“A United States infused with humility works right up until Europeans — and we ourselves — need real protection."
For individuals, humility is typically considered a desirable virtue, in contrast to its opposite number, pride, often deprecated and broadly perceived as a less-desirable personal characteristic. Both humility and pride are, of course, simply different aspects of situational self-awareness, divergent points along the continuum of behavior toward other people. Humility connotes modesty and respect for others, while pride is seen as masking arrogance, and is frequently accompanied by a swaggering cohort of other undesirable attributes.
It is therefore far from surprising that Dwight Eisenhower normally wins the contest for "most popular" over Lyndon Johnson. Alternatively, Winston Churchill once described his political opponent, Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, as "a modest man with much to be modest about." Churchill's humility was obviously not his strongest suit; he insisted even to his own family, "I am a great man." Indeed he was. Humility in the face of Hitler and Nazi Germany, despite Gandhi's advice not to resist a fascist invasion of Britain, would have rendered Churchill an abject failure in history.
Accordingly, the appropriate balance for individuals is unresolvable. And yet, notwithstanding the imponderables involved in appropriately sizing and judging humanity one by one, we have nonetheless long analogized large political entities - from empires to kingdoms to nation-states - to individuals. We do it in many ways, large and small, perhaps because it is easier to grasp international complexities in familiar terms, or perhaps for propaganda purposes to enhance or delegitimize the holders of various anthropomorphic attributes.
Assigning human characteristics to political organizations, however, is essentially false and misleading, and often dangerous. All nations have interests, and some have values, and their respective interests and values frequently conflict. Some, like Woodrow Wilson and his followers (Barack Obama comes to mind) see essentially all conflicts as resolvable through diplomatic means, essentially advocating humility as a way of international life, especially for the most powerful, like their own country. Others, notably Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, see conflict as a more inherent human quality, to be avoided when possible but accepted when the costs to core values and interests would be too high. The Wilsonians see this as the sin of pride replacing humility, with necessarily adverse consequences, although they cite no evidence that humility ever deterred belligerence. Indeed, in the international arena, humility can be fatal.
And this is the real question: both the Wilson-Obama and Roosevelt-Reagan schools want international peace and security, but they diverge significantly on methods. Thus for both analysts and policy makers, at least in American terms, what we should want is cold-blooded realism. Instead of constantly wondering whether we are highly enough regarded by friends and foes, whether in their universities or their salons, we should worry about whether we and our global friends and allies are adequately protected. International politics is not domestic campaign politics, and public opinion polls rarely determine outcomes. Our inquiry is far from simply a military calculation, but necessarily encompasses political and economic factors to ascertain whether our "big stick" is in fact big enough.
Realism is not some midpoint between humility and pride, but a professional attribute of statecraft, something necessary at the national government level in ways personal characteristics simply are not. Without realism, as in Wilson's case, the consequences are rarely favorable and are often deeply wounding to our national interests. And even where it is present, it is only a necessary and rarely a sufficient condition for success, as the consummate realist Richard Nixon (rarely characterized as having deep humility) found in Vietnam. Nor would humility have fared better as national policy in Vietnam; it may simply have advanced the date of the Communist victory and ensuing subjugation of South Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge's mass murder in Cambodia.
Of course, no one disputes that optics and political posturing can have their benefits, so that an ostensibly low-key approach may be desirable in appropriate circumstances. It was, after all, Theodore Roosevelt who advised that we should "speak softly," and he actually won a Nobel Peace Prize for accomplishing something, brokering peace following the Russo-Japanese War. But beneath the optics must lie the hard reality, which almost inevitably involves assertive advocacy of American interests. This does not mean an overly prideful approach or insufficient humility; it simply has nothing to do with these individual human attributes.
Despite the Europe-centric notion that America was an isolationist country out of the global mainstream until World War I, we have faced threats and challenges throughout our history, generally with a deep understanding of the calculus of power, what the Marxists like to call the "correlation of forces." Today, despite the current economic turmoil, we still find ourselves incredibly strong, in both comparative and absolute terms, and this strength helps define the choices we face. Those favoring the halo-surrounded path of humility argue that our strength is too prideful and is actually a source of many current challenges, and that less strength and more humility will reduce those challenges. This is certainly the predominant view in Europe, and seemingly also now prevails in Obama-era Washington.
The more realistic view is that American weakness, not our strength, is provocative, as the Europeans should better understand after almost sixty-five years of sheltering under the American umbrella. A United States infused with humility works right up until they - and we ourselves - need real protection. It is realism's virtue never to forget that lesson.
John R. Bolton, a diplomat and lawyer, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006 and is a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.