Reclaiming America’s True Power

Gary Hart

A great deal of the more than forty years I’ve spent in public service, off and on, has been dedicated to consideration of America’s constitutional principles derived from our republican founding and heritage. Particularly, I’ve thought about how those principles and ideals condition our foreign policy, how we relate to the rest of the world.

Those principles both provide great power and, at the same time, condition our behavior. Great nations traditionally possess three powers: economic, political, and military. I’ve called America’s founding principles our “fourth power” (The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the Twenty-First Century, Oxford University Press, 2004).

These principles that define our fourth power include equality, freedom, and justice. They commit us to the rule of law and an independent judiciary, gender and racial equality, freedom of political expression and a free press, the sovereignty of the people, the sanctity of private property, and other freedoms and liberties. Prior to 1789, few if any nations had incorporated these principles into a written constitution, and no nation has claimed them for the 220 years that we have.

As a child of evangelical Christianity and a student at Yale Divinity School, I have considered the correlation between these principles and our Judeo-Christian heritage. Periodically, including in recent years, political efforts are made to claim that our principles derive directly from our Christian heritage. Though I reject the motivations of those making these claims and insist on protecting the church and the state from each other with Jeffersonian rigor, there is something to this.

At their noblest, America’s ideals incorporated into our Constitution derive in some degree from both Judaism and Christianity’s claims concerning the worth of the individual, the uniqueness of the human spirit, respect for law, insistence on justice in both its legal and social sense, and respect for human life. Our ethical systems and our moral imperatives derive from these traditions. Even so, we insist that our national charter is a secular, not a religious, document.

When I consider, however, how these principles influence our national conduct in the world and whether that conduct resonates or offends, I also reflect on the fact that resonance, the positive communication of our actions and motives to others, occurs partly because of the tenets of other faiths and religions as well. Some consider our religious heritage superior. But even the most amateur of students of world religions knows that many themes contained in our Judeo-Christian heritage are embraced in varying degrees by the rest of the world’s major religions both Western and Eastern.

In other words, when America lives up to its constitutionally mandated principles and ideals we behave in ways that others expect and respect. Further, having incorporated many of these principles into our national charter, we have exceeded almost all other nations in stating who we are and what we believe. When we live up to our stated ideals, we gain moral authority—the “fourth power.”

Alas, the reverse is also true. Our lofty principles and ideals condition our behavior. During the Cold War and the “war on terrorism,” we have compromised and occasionally abandoned our ideals in the interest of expediency. The enemy of our enemy, regardless of that nation’s conduct, became our friend. In the name of promoting democracy, we have consorted with dictators, oligarchs, and repressive governments. We have overthrown uncooperative governments. We have attempted to assassinate foreign leaders. Congress recently gave the president the authority to suspend the right of habeas corpus, the principle most central to the rule of law. We have confined prisoners for years without due process of law and we have tortured them.

It is inconceivable that our political leaders cannot know the damage in loss of respect and the subsequent sacrifice of moral authority this behavior causes us. No American with an ounce of sense can believe that this conduct, even when carried out in the name of “promoting democracy,” goes without notice in an age of information. Of course, we make no claims to perfection. But hypocrisy is the space between what one claims and how one behaves. By that standard too often Noble America has permitted itself to become Great Hypocrite.

Our principles and ideals do not require us to sacrifice our security in their interest. Indeed, the greatest challenge the United States faces in the early twenty-first century is to achieve the highest possible degree of national security without sacrificing its principles. This is difficult, but properly managed it is not impossible.

It requires us to seek at home and abroad the common interest, the common good, and the commonwealth. It requires us to create what I would call the security of the global commons.

This goal cannot be achieved through unilateral or preemptive warfare. It cannot be achieved by threat and intimidation. It can be done by adopting the only successful counterterrorism strategy in modern history—isolation of the terrorists from the larger community. The security of this larger community, the global commons, now being the world, requires utmost cooperation between all nations, including Russia and China, similarly threatened. Organizing the global commons will be achieved by diplomacy, not coercion. At the moment we are preoccupied with coercion and its many prices, at the expense of world-class and moral diplomacy.

The late George Kennan, a true statesman and author of the famous “X telegram” sixty years ago (and rewritten for Foreign Affairs) that became the basis for containment of communism, wrote in that historic article: “To avoid destruction, the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a nation.”

Our principles, our national claim for self-definition, contain a strength beyond that which our superior military and giant economy provide. They ennoble us. They resonate throughout the world. They invite respect. They give us, when we live up to them, moral authority in the world.

There are two sides to the coin of American citizenship: the rights of a democracy and the duties of a republic. In recent times we have claimed our rights without performing our duties. I can state my political philosophy in one sentence: we must earn our rights by performance of our duties. Among those duties is the exercise of civic virtue, citizen participation in the public affairs of the day. No duty is more important than the careful selection of our leaders.

At stake is not which candidate is highest in the polls or has raised the most money or has the cleverest advisers. At stake is the restoration of America’s moral authority in the world, its stature, and its nobility.

Gary Hart, who earned a degree from Yale Divinity School in 1961 and from Yale Law School in 1964, is a former two-term United States Senator (D-CO) and former presidential candidate. His books include God and Caesar in America: An Essay on Religion and Politics (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 2005).