Toward a New Theology of Foreign Policy

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…institutions must advance also…. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

—Thomas Jefferson

In his cleverly condescending paper, “The Theology of Foreign Policy,” published in First Things magazine in May, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute (formerly a senior director on the National Security Council of the George W. Bush administration) characterizes two “hidden camps” within the US foreign policy establishment that are influenced by the fundamentalist and modernist currents of American Protestantism.

His favored camp, the “Jacksonians,” ostensibly believe that one of the roles of the presidency should be to check “unaccountable and unrepresentative concentrations of political and economic power. Jacksonian democracy places trust in the wisdom of the common man, which it favors over rule by experts.”

Yet Doran, a loyalist to President Donald Trump, remains unperturbed by the concentration of political and economic power in the Trump administration, to the extent that it has been lying to the American public about the reality of our climate’s instability and sabotaging efforts to accelerate the global economy’s transition to a more sustainable path.

There’s often good reason to be wary of “experts,” given that many of them are employed by innocuous-sounding front organizations purporting to act in the interest of the people. That’s no reason to disdain experts broadly, however, but rather to develop the ability to better identify those who actually are acting to promote the general welfare. The “wisdom of the common man” is otherwise easily engineered from above to cause people to vote against their own interests, as occurred in the 2016 presidential election.

Democracy and International Security

“[President Andrew] Jackson believed that Americans were a chosen people in a promised land,” Doran opines. “Yet he imagines an America that is rather aloof, a shining city on a hill, not the headquarters of a global democratic revolution.”

Successive administrations have wrestled with the degree to which the US should advance its values around the world. These efforts have been undertaken in inherent dynamic tension with the nation’s more immediate security priorities, such as maintaining cooperative relationships with various authoritarian governments in the Middle East to counter violent extremist groups.

As the Arab conflicts of 2010 to the present have demonstrated, sustained political and economic development support from the world’s democracies will be essential to nudge these countries onto a more sustainable track.

Then there is Russia, whose authoritarian government, driven by imperial nostalgia, is attempting to sow fear, chaos, and division throughout the West and roll back the advance of democracy in Eastern Europe.

The spread of the malignancies of terrorism and authoritarianism makes clear that the United States must engage proactively to ensure that “the torch of freedom” remains lit throughout the democratic world and continues to expand. Americans must do so first and most importantly by firmly defending our own democracy from monarchic elements working to undermine it from within.

Political Economy and the Fracturing of the Liberal Democratic Order

Doran disdains progressives who, in contrast to Jacksonians, purportedly believe in “man’s perfectible nature and his ability to improve his situation through his own agency—or through government agencies.” Individual liberty is the biggest concern of the Jacksonian, “whereas the progressive focuses more intently on destroying inequality.”

Humans may not be perfectible, but they are certainly capable of moral evolution. Their destructive impulses will not be eliminated, but they have been tamed or channeled in more constructive directions in part via the laws, political structures, civil society groups, and other moderating influences they have developed to civilize their polities. This is clearly demonstrated by the American Revolution itself or by the construction of the post-World War II order, which brought a sustainable peace to Europe through the present.

Doran also hyperbolizes progressives’ intent in the realm of economic policy. It is not to “destroy” inequality but rather to use government for the purpose America’s founders intended it for: to promote the “general welfare” rather than use it as an instrument for the concentration of economic and political power. Only by restoring a healthy balance between the individual liberty of the wealthiest classes—whose liberty he is actually referring to—and those below them who have helped make their wealth possible will democratic vitality be restored to the Western world.

The Architecture of Global Governance in a Globalized World

“The Jacksonian persuasion casts a suspicious eye on the United Nations,” Doran continues, concluding that the UN “looks like a world government in embryo: an entity that, if allowed to grow, will smother the liberty of the American people.”

However, the antithesis is true. Now more than ever, the international community needs to construct the political and legal architecture for vital cooperation on a range of matters, from nuclear and climate security, to labor and reproductive rights, to the disruptive economic and security implications of artificial intelligence.

UN bodies ultimately still represent the interests of their member states. Many of those states remain authoritarian and they will continue to attempt to manipulate these bodies for their geopolitical gain.

American diplomats will retain the ability to navigate these complex but necessary entanglements effectively if, and only if, the US maintains a strong moral, political, economic, and military foundation.


Doran adds,

The Anglo-American millenarianism of the nineteenth century (which fed into the Protestant fundamentalism of the early twentieth century) was Zionist. It was Zionist before there was an organized Jewish Zionist movement.  Because the return of the Jews to the Holy Land anticipates the return of Christ, American fundamentalism has always considered support for Zionism a proper use of government power….Not so the Protestant modernists.

One can support Israel’s right to exist and US defense commitments to its ally while condemning Israel’s illegal colonial expansion into the West Bank and unconditional US support of it, whether motivated explicitly by religious nationalism or otherwise. Perpetuating conflict rooted in the competing religious narratives of the Abrahamic religions is a formula for disaster.

Toward a New Theology of Foreign Policy

Doran concludes that “These began as religious disagreements. Yet even as God recedes from our public life, the disagreements persist. Perhaps it is because God has receded that they persist. In a secular world, there is no universal moral authority capable of adjudicating between the two sides. All we have now are the experts.”

There is no universal moral authority in objective reality, and scientific discoveries over the last several centuries have taught us that the Judeo-Christian construct is an inadequate substitute. It does not accord with modern discoveries and its deity, although characterized as loving, is also intemperate, vindictive, and arbitrary.

Our continued evolution as a human civilization will require the establishment of a foundation of moral values that are not dependent on the perpetually warring Abrahamic religions but are empirically determined to be essential to the survival and moral advancement of human civilization. “Thou shalt not murder” not because “God” commands it but simply because murder is antithetical to these fundamental goals.

The utility of religion as a brake on the excesses of human impulses toward experimentation, which are not always foreseeable as detrimental to society, may be outweighed by its role in retarding the advancement of civilization and even threatening its survival.

As religion continues to be exploited not only by Middle Eastern and Russian potentates but also by an openly authoritarian American president and his naïve, cynical, or delusional loyalists in the religious establishment, it is time for the development of a new values construct. This could be based on a notional deity that inspires us to continuously strive to be our best selves and realize the innate rewards of doing so—perhaps as a conceptual bridge—or an entirely secular humanist concept altogether.

No god, so far as we can know, is going to save us from ourselves. We only have each other. We would be wise to act accordingly, however challenging a paradigm shift this will be away from the “wisdom of the common man.”