One of the more lively and illuminating discussions at last week’s Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar revolved around the question whether and how classical liberalism is applicable to foreign policy, specifically with regard to questions of war. In the New York Times earlier this week, Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote a lengthy op-ed that bears on the relevant questions, “An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With.”

Wright argues, “It’s now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle — reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists.” He calls this paradigm “progressive realism” and the remainder of the essay outlines the planks of such a platform. Wright’s alternative is rife with important observations and useful principles.

For example, he writes that “the national interest can be served by constraints on America’s behavior when they constrain other nations as well. This logic covers the spectrum of international governance, from global warming (we’ll cut carbon dioxide emissions if you will) to war (we’ll refrain from it if you will).” Even so, the problem beyond the mere curtailment of absolute national sovereignty is the ability of mutual enforcement. America doesn’t want to get stuck being the only one who plays by the rules.

Wright also observes that “domestic security depends increasingly on popular sentiment abroad makes it important for America to be seen as a good global citizen — respecting international laws and norms and sensing the needs of neighbors…. Much of the war on terror isn’t military.” There’s a sense in which what Wright is arguing for is a system of international affairs that will foster some sort of solidarity, an end that advocates of globalization and increasing free trade recognize. Thus Wright says, “A correlation of fortunes — being in the same boat with other nations in matters of economics, environment, security — is what makes international governance serve national interest. It is also what makes enlightened self-interest de facto humanitarian.”

During the discussions last week about classical liberalism and war, my reaction was not to first ask the question: “What is a classical liberal approach to war?” I’m not so concerned with simply finding and articulating a classical liberal position, but instead am focused on finging the right position.

To this end, I contend that we ought to begin with just war theory, an approach that predates by millennia the rise of classical liberal thought and which is officially advocated by the Roman Catholic Church, among others. We then might apply classical liberal principles and see to what extent the two are compatible, and there may be reason to adjust the conclusions of one or the other on the basis of an insight that one of the perspectives provides. It does strike me that on many levels, however, Wright’s “progressive realism” is an approach that has significant cross-over appeal for classical liberalism.

These are questions, of course, of the utmost relevance for today. A worthy post at the Belmont Club (HT: No Left Turns) raises the question of collateral damage and the loss of civilian life in military campaigns. This is an issue that stands at the heart of just war theory.

Detroit News editor Nolan Finley raised the question of our policy toward rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea: “Why don’t we just nuke ‘em?” You can gauge the response to this question from the survey of letters to the editor here. But even so, Finley’s column raises an important and real difficulty with regard to nuclear weapons: “We know as well as our enemies do that we’ll never push the button.”

As one of the faculty observed at the seminar last week, the question of whether it is immoral to possess nuclear weapons is different than the question of whether it is moral to use nuclear weapons, and the two may not be entirely compatible. There is the potential for a paradox, which is what Finley is getting at I think, in that it may well be moral to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent, in the style of mutually-assured destruction, but that it would always violate just war principles to use them. Even Finley’s emphasis on tactical and smart weapons is overwrought, I think, given that even conventional smart weapons almost always result in some sort of collateral damage to civilians. We have seen this most remarkably in the events between Lebanon and Israel in the last few days.