The shadow of the Fathers

The enlightenment republics of the 18th century were built partly on a civil religion. That is, they worshipped their revolution, their heroes, their sacred texts, their rescuers and their founders. Any doubt about this in America’s case can be dispelled by a few minutes  at the feet of the Lincoln statue in Washington.

This often impacts on strategic debate. Rivals in the never-ending argument over America’s role in the world like to invoke the nation’s founders and first leaders, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, to slightly later but still foundational men like John Quincy Adams. These men are giants and they have great authority.

Because they have authority and are assumed to embody timeless wisdom about America’s role in the world, to enlist them on your side is a natural technique in the American argument. It also encourages a ferocious habit of name-dropping. As my friend Rob Dover describes it, American strategy is argued about partly ‘in the eighteenth century moment.’

Consider the post by Thomas Ricks: “Imagine,” commented my friend Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, whom I know from Iraq, “the reaction of Hamilton and Madison to a proposal to borrow money from China to invade Mesopotamia for the purpose of bringing democracy to Arabia.”

That struck me as really smart, underscoring the distance between our nation’s recent actions and the ideals on which the nation was founded. But wanting a second opinion, I asked another friend, Eliot Cohen, erstwhile consigliore to Condi Rice.

He shot back: Yup. That would be the Madison who, immediately (and I do mean immediately, literally within a few weeks) after concluding the war that he had foolishly launched against Great Britain — an exhausting, dispiriting, bankrupting war with the world’s only superpower, in which the White House got burned to the ground, our coasts were blockaded, and our efforts to invade Canada, forsooth, repeatedly crushed, secured another declaration of war from Congress and launched the entire United States Navy across the ocean to settle scores with the Sultan of Morocco, the Dey of Algiers, and the Pasha of Tripoli. And don’t get me started on Hamilton.”

And like most sacred texts, the views of the Fathers can be plundered with great dexterity to support all sorts of positions. Muscular or hawkish believers in the idealistic projection of American power, like Eliot Cohen or Robert Kagan, like to legitimise their own positions by showing that they are rooted in the early republic.

Yet isolationists such as Pat Buchanan, or advocates of a smaller foreign policy, such as Andrew Bacevich, also link their views to the founders, and argue that aggressive exceptionalism and the pursuit of empire are deviations from the fathers.

So I’m struck that one of America’s most important strategic minds who revived geopolitics during World War Two, Nicholas Spykman, not only refused to invoke the Fathers, but went further. He suggested that the Fathers might even be wrong! The only basis for strategy was its utility, not its historical pedigree:

There have been numerous attempts to prove the validity of isolation or intervention as sound strategy by reference to precedent and appeal to the authority of the Founding Fathers. Both groups have made generous use of this debating device and our history has been sufficiently rich and varied to provide both parties with excellent arguments. But even if the past should favor one side more than the other, it would not follow that the side thus favored represents the wiser policy. Historical precedent and the voice of the Fathers can be used as a means to gain support for a doctrine but not as proof of its soundness. Not conformity with the past but workability in the present is the criterion of a sound policy. Not especially selected instances in the history of the United States, but the general experience of states should be made the guide for a program of action.

This is a vital theme in the intellectual history of American strategic thinking: the complex relationship between thinkers and American exceptionalism, and the tricky job of acknowledging the powerful ideas and heritage that shaped American statecraft, while also resisting it.

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