“The powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must,” the Athenians told the Melians. What do the powerful want? Athens and Rome wanted tribute; Britain wanted raw materials and new markets; Nazi Germany wanted slaves; the Soviet Union wanted international proletarian revolution (guided by a proper vanguard party, of course), as well as not to be invaded again. And the United States?
The majority view among lay Americans and the overwhelming consensus among respectable intellectuals is that there is something distinctive, perhaps unique, about the balance of idealism and material interests in the history of American foreign policy. Although the United States is strong enough to do so, it has not, with few exceptions, extracted tribute from or directly administered other countries. It earned the permanent gratitude of humankind by helping the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany and then checking the westward advance of the Red Army, as well as by allowing Taiwan and South Korea, among others, to avoid the horrors of Maoism and Stalinism and evolve into stable democracies. Moreover, the public and even private pronouncements of American statesmen have been heavily freighted with professions of benign intent, to a degree that makes unflagging hypocrisy a less than plausible explanation, if only on psychological grounds. It follows (according to the consensus) that American foreign policy generally, including military interventions, deserves credit for good intentions, whatever mistakes were made in carrying them out.
Like all conventional wisdom, this consensus contains several grains of truth, most of them enumerated in the preceding paragraph. Whether these justify the above conclusion is another matter. Two voices dissent from the consensus. On the right, “realists” believe that, like every other state that ever was or will be, the United States is dominated by elites with definite (though not unchanging) views of the “national interest.” America’s interest will not always be compatible with those of other nations, and the elites’ views will not always agree with the majority’s views; hence conflict is inevitable. External conflicts present a strategic problem, to be resolved by diplomacy or military force; internal conflicts present a public-relations problem, to be resolved by the manufacture of consent. There are no moral problems.
The dissident left agrees with much of this as a description but does have a moral problem–several, in fact. Is there a genuinely “national” interest? Even if there is, don’t elite definitions of it nearly always correspond to the special interests of those elites? Are such matters really too complicated for the majority to appraise without manipulation? Do nations have fundamentally conflicting interests, making cooperation between them possible only within narrow limits? Is it really impossible to constrain the use of military force within a framework of international law, even though the potential costs of such violence are rapidly escalating beyond nearly any conceivable benefit? When reckoning such costs, shouldn’t other innocent people’s sufferings count as much as our own?