4, 1821 address, that he cautioned that the USA does not "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."  Freedom and democratic values were best fought for with the persuasive power of a high moral example, he said.  As president from 1825 to 1829, he signed a treaty of reciprocity with Mexico - an important step forward in bringing the American republic into the community of Western Hemisphere nations - and tried to uphold the property rights of the Cherokee nation against white settler demands and the state of Georgia.  (Adams' advocacy for the Cherokee is usually not considered part of his foreign policy, but I think it should be; they were a people with their own government and written language living in mountainous areas of the country who were not, most of them, accorded the rights of US citizens.)

After his presidency, Adams campaigned hard to enforce the existing ban - enacted in 1807 - on the Atlantic slave trade.  He opposed the US declaration of war on Mexico in 1846, warning presciently that it would only result in the increase of slave territory and undermine his nation's reputation for honest dealing and non-aggression in the world.

In a more recent period, President Carter also pursued a foreign policy very much in line with my concept of civic realism.  In a much-criticized decision, in 1977, he negotiated a return of the US-held Canal Zone to Panama (it was something like the Guantanamo Bay of its day, a constant reminder of US arrogance and neocolonial privilege in the heart of Latin America).  The fact that the handover treaties were signed with a military government, under General Torrijos, did not disqualify it from being a moral imperative, in Carter's view.  As he said in his remarks at the signing ceremony, the treaties "mark[ed] the commitment of the United States to the belief that fairness, and not force, should lie at the heart of our dealings with the nations of the world."


Carter waged the Cold War with moral suasion and not the further buildup of arms (as Reagan did) or too-clever-by-half Realpolitik schemes that left whole regions of the world reeling from military violence (as Nixon did).   Aided by his Poland-born national security adviser, he made a point of bringing up the rights of dissidents in the Soviet Union and Soviet-dominated Europe.  In a courageous decision, he ordered a US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; this is something that should be remembered and perhaps revisited in the runup to the 2018 World Cup, scheduled to be held in Russia.

The civic realism I propose is not, therefore, a cynical abdication of the United States' role as a leading democracy, nor is it an invitation for more warfare in the name of "preserving the balance of power."  It is a moral way forward:  we can accept the continued persistence of governments that we find unjust holding sway over millions, indeed hundreds of millions, while remembering our best traditions of free speech and pluralism and re-enacting them whenever it is appropriate.  "Diplomatic gestures" have taken a heavy beating in recent months, but they are not ineffectual.  Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa are not wrong when they speak of the strength and assurance that these gestures bring to people denied freedom and self-determination.


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