English: HOUSTON, TEXAS. President Vladimir Putin making a public address at Rice University. Русский: ХЬЮСТОН. Выступление в Университете Райса. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have recently heard the words of Vladimir Putin described as “insightful, diplomatic, and very statesmanlike.” Mr. Putin had some strong and sobering things to say to the American people in his op-ed in the New York Times on September 11. I have to admit that, as someone who lived through the final days of the cold war, I find the prospect that the leader of the old Soviet Union would be correcting America on foreign policy to be a bit jarring. However, with only one or two concerns, I must agree, his comments are just and appropriate. America should take heed.
Likely the most useful comment in the op-ed is his comment that, “The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” While Putin gives to much authority to the United Nations, his observation that the law is still the law and we must follow it whether we like it or not rings down through the ages as advice to which the administration should harken. Our government has lost its way with regard to being a government constrained by law. It should heed this advice even if it comes from the former Soviet Union.
In order to critique Mr. Putin’s argument, we turn to the ancient just war theory developed by Saints Augustine and Aquinas. According to the just war theory, in order for a war to be just, it must meet three conditions. First, it must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. Second, it must have a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power. Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.
Mr. Putin’s thoughts are consistent with each of these principles. It is clear that he is communicating to a properly instituted authority, the United States Government. He succinctly and usefully sums up the second and third condition by declaring that force is permitted only in self-defense. But he does not leave his discussion there. His op-ed goes on to detail how America’s intervention will violate the second and third conditions in bringing on more violence to the middle-east.
Mr. Putin’s submission to the U.N. Security Council and his observation that war is only defensible in the context of consensus are difficult to justify. Each independent sovereign does have the independent right to defend its citizens. Sir William Blackstone has observed that all of mankind must necessarily be divided into several independent states guided by the law of nature. And if it takes consensus to prosecute a war, why is there a need for a just war theory, for disagreement is the very thing that propagates war? With consensus there is no impetus for war.
But Mr. Putin does not stop there. He has some well-chosen words for our national leaders. These words of Mr. Putin are alarming:
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
Again, Mr. Putin is correct. What just purpose in defending this nation can the United States claim in attacking Syria? None. Even during the days of the second Gulf War, President George W. Bush made repeated spurious claims the United States would bring democracy to the middle-east. If President Bush had read the Founding Fathers, he would know that “democracy” or a free and constitutional republic (as a more accurate description) is only sustainable by a moral and religious people. It is unsuitable for any other, as John Adams observed. If democracy cannot be imposed by force on warring peoples, what use is it to try? It is sheer arrogance. With Syria, unlike with the second Gulf War, we do not even have a hypothetical claim that we will diminish attacks on New York City as was the case with the second Gulf War.
Mr. Putin puts his finger on the most damning aspect of the whole debate in his final paragraph.
And I would rather disagree with a case [President Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
It is an arrogant attitude to conclude that our policy is what makes us exceptional. Such arrogance does lead to the very thing of which Mr. Putin is warning Mr. Obama, an attitude of “you’re either with us or against us.”
America is exceptional. But it is exceptional because it has been blessed by more than a thousand years of Christian history, Christendom. We are not blessed because of anything noble or honorable in us. We have been given a gift. And we are losing that gift because we have arrogantly claimed to be the source of that gift.
This exceptionalism should rather make us humble. We have received a gift that we did not deserve. We have been given gifts from our heavenly Father through the faith of our ancestors and their commitment to justice and liberty. This gift has made us free and made us strong. This humility should drive us to serve our fellow man and not demand our own way simply because we can. Thank you Mr. Putin for your words.