An Surprising Source of Foreign Policy Wisdom: St. Benedict

By Liam Miller

A statue of Saint Benedict of Nursia
Image Credit: Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia Commons

“Listen with the ear of your heart”

“We hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.” — Benedict of Nursia.

At first glance, one might not think of Saint Benedict’s famous Rule of Benedict as the standard for U.S. foreign policy. 

While it is more often a toolkit for religious mediation and monastic instruction, my own experience as a college student at a Catholic Benedictine university during the fall of Kabul and the 20th anniversary of 9/11 prompts new reflection on how St. Benedict’s teachings apply today.

Saint Benedict’s times were as turbulent as our own. Throughout the 5th and 6th centuries, the disintegration of the Roman Empire reshaped the order of global politics. Rome was plagued by both internal threats from within its government and external threats from barbaric forces. 

Disgusted by the chaotic environment around him, Benedict left his home and chose a religious path as a monk. He would eventually establish various Italian monasteries. 

Benedict wrote his Rule primarily for monks, but its principles for order and humility have crossed societal barriers over the last fifteen hundred years. 

He was a keen observer of human nature and realized that people often fail (even the abbot must distrust his own frailty). He knew that, despite intentions to do good, human beings are imperfect and this shapes every environment. It is what makes the world a beautiful and ugly place. This especially applies to the United States and its own foreign policy missteps.

In fact, many of the major failures of U.S. foreign policy can be attributed to policymakers often disregarding the voices around them in the global environment, as well as the frailty of our tools and institutions for foreign policy. 

This is the result of the double-edged sword of American exceptionalism, which leads to a misunderstanding of the limits of U.S. power. This misconception has only been further exacerbated as the U.S.’s relative power erodes in a multipolar world.

A quick and well-intentioned effort to remove the Taliban from power evolved into a trillion-dollar and twenty-year nation building experiment to spread democracy abroad through military intervention.

History provides further examples of senseless American military interventions, conveniently under the guise of nation building: Iraq, Vietnam, Haiti, and the list goes on.

But there also is no shortage of positive examples of U.S. foreign policy focusing on “amending faults and safeguarding love.” 

A great example was the post-Second World War Bretton Woods order which entailed financial institutions based on the notions of international economic agreements and free trade. This liberal economic order — though now heavily threatened by seeping authoritarianism and economic dissatisfaction — led to seventy years of prosperity and stood in stark contrast to the Soviet-led system. 

This was a great contrast from past actions taken by isolationist policymakers that led to the Great Depression and events propelling fascist leaders, like Hitler, to power.

Actions defending both American values and interests occurred throughout Europe, beginning with President Truman and the Marshall Plan which focused on rebuilding a battered postwar Europe through economic and humanitarian aid. 

Rhetorical assertions from President Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Berliner” speech as the Berlin Wall was built, and President Reagan “Tear Down This Wall” speech as the Berlin Wall fell, led to the peaceful culmination of the Cold War under the Bush administration. All of which stand as major successes of U.S. foreign policy.

In the 1990s, President Clinton took the economic route and finalized the NAFTA trade accord which, though falling short of many bold expectations, aimed to integrate North American economies. 

Most recently, the landmark Paris Climate Accords, which the U.S. entered in 2015 (and rejoined in 2020) though legally non-binding, committed the world to climate change goals. With these responses, the U.S. exemplified the values of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.

America succeeded not because of its hard power and military capabilities but rather through soft power and moral leadership actions. There must be a return to this style of leadership.

An effective U.S. foreign policy for the 21st century must disregard the “sole superpower” mindset that assumes that U.S. interests automatically correlate with its allies’ and adopt an approach that moves in moderation and factors in the interests of other actors. 

Exiting a global crisis like President Truman after the Second World War II, President Biden must help to restore a new sense of shared mission through presenting an image of moral leadership — to a world now filled with growing cynicism about American leadership. 

However, American policymakers must recognize that the world in 2021 is vastly different from the world in 1945. In 2021, the world is now filled with emerging superpowers, along with new challenges such as climate change, cybersecurity, and globalization, just to name a few.

Additionally, many countries, particularly in the developing world, are much more cynical about American leadership due to the painful scars of the past. In a global environment where power is no longer solely concentrated with one superpower, policymakers must continue to foster a fairer sense of involvement and cooperation for all countries working with Washington to build a post-pandemic order.

Hence, the U.S. must continue focusing on building global coalitions, which should certainly include understanding the interests of democratic allies, but also antidemocratic adversaries. 

This would mean that the U.S. would have to practice continuous self-restraint, delegation, and compromise for the greater good of preserving the global system. As Saint Benedict said, “No one is to pursue what is best for oneself, but instead what is better for someone else.”

President Biden’s mandate on rebuilding U.S. alliances and multilateral coalitions on the crucial issues of climate change, technology and trade is the correct course of action.

To the extent that the U.S. can come to a consensus with the European Union, Japan, and South Korea on, for example, reforming the World Trade Organization, the U.S. can utilize its influence and assert pressure on China and other countries to reform predatory trade policies that often plague developing countries.

Decade long trends reveal Americans would be much more comfortable with this approach. Americans want the U.S. to remain globally involved in carrying its weight, but with the assurance that other countries carry their weight as well in the global order.

As America undertakes this critical task, perhaps the 1,500-year-old words of an Italian monk are not so unlikely of a guideline for U.S. foreign policy after all.

Liam Miller is a junior studying economics and political science at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He is from Nassau, The Bahamas.

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