The United States today is indisputably the most powerful nation in the world militarily, economically and culturally. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that fact has been elevated to the level of a doctrine: the United States must exercise its “preponderance,” its superior power, for its own good and that of the world.
Catholic church leaders, ranging from those in local parishes to the U.S. bishops to the Vatican, have strongly opposed the most immediate application of the doctrine of preponderance, the Iraq war. But the underlying principles of this doctrine also demand a thorough critique, because upon examination they are very much at odds with the Catholic understanding of world politics.
The Bush administration’s new doctrine was articulated explicitly in September 2002 in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, but the position had been argued for a decade by a number of policy analysts and advocates, including Paul Wolfowitz. The conservative internationalists, as they call themselves, challenge the assumptions not only of internationalists, who advocate working cooperatively with other nations, but also of Kissinger-style realists, who see international affairs in terms of a balance of power. “Preponderance” moved with astonishing speed from being a marginal, think-tank proposal to the level of official doctrine.
What initially attracted the most attention was the “Bush doctrine” of a self-declared right of the United States to attack terrorist groups and other states pre-emptively if its perceived security interests so dictate. Equally significant, however, was the articulation of the underlying principles and assumptions of the doctrine of preponderance, which may be summarized as follows:
• The history of the post-World War II period can be described as the U.S.-led triumph of “freedom” over totalitarianism. Now a different set of enemies has declared war against the United States and the forces of freedom.
• Depending on how countries respond to this confrontation, the United States will judge who its “enemies” and “friends” are—as well as those who out of cowardice or lack of “moral clarity” refuse to do their duty in the struggle.
• Together with military and economic preponderance, the United States has moral leadership, which it must use for its own security and ultimately for the good of the world, particularly in promoting freedom.
• The United States cannot allow any nation to challenge its preponderance (a point especially applicable to a future China).
• No international institution or agreement will be allowed to constrain U.S. preponderance. When it can, the United States will cooperate with institutions, such as the United Nations. Otherwise it will operate with “coalitions of the willing.”
• The war on which we have embarked is likely to last decades and will require a modernization and buildup of U.S. military power—for example, antimissile programs.
Although many Americans were nervous about the possible consequences of the doctrine, few questioned its underlying assumptions. The National Security Strategy document and the assumptions of the administration apparently tap into a worldview—a kind of creed—often voiced by President Bush: “Our Nation’s cause has always been larger than our Nation’s defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors liberty.... The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.... Through our willingness to use force in our own defense and in the defense of others, the United States demonstrates its resolve to maintain a balance of power that favors freedom.”
In crypto-religious language, the doctrine of preponderance articulates the implicit creed that the United States must exert its unprecedented power around the world for its own protection, as well as for that of other nations. To oppose or question this doctrine is to side with the “enemies of freedom,” or at least to lack the “moral clarity” or courage to do what is unquestionably right.
‘Preponderance’ and Catholic Sensibility
It is possible to draw directly on encyclicals and other expressions of Catholic social doctrine in a critique of the preponderance doctrine. But because preponderance is often not argued doctrinally but by the use of evocative terms like “freedom,” it is better contrasted with something admittedly more elusive, namely a Catholic sensibility.
1. Friends and enemies. As proponents of the Bush doctrine look at the world, they see enemies (terrorists and rogue states) and friends (nations supporting the United States in coalitions). The enemies are portrayed as hating the United States because of its good qualities, above all its freedom. Those who refuse to see this struggle as one between good (identified with the United States) and evil are chided for their lack of moral clarity or for cowardice.
That dichotomy is at odds with the Catholic belief, expressed in the petitionary prayers at Mass and the eucharistic prayers themselves, that humankind is a family. Reflecting this in their 1983 letter The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops declared that the “fundamental premise of world order...is a theological truth: the unity of the human family rooted in common creation, destined for the kingdom, and united by moral bonds of rights and duties. This basic truth about the unity of the human family pervades the entire teaching on war and peace....” For Catholics the persistent use of friends/enemies language about other peoples and nations should be problematic.
Certainly we are in the realm of metaphor here. Nations are neither “friends/enemies” nor “family”; they are collectivities of millions of people who share a history, language(s) and culture, bound together by some form of state. We use metaphors from more immediate experience to make sense of more distant realities, but we must be critical of them, particularly when they are master metaphors.
2. Nation-states. The proponents of preponderance assert that no nation should dare to rival the United States in its power, and that the United States should use or ignore international institutions to suit its own interests. They ridicule the very notion of an international community.
To a Catholic sensitivity, shaped over two millennia, nation-states, including our own, are relative; they have come into existence in recent centuries, some only decades ago. Catholic moral theology, say the U.S. bishops, “accords a real but relative moral value to sovereign states. The value is real because of the functions states fulfill as sources of order and authority in the political community; it is relative because boundaries of the sovereign state do not dissolve the deeper relationships of reasonability existing in the human community.”
For the proponents of preponderance, sovereignty is a zero-sum game. To accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, for example, would weaken the United States. To a Catholic both/and sensitivity, however, that is not necessarily the case. The establishment of this court, which will have jurisdiction even over heads of state, like Saddam Hussein, who commit gross human-rights violations, should be a gain for all. From a Catholic standpoint, it is akin to the philosophical principle that persons are not isolated individuals striving to protect their autonomy from others in a zero-sum struggle; personhood is achieved in community—indeed, only in community. Hence, as the U.S. bishops said, we are now “entering an era of new, global interdependencies requiring global systems of governance to manage the resulting conflicts and secure our common security.”
3. Good and evil. The architects of preponderance frequently speak of their own moral clarity and describe the “war on terrorism” as a struggle between forces of evil and those of good. They conflate American power with American morality. The National Security Strategy document simplifies recent history as the triumph of freedom, embodied in the United States, over totalitarianism. Such claims should raise suspicions to a Catholic sensibility: no ruler, no regime, no political system is free of sin. Greater power tends to lead to greater abuses. The government of Iceland has not overthrown elected governments and supported repressive and murderous dictatorships, as successive United States administrations have done. The difference lies in the disparity of power, not in any superiority of Icelandic ethics.
The notion that the United States has unambiguously defended freedom would ring hollow, for example, to Chileans who saw the Pinochet regime kill or cause to disappear 3,000 people in the name of national security, with the support and cooperation of the Nixon administration.
A sensitivity informed by Catholic experience would be aware that if freedom has gained ground in recent decades with a wave of democratic governments and greater respect for human rights, it is through the heroic effort of many thousands of activists around the world, often enough against regimes supported by the United States. Moreover, even if the United States “won” the struggle with the U.S.S.R., in a deeper sense all of humanity lost the cold war in proxy wars, runaway arms races and inequities in human and material resources.
4. Endless war. In the doctrine of preponderance, the war on terrorism is regarded as potentially as long and dangerous as the cold war; indeed, war is assumed to be inherent in the human condition. But the assumption that human beings are fated to a state of perpetual warfare is at odds with a reading of the “signs of the times” that is more in accord with Catholic experience. War between the core European states, once perennial enemies but now increasingly bound together in the European Union as a “family,” has become almost inconceivable. Developed and democratic nations do not go to war with one another. Wars between states remain a possibility, e.g., India-Pakistan or the Korean peninsula. Civil wars and ethnically driven wars have proliferated in recent decades, but they are a sign of failure. The task for the new century should not be to declare dogmatically a worldwide Hobbesean war, but to quarantine war as much as possible to smaller and smaller portions of the world, and to devise improved international mechanisms for dealing with conflict.
Questioning Common Sense
We may suspect that much of the preponderance doctrine, especially when skillfully articulated by the authors of the national security doctrine, sounds like common sense to many Americans, including Catholics. The aftermath of the war in Iraq has put the articulators of the doctrine on the defensive. Talk of accelerated “regime change” is muted for the moment. As a creed and ideology, however, preponderance is still operative.
If this analysis is on the mark, there is much work to be done by Catholic theologians, social ethicists and others, and indeed by the hierarchy. At times that work will entail confronting expressions of this ideology. Equally important is the work of articulating viable alternatives—working, for example, toward effective international peacekeeping institutions to the point where individual nations, most obviously our own, could not use the present insufficiency of these institutions as a pretext for their unilateral assertions of power.
Finally, there is the pedagogical and even therapeutic activity of developing in Catholics sensitivity for the unity of the human family, as articulated in the eucharistic prayers. That universal solidarity should inform our view of the world and provide background criteria for our collective stance as a nation.