What First Principles?

Tonight’s film was Romero (1989).

Earlier this year my eldest and I were talking about a paper due for her international politics class on the Middle East, the U. S. national interest, and grand strategy. She didn’t know where to start. I asked, what are our interests globally? Whose interests are they? How does the Middle East fit in context? What is the objective? How is why we do something different from what we say is why we do something? The professor had opened a can of worms asking about “strategy.”

What if post-war American foreign policy had been less concerned with Communist aggression and commercial imperialism? What would it have looked like? How would the world now differ in that case? Not how would things be better or worse, but how would they be different? Each decision opens some paths, closes others.

It was not necessary, for example, to choose France over the Viet Minh, but we did. It was not necessary to choose the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over Mohammad Mosaddeq, but we did. Nor United Fruit over Árbenz, Batista over Castro, Pinochet over Allende, and so forth. But we did. Which would seem to indicate some sort of strategery—an excellent neologism, BTW—but perhaps not one in the national interest as much as in the interests of those who’ve held the reins of government.

It’s strange to even imagine how policy might change, much less what policies one might have, to benefit the nation as a whole. Inertia seems inevitable. It’s almost as if one needs some principle of behavior, some concept of what the public good is, that could guide government actors. Perhaps this could be a principle that might suggest what a just government is and what it can and should do. Perhaps this principle could suggest it might not be prudent or just to sell weapons to a country which primarily uses them to kill its own citizens, particularly those citizens who dare ask it to stop killing them.

Such a principle might even inform domestic policy. It might even make it relatively simple to decide the correct course of action when an agent of the state like, oh, I dunno, a police officer, murders someone on camera while several of his fellow officers stand idly by.

If only we knew what the right thing to do was. How will we ever know?

The integralists’ arguments might be more enticing if they themselves weren’t personally cheerleading the abuse of power. To put this another way, they would spit on Dorothy Day because she dared tell Cardinal Spellman he was wrong. Some are old enough that it is not inconceivable they approved of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero, for the same reasons that today they disapprove of protests against police brutality.

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