In his lectures at Yale last week, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer highlighted a remarkable quality of the Court in this country: the people’s willingness to respect its legitimacy. Even when the result of a presidential election is contested, as it was in Bush v. Gore, we do not take to the streets and violently challenge the decision. This fact, says Justice Breyer, continues to impress foreign judges in Asia and Africa who lack such authority.
Indeed, lawfulness in America requires faith of the best sort: faith in our institutions and their capacity to deliver justice.
And this faith, at least in part, has made America great. We needed the settlers who braved the journey to the New World believing they could create a nation and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “faith act” of 1963, the decision to go to a jail in Birmingham; we continue to need the entrepreneurs who take risks to make our country an innovative one and policy makers willing to take risks to preserve the free world.
But this faith in foreign policy has been lost recently. As Americans, we used to see ourselves as the spreaders of democracy, implementers of Marshall Plans and indoctrinators of human rights; we used to be proud of it. But now, we frequently speak about the impending post-American world. We might prefer calculated risk and enjoy solving problems, but only when we have all the answers or can predict the outcomes. We aid Haiti because it is the right thing to do, but at the same time, we have nearly given up on more unpredictable engagements in places such as Iraq. Our malaise is not the product of insufficient inspiration, but rather a regressive quest for certainty and security. We profess hope because we don’t really believe.
And in the end, we falter because of our faithlessness. Admittedly, American optimism inevitably leads us to sometimes bite off more than we can chew. We should be humbled by our shortcomings, but also understand they are failures of men, not of American ideals. While there is a time and place for skepticism, the fact is, the American Century has not yet come to a close. We accelerate our decline when we suggest otherwise.
Instead, we need to have faith in tradition as a guide into uncharted territory, in our ability to harness the accelerating changes of this decade and the fact that a stable, prosperous and free world knows no stronger ally than the United States. When we enter into foreign affairs, we need to do so with the courage of our convictions. When President Harry S. Truman recognized Israel, he did so emphatically — 11 minutes after the country declared its independence — even though there was disagreement within his own cabinet about whether the decision was politically expedient or even right. The clear mandate sent by Truman, in turn, spurred later presidents to support Israel when it mattered; even President Richard Nixon, who is noted for his anti-Semitism, was willing to act.
This is not to say that we should act rashly or make contentious policy decisions without thinking through their consequences. Indeed, Truman could make his decision confidently in part because he fully understood the strain on relations with the Arab world then-Secretary of State George Marshall feared such action would cause. But when we choose not to act because too little consideration has been given to an issue, the results are also dire. Rwanda was one of Clinton’s “big regrets.” On the other hand, when the United States takes action, places like Bosnia-Herzegovina better for it.
Bold, brave action cannot alone deliver on the promise of a better world. But inaction certainly won’t. We can worry about the brilliance of our theorists in light of new competitors, we can worry about our reputation abroad, but if we cower from action, neither the precision of our machines nor our prestige abroad will matter.
Lauren Noble is a junior in Pierson College.