Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Presidents at Notre Dame - Now, and Then

In reaction to President Barack Obama's address to the graduates at the University of Notre Dame this past Sunday, I have an opinion article in the commentary section of the Washington Examiner today. (It's on page 19 of the print edition, for those of you in the D.C. metro area who would like to pick it up and see it in full color, with accompanying photographs.)

The article, headlined "Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama at Notre Dame," notes that when President Carter spoke at the Indiana university more than three decades ago, his speech (about a "new" approach to U.S. foreign policy) was given analytical treatment in a full-length book just a few months later.

The article begins:

When President Barack Obama addressed the graduates of the University of Notre Dame Sunday, it was the first time in 32 years that a Democratic president had done so.

On May 22, 1977, President Jimmy Carter delivered an address on foreign policy at Notre Dame. Carter’s appearance was not marked by the sort of controversy that accompanied President Obama this year, nor was it the subject of the 24-hour news cycle.

Carter’s speech, however, was seen as sufficiently significant that a whole book of responses was published a few months later by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The book, Morality and Foreign Policy: A Symposium on President Carter's Stance, included such contributors as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Henry Kissinger, Irving Kristol, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Limited space in the pages of the Examiner caused me to exclude some of the erudite, perspicacious, and even juicy comments made by the authors collected in Morality and Foreign Policy. Let me offer a few samples.

It has become something of a commonplace, and a jocular one at that, to make facile comparisons between the Carter and Obama administrations, especially with regard to foreign policy. (The comparisons were raised even before the 2008 election as a warning to voters about Candidate Obama.)

Thus it was somewhat jarring to read this paragraph in the essay by Charles Burton Marshall, author of The Limits of Foreign Policy and The Exercise of Sovereignty, in his essay entitled "The Valor of Ignorance." Substitute the word “Obama” for “Carter” and this reference to political messianism could have been written yesterday – or next week – rather than in 1977:
“Sooner or later events will demonstrate even to the tight inner circle that the Carter administration no more knows the secret for walking on water around the world than it has a formula for cleansing the public service or any other manifestation of the Old Adam The self-enthrallment then will cease.”
Another comment whose echoes we here today came from the legendary editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Robert Bartley, whose essay was called "Reflecting the Eastern Establishment":
“Almost certainly it is a mistake to look to President Carter’s professed morality to explain our concerns about his foreign policy. His version of morality is not that sharp a departure, and on experience so far not that powerful a force in shaping his policies. We would do better to worry about sheer inexperience.”
John P. Roche, then dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, tried to set Carter’s speech in a wider context in his contribution, "A Lack of Ideological Roots":
“As a thirty-year veteran who long since reached the conviction that commencement addresses were drafted by computers, I am certain I have heard this one four times. Indeed, had I absorbed it without advance information on the source, I might have attributed it to Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Goldberg, Harold Stassen, or George McGovern. (At half an hour it was a bit brief for Hubert Humphrey, God bless him.) In short, it was standard commencement pap by an American ‘statesman’: ‘Speech 5c—American Policy, Morality, and the World (for use at a liberal religious school).’”
Roche went on to say:
“Part of Mr. Carter’s problem in world politics is the lack of any ideological roots, a weakness which has been buttressed by a McGovernite ‘issues staff’ which sincerely believes that the world began in January 1977, when they took office. In this state of historical amnesia it is hard to deal with the degrees on the scale between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’”
While generally content with the themes underlying President Carter’s remarks, Jeane Kirkpatrick -- at the time on leave from the Department of Government at Georgetown University and later to become Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations -- raised six questions demanding clarification or explication in her essay, "Selective Invocation of Universal Values." One was this:
“Why does the President think that ‘a peaceful world cannot exist one third rich and two thirds hungry’? The implication is that the frustration of poor nations causes war. In fact that the notion that poverty causes war doesn’t wash. Poverty causes hardship, suffering, and death … but there is little evidence to support the notion that it causes war… Poverty is abominable, not because it leads to war, but because it perpetuates human misery. We can approach problems of war and poverty more effectively if we are clear about the relationships between them.”
The two contributors most sharply critical of Carter’s speech were Michael Novak and Eugene V. Rostow. (One of Rostow's key points is featured in my Examiner piece.)

Novak, then a religion professor at Syracuse University and later author of the insightful book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, said in his response ("The March of Defeat") that Carter's Notre Dame address
“is a profoundly embarrassing and disturbing speech…. [The] President’s vision is deficient. It is deficient both in realism and fact. It is deficient in its moral vision. The President uses the word moral and its cognates – values, principles, social justice, and the like – very heavily indeed. But he does not use them well.”
Later in his essay, he added:
“One of the best ways to create an immoral foreign policy is to try too hard for a moral one.”
Rostow, who served in the Johnson Administration’s State Department and, by the beginning of the Carter administration was chairman of the executive committee of the Committee on the Present Danger, wrote in "Ignoring Soviet Realities" that
“President Carter’s Notre Dame speech is his most ambitious attempt thus far to define the American national interest in its course. The speech is deeply flawed: inconsistent; incomplete; and excessive in its claims of novelty…. The speech lacks any conception of the relationship between power and morality in international affairs.”
Ronald Berman, once chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, parsed the language of Carter’s speech. In "Confusing Domestic and Foreign Policy," he wrote:
“Where the language of this speech is moralistic,” he said, “it tends to have an effect just about the opposite to that intended: By devaluing our past motives it makes our present ones suspicious. How reliable can policy be which is based upon the acceptance of our moral fallibility?”
In a paragraph that timelessly retains its relevance, Burt Marshall, pondering whether disappointment might follow the non-fulfillment of the president’s high-flying rhetoric, noted that the
“distinction [between cynicism and skepticism] is important. A cynic shrugs off differences between right and wrong as merely conventional – a sham, as it were. A skeptic acknowledges such differences as real, but regards them to be often complex and subtle, and refuses to arrive at judgments on the basis of declaratory evidence only. Cynicism goes hand in hand with ennui. Skepticism kindles the critical spirit. Every one of us should be skeptical about foreign policy, because that attitude is what helps exact proper performance from those conducting it.”
Re-reading this book after some 30 years -- I began working at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in September 1979, and the Center's publications were readily available to read and absorb -- what struck me was how, despite their later affiliations and identifications, so many of the authors were (at least in 1977) firmly identified as Democrats, even if they later became more associated with the neo-conservative movement of the 1980s and, directly or indirectly, with the Reagan administration.

The book's editor, Ernest W. Lefever, had been a foreign policy advisor to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Rostow, as was noted, worked in the State Department under Dean Rusk. John P. Roche had been an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson. Although he served Republican presidents, Daniel Patrick Moynihan served in the U.S Senate as a Democrat from New York. Michael Novak had been a speechwriter for George McGovern. Jeane Kirkpatrick held on to her affiliation with the Democratic Party even through her tenure as UN Ambassador, up till (and perhaps including) when she icily invoked the "San Francisco Democrats" at the 1984 Republican National Convention. Irving Kristol, of course, is famous for coining the definition of a neo-conservative as "a liberal who was mugged by reality."

Except for Bartley, Berman, and Kissinger, I could not put my finger on another contributor to Morality and Foreign Policy who might be Republican. (I am not aware of any partisan affiliation of Roger L. Shinn, the last of the contributors, who at the time was Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.)

It is hard to imagine a collection of Democratic scholars or activists today, coming together in an edited volume of essays criticizing Barack Obama for the policies he outlined in his speech at Notre Dame on May 17. Partisans of both Republican and Democratic stripes treat their top leaders with kid gloves. Just as Republicans -- with a few exceptions, such as Ron Paul -- were loathe to criticize George W. Bush even as he was abandoning conservative principles on issues like the economy, education, and foreign interventionism, so too are Democrats today unlikely to say an unkind word about President Obama's initiatives. (Disgruntled borborygmi in the blogosphere don't really count, do they?) It may not just be nostalgia that suggests that "in the olden days" policy debates were conducted more civilly and with less of a bipolar division than we see today. We may be remembering the past accurately when we say that.

Despite its being nearly 32 years old, Morality and Foreign Policy's essays are remarkably fresh. (The fact that President Carter in his address and several of the respondants speak at length about U.S. policy toward Iran and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes it eerily relevant, too.) While some references might be dated -- South Korea is now a thriving democracy, not an authoritarian dictatorship, for instance -- the foundational analysis of the contributors remains strong and applicable to the 21st century's international environment.

Morality and Foreign Policy is a slim volume (just 76 pages) but it is densely packed with insight. Look for it in a used book store or order it through Amazon.com. It will be worth the effort.

Read my blog on Kindle!

No comments: