Sign Up

Madison Versus Bush

Where do checks and balances and the rights of the individual fit into U.S. foreign policy?

May 19, 2003

Where do checks and balances and the rights of the individual fit into U.S. foreign policy?

Americans like to see their country as earnest, optimistic and youthful, individualistic, idealistic — and a team player. "We give the underdog a chance" and "We play by the rules," Americans tell themselves.

Fortunately for America, a wise group of men came together 214 years ago to establish the rules that would make it safe for these attractive traits to blossom.

The checks and balances in the Constitution which these men created would not only protect the rights of the individual.

But, it would also force conflicting power bases within society toward compromise in order for society as a whole to be able to move forward.

The U.S. Constitution safeguarded the political system from abuse of power and from abuse of dogma. It forced each side's concepts to face the light of pragmatic concerns. James Madison and his friends knew well that, to preserve liberty, power needed to be balanced and checked.

This concept of checks and balances is integral to American political philosophy. But strangely, it is apparently not considered relevant by the Bush Administration in the formation of its foreign policy.

Instead the administration has an overriding goal — which is to place America's power beyond challenge.

There is an almost celebratory feeling that America is now free to use its power in the world as it wishes — and that it is no longer shackled by the balancing forces of the Cold War.

Madison knew better. During the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 — and later in the Federalist Papers — he argued that for the large states (such as Virginia or New York) to prosper, they needed to be courageous enough to share some power with the smaller states.

This concept of building an order to protect the strong as well as the weak was replicated internationally after World War II — first at Bretton Woods and later with the establishment of the United Nations.

It in fact established a system where, over the long term, nations whose populations lived in economic and political liberty were successful — while totalitarian systems eroded and fell behind.

In seeking to protect Americans' security, the Bush Administration seems intent on tearing this structure apart.

The theory that America's power should be supreme — that America has the license to act unilaterally on the world scene to defend its concept of a liberal order — grew out of America's victory in the Cold War and the trauma of 9/11.

However, the political roots of this theory can also be found in the experience of U.S. culture. For the earnest young country is also the country of immigrants.

Buried in its collective subconscious is the idea that America is purer and more well-meaning than other countries. If it were not that way, Americans ask, why did our ancestors make the dangerous pilgrimage — leaving the old country for the new world?

The idea of the one, definitive benign superpower is, however, a fantasy. Countries are not philosopher kings — and power does not exist in a vacuum.

Every country — no matter how benign a democracy — acts out of its own cultural framework and peculiarities.

Every country — no matter how powerful or how righteous — still views the world through a prism of it own experiences and ultimately its own needs.

And every country, much like the individuals that it is composed of, has a problem restraining unregulated power.

The concept becomes even more problematic when the so-called "benign superpower" still pictures itself as youthful and earnest. A teenager often yells out, "I don't need you" — and "I will do what I want."

But America is no longer a teenager. And to do only what she wants on the world scene will eventually not only corrupt the power America so dearly earned.

It also risks creating an overwhelming arrogance that could end up destroying her moral purpose.

Yet, for the Bush Administration — in its strangely sweeping worldview — the idea of America as the ultimate superpower fits neatly into its static narrow worldview.

Shortsightedness has blinded the administration to the point where it has failed even to recognize that the American concept of liberty has already won.

American philosophy and culture dominate the world. Jeffersonian democracy has become the world's largest religion.

But with the majority of the world's conversion to Jeffersonian democracy comes the demands from the other nations to be heard — and listened to.

Instead of celebrating and accommodating the triumph of the U.S. value system, the Bush Administration evidently looks at the world in a manner similar to 19th century Britain.

That empire haughtily saw it as its duty to civilize the world. America, however, is not Britain under Disraeli.

The U.S. political system was founded on the need to restrain power for the common good. Acting otherwise might bring short-term benefits.

But in the long run, America cannot continue as a nation that values the check on power as a protection of liberties within its own borders — but does not feel constrained by the same values internationally.

Ultimately, this conflict of values will erode the U.S. government's morality. The government will increasingly need to simplify and befuddle Jefferson's democratic vision in order to convince its citizens that their sacrifices in support of its international policies are just.

It will also change America — because the world has changed.

The new world order — which combines the values of Jeffersonian democracy with the technology of the information age — will not tolerate for long what it perceives as an abuse of power.

And consequently, America's self-perception as the earnest, righteous young country will become more and more of a myth under conflict.

Minority protection was an important part of the U.S. Constitutional debate between the states — and it is a core principle upon which the U.S. political system rests. It is also a principle that has served it well.

It is therefore important that the Bush Administration recognize the same principle on the global stage.