“So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”
– Genesis 4:16
On this side of paradise, life rarely provides a pure choice between good and evil. East of Eden, we are cursed to wander through the fog of our fallen nature while facing the tribulations of our inherited necessity.
The moral tales we tell our children may suggest hope in a heavenly kingdom to come, but in the interim here on earth, the wise know that with every seemingly good deed done comes the heavy cost of suffering and sacrifice.
Indeed, life is often about picking one’s own poison. Sometimes there are no purely good choices, only better or worse. Sometimes the plain facts of the matter leave us no clear-cut path to the otherside of our wandering absent a seemingly endless thicket of thorns.
This is especially true when it comes to politics and the struggle between nations on the global stage. Despite modernity’s technological, economic, and social progress, Thomas Hobbes’ description of life as “nasty, brutish, and short” remains an all too accurate description of the anarchic world of geopolitics.
The United States, in particular, is caught up in the center of a geopolitical thicket. The 20th century saw a victorious America rise as the indispensable nation, a shining city on the hill. Yet in the 21st century, it is time for the American people to face an unpleasant fact contrary to their own gleaming moral self-image – having risen to the top, the U.S. is a global empire destined to contend with the thorns of the world.
Though many politicians and the American people themselves wish to deny it, America is indeed a de facto empire.
“Julius Caesar called himself imperator but never king. His adopted heir Augustus preferred princeps,” Niall Ferguson wrote in his 2004 book “Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire.” “Emperors can call themselves what they like, and so can empires. The kingdom of England was proclaimed an empire—by Henry VIII—before it became one. The United States by contrast has long been an empire, but eschews the appellation.”
The American empire – what Thomas Jefferson hoped would be an “empire of liberty” – has been centuries in the making no matter what Americans choose to call it. This is why recent presidential “peace” candidates (George W. Bush and Barack Obama both ran on peace platforms) have turned into war presidents. They are caught in an imperial catch-22, damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Their choices are hardly a matter of choosing a pure good or evil. No, the “necessary evil” of globe-trotting governance only allows them to choose between lesser evils, yet evils all the same.
The criticisms from hawks and doves alike are both true: Pull back the U.S. and power vacuums will be filled by China in the Asia Pacific, Russia in Eastern Europe, and Iran and Sunni fundamentalists in the Middle East and Central Asia; stay put and push forward to support the likes of Taiwan, Ukraine, and Israel, only to experience more blow back, more debt, and more death while flirting with the Thucydides trap in relation to a rising, nationalistic China.
Speaking of that old Greek historian Thucydides, if America’s leaders really wished to be honest with the American people, they would quote what Pericles said to the people of Athens:
“And do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred which we have incurred in administering it. … Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.”
It’s time to pick your poison, America. Your grown children should know that viewing the world as a moral melodrama is, at best, half-true. Time to face the hard-boiled necessities of the moment. Even if the younger generations never asked to inherit this American empire in the first place, the weighty legacy of our forefathers cannot be carried forward or shrugged off without immense cost and effort.
We Americans face the prospect of suffering and sacrifice whatever way we choose to wander. Best to remember that here on earth, we will always find ourselves east of Eden, even as we long for a heavenly kingdom to come and a return to paradise.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and is currently the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 12 p.m. - 3 p.m. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback, please email [email protected].
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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