No Enemies on the Right

Conservatives dodged a bullet on November 2. Squabbling bitterly over Iraq, they contributed to the possible unseating of an incumbent conservative president in wartime. Realists or traditional conservatives attacked neoconservatives for splitting the NATO alliance and chasing after democratic rainbows in the barren sands of the Middle East. Neoconservatives attacked each other--including in the pages of this magazine--exchanging salvos about whether terrorist threats are existential and legitimacy requires broader coalitions. Nationalists deplored the crippling Cold War reflex to fight wars far away from home and give other nations a free ride.

Conservative wars over foreign policy of course are not new. Conservatives split after the Vietnam War. At that time, neoconservatives, led by Ronald Reagan, attacked Nixonian policies of d‚tente and called for the end--not containment--of Soviet communism. Conservatives quarreled again after the Gulf War. Neoconservatives faulted realists for failing to march to Baghdad and eliminate Saddam Hussein. During both periods--in 1976 and in 1992--liberals exploited conservative divisions to take the White House. That did not happen this time. But conservatives are tempting fate if they continue these intramural squabbles. Internecine wars are not only self-destructive, they are unnecessary. Conservatives need each other. Here's why.

Root Principles

It is useful to remind conservatives what they have in common, especially compared to liberals. A conservative strategy for American foreign policy is based on four general principles. These principles encompass all conservatives--neoconservatives, conservative realists and nationalists--and reflect the different choices that conservatives and liberals make when they face tradeoffs in real world situations. In these situations, conservatives generally take the following positions: Individual and national liberty (freedom) count more than collective and universal equality; competition is a better engine of change and protector of liberty than institutional cooperation; military power takes precedence over economic, diplomatic or soft power because without military power, other forms of power are impotent; and legitimacy derives more from commitments to democracy than from universal participation in international institutions many of whose members are not democratic.

From these principles, several strategic guidelines follow for conservative foreign policy. First, a balance of power in international affairs preserves the independence and freedom of individual states. As long as many states are not democratic, the balance of power is to be preferred over a collective security system or reliance on international institutions, especially if the result is to empower a non-democratic majority in international institutions. International institutions are not objectives in themselves but are useful only if they support, as the president's 2002 National Security Strategy document stated, "a balance of power that favors human freedom."

Second, a global marketplace fosters competition and indirectly supports independence while advancing growth and development. Open markets are the principal engines of change that respect independence and freedom. Some institutional framework is necessary to establish market rules (for example, to lower trade barriers, establish currency relationships and so on), but this framework should be limited and have the principal objective of fostering equality of opportunity, not equality of results (for example, through some sort of international redistribution of wealth). History demonstrates that markets, as long as they are competitive, spread rather than concentrate wealth.

Third, military power is not a last but a pervasive resort, and it makes credible all other sources of power. Soft power is deception if it is not backed up by a nation's willingness to defend and assert its political convictions by force when necessary. Market power is an illusion if there is no military power to safeguard the marketplace. And, as Frederick the Great once memorably remarked, "negotiations without arms are like music without instruments." Military power not only defends national security and freedom, 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.

Based on these principles, conservative foreign policy differs from liberal foreign policy in two key respects. First, it emphasizes national ideals and interests and self-reliance. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, a country incapable of governing itself is also incapable of governing others. If nations deny their own citizens certain basic human and political rights, what right do they have to run the affairs of free nations through international institutions? Conservatives seek to get the best out of every individual and nation before they turn to national or international programs of assistance. Second, conservatism is more comfortable with competition both in the economic arena and, as a basis for balance and safety, in the military realm as well. Conservatives are more skeptical of cooperation and international institutions because they fear the dilution of liberty through compromise with non-democratic states more than they fear the loss of legitimacy through exclusion of such states.

The key question, then, is how to apply these principles to define a grand strategy for American foreign policy that integrates conservative views and avoids new conservative foreign policy wars.

The War on Terror


Great Powers