Can a Decadent Nation
Impose International Peace?‡
In previous issues of this publication we have assessed American culture
and politics and found them to have reached a subterranean ebb. To those
diverted by the nation’s ostensible financial prosperity, we rejoined that
the "destruction of what Burke called ‘the unbought grace of life’ may
not be incorporated in the positivists’ quantitative models, but it can
be seen—and heard—in the real world every day. . . . In our cultural lives
we celebrate banality and worship celebrity. In our political lives we
blithely obey and sustain with our taxes a government that violates its
constitutional charter with impunity." While claiming the highest benevolence
toward all the world, we’ve become a nation of people who by and large
lack even the common courtesy toward our neighbors to dress presentably
or speak felicitously in public.
As citizens—nurtured along, to be sure, by those who set the cultural
tone in this society: those who determine what can and cannot be said or
written, what matters and what does not—we now tolerate the most blatant
abuses of governmental power. Travelgate, Ruby Ridge, Waco—all are quickly
forgotten. Americans now accept the most hideous injustices to their fellow
Americans, just so long as their own friends or loved ones are spared for
the moment. The nation’s lofty motto, E Pluribus Unum, has been
replaced in practice by the less exalted, if more pithy, I’ve got mine,
Jack! Public expectations have sunk so low that politicians in the United
States hardly bother anymore to try to camouflage, when present, a lack
of integrity or public purpose. Vice does not even feel constrained any
longer, as in the past, to pay to virtue the minimal tribute of hypocrisy.
I reiterate this disheartening tale of moral and cultural implosion
not to wallow in misery but to provide necessary background for a question
of increasing urgency: In its relations with other sovereignties, can a
nation such as the United States in its current metamorphosis be expected
to promote international civility and justice as a matter of course, or
should realistic observers—Americans and foreigners alike—be more cautious
in their expectations? The question assumes added urgency in light of America’s
post-Cold War position as the world’s preeminent military and economic
Following the Founding Fathers’ advice that the best guide to the future
is to be found in the lessons of history, I think we can learn much, near
the end of the twentieth century, by considering carefully what Irving
Babbitt, one of that century’s most sagacious American thinkers, had to
say on the same subject early in the century.
In a two-part article in the Nation ("The Breakdown of Internationalism,
Part I," 17 June 1915, and "The Breakdown of Internationalism, Part II,"
24 June 1915), and more comprehensively in his 1924 book Democracy and
Leadership, Babbitt sought to explain the condition of the human will and
imagination that had produced the catastrophe of World War I, so soon after
world leaders had spoken expectantly of an unprecedented era of peace and
In these and other writings, historian Richard M. Gamble has noted,1
"Babbitt was most concerned with the displacement in international relations
of ethical control by an unrestrained will to power, a tendency he found
all the more striking . . . in an age that boasted of its democratic, progressive,
and humanitarian principles." While some would argue that World War I broke
out in spite of these nineteenth-century ideals, writes Gamble, "Babbitt,
in contrast to his age, responded that the war had come about precisely
because of this expansive idealism."
Babbitt, like Edmund Burke before him, traced the beginnings of modern
nationalism and modern internationalism to the French revolution and the
Romantic temperament exemplified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his admirers.
Unlike the English and American revolutions with their limited political
goals, the French Revolution waged cultural warfare against inherited institutions,
including monarchy and the church, and carried its revolutionary doctrines
into neighboring countries. The French revolutionaries viewed the historical
institutions of individual nations as barriers to an instinctive international
fraternity that only needed to be set free to express itself. But, Gamble
writes, following Babbitt: "By spreading ‘brotherhood,’ France ironically
produced intense nationalism, both within France itself—as the European
coalition fought to contain the ‘Christ of nations’ and reverse the revolution—and
outside France as its mass army waged an ideological crusade and sparked
nationalist resistance among its neighbors. Sentimental brotherhood in
the eighteenth century had ended with all of Europe at war; the ‘will to
brotherhood’ had been revealed as the ‘will to power,’ externally in empire-building
and internally in the ideological imperialism of the Reign of Terror."
Sentimental Morality Brings Chaos
Applying this lesson of history to 1915, Babbitt cautioned against
the easy tendency to identify Germany as the sole impediment to peace.
Germany’s expansive living, and its attempt to export a decadent Kultur,
he pointed out, was symptomatic of a problem that affected all of Europe,
America, and elsewhere. Germany was dominated by a widely held naturalistic
view of human nature that since the late eighteenth century had displaced
traditional Christianity and humanism. At the heart of the breakdown of
internationalism, said Babbitt, was naturalism’s revolt against the dual
tradition of Christian and humanistic self-discipline.
Traditional humanism and Christianity had recognized the inner struggle
between the individual’s "permanent self" and "ordinary self," with happiness
and true peace possible only through ethical control. By contrast, the
naturalistic humanitarians, sometimes known today as secular humanists,
stressed humanity’s collective struggle for material progress while downplaying
the struggle between good and evil within the individual heart. The "lovers
of humanity" denied the necessity of this moral struggle, rejecting all
"convention" as "unnatural" and "artificial." The basis of morality was
no longer the disciplinary virtues, but rather sympathy, benevolence, "humanity"—in
today’s terminology, tolerance or respect for diversity.
Seeing morality and virtue as matters of the external world rather
than the inner person, the naturalistic humanitarians are "expansive" or
"imperialistic" in temperament. Not having to reform himself or herself,
the humanitarian "beautiful soul" can devote full time to reforming the
world. The humanitarians made compassion serve as the sum of all virtues.
The rationalistic (Baconian) humanitarian hoped to change the world by
tinkering with institutions and governmental programs, the emotional (Rousseauist)
humanitarian by spreading the gospel of brotherhood. Frequently, the two
orientations were found in the same persons.
Having defined the predominant temperament of the modern individual,
Babbitt then examined its effect on nations, finding the national temperament
of Germany and the rest of Europe rooted in the same humanitarianism that
produced indulgent, expansive chaos within individual souls. As the individual
in the humanitarian age submitted to no "inner check" or "veto" over his
own impulses, so too the expansive nation recognized only its own civilizing
mission or its divine calling to "uplift" other peoples. Add to this impulse
the increasing pressures of population, limited resources, and economic
rivalry, and it was clear, Babbitt continued, that "the problem of adjusting
the relations between highly expansive individuals and nationalities is
indeed the modern problem par excellence." It was a problem that both forms
of naturalistic humanitarianism had revealed themselves to be singularly
incapable of addressing.
The "fatal flaw" of humanitarian internationalism, according to Babbitt,
is its assumption, contrary to Thomas Hobbes, that the state of nature
is not a war of all against all stemming from man’s continual lusting after
power, but rather a Rousseauist dream world. The French Revolution had
proved Hobbes correct, Babbitt argued; the "will to power" had overwhelmed
the "will to brotherhood." The removal of customary restraints had brought
anarchy, not peace.
But if both sympathy and self-interest failed to restrain national ambition
and failed to build a new commonality among peoples to replace the lost
Christendom of the Middle Ages, did humanity have no alternative to the
present anarchy brought by expansive impulse other than Hobbesian despotism?
There was hope, said Babbitt, but a monumental effort of will and imagination
would be necessary. What was needed was a reversal of the trend toward
the "sham spirituality" of humanitarian expansiveness and its replacement
with the true spirituality of self-discipline that was central to both
traditional humanism and Christianity. Rather than yield to impulse and
assert their temperamental selves, individuals had to come together at
"a common center" beyond themselves, whether that limiting, disciplining
center be the example of Christ or the humanist’s law of measure. For nations,
also, only recognition of the "common center" could produce true internationalism,
an internationalism built on self-control, not impulse.
Democracy Not Inherently Peaceful
Babbitt was emphatic that the fashionable ideas of his day—which were
much the same as in ours—did not hold the key to international peace, nor
to producing the kind of leaders essential to that purpose. It was not
sufficient to be "progressive"—one had to know toward what one was progressing—nor
to talk of "peace" and "liberty" and "humanity"; one had to define these
terms or risk wandering in a world of delusion. Carelessness and confusion
concerning the meaning and limits of democracy had done particular damage,
Simply more democracy, mere quantitative democracy, was not the cure
for social strife or international war. There was nothing inherently peaceful
or unifying about pure democracy; on the contrary, quantitative or majoritarian
democracy had shown a manifest historical tendency toward imperialism.
Any democracy that abandoned internal moral and constitutional constraints
on political will would soon grow impatient with checks on its external
imperial will as well. Any democracy, including the American, that abandoned
its moral and constitutional "veto powers" in favor of a capricious popular
will would only hasten its decline into social anarchy and precipitate
a plunge toward an impulsive and dangerous foreign policy.
Leaders of Character Indispensable
Though Babbitt feared that America would follow democracy’s tendency
toward empire, he did not think such a decline was inevitable or irreversible.
The solution lay in the virtue and wisdom of individual citizens and their
leaders. Citizens had to be law-abiding, not in a legal sense only but
by submitting to self-scrutiny and self-discipline. This inner discipline
would not result from the endless multiplication of laws to regulate behavior—a
tendency even more pronounced in our own time than in Babbitt’s—which Babbitt
saw as a sign of moral failure rather than of true control. Nor would it
result from muckraking journalists’ pointing an accusatory finger at everyone
else and thereby encouraging an attitude directly opposite that of the
truly critical spirit; nor from the major news media which tended to trivialize
every issue; nor from the modern education system which did not teach critical
reading and reflection.
Babbitt found hope in education for wisdom and virtue rather than for
power and service.
But America’s will to power also needed to be restrained by the kind
of leader that only a humane education could produce. While the humanitarian
pursued peace through external manipulation of the world’s material condition,
the humanist, said Babbitt, would rather "make sure first that our society
has leaders who have imposed upon their impulses the yoke of the human
law, and so have become moderate and sensible and decent." Babbitt noted
that traditional Christianity—before its transformation into sentimental
humanitarianism—also taught that peace in the human heart was prerequisite
to peace among individuals and societies. This was true of other traditions
such as Buddhism and Confucianism as well. The character of leaders mattered,
because character would be translated into policy.
Babbitt’s prescriptions were ignored, and the twentieth century became
a byword for war, totalitarianism, and holocausts. Now, in America’s current
national administration we have all of the characteristics Babbitt warned
against in leaders. Can it be mere coincidence that in 1999, sixty-six
years after Babbitt’s death, the exact phrase chosen by the President of
the United States to describe his policy toward Yugoslavia was "humanitarian
If America is to become a true force for peace, and not the latest successor
to revolutionary France as the foremost disturber of world tranquility,
it will have to be done not through grand military alliances and international
bombast but by revitalizing the institutions and customs of justice and
the kind of restraint that is the highest achievement of civilization.
That will require redirecting our schools, both public and private, so
that they will emphasize the indispensability of humanizing self-discipline,
reflection, judgment, and personal decorum. It also will require increased
respect for the spirit of constitutionalism at home and for the history,
customs, and sovereign immunities of other nations.
1 Richard M. Gamble, “The ‘Fatal
Flaw’ of Internationalism: Babbitt on Humanitarianism,” Humanitas,
9:2 (1996), 4-18. The following summary of Babbitt’s critique is heavily
indebted to Gamble’s narrative.
‡From the National Humanities Bulletin, Summer
*Joseph Baldacchino is President of the National Humanities
Copyright © 2010 NATIONAL HUMANITIES
Updated 29 July 2010