As I write, protesters are seeking the destruction of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., a statue paid for entirely by freed slaves. Abraham Lincoln is not the only one of America’s indispensable men to have had his likeness publicly threatened or vandalized this year, either; statues of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant have been subject to similar fates. The human race has never been short of people who enjoy breaking things just for the sake of it, and the recent outbreak of vandalism might be less ideologized on the whole than the apocalyptic jeremiads of Tucker Carlson suggest. But it’s clear that those Americans on the left who think that the nation is essentially, rather than occasionally and incidentally, evil are getting louder and louder. And if their cult of national masochism continues to gather momentum, they will eventually make their presence felt on the international stage, to the world’s detriment.
The ability to effectively project power abroad is greatly diminished when a politically influential slice of the electorate believes that America’s existence is regrettable at best and downright evil at worst. The more influential that view becomes in the Democratic Party, the more difficult it will be for a Democratic president to pursue a robust foreign policy. Some sort of conviction that American primacy on the world stage accrues to the benefit of the whole human race has been a bipartisan conviction since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Obama administration clearly had its doubts about the Pax Americana, but more and more Democrats today are going a step farther. During the Democratic primaries last year, Beto O’Rourke told a group of immigrants at a roundtable event in Nashville that “this country was founded on white supremacy.” A similar sentiment was expressed by Lijian Zhao of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs when President Trump signed bills into law supporting the Hong Kong protest movement:
In Washington, the white seldom go to SE area, as it’s an area for the black. President Trump even demanded 4 women lawmakers of color to leave US. Out of respect for President Trump, US & the black there, please follow “America First” policy & take care of racial discrimination.
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 28, 2019
America’s geopolitical rivals have mounted such propagandistic attacks on her moral credibility for decades. When President Reagan began his military buildup in the 1980s, an alarmed Soviet Union promoted videos of homeless people in the United States to bolster the American Left’s opposition to defense spending. One imagines that the Kremlin would also have agreed with left-wing criticisms of the Apollo program on similar grounds.
The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, clearly feels the need to express public solidarity with domestic critics of this kind for electoral purposes. Biden recently took a trip to a Texas Whataburger with O’Rourke and O’Rourke’s wife, Amy, during which the former vice president indicated that he is “coming” for Beto if the Democrats take back the White House. Even if Biden is lying through his teeth about a potential cabinet appointment, the fact that he feels the need to allude to it at all shows that O’Rourkean masochism is on the march.
Whatever else we may or may not want to import from China, we do not want to import the CCP’s assessment of the American Experiment into the heart of our government. Doing so would have concrete, disastrous consequences in the South China Sea, in the race to 5G, and in areas of the world such as the Arabian Peninsula, where American influence is the greatest safeguard against a cataclysmic Saudi–Iranian conflict. What’s more, a federal government that accepted the moral premises of America’s enemies would be drained of the civilizational self-confidence necessary to be a global hegemon. As the title of Jan Morris’s fantastic work of history indicates, the Liberal British Imperials of the 19th century believed that they were undertaking colonial expansion at “Heaven’s command,” to civilize the nations of the Earth. The United States is different in that it is not an imperial power, but its foreign-policy triumphs have nevertheless been spearheaded by a belief in the moral, as well as the military, might of the America. I don’t think that this belief would collapse under a Biden presidency — the former vice president himself seems to have an instinctive affection and admiration for his country — but it will continue to atrophy in his party if present trends continue. If Biden does plan on welcoming O’Rourke and his ilk into the heart of executive government, American power really will start to wither on the vine. As Richard Weaver observed some time ago, “ideas have consequences.”
The governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation do not appear to have similar doubts about whether they deserve to be globally or regionally dominant. This is not necessarily a good thing in moral terms. The United States’s sensitivity to its own historic shortcomings is indicative of a well-developed national conscience forged in the crucible of the civil-rights movement, and should be looked upon as a strength that neither Communists nor kleptocrats can avail themselves of. But when the contemplation of one’s own sins leads to masochism instead of reform, conscience has become destructive of the ends of true religion and human flourishing. This is true of nations and individuals alike. The Mandarin Chinese word for China is Zhongguo, which translates in English to “Middle Kingdom.” The name dates to around 1000 BC, when the leaders of the Zhou dynasty used it to describe their own jurisdiction on the North China Plain. The Zhous believed that their empire was the center of the world and the height of civilization, surrounded on all sides by barbarians. The ideology of the Middle Kingdom has been embraced by the Chinese Communist Party, and the CCP’s pursuit of global dominance has thus far been completely unencumbered by moral considerations. Americans who believe the United States to be a pernicious actor on the world stage ought to take a look at some of the reporting on the Uighur Muslim concentration camps in Xinjiang and ask themselves which of the two superpowers they would like to see come out on top in the coming geopolitical conflict. There are no other contenders.
One of the most interesting passages in Steven Hayward’s fantastic two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan involves the discussions between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the various Soviet–American summits. Hayward notes that while most previous summits had been characterized by methodically pre-prepared exchanges over the minutiae of this or that missile-defense system, Reagan and Gorbachev would actually debate the morality of the Soviet and American systems. The policies of President Reagan that won the Cold War have been chronicled and debated over and over, but it’s important to recognize that the foreign-policy achievements of the United States in the 1980s were driven by Reagan’s moral clarity, and his insight into the essential fragility of a regime constructed upon the flagrant and frequent violation of the laws of God and the rights of man. Without that moral clarity, the United States is unlikely to triumph in the next major clash of civilizations.
The great benediction for all American policy-makers, foreign and domestic, was given by Abraham Lincoln at what was then the Cooper Institute in February of 1860: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” If the citizens of the United States believe that their country has been excommunicated from that faith by its own actions, then that other, more familiar creed, that might makes right, will reclaim the territory that it lost during the American century, territory bought with the blood of millions of heroic soldiers and the wounds of millions more who still walk among us.