Good motives give assurance against deliberately bad policies; they do not guarantee the moral goodness and political success of the policies they inspire. What is important to know, if one wants to understand foreign policy, is not primarily the motives of a statesman, but his intellectual ability to comprehend the essentials of foreign policy, as well as his political ability to translate what he has comprehended into successful political action. It follows that while ethics in the abstract judges the moral qualities of motives, political theory must judge the political qualities of intellect, will, and action.
Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Sixth Edition. Morgenthau, Hans J. (McGraw-Hill: New York) 1985. pg. 6.
Of course, from Obama, such tropes, although silly, are not menacing, any more than they were from Ronald Reagan, who was incorrigibly fond of perhaps the least conservative, and therefore the most absurd, proposition ever penned by a political philosopher, Thomas Paine’s “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” No. We. Don’t.
The world is a fact, and facts are indeed stubborn things. After eight years, if such there are, of an Obama presidency, if such there is, the world will look much as it does today — if we are lucky.
“The Cosmopolitan,” George F. Will, The Washington Post, 3 August, 2008.
It is an absolute necessity that the next president of the United States possess a lucid vision of which direction the world is moving, how the United States fits into this conveyance, and what mission this assigns to the United States. He should be capable of producing a national feeling that can restore moral purpose to the country. He should angle to contain the emotionalist excesses that often place assignments of national mission beyond the realm of reality. He must understand that the world cannot move backwards, that times that have passed have have passed and to attempt to restore them is the height of hubris. The next president should not be a member of the “9/11 generation” and should rather be a man of the Twenty-First Century. He should aim to renew American leadership, and seek to build an architecture of international institutions that will reflect the emerging power structures and entrench those that have served well and will in the future press rising nations to adopt somewhere above the minimum in respect to liberal economic and political institutions. He must revive a national will informed by an understanding of the limits, both potential and present, of American ideology and power. He must be phlegmatic in the face of exceptionalist hauteur and popular egoism. Citizens are often less rational than their leaders give them credit for, but strong will and due diligence in time will prove stronger than inane righteousness deriving from post-9/11 trepidation.
John McCain lacks these qualities. An old dog, he cannot be taught new tricks. He is a twentieth century man, fiercely guarding old prejudices and conceptions of America’s place in the world. Strong and righteous in his youth, he has crumbled into predictability and drifted from creativity. His party seeks to continue and further entrench the glut of the last eight years that has siphoned off national confidence and embraced hysteria. Their word view is more informed by the way they think it ought to be than how it is. While Americans want a road back to reality, McCain seems to grumble towards an imagined world system.
Barack Obama, for his part, is at least too young to be a man of the last century. It is likely he can still learn, and that prospect is greater in him than in McCain. He has yet to articulate a clear vision of American leadership or what the moral premises of this leadership should take; he has spoken in the abstract and mentioned causes of moral and emotional impact but outside of the context of a particular philosophy of life. “Change” is not a world view. It is an action. Change is a verb with potentially catastrophic implications, and an often bloody noun resting on the best of intentions gone crooked. His closest advisers offer little in the way of deviation from the standards of the Clinton administration, often praised but generally as disingenuous, inconsistent as conventional. His campaign promises on Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be modern day adaptions of historical failures in the vein of Britain and the Soviet Union. But he offers the nearest approximation to transcendent leadership, at the international level, as any candidate yet to step up. It is possible that his views could harden in office, that his vision of America’s place in the world be consolidated so that it makes for a lasting and meaningful reinvention of American leadership. My reservations as to the soundness of his present world view, though, make me hesitant to endorse him. But as the two party system allows it today, there is no better candidate for the office than he.