Phaethon, that overweening and foolish son of Ovid’s Augustan epic, seeks the palace of the Sun in search of his estranged father. His father, Phoebus, driver of the solar chariot, welcomes his son and, eager to reconcile with him, offers young Phaethon not only legitimacy but also, in a blind fit of overindulgent parenting, the granting of any wish Phaethon desires. This is an unfortunate boon. Phaethon, proud and imprudent, asks to drive the solar chariot himself. Phoebus immediately recognizes the folly of this request and attempts to dissuade Phaethon, arguing that the young man lacks the expertise, strength, and knowledge to take up such a demanding venture. He’ll certainly set the world on fire if he tries to drive the solar chariot himself. Phaethon won’t listen though. He ignores his father and, sure enough, once behind the wheels, he sets the entire earth ablaze from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.
In Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition David C. Hendrickson argues that United States foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a disaster of Phaethonian proportions. Having abandoned a prudent foreign policy of republican liberalism described by Jefferson in his first inaugural address as “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” the United States now assumes the imperial chariot of a universalist revolutionary doctrine predicated upon strident militancy and global dominion all in the name of a liberalism it increasingly abandons. The results have been as damaging as Phaethon’s fateful ride for both global affairs and, indeed, America’s own domestic liberal republican tradition.
The meat of Hendrickson’s book is a careful and literary account—the book is very well written—of America’s counterproductive and bellicose foreign policy. The United States was right in establishing the liberal rules-based international order after the world wars. Where America errs, according to Hendrickson, is its refusal, increasingly the case after the Cold War, to play by those rules. Where an older tradition saw the prudence of nonintervention in the affairs of foreign states, current American foreign policy arrogates to itself the imperial power and responsibility of imposing the writ of liberal democracy upon those who would not have it on their own. This blind thwarting of international law creates more problems than it solves, according to Hendrickson.
Even Angelo, the malicious perverter of justice in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, recognizes that “thieves for their robbery have authority when judges steal themselves.” The United States rightly objects, for example, to international law violations such as Russia’s war in the Ukraine or Chinese island building in the South China Sea. These objections fall on deaf ears, however, when the United States itself clears the way for democracy in the Middle East by means of drone diplomacy and criminal military occupation.
What Hendrickson would have in place of the American regime’s regnant foreign policy is a new internationalism that stresses restraint instead of free latitude, defensive realism instead of interventionism, and diplomacy instead of the war machine. In his own words:
Rather than the revolutionary tradition that justifies state overthrow, the United States should return to this tradition of liberal pluralism, rejecting madcap ventures to overthrow the government of states. Rather than claiming a superior role as judge, jury, and executioner, it must share power in accordance with the Golden Rule. It should reconsider its belief in the efficacy of the use and threat of force, and undertake the gentle remedies that liberalism once encouraged. It must adopt a more defensive military posture, emphasizing attrition rather than annihilation, and rekindle its interest in arms control and limitation. It must reconnect with central elements of the liberal heritage, making the preservation of domestic liberty the first rule of its conduct of foreign relations. It needs restraint rather than braggadocio, acceptance of its role as a nation among nations rather than arrogant pretentions extolling its exceptional virtue and superior wisdom. I call it a renovation because, in conceiving of an alternative to America’s globalist posture, it does so by reverting to first principles and reconnecting with America’s tradition of republican liberty.
Such a foreign policy has many benefits, not the least of which is blowback minimization. As Seneca the Younger, counsel to one of history’s great imperial blunderers, once wrote: “while frequent punishment does crush the hatred of a few, it provokes the hatred of all. The will to harsh measures must therefore subside before harsh measures do; otherwise a king’s sternness will multiply enemies by destroying them, just as the lopped branches of trees shoot out many twigs, and many species of vegetation grow thicker when they are cut back. Parents and children, relatives and friends, step into the place of individuals who are put to death.”
Hendrickson’s idea of a new internationalism, so eloquently described in Republic in Peril, is worth exploring further. The debacle in the Middle East, born almost entirely of American meddling, alone demands it. Perhaps it’s now time for the United States to lay down the reins of the solar chariot and give up on any pretentions to global hegemony. The country and the world just may be better for it.