David Bromwich

Late last year, I gave a talk at a university debating society on the subject of ‘Evangelical Democracy and Exemplary Democracy’. I can’t imagine my argument would have been well received by the theorists of globalisation who dominate American opinion on international relations. But these were not IR types or neoconservatives. Young neoconservatives (but ‘young’ is a tricky word: their parents are almost always in it) look forward to careers of power and are subsidised in college by well-funded journals and paid summer internships at prestigious think tanks. The undergraduates I spoke to were interested in political ideas, and I was offering a contrast anyone could have worked up from two easily available archives: the foreign policy speeches of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (as well as the National Security Strategy of September 2002, largely written by Condoleezza Rice); and a few celebrated statements about the duties and limitations of democracy by John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Adams’s 1821 Independence Day address to the House of Representatives was delivered while he was secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe. A sceptic might see this speech as a cover for the Monroe Doctrine (the first American declaration of hemispheric hegemony); yet ideals have their own history, and sometimes outlive the practice of those who promulgate them. Adams said to the members of Congress that the United States, in its first four decades, had ‘respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own’. Its abstention from wars of choice had been observed ‘even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings’; and, facing the contests in the Old World between ‘emerging right’ and ‘inveterate power’, America had given its prayers but never its arms to the struggle for freedom.

At this point, Adams uttered a prophecy against the doctrine that now goes by the name of ‘force projection’. America ‘goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.’ America, he concluded, will ‘commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example’. So democratic proselytism, on Adams’s view, ought to be confined to the force of example. Every empire thinks itself superior, deserving or generous (or all three at once); but Adams saw that self-deception as well as cruelty was a danger of ‘all the wars of interest and intrigue’ (he means all wars except those of immediate self-preservation or rebellion against despotism). Wars generally are driven by ‘avarice, envy and ambition’, and foreign wars in the cause of liberty always subvert liberty in principle: the character of our ends must change in the service of violent, rash and unnecessary means, because it is the nature of action to change the actor. If America ever deluded itself with the idea of exporting democracy, ‘the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force’. In this way, America ‘might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.’

To be literal and anachronistic: you do not devastate a country in a war of choice, smash its generators and lines of electrical supply, and watch while its governing class is assassinated and its middle class put to flight, and the remaining beneficiaries fitted out with a tribal constitution that invites sectarian warfare – you don’t do all this with impunity in the moral world, or in the world of nations. You don’t do it, that is, without becoming the sort of country that does these things. Such was Adams’s perception. We lose the distinction of being exemplary when we choose the path of imposition and monstrous benevolence.

Lincoln, the hero of every American ‘war president’, did not want to fight a war to abolish slavery. His method was to talk down the fury and the heat, a choice that served him well when war came. But he had preferred a plan of ‘compensated emancipation’, with money paid to the owners who freed their slaves – a design to be completed over a generation in order to soften the concussion of the new political relations. His ameliorative tendency shows most plainly in the earliest of his celebrated speeches – the Lyceum address of 1838, with its appeal to ‘sober reason’ and strict adherence to the law as the cure for the ‘mobocratic’ spirit – and in his last speeches: the Second Inaugural (‘with malice toward none; with charity for all’), and the speech on reconstruction that followed it.

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