It is not a defect of a refrigerator that it does not make toast. And it is not a defect of your approach to foreign policy if the autocratic state you invaded is not a democratic state when you withdraw, if your primary goal was not to transform the autocratic state into a democratic state.
President Biden says he is not a Wilsonian idealist, someone who wanted a democratic Afghanistan in the same way JFK and LBJ wanted a democratic Vietnam during the Cold War. Nor does he say that the nation-building idealism that led us into Afghanistan (and Iraq) is a point of view he embraces.
The president, who is in the process of articulating and advancing the Biden Doctrine, should also say: The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan admittedly could have been executed more effectively. Yet a lesson for all, as he has essentially said, is to take the concept of nation-building off of our foreign policy pedestal.
Our pedestal goal in Afghanistan, Biden is telling us, was to protect ourselves from terrorist attacks. And by killing Osama bin Laden and destroying al-Qaida we achieved our goal. Although we spent $887 billion to do this, plus an additional $1.4 trillion in indirect costs, it is a miracle that we lost only 120 valiant American soldiers and advisors per year over the course of 20 years.
Since 9/11 we have no longer been fighting European-rooted wars or a geopolitical war with the former Soviet Union. America certainly has democratic ideals, but they cannot be packaged in 20th century terms.
The president has made it clear that we bless and express our deepest gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives for the people of the United States to live in safety and with less fear and anxiety. Yet we must understand that who runs Afghanistan is not a matter of preeminent importance to the United States. We are dedicated to saving every American, and we are pained by cruelty toward Afghans, especially women and children. But we cannot save the Afghan people or their country.
The United States, the Biden Doctrine is making clear, is not morally responsible to make the world safe for democracy for all peoples. We are instead morally responsible to protect the lives of our own people, even as we do what we can, within limits, to help those most vulnerable in the world.
The president will be leading a Summit on Democracy this December and again next year that will address the challenge of promoting democracies over autocratic regimes. This summit, however, should not frame its goals either with the point of view of Woodrow Wilson or George W. Bush. Promoting democracy in the third and fourth decades of the 21st century requires a more discriminating taxonomy of concepts than were needed in 2001 or 1962 or 1917.
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban provides a reality check on balancing the good we have done with the reality of the near impossible quest that was neither achieved nor a wise American goal. Yet it is possible for existing democracies to strengthen themselves and work together to fight the coronavirus, climate change and economic inequality. Eradicating autocratic regimes from the planet, on the other hand, is not very likely and should not be a primary goal for the world's democracies. The autocratic regimes should be contained as democratic nations move forward together.
Idealism and realism in international relations have been the two dominant approaches for 100 years. Our idealist tradition developed as a response to World War I and our realist tradition was fully developed during the Cold War. These are dated binary alternatives. A robust approach of pragmatism is still waiting to be articulated and advanced, one that would have a natural home in the American pragmatist tradition, one that includes figures ranging from John Dewey to Abraham Lincoln.
The Biden Doctrine that is emerging seeks to find a third way that is to be found less in between Wilson and Richard Nixon than over and above them — a point of view that carves out an ambitious new center in foreign affairs. We want to affirm our own democratic ideals and collaborate with other established or budding democracies, but we do not want to police the world or engage in nation-building.
This same robust pragmatism is needed in our domestic politics in order to achieve civility, common ground and bipartisanship. The Biden Doctrine abroad therefore needs to be quilted together with a Biden approach to domestic politics.
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Political theorists, philosophers of social science, pundits and the media are essentially right to say that we live in a "post-truth" society, even world. This viewpoint has been associated with left-wing academics in the postmodernist and deconstruction traditions and right-wing autocratic leaders like former President Donald Trump, namely leaders who regularly depart from saying what is true.
Trump, according to The Washington Post, made false or misleading statements 30,573 times while in office. In their most extreme form, these leaders advance manifestly untrue claims and build their politics around them. For Trump, the "Big Lie" that the Democrats stole the White House from him is the supreme example of a manifestly untrue claim, at least according to the judges, state legislatures and other politicians who refused to buy into his narrative.
Truth, notably a factual accounting of the world, has definitely lost value. Either Trump and many Republicans painted very misleading or plainly false pictures of reality or they transcended the very distinction between truth and falsity and made the concept of truth itself meaningless. Politicians are not historically known as the most honest of professionals, but the dishonesty in the last five years has been elevated to its highest peak in American history.
What has driven this loss is an ethical concept, namely lying. Getting the truth wrong about a given state of affairs does not in itself reveal any ethical failing. Failing to state the facts, whether the topic concerns voting irregularities, climate change science, deaths as a result of handguns in 2020 or the number of people who have received two Covid-19 vaccines in a given state, may arise out of ignorance. It is only when someone intentionally misleads others to believe that a given state of affairs is true when it is actually false that an ethical wrong has been committed.
The deception that drives so much of the extremist agenda (and the way the far wings of a party use it to manipulate and harm the public) is one of the principal causes of the feelings of loss of trust experienced by those not on the wings. Admittedly, the majority of Americans in both major parties as well as independents have suffered a loss of trust in our political institutions since Vietnam and Watergate. Trump did not start this ball rolling. But he did snowball it for over half of the country.
The concept of a post-truth society is valuable, but it needs to be supplemented with a concept of a post-ethics society. The concept of post-truth, though it involves some ethical concepts, does not get us all the ethical values we need to adequately explain the sorry state of our democratic institutions.
Post-truth is chiefly about social and physical reality and whether politicians (and the media) are lying about it and using those lies to harm us in various ways. Yet politicians do a lot more when it comes to unethical conduct than deceive others about reality and then manipulate them based on the deception.
They also create outrageous gerrymandered districts. They engage in highly questionable campaign finance tactics. They refuse to grant Supreme Court confirmation hearings for brilliant judges. They obstruct justice. They make outrageous promises they can't keep. Above all, they promote an extremely polarized U.S. capital that makes it near impossible to pass laws about major societal problems ranging from climate change to paid parental leave to immigration.
Over half of the country according to most polls has lost trust in what we are told are the facts — what is empirical truth, what is reality. About three quarters of us have lost trust in our federal government, while most polls for years have revealed that there is much more trust in our state and local governments.
So, yes, we do live in a post-truth society. But we also live in a post-ethics society — and actually a post-reality society, because about half of our politicians do not trust science and frequently do not tell the truth. We are a post-ethics society chiefly because we cannot trust politicians to put partisanship aside to address extremely pressing problems before us. The crisis in American democracy will not be resolved unless we address both problems.
Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014), has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.
One of the great tests of our time — the scientific discovery of Covid-19 vaccines versus the morally irresponsible conduct of tens of millions of Americans who for many months before we had the vaccines refused to wear masks and maintain social distance — illustrates a basic axiom of human life: Science and technology are always getting better, but moral relations are not.
You need only compare the second half of the 19th century with the first half of the 20th century to prove the point. Is there really a good argument to be made that moral relations in the world improved in the first half of the 20th century when European civilization was the source of two world wars ,which led to the death of more than 100 million people?
There was plenty of good in the first half of the 20th century also — including the Progressive Era in the United States, where Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Congress reined in U.S. industry in order to root out monopolies, created markets that were more fair, and protected consumers from illness and death caused by poor practices in the production of food. But if you add up the good and the harmful in the United States and around the world, it is hard to say with a straight face that moral relations overall improved over the previous half-century.
Science and technology, on the other hand, are always improving — whether it is the plow becoming the steam engine or the steam engine becoming electricity. Even electricity becoming nuclear power is progress. When nuclear power was used not to power homes and factories but intentionally to harm people in World War II, the quantum mechanics and the technology that were used to build the bombs were not themselves responsible for the weapons of mass destruction that killed close to 200,000 civilians. Moreover, President Harry Truman claimed the atomic bombs would end the war.
Science and technology are value-neutral. Science tells you how the world works — physics, chemistry, biology, all of the natural sciences are not infused with moral values. Science enables you to explain and predict features of reality; technology enables you to harness scientific truths to create products that do things, be they bombs, medicine, MRI machines, cars, ovens, airplanes, laptops, air conditioners, iPhones, tractors, solar panels or electric wheelchairs.
Democracy took off after the end of the Cold War. Yet democracy has been in decline around the world in the last 10 years, in Turkey, in Hungary, in China, in Russia and in the United States of America. Indeed, in the United States the most basic part of our democratic system is under threat, namely elections themselves.
The scorecard of science and technology versus moral relations reminds us that discovery demands less from us than doing what we ought to do from the moral point of view as a body politic and as individuals. A morally callous, even vicious, person can make a scientific discovery, even one that took 20,000 hours of dedication. But a morally callous, certainly vicious, person cannot treat others with respect, cannot promote gender equality, and cannot work to eliminate economic inequality. Likewise, a society that can use science to produce any number of new forms of technology may fail to achieve basic values of freedom, equality and community.
Science and technology are critical to the survival of humanity and the improvement of human life. But only by making sound moral judgments, and only by working cooperatively with other people we respect and treat with dignity, can we use science and technology for the good.
It is not a matter of choosing science and technology or the good and the just. We need both. But it is not a defect of the good and the just that they do not always progress in the same way that it is not a defect of a refrigerator that it does not make toast. Instead, this fact is a reminder that free, conscious human decisions, made alone and together, are necessary for moral relations to improve.
Whether we are trying to eradicate the coronavirus in all of its variants worldwide, confront the climate crisis, achieve racial equity, rebuild our economy or protect our system of elections, it is best to remember that moral progress is harder to come by than scientific progress.