International leadership and national self-awareness

The Wall Street Journal headline reads: “U.S. Climate Pivot Puts a Reluctant China in Driver’s Seat”; the opening sentence of the article: “The U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris accord thrusts China into an unfamiliar role as a leader on climate change, boosting its global sway even as it remains wary of new international responsibilities.” The accompanying photo depicts the heads of government of Germany, France, and Italy.

For as long as I can remember listening to State of the Union addresses, I have cringed every time an American president has so easily asserted, or worse yet just assumed, before God and every-satellite-linked-body, that the United States as a nation, or he himself as its president, is the universally and gratefully acknowledged leader of the world, or of the “free world.” We now have a president who apparently does not wish to be, and at any rate certainly is not, the leader of anything outside the United States. This is not an entirely bad thing.

You may already know that I believe that the current American president is also not the leader of anything good or constructive inside the United States; and I already know that some of you disagree; but leave that aside for a moment. Leave aside also the arguments about the constitutional roles of the Senate and the president in treaty-making; that’s just one element of this dispute about the Paris accord, which in turn is just one more episode in a larger unfolding (I tend to think unraveling) story. The thing I want to say here is: I for one am very pleased indeed to see the heads of government of several of the leading NATO nations assuming the international leadership roles that they are so eminently competent to exercise. And if the leaders of China feel a responsibility to lead the world in environmental protection—well, that is a good thing too. But the way in which it is happening . . .

I can’t help thinking in terms of biblical analogies, and even if the analogies be sometimes partial, and even grotesquely far-fetched, I think some of my friends will understand. At the moment Romans 11 is resonating in my head. (The accompanying OT lesson might be the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel 4, but I won’t go there now.) I am thinking that the current season of self-humiliation for our nation, the USA, presents a long-overdue opportunity for some other nations not only to be included but to lead, quite frankly and openly, in important areas of international cooperation and collaboration. This is a good effect. I salute Angela Merkel, Emanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau (of course he has his own flaws—everyone does) and the people of the nations they lead, and many other nations and their leaders, and wish them—and ourselves through them—the greatest possible success.

I would have preferred a deliberate, measured, and permanent self-humbling to this abrupt, graceless, and—we can only hope and pray—temporary self-humiliation. In fairness to our current president: if he is constitutionally incapable of leading any salutary species of self-humbling, and prone instead to hubristic self-exaltation—well, so have been, to lesser degrees, most of his predecessors in my lifetime. In the current case, the self-unaware self-humiliation is extreme, and acutely painful to watch (and not just watch—we are all participating in it more or less fully). It is so far worse than anything we have seen before that we could fool ourselves, that we could tell ourselves that it is a radical reversal of attitude and comportment in the American presidency and the American self-understanding. I would love to think that it is. But there is a sense in which it is a continuation—a reductio ad absurdum, to be sure, but still in that sense a continuation—of a pattern of overweening pride that has long been with us.

Have we (the United States) stumbled so as to fall? μὴ γένοιτο! The KJV translated this Greek phrase “God forbid!”; a duller but more literal rendering is “May it never be!” May it be, rather, that we undergo a temporary abasement and exclusion, for the sake of the rightful inclusion and dignification of others who have hitherto been insufficiently included and respected, en route to a restoration and resumption, but on sounder terms, of something like the international servant-leader role we have always liked to imagine for ourselves, and at our best moments have really come very close to actualizing. I am enough of a patriotic American (though “patriotic American” can never be my, or any Christian’s, primary self-identification) to think that there have been numerous such moments, and to hope and pray that there will be many more.

Whether he knows it or not, and whether he wills it or not, and whether we individually find greater or lesser amounts of substantial good in his intentional accomplishments, our current president may possibly be playing a transformational role in the unfolding drama of our national self-understanding and sense of mission in the world. Perhaps someday someone will want to erect a statue or monument to his presidency. Perhaps the monitory inscription thereon, in massive uncial letters, will read: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ.

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