By Van Parkman
Rex Tillerson’s opening statement at his confirmation hearing was heartening to many conservatives. Praises came from a broad array, from those who were already in the tank for Trump and praise his every decision by default, through to principled and consistent Trump critics like Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal. In the statement, Tillerson claimed that the U.S. was uniquely qualified, both morally and strategically, to assert its leadership at the expense of the other more morally deficient and less conscientious powers who have been filling in the gap of late.
In the eyes of this writer however, a lot of that heartening sentiment is effectively nullified if he completely suspends judgement on our most active, paradigmatically divergent, and morally and strategically inadequate substitutes on the global stage. Throughout Sen. Marco Rubio’s interview, Tillerson suspended judgement on the subject of the character and actions of Vladimir Putin, an epistemic caution he did not wield in his controversial sketch of the situation in Syria with reference to U.S. policy on ISIS. The incongruence is bewildering unless you take refuge in the observation of the only detectable constant, a yielding to Putin and his interests. I’m not much for conspiracies. I don’t think Putin or Trump have Tillerson in an arm bar of sorts. Tillerson is no doubt a strong, principled, and independent mind, a Texan who probably wouldn’t take kindly to threats. It’s a sufficient explanation to believe that Tillerson is simply drinking from the same fountain as so many other seemingly level-headed individuals at every tier of society, and in a diverse array of countries, who can’t bring themselves to commit thoughtcrimes against Putin. I have further doubts. As Rubio made clear, Rex already knows the four corners of the situation. There is no conceivable point in time where Rex learns anything categorically new about Putin that might elicit the utterance, “Well I’ll be darned, Putin IS a war criminal!” if he isn’t already inclined to say so. The reasons for Putin’s unearned but widespread loyalty is an article for another day. For now, I’d like to focus on the convenience and consequence of it all.
By anointing Putin a white knight, and whitewashing all of his actions in the Middle East, you defer responsibility. There’s no doubt that Tillerson is a responsible man. However, CEOs of massive corporations are also maverick delegators. Even some of Trump’s signalling to other NATO powers that they should be more independent is in the same vein of deference of responsibility. Where there is a lack of conviction, rather than mere patriotic rhetoric, about the need for a proactive role for America in the world, shortcuts will be taken. But what’s wrong with that? Let’s take a moment to consider what’s at stake if Tillerson lacks the convictions Rubio was mining for.
Russia and its proxies not only lack the economic strength and military finesse to assert their power and bring order to the Middle East whilst minimising civilian casualties, they lack the will. For one, they are too preoccupied with defending their interests and the interests of their nefarious allies to care about universal principles like the general welfare and universal rights of mankind. This exhibition is on display not only in their war crimes, as rehearsed by Rubio, but in the fact that their campaign against ISIS, their geostrategic godsend, is merely a pretence for propping up Assad. As I will assert, that’s part and parcel to the organic structure of their political traditions, institutions, and structures. That is to say, the fundamental reason why Russia can’t be left to pursue its own interests without checks on their intentions is the same reason why the world as a whole cannot. The greatest and most constant of U.S. and western interests are also the universal interests of mankind. For many countries throughout the world however, if those principles exist as political expectations, they don’t take priority. What people take for granted, and therefore fail to understand, is the fundamental differences between not only the social inheritance of the west vis-à-vis its universally applicable Judaeo-Christian and Enlightenment values and Graeco-Roman, and also the largely British, legal traditions and civic expectations, but also of its unique experiences and painfully learned lessons.
Are the resurgent powers on the world stage checked and motivated by priorities consistent with Enlightenment and Judaeo-Christian principles of a universal variety, or are they motivated by preserving personal power, wealth, and control with the handmaidens of radical ideologies at their side? Will it be a good thing when the world is divided into delineations of ancient imperial interests to the long-term detriment of a modern world with proliferated weapons of mass destruction? When America is asserting itself, it’s generally helping to prevent conditions of a permanent cold war, or worse, conditions where global human rights efforts are permanently frozen and rights violations go completely unreported which of course eventually results in the dissolution of those rights. Such is the situation with Erdogan’s current campaign against the Kurds, a story that he’s allowing no one to cover. The little coverage that is reported isn’t being broadcasted in Turkey. It’s getting heard only in states with a free press.
Gun related crimes in the U.S. skyrocket in areas and subcultures that are alien to, or out of touch with, the western values and gun use customs which traditionally accompany gun use and ownership in the U.S. Those values and customs are the only reasons we were able to reach so high a level of gun proliferation and still maintain a relatively very safe country to live in. When those values breakdown, gun related crime rates, and crime rates in general, rise. You don’t have to personally adopt the moral priorities of the ideal policeman in order to comply with the order and safety he helps to bring about as he is guided by those inner principles. It makes a good analogy to the proliferation of modern military technology and weapons of mass destruction.
Not all counties naturally incubate the kinds of political values which westerners take for granted. For the entire life cycle of modern warfare the world has felt pressure to use modern weapons with considerations to universal principles, principles which are universally benefited from, not universally upheld, but are more or less adhered to on the global level when it comes to international relations. These principles are adhered to because of the pressure from the few who have the political structures and traditions that have evolved over time to be reflective of western values, values which grant the capacity for self-assessment and also allow for the prosperity and privilege whence to defend those political and social priorities.
This goes beyond values however. In the U.S. Civil War, and even more so with WWI in Europe, we learned all too well that traditional approaches to warfare were not compatible with 20th century military technology. It was a lesson we were still learning throughout WWII and it was a lesson that came with a very great cost. We continued to adapt our military policies and strategies to the conditions of an existential nuclear threat during the Cold War and to more urban, guerrilla, and terrorist challenges since then. We have been engaged in the world not just to police the world, but to act sometimes upon necessity and sometimes upon the lessons learned from the past century. The stakes are too high in modern times to allow the world to turn into Chicago. To surrender America’s proactive role in the world is not to sow the seeds of utopia but to defer authority and power to nations and ideologies which have yet to learn the lessons we are still so conscientious about, and invite those powers to teach us a lesson the world may never have the opportunity to forget. It’s important to stress that we haven’t merely suffered unique experiences. Russia has suffered as much as any nation from modern wars. The big difference is that we’ve had the social and political traditions necessary to learn from our mistakes and adapt to the new and global existential threats of mankind. Ideologies like radical Islam, in which category Iran should be included, don’t care to learn these lessons. Their ideology hastens to world’s end. The more dictatorial or oligarchic nations don’t have the privilege of learning about, or even being conscientious of, their role in, and effect on, the world beyond the solipsistic concerns of those few who hold power. It only takes a modicum of reflection to see that the interests of western values are the interests of the world regardless of whether the rest of the world sees it, or is capable of seeing it. Ultimately however, we are our own worst enemies. Millions of those who are most capable of learning these lessons are also those most prone to heed the siren’s call.
You can’t expect all countries to share the very values that help keep misuse of modern weapons technologies in check, but if you take away even the global projection of expectations generated from those values by having the defenders of universal rights retreat from the world stage, the world turns into Chicago. That’s an argument even libertarians should be able to appreciate. It’s kinda paradoxical and kinda ironic. The European and American countries capable of being enticed by the siren call of Putinism and isolationism are also the ones most needed to project those values throughout the world in the form of strong diplomatic expectation, and even occasional armed interventionism, until the day comes when humans are transfigured and their natures transformed by God himself. When westerners take their traditions for granted, they also blind themselves to how unique the devotion to such universal principles and neighbourly love is in the world as manifested through western political structures and action, as imperfect as those may be. It’s important to note that I’m not referring to personal behaviour. A lot of people from non-western cultures are far better behaved than we are as a whole and are often superior in the realm of personal morality. What I refer to are the institutions, the political culture and expectations of individual rights, and history and development of checks and balances of power in the west, and the philosophies, prosperity, and unique culture which sustains it all. What I refer to is the story and burden of good guys throughout history. Chicago needs policemen. Human nature demands it. When police back away and the district attorney is too lenient, the problems don’t solve themselves. Two hundred thousand Christians have been killed as a result of targeted persecution in the past two years. Chicago saw 762 confirmed homicides in 2016. Those two statistics have a common root; good guys hiding their faces in the sand, conveniently, in the name of peace. If we can’t even speak the name of Voldemort, how can we prevent, or prepare for, his rise to power?
Marco Rubio knows that we have to make the best of a bad situation and that requires a proactive strategy. Rex’s principle of epistemic caution seemed to be inconsistently applied throughout his confirmation hearing, an application that coincidentally defended the name of Vladimir. But hey, Rex still has potential to make a great Secretary of State. Anyone with that accent deserves a chance.