America Needs a Truly Conservative Foreign Policy
It’s been a bad year if you are a conservative. In fact, from a foreign and defense policy perspective, it’s been a bad start for the new millennium. Coming from a traditional understanding of conservatism, a belief that the lessons and traditions of the past have inestimable value and that the world can never be made perfect and that attempts to urge it towards perfection often do more harm than good, then Clinton, Bush II, and Obama foreign and military policies have all failed, if not equally, then at least with similar results.
Clinton engaged in nation building in an attempt to bring about a progressive democratic expansion. Noble, but not conservative, and a failure in light of destabilization in eastern Europe, Africa and North Korean nuclear weapons development. The neoconservative Bush administration followed and, having been saddled with Clinton’s half-measures against terrorism, they attempted to transplant a preplanned democracy in the Middle East while decrying critics of their efforts for having low expectations. Ambitious, but now tragic in hindsight in terms of human lives lost and animus won. Neither Western culture nor democracy found soil suitable for their roots in the fallow Middle East. Obama’s progressive “lead from behind” policy, with its rejection of American exceptionalism and nonadherence to its own red lines, has left instability whereever it has touched and stronger authoritarian rule in the Middle East, Russia and China. This is not unsurprising given the trust that the left has extended to centrally planned governments over time.
All three foreign policies were progressive and all failed. Maybe it’s time to try a classically conservative approach to the world beyond our borders. What would that look like, many might ask? Do you mean isolationism? Do you mean a withdrawal from the world? Of course not. Classic conservatives recognize that the world does exist and that it will and must impact each nation and each must react to those impacts according to established principles and traditions. Certainly the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, in fact the most influential nation that has ever existed, must be prepared to play a leading role, a role that a conservative foreign policy must seek to, well, conserve. How should we go about that?
A Conservative Foreign Policy
A conservative foreign policy for the United States begins with an acknowledgement that the United States occupies a leading position in the present international order and has as its first goal the sustainment of that position and the current international order that extends from it. This can be accomplished through three principal paths; by strengthening the position of the United States in the realms of diplomacy, information, military competition and economics, by acting to prevent or stall the rise of competitors, or a combination of the first two.
Such actions acknowledge a central core tenet of conservative thought: that human nature is unchanging and that we are who we have always been—warring, competitive and wanting. To address these realities, humans have established rules or normative behaviors that funnel these negative impulses into actions that are additive to human society rather than destructive. Armies to defend borders, technologies and inventions to improve lives and free capital markets that lift all of society rather than just an elite few. Conservatives also believe that the knowledge of the ages continues to informs us, that most of the great questions have been answered and can be found in the writings of Moses and Plato, Smith and Ricardo, as well as Madison and Hayek. Again, there is an essential sameness about humans across the arc of their history on the planet that is unchanging.
No, conservatives are not isolationists. To be sure, a strict foreign-policy originalist would have the United States take up Washington’s injunction to avoid entangling alliances, but such an action would be regressive, and conservatives are not opposed to change over time but prefer that it occur in a thoughtful way at a moderate pace. As it is, the United States possesses a complex web of alliances, and even conservatives admit that the nation’s interests have expanded from the narrow set of policies inherited from the Founders to a broad portfolio of world-wide concerns that are tied to a globalized free trading economy, a mature international system of laws, and a complex web of mutual-security arrangements. Such an acceptance of the current status quo also acknowledges tradition and order, as many of these relationships have been established incrementally over time through the Article II, Section 2 “Advise and Consent” power of the United States Senate, acquiring Constitutional authority in the process. Stated bluntly, treaty commitments to defend Lithuania via the NATO Treaty or Japan via the Mutual Defense Treaty are as binding upon the American people as their responsibility to defend New York or California from attack. To assert otherwise undermines the legitimacy of the American republic and its constitutional form of government.