For more than 40 years, George Will has been producing erudite political commentary. Most often, I find myself agreeing with the arguments presented in his twice-weekly columns for The Washington Post. When I don’t, I have to wrack my brains to figure out why, and how I might frame a cogent dissent.
He’s recently published “The Conservative Sensibility” — no subtitle — a 538-page reflection on Western political philosophy and tradition, and the specifically American vision of the Founders.
“A sensibility,” he writes, “is more than an attitude but less than an agenda.” The American conservative sensibility, he adds, includes “an unsentimental, almost bleak realism,” while applying “general principles to untidy realities.”
American conservatives in the current era, he argues, have no higher obligation than to defend the “classical liberal tradition” upon which the United States was founded. For more than a century, that tradition has been under attack by progressivism which “began as a forthright rejection of the Founders’ philosophy.” Today’s progressives seek nothing less than “the overthrow of the Founders’ classical liberalism.”
Of the 10 chapters in this volume, all worth reading, only one grapples with foreign policy. But that single chapter is packed with ideas, a few of which I’ll attempt to unpack here.
Mr. Will, who received a Ph.D. is from Princeton decades before America’s elite universities were debased by political correctness, begins by suggesting that in “foreign policy, as elsewhere, one of conservatism’s functions is to say things that people do not want to hear, such as this: War, which has always been part of the human story, always will be.” More than that: “History is, to a significant extent, a story of hostilities between groups — tribes, clans, cities, nations.”
Woodrow Wilson, the most consequential progressive president (so far), rejected this reality, believing that peace conferences, transnational organizations and “the power of understanding” could end wars once and for all. This approach led to the League of Nations, a failed experiment as everyone knows, and the United Nations, a no less a failed experiment as everyone should know.
The fiction that there is a “community of nations” underlies these failures. “Nothing can be properly called a ‘community’ if it jumbles together entities as different as Saudi Arabia, and New Zealand, Japan and Sudan, Italy and Iran, Norway and North Korea,” Mr. Will points out. “The phrase ‘community of nations’ may seem harmless, if hackneyed, but it is a symptom of a blinding sentimentality.”
He tells the story, perhaps apocryphal, of President Wilson asking Georges Clemenceau if all men are not brothers. The French statesman’s reply: “Yes, all men are brothers — Cain and Abel! Cain and Abel!”
The most disastrous political calamities of the past 100 years, Mr. Will notes, have been tied to the progressive belief that both nations and human nature “are much more malleable than they actually are.” More than 100 million people have been killed due to “ambitious attempts at social engineering-attempts to create racial purity or a classless society or the New Soviet Man.”
Most Americans, he writes, are “natural” isolationists, which is to say that they prefer “to think as little as possible about the rest of the world.” But most also believe “that the nation does have some sort of mission.”
In particular, there is the Founders’ belief in natural rights, meaning rights that governments do not create but — if they are good governments — do secure for their citizens. This leads to his assertion that the Declaration of Independence’s “declaration that rights, being natural, are universal must in some way inform this nation’s foreign policy.”
While Mr. Will favorably quotes John Quincy Adams’ admonition that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he recognizes that in the present era — an era in which the Atlantic and Pacific no longer function as moats safeguarding the castle — it is necessary “to make prudent departures from Adams’ ideal.”
Of course, prudence is in the eye of the beholder. As Mr. Will sees it, liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s clutches was not prudent. Making clear that the United States will not abandon Taiwan to China’s tender mercies would be.
“U.S. practices should respond to Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan with a reciprocal defiance worthy of a great nation friendly to a small nation that has few friends,” he wrote in a column last month.
Supporting democrats abroad should not be confused with exporting democracy abroad, also known as nation-building, a task requiring skills Americans haven’t mastered, and based on this faulty premise: “If everyone yearns for freedom, and freedom is understood identically everywhere, how hard can building a democratic nation be?”
The truth, Mr. Will writes — political incorrectness alert! — is that “some cultures lack the requisite aptitudes for democracy.” A democratic society “requires talents and aptitudes that do not appear spontaneously, and are not distributed democratically, meaning evenly, across the globe.”
Does that imply that Americans should turn a blind eye and a cold shoulder to such cultures?
No. His argument instead is that U.S. foreign policy should “create incentives for the slow, incremental modification of certain national characters to bring them more into conformity with the universalism of the American creed. Pressure can come from the United States by the constant support — rhetorical, financial, diplomatic — of people in those countries who are asserting natural rights that have been denied recognition.”
Do you disagree? If so, I suspect you’ll need to wrack your brains to figure why, and to frame a cogent dissent. I’ll be eager to hear what you come up with.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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