Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Principia Leviathan

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Principia Leviathan

Article excerpt

The Moral Duties of American Hegemony

War is the realm of danger; therefore courage is the soldier's first requirement. Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one's own conscience.


The moral duties of the United States in Iraq cannot be separated from the larger question of the security requirements of the United States and its larger moral duties as the world's preeminent military and economic power. Moreover, even after the United States leaves Iraq these questions will not disappear, not least because it may find itself occupying more states in its war on terror and against rogue states. If the United States does not act responsibly in Iraq, credibility and ability to mobilize international support and cooperation in the war on terror will be compromised. However, answers to neither of these questions-the security requirements of the United States and its larger moral duties-are obvious. President George W. Bush told West Point graduates in June 2002 that "America has no empire to extend or Utopia to establish."1 Yet the Bush administration and a substantial number of Americans believe that the United States is and should be a great imperial power, upholding the banner of moral virtue and righteous purpose through military force if necessary. In this view, America's "goals on the path to progress are clear: political and economic freedom, peaceful relations with other states, and respect for human dignity."2 The Department of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001 stated that the goal of U.S. strategy is to maintain or improve the "long term military preeminence" of the United States.3 President Bush has said that "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge."4 Consider also what William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said on Fox News in spring 2003: "We need to err on the side of being strong. And if people want to say we are an imperial power, fine."5 The national security strategy declares that it is "based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests. The aim of this strategy is to help make the world not just safer but better." Thus, the moral purpose and awesome power of the United States are to coalesce in a Pax Americana envisioned by the Bush administration and its supporters.

Thomas Hobbes's mythic Leviathan was a metaphor for the role of the state in an anarchic context-the great power to overawe all others and create the peace necessary for the development of an ordered civil society. Without effective government, Hobbes suggests, we could not sleep at night. In a sense the Bush administration is supposing that without American hegemony, a Pax Americana imposed by the U.S. Leviathan, none of us will be able to sleep at night. Although it is far from omnipotent-the United States cannot overawe all other states-the new American empire does have the potential to realize some of its ambitions. What should the ambitions of an aspiring Leviathan be, and how should the United States attempt to realize them?

Most great empires have claimed a moral mission while simultaneously asserting the primacy of their security interests. What would happen if we made normative questions explicit and asked them first? Does a hegemon, in this case the world's sole superpower, have moral obligations that are on par with its security interests? If so, what are those moral obligations? How ought they be limited or shaped by practical concerns?

Those who talk of moral duties may be branded as impractical and imprudent idealists-or worse, as Utopians. President Carter suffered such a fate in 1980 as a result of his emphasis on human rights. President George W. Bush's emphasis on morality and global transformation may put him at similar political risk. …

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