Ryan in the Mirror

Ryan’s emphasis on the (false) claim that “America is an idea” is the key to understanding his foreign policy.

Though “America is an idea” may not be the kind of statement that can be simply true or false, Daniel Larison’s larger point on Paul Ryan’s foreign policy views remains intact. A naive universalism in political philosophy tends toward imperialism, or to what Mr. Larison likes to call “hegemonism”: In the case of the “American idea,” the universality of the abstraction corresponds to a moral philosophy theoretically applicable to all human beings (maybe even all beings) at all times and places (on Earth or in all the universes), and converts on the plane of real people, places, and things into a world-spanning requirement to meddle, or, as Paul Ryan puts it, “to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty.” “It is always,” says Ryan, “in the interest of the United States to promote [its] principles in other nations.”

Larison goes on to fault Ryan for “the same incoherence that afflicts all hegemonists that try to be democratists at the same time.” I think the comment is meant to refer to illiberal and undemocratic methods that the hegemon will call upon to preserve hegemony, a contradiction between contingent means and ideal ends. As presented, the problem isn’t incoherence, however, but an unrealistic or brittle consistency: too much coherence, the perfect simplicity of the abstraction colliding with the complexities of sublunary life.

Such excessive coherence exposes Ryanism or Ryanized neo-conservatism as deeply if distortively liberal and quite impossibly progressive – in confirmation of the Straussian critique of Americanism as a first wave modernism, desirable when compared to most or all of what surfed in on the second and third waves, but of the same flawed genus, and, implicitly, quite dangerous if taken to an extreme. Ryan, his special friends, and those who inspired them portray themselves as the carriers of ideal Americanism against the (p)rogressive “cancer,” but the gleaming surface of their illimitable “missionary” ambition reveals them to be the cancerest of all.

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*If you must take the statement as a logical assertion, and cannot be convinced that the world is will and idea, and nothing else besides, then it must be taken as self-definitional: What is American about America as an idea would be the idea that it is an idea. In this sense Germany or Russia or Rwanda are no less ideas, but not ideas born of an ideal: The German, Russian, or Rwandan idea will be concretely geographical and ethnographical. The idea of a country born of and sustained as ideation is a crystallization of the liberal and progressive universal idea, corresponding to the perfectly empty ideal individual of liberalism.


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  1. No, Russia as well Germany’s idea, is definitely not idea based, but ethnically one, Rwanda is as with many neighboring regimes, too riven by tribal conflicts, for a united polity, ’94 being the bloodiest but not first exemplar, Would Larison have supported intervention, other than after a fleet of V-2s striking the US, one tends to doubt it.

  2. do we use military force to export our “ideas” or do we, after military conflict, seek to imprint them because we believe them to be in the interests of the conquered and not merely ourselves?

    • Why does it have to be seen as a sequence with discrete phases, one after the other, whichever you put first? Seems to me they at a minimum overlap and interrelate in complex ways – especially when you consider how a military potential supports a political process, or a political system or approach can be shaped by a military potential, or how one type of conflict precludes or calls for another, and so on… Lots of people will have a hard time believing that the determinative and sufficient motivation has really been benefit to others at any point, or anyway for longer than the span of a particular emergency. But, if they’re wrong, and the motivation really is altruistic, there’s still a need to think it all through, maybe even more of one.

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