American power is a force for good
It’s essential for maintaining peace around the globe
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A fortnight before William McKinley’s assassination hurled him into the presidency in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt offered an oration on the importance of American power and leadership in world affairs. Some of his contemporaries—as do some of our own—belittled such hubris by reminding Roosevelt that all great nations throughout history have eventually passed away. “So they have,” Roosevelt agreed. But he added that “the weak and the stationary” have done so too—and “more rapidly.” Those last two words are key.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a dreadful reminder that power remains the world’s lingua franca. While the fight rages on, one lesson is already in view: If we have any chance of living in peace or restoring it when it has been shattered—for ourselves or our neighbors—then the power to live in peace has to be cultivated and maintained. This is uncomfortable for many Christians who doubt the wisdom of American leadership and see investments in power, especially the military, as stealing opportunities to invest in social welfare. But such bread vs. bombs arguments represent false dichotomies. American power is essential for maintaining the goods of order and justice—and therefore peace—around the globe.
A Christian grounding for the good of American power would begin in the Garden of Eden. Human beings are made children of God. In Semitic thought, to be a child is to bear the characteristics of the thing signified. To be made in the image of God includes the responsibility to exercise dominion. Dominion is not domination but rather responsible stewardship. We see this mirrored in the political sovereign’s responsibility to provide for the common good to promote human flourishing. In this light, power—simply the capacity to do or influence something—is rightly understood as more than a neutral thing. Power is a good.
While the security of the United States is the primary purpose of American power, our responsibility doesn’t end at our shores. The Spider-Man ethic—with great power comes great responsibility—is one many Americans rightly embrace. The United States is not the most powerful nation in history by accident. It has intentionally cultivated great power, not simply for our own security but for the global good. A secure, prosperous, and free world is bolstered by American security better than one characterized by anarchy, poverty, and autocracy.
Still, we must have limited aspirations. First, the Christian knows that no political community, no matter how powerful, can satisfy the longings of the restless human heart. American global leadership will, at best, only approximate justice, order, and peace. Secondly, especially as an array of nation-states and non-state actors employ traditional and nontraditional means to disrupt international security, the United States cannot do everything on its own. Putin’s aggression may have rallied the West—best illustrated by Germany more than doubling its defense budget. Other nations—especially our allies and partners—must follow suit.
Nevertheless, the United States’ unmatched hard and soft power resources—military, diplomatic, economic, commercial, cultural, and charitable—underlines the fact that we remain the indispensable nation. In particular, our extended nuclear deterrent has guaranteed the security of 30 allies and partners, maintaining stability. To preserve these goods, especially in light of Ukraine, the free world must remain confident in American power and resolve to use that power when necessary. Teddy Roosevelt’s motto was correct: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
American greatness will be insufficient if uncoupled from goodness. Theologians distinguish between both values when reflecting on the divine attributes. God’s greatness points to those attributes that most clearly reveal His majesty and glory: His power, immutability, sovereignty, and so on. His holiness, love, mercy, and fidelity express His goodness. But, of course, God’s greatness and goodness are not separable. They couple with—but do not qualify or limit—one another. It is because God in His goodness loves justice and mercy that His power is sometimes manifest in wrath. He is infinitely just and infinitely loving. Always. Nations should also seek never to decouple greatness and goodness.
For American Christians, this suggests we must not traffic in simplistic distinctions between power and morality or love and justice as if such things were contradictions. There is no zero-sum competition between bread and bombs. A nation that will not defend its own interests and existence is a nation that will not be able to feed the hungry, at home or abroad.
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