The following article is based on George Weigel’s Diane Knippers Lecture at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, DC, on November 19, 2019.
On December 29, 1989, the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia chose Václav Havel as president of that country: another miracle in a year of miracles, as the Czech playwright and dissident had been imprisoned as an enemy of the state in October, a little over two months before being installed in the presidential office at Prague’s Hradčany Castle. Havel’s election was the final dramatic moment in the Revolution of 1989, which had already witnessed the electoral triumph of Solidarity in June of that year, which had continued with Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s appointment as the first non-communist prime minister of Poland since World War II in August, and which reached its symbolic apogee with the breach of the Berlin Wall on the night of November 9, 1989. Within two years, Germany had been reunited, and the Soviet Union had disintegrated. European communism was finished, and so was the chimera of “reform communism,” in which Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to have believed until the end.
For those who care about the moral dimension of statecraft but think in Augustinian terms about politics and power in the world, this sequence of events was exhilarating, but also extraordinary. The twentieth century’s typical method of massive social change was bloodshed and violence on a vast scale—the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Ukrainian terror famine, the Gulag system, the Chinese civil war and the Second Sino-Japanese War, Hitler’s seemingly unstoppable reconstruction of the political face of Europe, the Holocaust of European Jewry, the Second World War, the imposition of communist rule on Central and Eastern Europe, a spate of bloody colonial wars (in Algeria, Kenya, Malaya, and elsewhere), Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution.” These created oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, and, amidst that carnage, the greatest persecution of Christianity and Christian in two millennia. “1989,” however, was different. With the sole exceptions of Romania and Lithuania (where the last spasms of Soviet brutality took 14 lives in Vilnius in January 1991), what we once knew as the “captive nations” of Central and Eastern Europe auto-liberated themselves from communism and totalitarianism non-violently. Why did that happen, and why did it happen that way?
It happened for a variety of reasons.
It happened because of steadfast Western political leadership in the 1980s from President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which included the modernization of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Western Europe against fierce opposition from the USSR, the Euro-left, and a “peace” movement that, like its 1930s predecessor, confused appeasement with peace.
It happened because of a Soviet leader of a different generation and disposition, Gorbachev, whose formative political experience was different from that of his predecessors, who had lived through the Stalinist purges and show trials of the 1930s. Unlike Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev had not seen numerous friends and comrades liquidated with a bullet in the back of the head in the basement of the Lubyanka. The result (as future Librarian of Congress James Billington put it to me the day after Gorbachev’s selection as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party), was that Gorbachev didn’t have that “cold, reptilian look” in his eyes: a salutary change which suggested the possibility that, unlike his predecessors, he would not try to hold the Soviet outer empire together by brute force.
It happened because of President Reagan’s decision to launch the Strategic Defense Initiative, which threatened an already creaking Soviet economy with bankruptcy even while raising the possibility of neutralizing the USSR’s most potent military assets.
And it happened because, following the failed uprisings of 1953 in East Germany, in Hungary in 1956, in Poland in 1956 and 1967 and 1970, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, human rights activists in the countries of the Warsaw Pact understood they needed a different strategy. In the face of overwhelming material force, they needed weapons other than bricks, stones, and Molotov cocktails, which could easily be matched by Soviet and Warsaw Pact military power. So beginning in the 1970s and influenced by the provisions of Basket Three of the Helsinki Final Act, a new kind of human rights resistance began to form behind the Iron Curtain, which would eventually find its grand strategic idea and its motto in the formula of Václav Havel: “living in the truth.” To live “as if” one were free, to refuse to cooperate with the communist culture of the lie, these brave men and women were convinced, would lead to the slow but steady erosion of communist power, for no social system can last indefinitely without some measure of acquiescence.
That new form of resistance was vastly accelerated by John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland. Between June 2 and June 10, 1979, the tinder that had been slowly accumulating in Poland and throughout East-Central Europe was ignited, as John Paul called his people and their Slavic neighbors to reclaim the truths about themselves as peoples formed by a distinctive history and culture, to reaffirm the civilizational unity of Europe east and west of the Cold War divide, to remember Europe’s civilizational roots included biblical religion, and to become once again the protagonists of their own destinies. Not once during the Nine Days of June 1979 did the Pope speak of politics or economics; rather, he spoke of culture and cultures, and the power of reclaimed identities to forge a new future. And at the heart of that reclamation of Slavic and national identity was the demand for religious freedom.
The Nine Days had an immediate impact in Poland, for among other things the experience of the vast crowds that gathered to listen to and pray with the Pope demonstrated how many “we” were and how many “they” were to a people who had been deliberately atomized, fragmented, and kept under constant secret police surveillance for decades. Out of that recognition came, in 13 short months, the Gdańsk shipyard strike, a wave of sympathy strikes throughout Poland, and the birth of Solidarity. The resonances of the Nine Days were also felt beyond the borders of Poland. The witness of the Pope and the experience of solidarity he created during the Nine Days of June 1979 inspired and deepened a revolution of conscience throughout the region that was multi-denominational and non-denominational, that involved both workers and intellectuals, and that cut across the political divisions of left and right—all of which gave the human rights resistance in East-Central Europe in the 1980s a new, tensile strength, as if different strands of steel were being woven into a massive, unbreakable cable. And after a decade of hard struggle, which included both martyrs like Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko and the dogged witness of quite ordinary men and women of conscience, the Wall came tumbling down.
If all this was both exhilarating and extraordinary to those concerned about the moral core of public policy, including foreign policy, it was also a great surprise to most of the people of East-Central Europe and to virtually all Western policymakers. When John Paul II asked Polish friends visiting him at Castel Gandolfo in August 1988, “Is Poland ready for freedom and democracy?” they simply replied, “That’s science fiction to us.” On January 1, 1989, many Poles (and, I suspect, many Czechs, Slovaks, East Germans, and others behind the Iron Curtain) greeted friends and neighbors with the sardonic wish that had become customary on that occasion: “May the new year be better than you know it’s going to be.”
With the exception of John Paul II, then, “1989” caught just about everyone off-guard and unprepared. “1989” surprised the George H.W. Bush administration, one of whose senior cabinet officers called Poland a “deadbeat country” that would never succeed (happily, the President had a different view of the situation and later led the deft diplomacy that resulted in the reunification of Germany). “1989” made Prime Minister Thatcher nervous: Gorbachev, she had said on first meeting him in 1985, was a man with whom she could do business; and like others of her generation who remembered the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the buzz-bombs, and the privations of the Second World War all too well, she feared German reunification and the possibility of German revanchism. “1989” surprised the world’s intelligence agencies; while some of them had begun to realize that attempts to respond to the Strategic Defense Initiative were bleeding the already sclerotic Soviet economy to death, no one seemed to have known that, soon after his accession to power in 1985 and later at a Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) meeting in Moscow in November 1986, Gorbachev had warned the leaders of the Warsaw Pact that Soviet tanks were not coming to their rescue again, as they had in the past. And “1989” certainly surprised most of those old communist warhorses; East Germany’s Erich Honecker, for example, had bragged earlier in that year of miracles that “Die Mauer bleibt noch 100 Jahre!” [“The Wall will remain in 100 years!”].
These two facts—the fact that the forces of decency won in 1989 and (in the main) won without violence, and the fact that just about everyone was surprised by that victory—suggest a lot of old shibboleths on both the right and the left of the foreign policy debate need reexamining. The form of foreign policy realism practiced by Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl (and more broadly by NATO) certainly set the strategic and political framework in which the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 could unfold; but things would not have moved as fast as they did, and the path to change would not have unfolded the way it did, without the soft power of the East-Central European human rights resistance. By the same token, that human rights resistance—John Paul II’s revolution of conscience—would not have succeeded as quickly as it did and how it did without the hard power checkmate provided by NATO intermediate nuclear force modernization and the Strategic Defense Initiative. The realists had a piece of the answer to achieving the ultimate goal of the Cold War, which was (as President Reagan famously put it) “we win, they lose.” But just as the realists had only a piece of the answer, so did the morally driven advocates of soft power, whose program would almost certainly not have succeeded without the hard power geostrategic reality of NATO.
Just before the fall-of-the-Wall anniversary, the world passed another historic milestone, less conducive to celebration: the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of World War II in Europe, with the German invasion of Poland on September 1 and the Soviet invasion of that country some two weeks later, on September 17.
In the preface to the first volume of his vast history The Second World War, Winston Churchill remarks on a conversation he had had with President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.” Stopping it, however, would have required a wisdom and nerve that the democratic powers were unable to muster in their statecraft in the 1930s, in part because of that lethal mixture of faulty realism and faulty idealism that goes by the name of appeasement.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the strategy of appeasement. There were elements of pusillanimity in the effort to appease Hitler, to be sure. But those elements fed on a more comprehensive misunderstanding of the nature of a totalitarian regime like that of German National Socialism, coupled with a fear of Soviet communism that led some misguided realists to think of the Third Reich as a bulwark against the bolshevization of Europe. Idealists, too, missed the bus when it came to reading the signs of the times accurately. Recognizing, as many others did, that the Versailles settlement after World War I was unjust, morally driven appeasers like Viscount Cecil of Chelwood and Lord Lothian held too long and too fast to a fideism about the League of Nations, which they imagined could manage a rearrangement of Europe that would satisfy Hitler and his minions. Remarkable, virtually none of the principal architects of the British strategy of appeasement had read Mein Kampf, in which Hitler laid out his grand strategy quite clearly, even if one had to cut through the grotesque racial theorizing and Teutonic bombast to grasp the cusp of his ambitions.
Popular culture today misrepresents appeasement as a failed strategy concocted by elites, over against the sturdier views of the public at large. Thus we have the most cringe-inducing scene in the recent movie Darkest Hour, where a temporarily despondent Prime Minister Churchill takes heart and courage from ordinary folk (including a Shakespeare-quoting Jamaican) on the London Underground, before alighting at the Westminster tube station and charging into the Palace of Westminster to rally his junior ministers and then face down the elite appeasers in the chamber of the House of Commons, represented by former prime minister Neville Chamberlain and the foreign minister, Lord Halifax. This Elite Appeasers versus Steadfast Populists narrative is simply rubbish, however. At the point at which the German military leadership of the time conceded that Hitler really could have been stopped without launching a new world war—namely, when, in March 1936 and in direct violation of the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact, he militarily reoccupied the Rhineland—there was virtually no popular support for confronting the Third Reich when it could have been done at minimum risk and when doing so might have led to Hitler’s overthrow. Two years later, when he returned from Munich and proclaimed “peace in our time—peace with honor” after having sealed the fate of a Czechoslovakia ready and willing to fight for its freedom, Chamberlain was greeted with wild public adulation.
Both elite opinion and popular opinion misread Hitler and his intentions (and Mussolini and his intentions, and the hyper-militaristic faction of Japanese leadership and their intentions) because both elite opinion and popular opinion remained traumatized by the horrific experience of the First World War and the slaughter of a generation. To that memory was added new concerns about the way in which technological developments had made the prospect of a new war even more horrifying. “The bomber will always get through,” Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin believed (and told the House of Commons in 1932), and otherwise rational leaders were quite convinced that, at the outbreak of a new war, Greater London would be laid waste from Hounslow to Greenwich. To bend every effort to avoid an ever worse conflagration than that which had come close to destroying Europe between August 1914 and November 1918 was not cowardice, and in fact bespoke an admirable moral sensibility. But moral passion detached from reason and a clear analysis of the nature of the threats to peace in the 1930s led to a remarkably stupid policy—appeasement—which in fact made matters far worse than they had to be.
Lessons for Today?
The striking conjunction of these two anniversaries—the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the “Unnecessary War” and the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—suggests a lesson that takes us beyond the soundbites and Twitter-storms that too often characterize “debate” over American foreign policy today. Namely, effective US foreign policy requires both a firm grip on the national interest and a more capacious understanding of national purpose.
The notion of a “national purpose” sets off alarm bells in some minds. It may seem to connote an affinity for a kind of “global messianism” often attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Woodrow Wilson. “American purpose” could also be construed as a curious form of American exceptionalism. Can a nation have a “purpose”? President Emmanuel Macron, doubling down on the European Union as he is, would never speak of a “French Purpose” in world affairs; national political leaders advocating “German Purpose” or “Japanese Purpose” would probably be greeted with considerable coolness; “Belgian Purpose” would be a candidate for Saturday Night Live.
Still, the naked concept of the “national interest,” not least as being promoted by some proponents of the Trump administration, is insufficient for defining the ends and devising the means of US foreign policy. Serving and advancing the interests of the American people is certainly one of the primary responsibilities of American statesmen. But the historical record suggests that the American tendency toward withdrawal from world politics (which has invariably led to things getting worse rather than better, and for the United States as well as the world) can only be overcome when the American people sense that larger issues are at stake than their own interests, narrowly construed. That may well have something to do with the fact that ours is a proposition country, a nation founded not on the tribal elements of blood, race, and soil, but on adherence to certain “self-evident truths” understood to be universal in character: truths whose embodiment in the practice of other nations often has a serious impact on American interests and American security.
Certain grand simplifiers notwithstanding, there is no contradiction between the pursuit of the national interest and an enlivening sense of American purpose. Interest, even self-interest, is not in itself an immoral or amoral concept. It simply reflects the fact that, in a democratic republic, those in public authority stand in a position of fiduciary responsibility toward those in whose name, and by whose sufferance, they govern. Indeed, no definition of national purpose will be tethered to domestic political reality unless it includes a commitment to the defense of the national interest. By the same token, conceptions of national interest that savor of a Bismarckian amorality are unlikely to draw the support of an American electorate that has long shown its distaste for the cruder form of Realpolitik.
Understanding the relationship between interest and purpose in US foreign policy is an exercise at the intersection of political theory and moral reasoning. A correct understanding of how interest and purpose are related could help us overcome one of the primary obstacles to wise American statecraft in the twenty-first century: the stagnant debate between realists and idealists over America’s role in the world. By deepening our concept of politics while tempering our historic national tendency to collapse morality into moralism, a fresh reflection on the age-old dialectic between the way things are and the way things ought to be might help us avoid the temptations of both messianism and cynicism.
National Interest and National Purpose: Ten Propositions
The complex relationship between interest and purpose is at the heart of any serious effort to grapple with America’s role in the world. A proper understanding of that relationship can be outlined in ten propositions, which I first devised in the mid-1990s and have been revising since. Taken together, these propositions do not yield a master strategic concept for US foreign policy. But they may help set the right intellectual and moral framework for the debate over grand strategy in the twenty-first century.
1. There is no escape from moral reasoning in politics.
Politics—even international politics—is an irreducibly moral enterprise because politics is a human activity and human beings are distinguished from other animals precisely by their capacity to reflect and choose. Politics, as Aristotle affirmed and Hans Morgenthau denied, is an extension of ethics. To attempt to subtract the moral element from politics is to debase public life and disfigure public policy.
2. History can be bent to our wills.
Those who deny the possibility of purposefulness in this kind of world—for reasons of “complexity,” or because of the “impersonal forces of history”—have not reflected very deeply on recent history. The twentieth century was replete with examples of men and women whose “purposeful” policies bent events to their wills. Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Churchill, the founders of the State of Israel, and Osama bin Laden are among the obvious examples; so were Lech Wałęsa, Václav Havel, Vytautas Landsbergis, and other leaders of the Revolution of 1989 and the auto-liberation of the Baltic States; so were the aforementioned Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl. In the more admirable of these cases as well as in the more odious, concepts of purpose were informed and tempered by concepts of interest. Interest and purpose seem, empirically, to be linked. And the linkage has the appearance of a dialectic, in which interest and purpose reciprocally interact and are thus mutually refined.
3. Moralism is of no use in statecraft.
There is a traditional form of American morality—call it “cultural Protestantism,” a pale reflection of the old liberal Protestant hegemony in American culture—that identifies political morality with the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a morality of intentions, deeply suspicious of the very concept of interest, uncomfortable with the exercise of power, and tending toward literalism in its appropriation of the Bible. This species of moralism is inadequate to the tasks of moral reasoning and practical action required of statesmen.
4. Realism’s critique of moralism remains essential to wise statecraft today.
The older American morality (or moralism) was the object of the critique of the realist school in the foreign policy debates of the 1930s and 1940s. The realist critique, particularly as articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr, remains a necessary corrective to the many flaws of cultural or liberal Protestantism and its secular heirs, among which we may count many of the chief architects of US foreign policy in the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations. Understanding the inevitable irony, pathos, and tragedy of history, being alert to the problem of unintended consequences, maintaining a robust skepticism about all schemes of human perfection (especially those in which politics is the instrument of salvation), cherishing democracy without worshipping it—all these elements of Reinhold Niebuhr’s moral sensibility are essential intellectual furnishings for anyone who would think wisely about interest and purpose in US foreign policy.
Thus realism today is less a comprehensive framework for thinking about foreign policy than a crucial set of cautions essential to the exercise of practical reasoning about America’s role in the world.
5. Realism must be completed by a concept of human creativity in history.
Realism, and especially Christian realism, must guard against premature closure in its thinking about the possibilities of human action in this world. As Niebuhr himself put it, we must never forget “the important residual creative factor in human rationality.” Things can change—things can be made to change—for the better, sometimes. One of those times came within living memory, in the 1980s and the Revolution of 1989. Understanding how that change happened, what was unique about it, and what might be learned from that experience for different situations and circumstances is essential.
6. Social ethics is a distinctive moral discipline.
In thinking about America’s responsibilities and duties in the world, prudentially serious moral reasoning must reflect the morally distinctive nature of political action. It will not confuse politics with interpersonal relationships. Thus “social ethics”—moral reasoning about common, public action through politics—will be understood as a discipline with its own canons and its own methods of assessment. These are related to, but not identical with, the canons and methods of moral reasoning appropriate to the question, But what should I do? Prudentially serious moral reasoning will demonstrate to the policymaker that his choice is not between an immoral or amoral Realpolitik, on the one hand, and naivete (dealing with international outlaws as if they were refractory children or difficult relatives), on the other.
7. The national interest includes prudent efforts to bring a measure of order to international public life.
The irreducible core of the American national interest is composed of those basic security concerns to which any responsible statesman must attend. But those security concerns are not unrelated to a larger sense of national purpose: we defend America because America is worth defending, on its own terms and because of what it means for the world. Thus those security concerns that make up the core of the national interest should be understood as the necessary foundation and inner dynamic of the pursuit of the American national purpose.
And the larger American purpose in world affairs is to contribute, as best we can, to the long, hard, never-to-be-finally-accomplished “domestication” of international public life, to the quest for ordered liberty in an evolving structure of international public life capable of advancing the classic goals of politics—justice, freedom, order, the general welfare, and peace. The United States cannot adequately defend its national interest without concurrently seeking to advance these goals in the world. Those goals will not be advanced when they are pursued in ways that gravely threaten the basic security of the United States.
8. National purpose is not national messianism.
The national purpose should be seen as a horizon of aspiration toward which our policy (and our polity) should strive. That horizon of purpose helps us measure the gap between where the world is and where the world should be. But the “domestication” of international public life is not something that will ever be achieved in any final sense. Understanding the national purpose this way is a barrier against the dangers of a simpler and more dangerous notion of national “mission,” which implies a far shorter timeline.
9. Casuistry, informed by the virtue of prudence, is the moral art appropriate to international statecraft.
For both the policymaker and the moral analyst, the practical relationship between national interest and national purpose is defined through casuistry: through the moral art of applying principles to world politics by means of the mediating virtue of prudence. Prudence does not necessarily guarantee wise policy. It does reduce the danger of stupid policy based on moralistic or Realpolitik simplifications and confusions.
The discussion of the cardinal virtue of prudence in the Catechism of the Catholic Church may be helpful:
Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it… Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation… With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.
10. The argument over the relationship between interest and purpose is perennial but not necessarily circular.
The dialectic of national interest and national purpose will remain unresolved. Pursuing a narrow concept of interest without reference to purpose risks crackpot realism, of a sort with which we have become unhappily familiar in recent years. Pursuing grand and noble purposes without regard for the responsibilities of safeguarding the national interest risks utopianism. These two temptations—crackpot realism and utopianism—may be unavoidable, the world being what it is. But succumbing to those temptations is not unavoidable, given a clear understanding of both the inherently moral nature of politics and the distinctive canons and methods of social ethics.
Thus the debate over the right relationship between the national interest and the national purpose will be a perennial one, given the very nature of politics as well as the character of the American people and their democratic experiment. But if it is informed by a proper understanding of the distinctive character of social ethics, the argument will not be circular and may yield a measure of wisdom from time to time.
Random Thoughts by Way of a Concluding, Unscientific Postscript
In 1991–92 a democratic revolution seemed well on its way to sweeping the globe. To put it gently, the picture looks far more complicated today. The very nature of a democratic regime is being contested in some of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. Too many Latin American countries, while maintaining democratic forms of government, continue to careen from one ideological extreme to another, while both economic and political corruption remains pandemic south of the Rio Grande. China is conducting the world’s first super-high-tech experiment in social control, and the hope that a critical mass of middle-class people would lead to the demise of China’s market authoritarianism and the emergence of a polity more closely resembling that on Taiwan has been, at least for the moment, frustrated. Most of the Arab Spring has led to a new winter of instability and authoritarian rule. Too much of Sub-Saharan Africa is an economic and political disaster area.
History is most certainly not over. But the success or failure of the democratic revolution symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall will have a lot to do with whether the continuation of history moves the world closer to order or to chaos. How should American policymakers think about the problems of democratic consolidation in the formerly communist world, in the countries of Latin America once ruled by authoritarian military regimes, and in Africa?
The key to democratic consolidation would seem to be the same as the key to the overthrow of the old despotisms: the reconstitution of a civil society in which the habits of mind and heart necessary to sustain self-governance are nurtured and transmitted. To put it another way, American policymakers have to think about democracy culturally as well as structurally.
Democracy cannot be equated merely with the presence of certain political structures and processes. Those mechanisms—elections, legislatures, independent judiciaries, rotating executive authority—are not self-sustaining; to endure, they must rest on sturdy moralcultural foundations. The great sociologist Peter Berger had a winsomely minimalist definition of democracy—“Democracy means that you can throw the bastards out every now and then, and that there are limits to what they can do when they’re in.” But even under that minimalist definition, a hard fact remains: you cannot have a democracy without a sufficient critical mass of democrats. And what turns the two-year-old tyrants, which we all once were, into mature adults capable of democratic citizenship? The institutions of civil society, beginning with the family. Thus civil society is essential for democratic consolidation.
The task of democratic consolidation in the formerly communist world, and especially in a country like Ukraine, has been immensely complicated by the fact that communism ruined more than the economies of the countries it ruled: it shattered their cultures, their social ecologies, as well. The prime minister of Bulgaria, Philip Dimitrov, stated
This article was originally published on Providence