Claes G. Ryn: America the Virtuous

The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire

Transaction, 2003     Amazon.com (2009)

Front and Back Flaps:

RynUrged on by intellectuals and political activists, the president of the United States has committed America to a quest for empire. In his view, American values are universal and should guide a remaking of the world. The United States has a right to strike preemptively and unilaterally against any potential threat and should have sufficient military might to discourage any nation from challenging its will. Claes Ryn explains this drive for virtuous empire as the culmination of an ideological movement that has taken shape in the last several decades. Still virtually unknown to the American people, it represents a profound change relative to the worldview of America’s founders.

Ryn relates the ideology of empire to a crisis of American and Western civilization. The ideology both expresses and aggravates a general moral, cultural, and political decline, including an erosion of constitutionalism. The ideology is about far more than America’s role in the world: it encompasses a view of human nature and society and sets forth its own notion of virtue. It sees in America not a historically evolved and culturally distinctive nation but a regime based on universal principles that is uniquely called on and equipped to transform the world. Numerous prominent commentators, such as William Bennett, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Michael Novak, and Normal Podhoretz, argue passionately for having the United States bring “democracy”, “freedom”, and “capitalism” to the rest of the world.

America the Virtuous argues that a transformation of moral, cultural, and political beliefs is making America shed an older sense of the need for restraints on power. Checks provided by the U.S. Constitution are greatly weakened. Influential policymakers and intellectuals want American leaders to have virtually unrestricted power in the world. America the Virtuous explains the ideological underpinnings of the quest for empire, setting them in the larger context of the crisis of Western civilization and subjects them to in-depth analysis and criticism.

Back Cover:

Advance Comments

“Claes Ryn’s new book, America the Virtuous, is an important contribution for those interested in the intense post 9/11 debate on U.S. foreign policy. Ryn raises deep theoretical concerns about the U.S. global promotion of democracy and finds no classical U.S. foundations for the desirability of a new American Empire. Whether or not one fully agrees with his genealogy, diagnosis, or critique of neo-Jacobin democratic imperialism, his study is a significant addition to that controversy which has reached the national and international stage with the Iraq war and occupation.”  David C. Jordan, professor, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and former United States ambassador to Peru

“Claes Ryn paints a truly alarming portrait of the new Jacobinism that now constitutes a powerful ideological force among our nation’s elites. Its utopianism and arrogance, spawned by its ahistorical foundations, threaten the constitutionalism bequeathed to us by the Founders, and lead its ambitioius adherents, seemingly blind to the past and the realities of the modern world, to pursue the dream of an ‘American empire’. Ryn’s splendid work is a warning of things to come if we fail to recognize the dangers inherent in this ideology that has already corroded the American mind.”  George W. Carey, professor of government, Georgetown University

Reviews:

“Ryn (Catholic Univ.) does not like neoconservatives. He does not even like the term. Instead, he refers to the conservative intellectuals who have secured prominent positions in the media and in the Pentagon as the “new Jacobins.” Like the Jacobins of old, they possess a dangerous arrogance that will lead their nation to disaster… Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.”  R. A. Strong, Choice

“There is much wisdom in Ryn’s book, and the moral realism he calls for and explicates commands respect…Ryn is onto deep truths about the nature of politics.”  David C. Henderickson, World Policy Journal

“America the Virtuous diagnosed our contemporary maladies in both foreign policy and domestic Life…We Americans pretend we’re a peace-loving people and that our wars have all been foisted upon us. But the United States, as Ryn explains, is an Enlightened or Ideological Republic that has slipped its constitutional moorings, and become a Fighting Faith.”  Walter A. McDougall, Humanitas

JOB’s Comment:

Ryn’s most extensive critical analysis of neoconservatism and, more generally, “the new Jacobinism”. For those who want a clear understanding of these currents, the shorter book, The New Jacobinism, is an excellent introduction. This one is for those who wish to go deeper. Ryn’s criticism is almost certainly the deepest that has been produced in terms of philosophical analysis. This might lead the reader to go further still and explore the full expositions of Ryn’s philosophy in itself, both the distinctive philosophical defense of constitutionalism in Democracy and the Ethical Life, and the value-centered historicism on which it is based, as set forth in Will, Imagination and Reason.

In view of my recent comment on Irving Kristol’s collection of essays, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, it might be of interest for readers to compare Ryn’s explanation in this book (p. 29) that neoconservatism cannot simply be identified with the new Jacobinism:

“Like liberals of the ordinary type, neoconservatives can be more or less prone to a neo-Jacobin outlook. A number of them will be quoted and discussed…who express neo-Jacobin sentiments in a particularly clear-cut and illustrative way. This is not to say that neoconservatism equals neo-Jacobinism. Neoconservatism, as the term is ordinarily used, is too loose a constellation of individuals, is intellectually too diverse, and too much of a composite to make such a simple connection. In fact, the person who is often called the ‘god-father’ of American neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, is not only not a very typical neoconservative but is not among those with the most pronounced neo-Jacobin leanings. But Kristol’s son, William, clearly is…though, like many other neoconservatives, he attempts to combine that strong ideological disposition with ideas less inimical to traditional conservatism.”

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