I studied economics and political science at a leading university in Washington, D.C. But lately when asked about U.S. foreign policy, I've been going back not to my class notes but to one of my favorite thinkers on the subject, Michael Novak in his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). Not because I think democratic capitalism is the answer to all that ails the world-Novak doesn't claim that-but because the spirit at the formation of that socioeconomic structure is a spirit worth recapturing.
We stand on a precipice, with national elections before American voters and international chaos on the horizon. What's a proper U.S. role in the chaos sucking Europe into a financial black hole? What are we to do about U.S. productivity with annual GDP growth hovering at 1.5 percent when it has averaged 3.3 percent since 1947? What to do about militant jihadism, winding its way to our doorstep even as it grasps at political legitimacy in once stable countries of the Middle East?
Before you scratch your head to come up with the latest best idea, let me suggest that ideals should come first. Building nations that work is the work of many generations (or as Novak writes, "a journey of a thousand years"), so even the most devout realpolitik pragmatist needs transcendent values. As poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox put it, "Tis the set of sails,/ and not the gales/ That tells the way we go."
Ideals too serve as a bulwark against shortcuts. The most prominent shortcuts in U.S. foreign policy are those that see down the road just far enough to the next election. But shortcuts also plague clear thinking in Christian circles. Writing 30 years ago, Novak notes that Christians "demand jobs without comprehending how jobs are created" and "demand the distribution of the world's goods without insight in how the store of the world's goods may be expanded."
Too few of us grasp what a Cyprus investor, looking at his prospects in Western Europe, said recently: "People really have to run with their money because it is not about return on capital, it is about return of capital."
We also neglect the theological doctrines that once breathed life into our democratic capitalistic system. Consider the incarnation, God born of a woman into political chaos and socioeconomic oppression. The incarnation of Jesus gives us hope in every possible circumstance, but guards us against false hope and utopian promises. I like the way Novak phrases it: "One of the most poignant lessons of the Incarnation is the difficult teaching that one must learn to be humble, think concretely, face facts, train oneself to realism."
And what about realistic love, the sacrificial "God so loved the world that He gave His only son" love? Acted out on the world's stage it stifles ego and promotes the welfare of others-but without illusions. It's how our Founding Fathers crafted institutions for sinners, not saints, to serve the common good. And why they protected freedom for all. It's where the practice of realistic policy versus realpolitik should start.
How to apply ideals to, say, Syria? "Let's just bomb the place," something I hear often, and from Christians, is an idea without an ideal. But so are fanciful notions like carving out safe havens within Syria-even, as Sen. John McCain has suggested, when they are created and preserved using U.S. air power, as in Kosovo. Safe havens should recall the Jewish ghettos of 1930s Europe, or Srebrenica, which was a UN safe haven before a Bosnian massacre in 1995 that killed over 8,000 men and boys.
Ideals should drive us to act, but in ways that are more realistic than posturing, more humble than egotistical, acknowledging that outcomes are for us unknowable. Too often on both right and left we mouth the words of liberty but strategize like socialists, policymaking a planned society. Democratic capitalism has created "an arena of liberty" (Novak) not entirely unlike the non-coercive arena of the garden, and-for all its flaws-it has worked. That should give Americans hope-realistic, humble hope-to act decisively and responsibly for good in the world.