“We are not an imperial power. We are a commercial republic. We don’t take food; we trade for it. Which makes us something unique in history, an anomaly, a hybrid.” –Charles Krauthammer
This week, we received the sad news that Charles Krauthammer has passed away due to a recent battle with cancer. As a longtime conservative columnist and media pundit, Krauthammer was known for his clear and measured commentary. Although he focused his attention on matters of foreign policy, Krauthammer had a memorable way of highlighting the uniqueness of the American experiment and all that it had to offer.
In memory of that profound gift, consider this brief excerpt from a speech he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute’s Annual Dinner in 2004.
In David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, King Faisal says to Lawrence: “I think you are another of these desert-loving English…The English have a great hunger for desolate places.” Indeed, for five centuries, the Europeans did hunger for deserts and jungles and oceans and new continents.
Americans do not. We like it here. We like our McDonald’s. We like our football. We like our rock-and-roll. We’ve got the Grand Canyon and Graceland. We’ve got Silicon Valley and South Beach. We’ve got everything. And if that’s not enough, we’ve got Vegas–which is a facsimile of everything. What could we possibly need anywhere else? We don’t like exotic climates. We don’t like exotic languages–lots of declensions and moods. We don’t even know what a mood is. We like Iowa corn and New York hot dogs, and if we want Chinese or Indian or Italian, we go to the food court. We don’t send the Marines for takeout.
That’s because we are not an imperial power. We are a commercial republic. We don’t take food; we trade for it. Which makes us something unique in history, an anomaly, a hybrid: a commercial republic with overwhelming global power. A commercial republic that, by pure accident of history, has been designated custodian of the international system. The eyes of every supplicant from East Timor to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Liberia; Arab and Israeli, Irish and British, North and South Korean are upon us.
That is who we are. That is where we are. Now the question is: What do we do?
Krauthammer proceeds to indulge in a detailed analysis of American foreign policy and the range of competing responses, particularly in light of the attacks on September 11 (watch the full thing). On this, there is plenty with which your average defender of the “commercial republic” may heartily disagree. Regardless, Krauthammer’s summary aptly illuminates the peculiar place of America compared to civilizations of the past.
In reflecting on our basic attitudes about economic action and human exchange, Krauthammer calls them an “accident of history”—a question that thinkers such as Deirdre McCloskey, Rodney Stark, Matt Ridley, and Jonah Goldberg have explored at length in the intervening years.
But whatever the cause, Krauthammer reminds us that the prize and distinction of America’s commercial power and promise has never been found in fear or economic protectionism, but in a bold embrace of the beauty and diversity of free and open exchange.
As we continue to unravel the moral implications of economic action in a globalized world, that basic vision leaves plenty to ponder.
Image: Public Domain