In his magnificent book, The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk cites five cities which have given us our rich heritage and from which we have created an exceptional civilization: Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, London and Philadelphia. Kirk offers a philosophically panoramic view. From Jerusalem came the order of the soul and leading a purposeful life. From Athens emerged the order of mind and how one ought to live. From Rome came an understanding of personal virtue. From London, our concepts of common law, private property and constitutional order were formulated. And from Philadelphia emerged the protection of individual rights and the understanding of liberty within a framework of law.
Each of these spheres of understanding built on the previous era culminating in a culture called the West. Truths were not invented but discovered over the course of time. And if we are to flourish, we must tend to the roots of these powerful ideas and replenish them.
Alas, here is the problem. We have lost a sense of who we are. We are no longer sure of how we are to live or be virtuous. And law and individual rights have been ensnared in a harvest of legal inventions and categorical rights creation. The consequence of ignoring the heritage that made the West unusual and America unique is that it appears as if our culture is a tabula rasa that can accept any proposition. Of course, we cannot. Hence moral confusion reigns, not only at home but in our foreign policy.
Militant Islam does not – in fact under present strictures – cannot accept the basis for Western civilization. It does not have an Aristotelian tradition that relies on rational discourse. It sees virtue only through the lens of adherence to the Koran. It does not accept the basis for private property or constitutional authority since these concepts are mutually incompatible with Sharia. Therefore, negotiation aimed at harmonizing interests is bound to foil.
The West wants peace or at least stability, but militant Islam wants renunciation of the very principles on which the West was built. A pathway to peaceful resolution is a fool’s errand. But the West persists because it assumes falsely that at some point militants will act in accordance with our beliefs. This form of mirror imaging is an article of faith from which Western diplomacy cannot extricate itself.
Secretary of State John Kerry continually asserts that despite Iran’s record of terrorism, the so-called deal will put the mullahs on a road to responsible behavior. That, of course, is an assertion since Mr. Kerry doesn’t have any idea how the Supreme Leader and his adherents will respond to our overtures. What we do know is that chants of “Death to America” fill the Iranian parliament. We also know that the principles on which America and the West were formed are derided by Iran’s leaders.
Foreign policy should be more than wishful thinking. If the desire for a deal transcends the contents of the deal, any formulation will do. Intuitively the American public understands that, as the large majority senses the futility of the Obama-Kerry proposal. What is really at stake is not whether Iran will have nuclear weapons – that is a foregone conclusion – but whether the principles that constructed the culture, in which we as a people have prospered, can survive.
When Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention he was asked what form of government will America have. He replied, “a republic – if you can keep it.” That is the same challenge presented by the twenty-first century in somewhat different form. America must ask itself if is in the Western tradition from which it was born or some new alien belief system that will destroy all we once cherished.