This Academic Life
  Beware of Universalism
Forthwith, the op-ed nobody wanted, apparently because I'm not a household name. I do not think that the State of the Union speech allayed any of my fears.

Beware of Universalism

Commentators poring over Bush’s second inaugural address for clues about specific policy initiatives are missing the forest for the trees. Major public speeches are better understood as efforts to affect the terms of political discourse, establishing the general framework within which subsequent debates will be carried out. Tone and vision are the critical issues here, not detailed proposals.

Seen in this light, the ominous thing about Bush’s address is its unabashed moral universalism. Bush proposes to confront “every ruler and every nation” with “the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right,” and to devote America’s “considerable” influence to this cause. Absent from the speech is any set of criteria that would underpin a decision about where to commit American resources, or any declaration of principle that could counterbalance the open-ended universalism of advancing “freedom…the permanent hope of mankind.”

This universalism is by no means a novel development in the rhetoric surrounding American foreign policy. A half-century ago, President Truman used uncannily similar language in calling for a commitment of resources to the struggle against Communism: “The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms…we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” Perceptive critics like Walter Lippmann promptly critiqued the open-ended character of this Truman Doctrine, pointing out that if taken to its logical conclusion it implied American intervention into every corner of the globe to ensure that freedom was being adequately promoted and defended.

The problem with universal declarations of principle is that they brook no compromise and envision no deviations. Imported directly into politics, they produce what Max Weber called an “ethic of ultimate ends,” according to which the purity of one’s motive trumps any considerations of practical effect. Hence, moral universalism as a framework for policy leads to a situation in which the ends justifies the means and any commitment of resources of any type is acceptable in pursuit of the ultimate, absolute goal. It also allows the enactors of such policies to evade responsibility for the consequences of their actions, as long as they can demonstrate that they were sincere in their efforts to advance the cause of the universal principle.

An ethic of ultimate ends also permits its adherents to avoid the real work of politics, which involves bringing moral principles into dialogue with the practical requirements of governance and administration. Such a dialogue necessitates a deviation from the purity of universalist declarations, and a tempering of categorical declarations with a measure of prudence. A universal declaration of principle sits uneasily with such prudent tempering, however. Unless notions of prudence and judgment remain a part of the public framing of an overarching political goal, advocates of tempering universalist goals can be easily vilified as traitors to the cause. The seemingly inevitable consequence is an unchecked rush to commit resources to the campaign, culminating in overextension, exhaustion, and perhaps even the discrediting of the original goal as its advocates fail to deliver on their grandiose promises.

This fate can, however, be avoided. The Truman Administration wisely spent the weeks and months after Truman’s speech qualifying and rolling back the open-ended, universalist character of the commitment to defend freedom globally. Secretary of State George Marshall, among others, quickly reassured Congress that certain areas of the world were more vital than others, and that the United States was not about to bankrupt itself by committing resources to every local conflict everywhere around the world. Over time, administration representatives defined a set of core interests and laid out concrete proposals (such as the Marshall Plan) for acting on those interests. These prudent moves involved tempering the universalism of the Truman Doctrine with public commitments to fiscal responsibility, the efficacy of different forms of aid and intervention, and the necessity to consult and cooperate with allies—not simply to evaluate them in terms of their fidelity to the cause, but to collaborate to enact policy in a genuinely multilateral manner.

Let us hope that the advocates of the Bush Doctrine display similar wisdom in the weeks and months ahead.

21stCWeber is a relatively unknown Assistant Professor of International Relations; he blogs sporadically at

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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