Friday, July 3, 2009

Ideals and Interests

You're crazy for even trying. Often what we know deepest is hardest to express. But all this hand wringing about the internal politics of Iran, or now Honduras? And nobody ever says anything truly informative.

America is the first ever bi-polar nation. And we remain more intensely so than any of our many imitators. Everything we do is measured against the standards of interest and ideal. This is a relatively new thing in human history.

Every nation has always had interests. War happens when diplomacy, trickery, blackmail and bribery have failed to resolve conflicts among nations' interests in a tolerable way. A nation without interests has no logical reason for existence. In that way, the US is exactly like every other nation.

Our founders introduced to the world, the concept that a nation could also be motivated by ideals, both domestically and in foreign policy. They expanded on the writings of Adam Smith and John Locke, then took words from the inert page into the messy business of governing.

As such, our interests have often conflicted with our ideals. Almost always, ideals have lost the early battles. It was, "John Locke's ghost, sit down & shut up, cause we gotta march those Cherokees across the river, OK?" At some point though, we return to have our actions judged against our ideals.

A cynic would observe how convenient, this cycle of action followed by remorse. There's a lot more going on. For one thing, we actually learn and progress by acknowledging our past lapses. More importantly? See this nation as a vehicle for its ideals. First and foremost, the nation must survive. We can regret Japanese-Americans in camps AFTER we win the war.

A nation that will temporarily set aside its ideals is still far better than a nation with no ideals. Before this crazy experiment started, no nations had ideals. Now all of Europe and some of Asia proceed with the assumption that each human being has certain inalienable rights. That's in part due to imitation of good ol' bi-polar America, but also a side effect of the earthly ministry of Christ.

In the end though, this nation still has interests. The President isn't supposed to think so much about the plight of jailed protesters in Tehran, but how to leverage instability in Iran to advance American interests.

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