Sammy Be Good

Richard Spencer, assistant editor at TAC and contributor at the excellent group blog Exit Strategies, makes some good points about the foreign policy implications of Brownback’s speech at the Values Voters forum. Brownback once again restated his claim that America’s greatness is dependent on its “goodness.” Brownback has traditionally associated such goodness with international do-gooding and wrong-righting.

Spencer wrote:

Implicit in Brownback’s comments is his notion that we can treat the rest of the world – particularly those states and groups that threaten us – just like we treat those down-and-out criminals with hearts of gold. Our foreign policy will be therapeutic – once our enemies recognize that we’re good and that we’re here to help, they’ll shape up, become our friend, and happily be integrated into our benign world order.

These are some of these same therapeutic impulses in the foreign policy statements of Brownback’s political cousin and rival Huckabee and the general mawkishness of Mr. Bush’s vision of armed, crusading “compassionate” conservatism. Brownback is known as an advocate of prison reform, as the context of his latest remarks remind us, and so perhaps shares in his own way a view of other nation-states as “prisons” whose inmates must be treated humanely.

It may be an effort to bring a Christian reforming sensibility to what I have called the “prison facility” approach to foreign relations: the dynamic of control and domination over the “prisoners” (i.e., everyone else on the planet) remains, but now the control is to be exercised in a decent and “humane” way. The claimed “right” to beat and execute prisoners always remains in the background, and if you believe that our government should act as magistrate and gaoler for the world it is not insignificant that Scripture has approved of the magistrate wielding the sword to punish evildoers.

Inherent in both Brownback’s foreign policy-as-penitentiary and other more aggressive interventionist visions is the idea that we, the good nation, stand over and above all other nations and mete out the proper punishments and disciplines that will reform the character of other nations. It is the old “moral uplift” put into the clothes of “development” and “democracy” rather than evangelism. Contrary to Spencer’s treatment of Brownback’s invocation as proof of how such do-gooders ignore the importance of power, I fear that Brownback and other Christians who share his foreign policy ideas see America’s superpower status not simply as the result of our “goodness” but as a providential dispensation.

Since I would also take for granted that God’s Providence rules over all things, I should make the distinction that there is then an added assumption on the part of Brownback and friends that we are playing the role of Israel and not that of Assyria or one of the many other nations in history. Unnerving comfort with Winthropian rhetoric and claims to being “almost chosen” mesh with a confidence that we have acquired superpower status for a higher purpose. Our hegemony is therefore supposed to be different from everyone else’s. In this way American nationalist exceptionalism fuses with the idea of missionary purpose, which is how any excess or error can be immediately reconciled with the noble purposes of our foreign adventures. In this the exercise of power does not scandalise or embarrass, but is seen as part of the unfolding of a grand design. The fear of moral corruption at home that Brownback expresses is then also the fear of losing the providential favour that has made American greatness possible.

Far worse than the mere naivete that Spencer sees in Brownback’s remarks, there is a dangerous strain of power-seeking messianism abroad in the land to which Brownback is appealing. The worrisome thing is that he does this entirely sincerely. It seems to me that he believes that power is not something corrupting that should be limited and divided, but something basically good to be employed and directed to the right ends. His enthusiasm for Wilberforce’s moral application of power, namely the much-touted use of imperial power to end the slave trade, is consistent with this. Far more dangerous than a lack of awareness of the power factor in international relations, Brownback’s view takes power as a given and wants to put that power in the “right” hands to achieve moral goals. Furthermore, if the goal is deemed moral, whether it is or not, the means to achieve it are basically irrelevant. In this way, an aggressive invasion does not trouble the arch-“moralist,” and in this way the proponents of the war can continue to portray themselves as defenders of “moral ideals” in foreign policy: what they propose is moral because they, the virtuous, are proposing it.