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What Catholic Foreign Policy Looks Like

September 17, AD2013 4 Comments


The headline is just a slight tinkering of the title of Andrew McCarthy\’s post on National Review Online from the other day. Though McCarthy\’s post is about a conservative foreign policy approach, I thought the logic applicable to Catholics as well.

McCarthy is looking for a conservative approach to foreign policy that is somewhere between the extremes of the John McCain wing and the Rand/Ron Paul approach to foreign policy, with the former being too interventionist and the latter too isolationist. I agree with most of McCarthy\’s points, as I have long felt that both camps were too rigidly ideological, as both sides rather reflexively approach foreign policy debates with locked-in views. There is nothing inherently wrong with having ideological predispositions, but it strikes me as utter madness to treat all foreign policy matters the exact same way.

But McCarthy\’s piece got me thinking about how Catholics enter these foreign policy debates. Many Catholics fall on either side of this debate, though sometimes for different reasons. For instance, the non-interventionist impulse for many Catholics is intertwined with pacifism. This impulse itself is completely understandable in light of horrors wrought by war. As Catholics our first impulse should be toward peace. Yet complete pacifism is in some ways very non-Catholic, especially if history is any guide. On the other hand, the humanitarian impulse might guide Catholics towards a more interventionist stance. Again, while humanitarian aims may be noble in purpose, the use of force is not always the appropriate response.

The recent debate over possible intervention in Syria brought all of this to the fore. Though the situation seems to be resolved for the moment, it still merits consideration as a good example to mull. Personally speaking I opposed the use of force, though principally because I was confused as to which side we were supposed to be supporting. Were we to intervene to prop up the murderous dictator, or were we supposed to go in and support the Christian murdering Jihadi extremists? Furthermore, it seemed odd to me that the use of chemical weapons to kill hundreds necessitated the use of military force to intervene, while the murder of hundreds of thousands by conventional means drew a shrug of the shoulder.

These considerations are beside the point. Those who advocated intervention – and in this case, interventionists encompassed people formerly opposed to \”Cowboy diplomacy\” ¬†– were motivated by a humanitarian impulse. They saw people being murdered and they wanted the U.S. to do something. For the reasons mentioned above I thought that this was wrong. On top of that, American involvement had the potential to make the conflagration much worse. The instability in Egypt and Libya, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan, should be enough to convince us that our involvement doesn\’t always tend to set everything aright.

On the other hand, even as I came to be opposed to involvement in this particular case, I did not dismiss the arguments of those who thought intervention was a humanitarian necessity. Though American involvement in the area could certainly grow the conflict, the folks in the Middle East are doing quite a magnificent job of killing each other without American involvement. A legitimate case can be made that complete American disengagement from the region will only lead to greater chaos, interminable civil war, and murder on an almost incomprehensible scale. Mind you I am not suggesting that this will be the case if the United States completely withdraws from the region, only that the possibility is not to be scoffed at.

We wrinkle our noses at the thought of America being the world\’s policemen, but in a unipolar world it is difficult to see who exactly can play that role. The complete absence of the United States in world affairs would bring about a certain state of international anarchy. Oh sure, the French and British might be able to help mollify this and that conflict, but they do not have the wherewithal to play as significant a role in world affairs, as witnessed by the French essentially begging us to intervene. Of course one could rightly note that the United States doesn\’t have the wherewithal itself at the moment given our economic and social situation, but we certainly are more capable than any other nation on Earth of playing the policeman role.

Which brings us back to our Catholic approach to foreign policy. When we speak of a Catholic approach, it is in the true sense of the word – universal. So my attention to American foreign policy might seem to contradict that point, but I think it\’s necessary to reflect on American engagement in the Middle East to reflect on the wider issue. The idea that war doesn\’t solve anything makes for a nice bumper sticker – but it simply isn\’t true. It can and has resolved many a conflict that would have only worsened without a strong man intervening. If you have any doubts, please ask Charles Martel.

Whether for humanitarian or geopolitical purposes, military intervention is sometimes necessary. As said above, as Catholics we can be pulled by two conflicting desires. Both the humanitarian and pacifist impulses are born from noble intentions. Our challenge – and it is not an easy one considering the state of the world – is not to become slaves to either impulse. I don\’t often make a plea for moderation, but in this particular case, it might actually just be the best approach. Context matters greatly when it comes to international affairs, and we must truly weigh the consequences of action – and inaction.

Unfortunately some will read this post either as an apology for US military intervention or, alternatively, a soft in the belly call for capitulation and disengagement. It is neither. It is simply a call for a somewhat more balanced approach to how we think about international affairs.


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About the Author:

Paul is a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus with a doctorate in Politics. He has been writing about politics and Catholic social issues for most of his adult life. As a father of (so far) two young children, he is especially interested in preserving their civil and religious liberties. Paul also dabbles in fiction writing, and his novel Dirty Laundry can be found on

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