Overvaluing American Values

I have a confession to make: I am not a values voter. I do not want a foreign policy based upon "the idea that is America." I do not think we should be guided in all things by such glittering concepts as liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith.

In fact, I'm fed up with values. Entirely. They've failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse. And so I must take issue with Anne-Marie Slaughter's new book, The Idea That is America. Slaughter is the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and an oft-mentioned name whenever Washingtonians gather in groups of three or more and their talk inevitably turns to an idle fantasy draft for the next Democratic administration. She is very much the sort who will be involved in creating the Democrats' post-Bush foreign policy, and so her book, which offers an accessible, readable, and even inspiring framework to guide America's global behavior, is an important one. But it is hobbled by one essential weakness: It is based on American "values."

Save for the introduction and the conclusion, each chapter is devoted to the explication and application of a particular American value. Liberty leads off, followed by democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith. "These values," Slaughter writes, "are not abstract concepts." Oh, but they are!

The problem with Slaughter's vision, which I generally found myself in enthusiastic agreement with, is that the only one I trust to carry it out is, well, Slaughter. And possibly me. It is not a durable framework that could withstand the ascension of another Bush administration. Indeed, while her interpretation of the values that guide America would lead to a very different foreign policy than that carried out by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, her focus on the ideals animating our foreign policy, rather than the consequences of our actions abroad, leaves a vessel that could easily be filled with noxious policies.

Run a word search through Bush's second inaugural speech. "Democracy" (and its attendant conjugations) appears thrice. "Liberty" shows up 15 times. Liberty's close cousin "freedom" makes 27 appearances. Equality stops by about midway through (as "equal), and "justice" gets five mentions. "Tolerance" is mentioned twice, as is "faith." Indeed, the only Slaughter-approved term left out by the Bush administration -- the administration of Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib, and democracy-by-gun -- is "humility." And his speech is only a bit over 2,000 words.

To convince the country that we need a foreign policy that serves those concepts is to cede the ground to those with the most compellingly idealistic narrative. Those concepts do not, themselves, suggest a foreign policy. While Slaughter states that democratization by force is a "contradiction in terms," it is the acceptance of idealism as a viable rhetorical basis for foreign policy that will allow the next set of overconfident liberalizers to wrap their wars in an agreeably gauzy cloud of paeans to democracy and calls for liberty. When the conversation rests on who is more faithful to liberty, and democracy, and tolerance, those cautioning restraint will always be at a disadvantage to those dreamily promising utopias.

We have seen this before: The language of idealism enabled what my friend Chris Hayes refers to as the "moral blackmail" of the Iraq war: How could anyone who professes to believe in freedom and democracy refuse to devote a couple of tax dollars to freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny? And many of the after-the-fact apologetics for the disaster are no better. We get Roger Cohen explaining that "[t]otalitarian hell -- malign stability -- holds no hope. Violent instability is unacceptable but not hopeless." Hope may not be a plan, but it is a value. And are you really against hope for the oppressed?

What I want is not a foreign policy vision that builds from a foundation of values, but from one of consequences. Whether a policy is concordant with America's view of itself is less important than its likely outcomes. The Paul Wolfowitzes of the world had thought plenty about values and were perfectly capable of discussing their vision of Iraq as a shining city on a Mesopotamian hill. What they hadn't thought about were outcomes -- constraints on our action and capabilities, the likely effects on others' actions of our use of force, etc. Good thing they weren't really pressed on the subject, lest they'd have had to conjure up a postwar plan for a reception that didn't include candy and flowers -- a plan they didn't have. But they weren't questioned, because they were effectively able to keep the conversation focused on values -- do you care about liberty? hate tyranny? believe Arabs can be democratic? -- rather than consequences.

What the Democrats' post-Bush foreign policy vision must do is be able to outlast the Democrats. I have no doubt that President Obama, or President Edwards, or Secretary of State Slaughter can implement a values-based foreign policy I find congenial. What I do fear is what happens when their terms close, and the language that they let Americans remain accustomed to is appropriated by a far more hawkish administration. Much better for Democrats to create a foreign policy framework that a future administration would have to fight against if it wished to revive neoconservatism. Giving them language they can slip right into seems awfully accommodating.

So no more of "the idea that is America." Let's hear the argument that is a wise and sane American foreign policy. Let's hear about conditions for the use of force, and the constraints surrounding it. Let's hear the hardnosed cases for restraint and multilateralism. Don't subsume those points beneath malleable terms like "humility" and "democracy." Popularize the explicit arguments for how American should act. Do that, and our values will be safeguarded, even when their protectors have long since left.