In an international scene full of competing value systems and brute power politics, Americans tend to approach the conduct of foreign relations in one of three ways.
The first—and by far the most common—is to be passive unless it intimately affects day-to-day life. The second clause of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” works as the credo of many Americans: “God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.” Trade relations between the United States and China or US proposals for Middle East peace are things most Americans cannot help.
But two other approaches have their followings. For “realists,” US foreign relations is fraught with centuries of mistakes, either by design or by ignorance. The best the United States can do, whether to protect its own interests or those of the rest of the world, is to remove any sense of transcendent values from foreign policy. In international-relations circles, realists are known for their so-called realistic assessment of the world and the base interests that govern nations.
For “idealists,” foreign policy is unavoidably bound up with moral questions. They believe the way America conducts itself on the international stage implicates its moral standing, whether as a sign of greatness and exceptionalism (including divine favor) or as an expression of deep-seated injustices at the heart of the American experiment. In international-relations circles, idealists are known for their principled assessment of the United States and its global commitments.
Translating Neibuhr’s prayer into foreign-policy categories, we might apply the first clause to idealists (who insist we can change the world for the better), the second clause to most Americans (who find it easier to assume we can’t), and the third clause to realists (who claim the mantle of clear-eyed discernment). Though Christians can be found in all three camps, they might be best known as idealists, for either criticizing or justifying American conduct in the world.
Perhaps no foreign-policy issue raises the hackles of idealists and realists like the relationship between the United States and Israel. Designated by many as a “special relationship” matched only by the relationship between America and Great Britain, the US-Israel bond appears constantly in our headlines. It is debated on college campuses, on cable news, and in op-ed columns. Even minor policy issues, such as changing the location of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, become the subject of presidential campaign promises.
A lot of people have tried to explain the American fascination with a country more than 6,000 miles away with roughly the size and population of New Jersey. Walter Russell Mead, the well-known columnist and author of such books as God and Gold and Special Providence, has produced a new and clarifying answer in The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People. In the cottage industry of books purporting to explain the “special relationship,” Mead’s is a singular achievement. The sweeping history, spanning from the 18th century to the present, could have come only from a first-class writer, storyteller, and generalist like Mead.
Clocking in at more than 580 pages of narrative text, The Arc of a Covenant, by its structure and insistence on taking seriously both national interests and values, offers something of a bridge between realist and idealist explanations of the US-Israel relationship. The book examines the role of religious communities and values in forming foreign policy, touching on vast slices of world history that intersect with this story. There are long passages on 19th-century immigration to the United States, on the decline of European empires before World War I, and on the rise of the Sunbelt in the American South (among other topics). There is essentially a book within a book (over 100 pages) on the presidency of Harry Truman, whose time in office saw the US government grapple with the aftermath of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the deepening of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If it weren’t so well written, the book might be criticized as overly long. As it stands, it is an achievement that will be hard to replicate, in either its breadth or its balanced arguments.
The title gives away the book’s recurring focus on religion and faith. Mead’s deepest insight is one idealists and realists share: that Zionism of one sort or another has been present since the beginning of American history. Even before the organized Zionist movement led by Theodor Herzl in the late 19th century, interest in Jews and the nation of Israel was pervasive in American political culture. “The driving forces behind Americans’ fascination with Israel,” Mead writes, “originate outside the American Jewish community and are among the most powerful forces in American life.” Those forces include religion, but they are too broad (and diffuse) to narrowly identify with one interest group or worldview.
Mead’s telling of this religious story—which begins in the Reformation and includes themes of prophecy, conversion, humanitarianism, and antisemitism—builds on earlier studies. Other historians, including Caitlin Carenen, Shalom Goldman, and Samuel Goldman, have excavated parts of this story. And scholars like Yaakov Ariel, Walker Robins, and Melani McAlister have pondered the puzzle of how conservative evangelicals emerged in the second half of the 20th century to become Israel’s most committed American supporters.
Mead also interacts with a wave of “Israel lobby” analysis that broke into the open with The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a 2007 volume written by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. The book, along with others of its ilk, applies a realist perspective, acknowledging the role of religious values but finding them deeply troubling.
In sorting through this maze of claims and counterclaims, Mead resists any single, simple interpretation of how the US-Israel relationship developed. Instead, he offers multiple explanations, sometimes half a dozen at once.
To take one example, consider the famous Balfour Declaration, issued by the British government in 1917, which supported “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” US responses to this declaration, Mead shows, are incomprehensible without considering multiple factors: division within the American Jewish community over the desirability of a “national home” outside the United States; anti-immigrant legislation that imposed severe restrictions to Eastern European Jews; the encouragement of national self-determination, by influential figures like Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, as a way to expand American commerce and economic activity; wartime passions, led by President Woodrow Wilson, to establish minority rights in once-imperial holdings like Palestine; and a history of American Christian declarations similar to the Balfour Declaration dating back to the Blackstone Memorial in 1891, named after Methodist preacher and businessman William E. Blackstone, an early popularizer of dispensational theology and Christian Zionism.
By holding these strands together, Mead explains a history without simplistic answers. There is no use in isolating one explanation to the exclusion of others. In fact, doing so will distort reality. For some readers this might be discomforting. Yet the loss of concise explanatory power or obvious policy implications is more than worth the gain in capturing the complex range of historical actors, motivations, and forces at work in defining US-Israel relations.
The truest insights
What, if anything, are Christians today called to do in the foreign-policy world? Mead, a Christian himself, offers no religious instruction as such. But he does offer a framework that clears away simplistic and conspiratorial thinking in favor of the complexity of the past. Mead is especially critical of realist arguments that attribute the US-Israel relationship to the influence of a nefarious set of actors. He is particularly dismissive of “Israel lobby” theories, which blame Jewish American organizations for exercising an outsized influence on bending US policy in favor of Israeli interest. And he attends to the ways such arguments play on historic tropes of antisemitism.
Mead compares Israel-lobby advocates to the scientists who searched for Planet Vulcan, a celestial body proposed by 19th-century astronomers to account for irregularities in Mercury’s orbit. Scientists compiled evidence, even visual proof, of Vulcan’s existence—but of course the irregularities were due to their own flawed theories. Einstein’s theory of relativity explained that the sun’s gravity warped space-time in the exact ways observed by scientists on Earth. This did away with the supposed irregularities and thus the need for Vulcan. Similarly, Mead does a good job depicting “the lobby” as a mythical body invented to account for forces better explained through more comprehensive analysis.
Most Christians, when it comes to foreign policy, oscillate between idealism and detachment—between yearning to change the world and accepting that, in most cases, we can’t. Mead is a rare observer in the Niebuhrian tradition of Christian realism who insists, in keeping with the Serenity Prayer’s third petition, that we should focus on better understanding where change is possible and where it isn’t. As a realist, Mead admittedly prefers a “good” foreign policy to a “Christian” foreign policy. As he remarked in a 2018 speech, “just because something is made in a church or made with love doesn’t mean it is any good.”
But as a Christian, Mead has mined that tradition’s values—psychological, theological, social, cultural—and is convinced that Christianity offers the truest insights to promote human flourishing, as well as the only real antidote to human fallenness. And he appreciates the extent to which Christians have deeply shaped the institutions, structures, and practices of international relations for centuries. From the emergence of human rights and international law to the origins of many NGOs and global charities, Christians have played an integral role in shaping the current world order.
If Christian wisdom bridges the idealist-realist divide, it should finally push Christians back toward Niebuhr’s first petition, which exhorts us to change what must be altered. Certain biblical injunctions come into play: God’s command to grieve for other people’s pain (James 2:15–17) and to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). How we live these out can vary, but they are not exclusive to a professional diplomatic class.
There are also theological tools that the Christian tradition bestows. In a recent interview, Mead reflected on the importance of “a religious faith, connected to one of the great historical traditions” including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for becoming an effective observer and actor in international relations. Such a grounding “gives you a degree of insight and potential for self-criticism that are absolutely crucial to foreign affairs.”
More than any specific policy solution, Mead concludes The Arc of a Covenant by encouraging Americans to better appreciate the connections between how they think and act in the world. In this sense, the US-Israel relationship is no different than any other domain of human existence and far less special than it first appears.
Daniel G. Hummel is a religious historian and the director for university engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His forthcoming book is The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation.