Is the Phrase “Moral Authority” an Oxymoron in the World of Politics?

The White House has a new national security adviser who claims to be more interested in moral authority than the power to bully, unless they happen to be the same thing.
John Bolton, National Security Adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, Trump news, Trump, Trump administration, US politics news, US news, American news, Donald Trump, Donald Trump news

The White House in Washington, DC © Vichie81

When John Bolton resigned (or was fired) a little over a week ago, the media in the US lost a recognizable, well-branded, political and ideological mustache. President Donald Trump has now replaced his media-friendly, saber-rattling, “give me war or give me death (i.e., fire me)” national security adviser by a man with a much lower profile. Robert C. O’Brien’s political experience consists of little more than acting as Trump’s chief hostage negotiator. 

O’Brien’s views on foreign policy echo those of then-candidate Trump. In an article published in 2016 titled, “Debate: The Foreign Policy Agenda of the 45th U.S. President,“ O’Brien expressed his point of view about the global role of the US: “Being the leader of the free world does not mean being the policeman of the entire world. It does mean that America should use its moral authority to promote the idea of free men and women and free markets for the betterment of the world.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Moral authority:

Power of intimidation, typically exercised by the very powerful in an amoral or immoral fashion 

Contextual Note

Examples of amoral intimidation abound. They consist essentially of economic bribery or blackmail. For example: If you vote in favor of our position in the current debate at the United Nations, we promise to import more of your bananas. Immoral intimidation comes in various forms as well, the most extreme being sweeping economic sanctions (Trump’s preferred tool) and war (something the president tries to avoid, though if nuclear annihilation manages to avoid the inconvenience of war, he appears to be for it).

No one expects political minds to base their policies on philosophical premises, but some political figures find ways of referring to principles derived from philosophy to justify their policies. In the field of diplomacy and international relations, both logic and ethics — two of the major branches of philosophy — traditionally play a role. A common example is the Augustinian idea of a “just war.” Ethical principles provide implicit guidelines for understanding roles and relationships. We know very little about O’Brien’s sense of metaphysics, another important branch of philosophy, but in the above excerpt, he implicitly evokes his understanding of ethics when he speaks of “moral authority.”

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In other remarks, such as those expressed to justify his controversial mission earlier this year to Sweden to plead for the liberation of rapper A$AP Rocky, who is charged with assault by Swedish authorities, we can deduce something about his approach to logic. O’Brien explained: “The president sent me here, so it’s totally appropriate.” The syllogism behind this reasoning is clear and goes something like this: Presidents make decisions that are appropriate; the president made the decision to send me here; therefore, the fact that I am here is appropriate. Syllogisms stand on the axiomatic value of their initial premise. Of course, it’s O’Brien’s first premise that many people would call into question, especially those who are pushing for Trump’s impeachment. Has Trump ever done anything that can be called “appropriate?”

O’Brien’s claim about his role in Sweden is particularly interesting in the context described by The Washington Post: “[C]ritics assailed Trump for what they viewed as an inappropriate intervention in an allied nation’s legal matters.” Appropriate or inappropriate, that is the question, as it often is in Washington. Some may remember that when Bill Clinton finally confessed to his misdeeds in the Oval Office, he admitted: “Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms. [Monica] Lewinsky that was not appropriate.”

The Washington Post is counting on O’Brien’s non-philosophical virtues to provide “more stability and collegiality to an often chaotic policymaking process” in the White House. Chief among them are “his friendly demeanor and experience as a lawyer.” Lawyers, of course, are known for skirting around ethics and bending logic.

O’Brien has promised to focus on “keeping America safe and rebuilding the military.” Apart from sounding like business as usual, some may be wondering what he means by “rebuilding the military.” Has its current architecture collapsed and requires building anew? More likely, this is an echo of Trump’s leitmotif of always striving to make what is already by far the biggest, most unwieldy and expensive military in the world bigger, more unwieldy and considerably more astronomically expensive with the aim of providing visible proof of America’s “moral authority” (i.e., ability to dominate other nations).

Historical Note

The question of the United States’ claim to moral authority is an old one, strongly affirmed over recent decades by self-proclaimed “authoritative” voices inside the US and equally strongly dismissed by acute observers around the world and in the US. Few of those critical voices, domestic or foreign, are ever permitted to be seen or heard on the mainstream media in the US, undoubtedly for fear of shaking the public’s belief in the nation’s moral authority over the rest of the world. 

And yet worry about the status of America’s moral authority exists. It has become common in the past two and a half years for the pundits to identify President Trump as the cause for the decline of America’s image as a nation that exercises moral authority. Columnist David Ignatius recently wrote in The Washington Post “The loss of U.S. moral authority in the world since Trump took office has done incalculable damage to the country.”

CNN consultant and former FBI operative Josh Campbell testifies to what he describes as a kind of golden age of moral authority before Trump: “When I spoke, people listened. Not because I was an inordinately gifted orator, but rather because I was speaking on behalf of the United States government, an imperfect but often emulated conglomeration of agencies known throughout the world as reflecting righteousness, fairness, and truth.” Campbell sums up the idea American exceptionalism better than Superman’s comic book trio of virtues: truth, justice and the American way. What moralist with universalist values wouldn’t prefer “righteousness, fairness, and truth,” which we are meant to believe represent the “American way?”

Samuel Huntington’s influential essay, The Clash of Civilizations, did the disservice, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of predicting and, to a very real extent, inciting the launching a decade later of the current never-ending wars in the Afghanistan and Iraq, justified by the moral authority of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, who both claimed they had God on their side. Ever a realist in his understanding of international relations, Huntington wrote: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.” 

In other words, Americans are constantly incited by their politicians and the media to continue to believe in the myth of their moral superiority based on the idea that the US represents the model and ideal of a democratic, egalitarian nation (that nevertheless thrived at its creation on slavery and has ever since cultivated economic and social inequality as a feature of its “morality”). In contrast, the rest of the world has lost the illusion Americans insist on maintaining in an effort of self-belief. Moreover, the other nations of the world no longer feel quite as intimidated by the very real military and economic power the United States continues to exercise and wishes — as O’Brien reminds us — to expand or “rebuild.”

Donald Trump and his national security team have less than 18 months to rebuild the image of America’s moral authority, if that really is their aim. They are hoping to earn four more years beyond that to continue the task. Given the moral morass in which the United States now finds itself as Congress hesitates between impeachment or not impeachment, unless a more authentically moral figure among the Democrats emerges as their candidate to oppose Trump, his team may just get those four more years to rebuild the nation’s moral authority in their image.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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