A Conservative Grand Strategy for America

Conservatives are fighting one another again over foreign policy.

Conservatives are fighting one another again over foreign policy. So it is useful to remind them what they have in common.

A conservative grand strategy is based on several general principles. These principles do not reflect dichotomous choices but relative emphasis. When pressed to choose in specific situations, conservative thought tilts in the following directions:

-         Individual and national liberty (freedom) counts more than collective and universal equality;

-         Competition is a bigger engine of change than institutional cooperation;

-         Military power takes precedence over economic, diplomatic or soft power because, without military power, other forms of power are impotent.

From these principles, several strategic guidelines follow:

-         The balance of power system in international affairs preserves the independence and freedom of individual states. As such, it is to be preferred over a collective security system or reliance on international institutions. Universal participation is not a desirable objective if the result is to empower a non-democratic majority in international institutions. Although the balance of power system requires some minimal consensus to protect order, this consensus is useful only to the extent that it tilts in favor of freedom. Thus, international institutions are not an objective themselves but support "a balance of power that favors human freedom."

-         A global marketplace fosters competition and indirectly supports independence while advancing growth and development. Open markets are the principal engine of change that respects independence and freedom. Some institutional framework is necessary to establish market rules but this framework should be limited and have the principal objective of fostering equality of opportunity, not equality of results. Except for the chronically disabled (and no country is chronically disabled though some individuals within countries may be), equality of opportunity produces a growing equality of results. The history of global markets since the industrial revolution confirms that markets, as long as they are competitive, spread rather than concentrate wealth. International rules therefore should aim primarily to ensure competition or equality of opportunity, not redistribution or equality of results. Merit is not equally distributed across a national or global population, and differences in achievement should be rewarded differentially.

-         Military power is not a last but a pervasive resort. In a balance of power system that still includes a majority of not free countries, military power not only defends national security, it underwrites the stability that a prosperous global economy requires and validates a national and international diplomacy without which there could be no serious international negotiations. Military power is not the source of legitimacy. Might does not make right. But a country's beliefs are hollow if they are not supported by arms. Arms and power balancing do not cause international conflict; the use of arms to support free or despotic purposes does.

-         Diplomacy is only as effective as the military muscle and political legitimacy that support it. Military muscle today is largely American. That is a fact not a wish or objective of conservative thinking. Some primacists think it can be preserved. But other conservatives observe from history that no hegemon has lasted for more than a few decades. Hence, for most conservatives, the legitimacy behind US diplomacy is not muscular or multilateral but moral.  It is premised on the nature and appeal of democracy. Conservatives at the more nationalist end of the spectrum believe that American democracy is unique and not applicable to many other societies. Conservatives at the other, primacist end of the spectrum believe it is universal. President Bush seems to have migrated from the former to the latter end of the spectrum. Calling for a more humble policy before 9/11, he now advocates freedom for all, especially Muslim, societies. Whether this is a matter of conviction or a consequence of war and the need to reconstruct defeated societies can be debated.

Based on these principles, conservative foreign policy differs from liberal foreign policy in two key respects. It emphasizes national ideals and interests and self-reliance, paraphrasing Jefferson that a country incapable of governing itself is also incapable of governing others. And it is more comfortable with competition in the economic arena and, as a basis for balance and safety, in the military realm as well. Conservatives fear more the dilution of liberty through compromise with non-democratic states than the diminution of legitimacy through exclusion of such states.


Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University and author, most recently, of At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy, Cornell University Press, 2002. He served in the Ford and Reagan administrations.