America: Example or Moral Champion?

November 27, 2009

What is the US role in the world? Afghanistan brings back this crucial question, and the choice evokes two extremes.

First, the U.S. should be a light on a hill, an example. John Quincy Adams argued, America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example."

Second, American values require forceful U.S. engagement, being a moral champion. Teddy Roosevelt argued, "We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with the other nations…, and we must behave as beseems a people with such responsibilities…. While ever careful to refrain from wrongdoing others, we must be no less insistent that we are not wronged ourselves. We wish peace, but we wish the peace of justice, the peace of righteousness."

Few fully endorse either pole and policy shades toward the middle. However, tendencies toward one or the other are the currents under American foreign policy.

Both are moral positions, but the implications are strikingly divergent.

In Afghanistan or around the world should the underlying current push policy toward either disengagement, lofty example, or toward commitment, championing universal values?

Neither pole will or should prevail, but which current might best drive America's interests? The choice may determine America's future.

In which direction do you sail, example or champion?

By William Vocke

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