Roger Scruton, the conservative British philosopher who passed away last weekend, once wrote that a foundation of conservatism was “the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” It’s a statement that reflects the principle of Chesterton’s Fence: The understanding that our forebearers laid down many rules and erected many structures, and though we may not understand why those fences are there or think them “irrelevant” today, better to keep the fence up and give them the benefit of the doubt. If we are to take it down, we’d better think it over several times first.
Which brings us to America’s present status as a global superpower. We have a president who has vowed to end our “forever wars” while also sending troops to conflict zones around the world and just this month took out Qassem Suleimani, a move that escalated tension with Iran. In his wild inconsistencies between intervention and isolationism, he seems to unintentionally embody America’s general debate about its place in the world.
But the debates over specific presidential actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere lead us to reduce America’s role in the world to the rights and wrongs of specific conflicts, as though we should stay or invade everywhere or run from everywhere. But that is to miss the forest for very specific trees, and confuse individual conflicts for the general purpose of American global dominance.
To correct this, we need to go back to the beginning and understand why the fence of American global power is up in the first place. It requires a foray into history; I will try to be brief.