Monday, September 10, 2007

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter is Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Her most recent book is The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World.

Slaughter responded to a few questions about The Idea That is America which were put to her by the political scientist Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at The Ohio State University:

Grant-Thomas: You say the "values underpinning the idea that is America" are liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith. But you present no public opinion data to support that claim, no focus groups results; you don't comb through any interview transcripts. So, on what do you base this assertion? What do you say to the person who insists that you include, say, capitalism, self-interest, a belief in manifest destiny, and the development of national strength in that mix of foundational values?

Slaughter: My argument is that these are values that are celebrated in our founding documents, speeches, poems, anthems, and memorials. The first four are, I think, uncontroversial -- the pledge of allegiance speaks of liberty and justice for all; the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declares that "all men are created equal," and most Americans take pride in the view that we were the first democracy in the world (although our founders understood democracy rather differently than we do today, as I argue in my chapter on Democracy.) Tolerance, humility, and faith are certainly less commonly cited, though it is impossible to have democracy without tolerance and religious tolerance was perhaps the earliest lesson that our founders had to learn to survive as thirteen distinct colonies. I argue for humility as a deep part of our belief in progress and also as a deep part of the religious faith of many Americans, as well as a value that many of our greatest leaders -- Washington, Lincoln -- have espoused. I argue for faith -- a blend of religious and enlightenment faith -- because it is impossible to go back to our founding documents, as well as the greatest speeches of presidents like Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, or Woodrow Wilson, or Ronald Reagan, and not be struck by the role that faith in both god and man play. Indeed, it is one of the attributes that people from other countries have long remarked on when they encounter America. Americans also have a remarkable faith in America itself.

In the end, though, mine is a personal rather than a strictly empirical claim. I make clear that I hope that the book will serve as a catalyst for a broader conversation among Americans about what our values are and how we should live up to them. Other values certainly could be added to the list; many readers may dispute the ones I chose. Above all, I try to hammer home the point that identifying our values is not a claim that these attributes always characterize our behavior. Far from it; each chapter documents noted periods in our history when our actions have been almost completely at odds with the things we profess to value. Still, our history, culture, and public discourse claims repeatedly that liberty, democracy, justice, equality etc. are the things we value; ultimately the gap between that kind of rhetoric and the lived reality for a majority or even a minority of Americans becomes an engine of change.

Grant-Thomas: The Bush Administration is unsparing in its references to liberty, democracy, equality, and justice in framing its foreign policy, not least in Iraq . And yet you find key aspects of that foreign policy deeply troubling, perhaps even "un-American." Please explain.

Slaughter: This is a key question. A frequent criticism of my book is that focusing on our professed values rather than the actual consequences of our actions is precisely the approach to foreign policy that has allowed us to invade Iraq and to declare that we can seek primacy in the world because we are a force for good. I take the point. But throwing out values because a particular administration has misused and even abused them is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. What I seek to do in the book is to define our values as specifically as possible with reference to our own history and particularly with reference to the many times in our history when we have not lived up to our values -- as we are not now in many places in the world and certainly not at home with Guantanamo and our overall policy of denying detainees the right of habeas corpus. Moreover, politically it does not work to reject values in favor of a more realist approach based on power and interest. The neo-con revolution that has destroyed our reputation in the world was a violent rejection by conservatives against the realism of the Nixon-Kissinger years. The vast majority of the American people believe that America must stand for something in the world beyond power and interest.

Grant-Thomas: You are critical of the "overheated rhetoric and intense partisanship [that] has replaced genuine debate in contemporary America." But doesn't that heat reflect, at least in part, the seriousness with which many "liberals" and "conservatives" take these struggles over the meaning and implementation of our values? You denounce gay marriage and school prayer as "wedge issues" that deflect attention from truly critical concerns like health care and education. What do you say to those, like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, who suggest that the former issues engage our core "values" even more fundamentally and consequentially ways than do the latter?

Slaughter: My focus is on political values rather than social values. The founders understood "the free exercise of religion" and "freedom of worship" as delineating a private sphere for moral choices, although they strongly believed in the value of religion as a moral force in society. A country of multiple religious faiths and the equal right to be an agnostic or an atheist is a country that must accept multiple conceptions of the good and the right. Put this way, our political values determine the sphere within which our moral or social values can be debated. That is precisely why opponents of abortion define it as the "right to life," because our political values include the right to life and liberty; while supporters of the right to have an abortion frame it as the right to choose, which is again protected by liberty. De Tocqueville said that in America every political question ultimately becomes a judicial question; I would add that every social or moral question ultimately becomes a political question. But the depth and passion with which debate these issues does not excuse the hatred and vitriol that characterizes so much of the debate. As the great historian Gordon Wood has pointed out, our founders equated civility with civilization itself. The tone of so much of the debate presumes that a person who disagrees with us is not just a person who takes a position different from our own, but a stupid or bad or malicious person. That personalizes politics, and ultimately destroys the substantive debate.

Grant-Thomas: Insofar as it has become commonplace for liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, to employ the rhetoric of democracy, liberty, equality and faith to their own, often divergent, ends, then isn't it fair that other countries judge us according to the consequences of our foreign policy rather than by the values we claim to champion? For all I know, or you know, President Bush may intend the every best for Iraqis. But that means little to the tens of thousands already dead, with who knows what still to come.

Slaughter: I invite other countries to judge us not by what we say are our values, but by how well our actions live up to our words. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "America, put your creed into your deed," which is a wonderfully succinct version of my argument. Indeed that is why I wanted to write the book, to argue that our values are the deepest source of our strength and identity as a nation but only as long as we actually live up to them, or at least try to live up to them. And to point out the many times in our history when we have fallen short but groups of Americans have rallied to change the course of the nations by insisting that we mean what we say. I also wanted to tell foreign audiences a different story of America -- one that shows the darker sides of our history rather than constant triumphalism, but at the same time an account that takes pride in our efforts to try to live up to our values over the course of our history.

Grant-Thomas: Your book strikes me as a call to Americans to be more consistently guided by the better angels of our ideals, and to hold our leaders accountable to those ideals. But the United States incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any other, supplies the vast majority of the world arms, does less to help its poor than any of its European peer nations, and provides less development assistance as a proportion of gross national income than virtually any. Americans are not clamoring to change any of these trends; on the contrary, 4 in 5 Americans insist that the United States is the "best country in the world." If you were Secretary of State in the next administration, what practical steps would you suggest to nudge us forward in the face of our collective complacency?

Slaughter: The book is indeed a call to Americans to hold our leaders accountable to how well they live up to the values they preach on our behalf. But I don't think we do that by continually criticizing what we do wrong without simultaneously offering a narrative of hope. That, in my view, accounts for the success of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope and indeed for much of the support for him as a presidential candidate. But more generally, the polls on all the candidates demonstrate that a substantial majority of Americans think that the country is going in the wrong direction -- economically and politically. Americans are now recognizing that our health care system is worse that that of other nations -- amazingly, given our typical assumption that everything we do is the best. They are recognizing that our public education system is broken. And most know that we made a terrible mistake by invading Iraq, whatever their view on what we should do now. It is not unusual for the citizens of any country to think that theirs is the best in the world -- certainly the French and the Chinese would poll similarly. That can be read as love of country rather than a superiority complex. But what we need to do is to mobilize Americans precisely on the basis of their love of country -- to rally them on the grounds that we can and must do better, to live up to our heritage, to live up to our values, to live up to our potential. Be honest about our mistakes, recognize the value of humility, but don't wallow or grovel -- get back on track and move forward.
Read an excerpt and learn more about The Idea That Is America at the publisher's website.

Watch Anne-Marie Slaughter on the Colbert Report.

--Marshal Zeringue