• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

Last week I contrasted the dangerous internationalism of the United
Nations and the World Trade Organization with what I called the authentic
internationalism of the American Founding. This week I want to clarify why
the defense of American sovereignty is a true internationalism, and why wise
American patriots — citizens and statesmen alike — are the most effective
internationalists.

Let’s begin by contrasting the Declaration of Independence and the United
Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration of
Independence makes mention of fewer specific rights than the Universal
Declaration, but it is absolutely clear about the source of those rights –
the will of God as discovered by man in the self-evident truth of human
equality.

It might appear that this central principle of the American Declaration
is less helpful to a people seeking justice than a list of rights that can
be particularly pursued. But this is to miss the point of the Declaration of
Independence. In declaring that human equality under God is the self-evident
truth that grounds all political judgment, the Declaration makes explicit
for the American people what is already the actual basis for their
deliberations about the requirements of justice. That is to say that the
Declaration of Independence is the public and formal expression of the
shared moral vision that really constitutes the American people. It is like
a marriage vow — a public and formal commitment to a reality already
acknowledged and fully intended.

Because the authors of the American Declaration spoke truly when they
said that the American people “hold these truths to be self evident,” they
didn’t need to go on to list the conclusions that follow from those truths.
They knew that the people could, for the most part, be relied upon to
conduct this reasoning all the time. And indeed, the history of the American
Republic is perhaps best understood as a continued reflection by the
American people on the meaning of the principles of the Declaration and the
particular requirements those principles impose upon us in the changing
circumstances of national life.

When a substantial section of the American people decided, in the course
of the 19th century, that they would no longer accept the burden of
justifying their way of life by appeal to the principles of the Declaration,
the result was the Civil War. That great conflict confirmed what our
Founders knew, and what the founders of the United Nations seem to have
forgotten — human communities cannot sustain peaceful existence
indefinitely unless their common life is based on a true, and truly shared,
moral vision.

In our time, we in America face a new form of this inescapable
requirement. Along with most of the “advanced” Western world, we have
tolerated a sustained attempt to discard the underlying structure of justice
by removing God and His law from any role in public life. But without the
discipline provided by that vision of eternal justice, the movement to
advance human rights in America has arrived rapidly at the absurdity that
the unborn have no human rights that must be respected.

This does not mean that the American regime is as flawed as the United
Nations. In America, defenders of human dignity can still point to the
original founding principles of American life, summarized and enshrined in
the Declaration and in more than two centuries of national effort to realize
them more perfectly in practice. While the American community is certainly
in danger of forgetting its own deepest principles, it is also quite
possible that we will remember them, for they remain alive in millions of
souls, and in many inherited institutions and practices that retain great
strength and prominence in our national life. The pro-life movement in
America has the great advantage of being aimed, above all, at prompting a
national recollection of who we still really are. We can point to the
Declaration, and invite our fellow citizens to come home to its eternal
truths.

To what universally held principles, and to what universal customs and
practices enshrining such principles, can the defenders of human dignity
appeal in the United Nations? The global community does not, in fact, share
a common moral vision, and the practices of the member states run the gamut
from the saintly to the monstrous.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the United Nations itself,
are something like an enormous bluff. It is as though the founders of the
United Nations decided that the moment was right for a large-scale effort at
pretending that moral agreement existed where it really did not. The hope
was that the bluff could be sustained long enough that the dissenting
nations could be brought into line.

The bluff has failed, and predictably so. The Soviet Union was both a
determined opponent of the Western moral vision, and an experienced
deceiver. Offered the opportunity to be treated as a member of the world
“community,” the Soviet Union gladly accepted, and proceeded to strive
mightily for decades to undermine that would-be community from within. And
there were plenty of other nations — less potent in their evil but no more
susceptible to the mild and confused moral encouragement the United Nations
offered — who were also willing to sign documents and otherwise participate
in the fiction of a global moral agreement as long as it was useful to their
own national and tyrannical interests.

Bluffing oneself is sometimes the road to virtue. When we promise
ourselves we will be good, and then try to live up to this commitment, we
can sometimes generate a kind of moral momentum as we strive to fulfill our
promise to ourselves. The American Founding was such a moment of promise in
the life of a people, and we have spent the last two centuries striving to
live up to the promises we made in the Declaration to ourselves and to the
world. Again and again we have reflected on what that document said we
believed and have turned back to our practical challenges with new resolve
to realize that original commitment.

We might call the American Founding a prudent bluff. It was prudent
because the formal commitment to seek justice was made out of a reasonable
confidence that the moral resources to fulfill that commitment existed in
the hearts of the American people. The formal commitment crystallized a
resolve that was latent in the founding generation, and then brought to the
surface by the circumstances of the Revolution and the requirement of
justifying our decision to go to war to gain our independence.

Were the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a
prudent bluff? The experience of 50 years has shown what should have been
clear from the beginning — the labor to fulfill our promises to ourselves
cannot be successful if we invite systematically vicious nations to help. We
will inevitably lower both our explicit standards and our implicit
expectations for their fulfillment, and we will lose our capacity to even
remember the goal of justice itself.

Prudence should have dictated then, and dictates now, that we concentrate
on identifying and encouraging those beachheads of political truth that
exist in the world, and on seeking first to form international communities
among those nations that are forthright and sincere in their acknowledgment
of moral truth.

The vision of human dignity, and the task of accomplishing justice, are
truly universal. As Americans we are heirs of that vision which declared
human equality to be self-evident. It is always “our business” how the goal
of respect for that equality is faring in the world. Prudence will usually
dictate that we aid the cause of justice more by way of example and
exhortation than by direct action. Humility too will caution us against
grand schemes in the world when we are not yet ourselves fulfilling the
demands of justice at home.

But just as the American Republic arose not from grand schemes of
national organization and political structure, but from the habits and
virtues of the people themselves in their local communities, so the
effective approach to justice internationally will not be through global
conferences and laboriously negotiated statements of “rights,” but through
the natural tendency of national communities of justice to cooperate with
one another on a larger scale.

And here we come to the reason that wise American patriots are the most
important internationalists. American sovereignty must be zealously guarded
so that the moral, political, and economic integrity of the American
Republic remains strong enough for America to lead the cooperative
international pursuit of justice as prudence dictates. And in this way we
will not only be faithful to the demands of prudence — we will also fulfill
our duty to God. Rejecting empty agendas of world unity that discard moral
principle does not mean that we reject a universal vision of justice. It
means instead that we understand that we must remove the beam in our own eye
before concerning ourselves with the mote in our brother’s eye. And it means
that we will be patient because we know that the perfection of justice is
not to be accomplished in our lifetimes, or indeed in this world. The
unseemly hurry of the U.N. to bring the still-hungry lions together with the
lambs is not only unwise — it just might be idolatrous. The final peace
among the nations will come in God’s good time, and by His hand. We labor
toward that goal in faith, tending first to our own affairs, and knowing
that our best deeds can but approximate the perfect justice that only God
can give.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.