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US Foreign Policy and Theories of Not-Gardening

“Those who hate gardening need a theory,” wrote Polish philosopher and academic Leszek Kolakowski. “Not to garden without a theory is a shallow, unworthy way of life.”

The theories created to avoid gardening are as “convincing and scientific” as they are numerous. Marxist Theory asserts that “to garden is…to participate in the great plot aiming at the ideological deception of the masses. Do not garden! Q.E.D.” Structuralist Theory advises that “to garden is to confuse the distinction between house and field, leisure and work; it is to blur, indeed to destroy, the oppositional structure which is the condition of our thinking. Gardening is a blunder. Q.E.D.”

Existentialist theory, psychoanalytical theory, and analytical philosophy each take their turn, but in the end, their conclusion is always the same: we must not garden, Q.E.D.

In these political landscapes, one can find any number of not-gardeners decrying gardens, each proposing a dramatic alternative use for the unassuming patches of soil. The United States’ foreign policy is one such garden under scrutiny and reevaluation.

The weakening of the international liberal order, encroaching globalization, and rising powers abroad have enticed opportunistic not-gardeners to inundate the public discourse. Each alternative is more theatrical than the last. In this constant whirlwind our view of the garden has been obscured, and many of us, I think, have forgotten what proper cultivation looks like.

And what is gardening in the context of foreign policy? Metaphorically, it is working the soil and tending the vegetables. Literally, it is paper pushing and attending meetings. But practically, it is the humble, inglorious maintenance of an international framework that has supported unprecedented levels of peace, freedom, and prosperity.

This is not to dismiss the system’s problems or require unfailing devotion to it. However, to refuse to acknowledge its contributions or neglect its maintenance for selfish ideological reasons is conceit at its finest.

It requires great thought to reject small goods like the freedom to write, work, and pray. One needs a strong theory to not-garden.

There is a somewhat legendary story attributed to the lay theologian and journalist G.K. Chesterton of two people who happen upon on an old fence dividing a field in two. One is a rather rabid reformer, a not-gardener. The other is a more careful sort.

The not-gardener arrives at Chesterton’s fence with a theory, whether it be “Make America Great Again” or a quest for the International, and immediately begins tearing it down. The other person begins with discovering the fence’s purpose before acting. This gardener, often as not, arrives at the borders of the fence, notices it is a rather pleasant garden, and settles down to dig. A post may be replaced or shifted a few feet, but the work is slow and careful.

We cannot over simplify or underestimate what it takes to maintain families, communities, nations, and states. Much, if not most, of this work is modest gardening—and how much more gardening it must take to maintain a relatively peaceful and prosperous international system.

Proper gardening is habitual, much like prayer. In prayer, we may find evidence of what gardening means for those who work governing our nation’s relations. The Zechariah Canticle, part of Catholic daily prayer, reminds the reader of God’s promises to Israel—peace to worship, peace to garden.

Through His holy prophets He promised of old
That He would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers
And to remember His holy Covenant.

This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight
All the days of our life.

If one is looking for a purpose of government and foreign policy, or at least a reason to work its fraught shrubbery, the Zechariah Canticle’s humble aspiration may be a good place to start. This is not to disparage those with greater ambitions, but our goal, on some level at least, should be this: to be free to worship all the days of our lives.

Arrayed against this aim are the not-gardeners, and their path will always be easier. To return to Kolakowski: “The alternative to not-gardening without a theory is to garden. However, it is much easier to have a theory than actually to garden.”