A Primer for Conservatives

March 1, 1991 Regions: Americas Tags: PostmodernismSociology

A Primer for Conservatives

Mini Teaser: The eruption of hot war in the Persian Gulf has imposed a ceasefire in the debate raging among American conservatives over the direction of American foreign policy.

by Author(s): Burton Yale Pines

Repeatedly having proven its friendship, dependability, and gratitude to America, Israel merits Washington's continued special commitment.  Israel's importance to America, in fact, has mounted because of the Arab world's increasing instability and in the wake of the Persian Gulf Crisis and War.  As a fortress of democracy in a region where dictators are the rule, Israel is the paradigm of a nation surrounded by enemies.  Without America's diplomatic, economic, and military support, Israel could not survive.  At the same time, American backing of Israel must not remain unconditional; it must prod Israel to advance the political rights of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and to adopt free market reforms to reverse the decade-long deterioration of its economy.  Without such actions, Israel's long-term existence--even with considerable American help--is questionable.

Were Japan simply an economic behemoth, it would warrant no more of Washington's attention than does the European Community.  The problem, though discussion of it remains taboo, is that Japan's wealth and technology again could build a war machine which threatens East Asia and, ultimately, America.  It is America's particular responsibility to prevent this; no other nation can do so.  The danger is not that Tokyo already is planning for the day when it can flex military muscle.  The danger rather is that if Japan begins feeling threatened, it will act to protect itself by obtaining weapons that it so far has not had--aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, and, perhaps, even nuclear missiles--and develop the devastatingly accurate high-technology smart weapons.  Such an arsenal will terrify all of Asia.  The special challenge for American policy is to maintain an East Asian environment in which Japan continues to feel secure and gives Japan no reason to expand its arsenal.  Key to this is the continued stationing of U.S. military forces in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, something just about all Asian nations (including China) support, as do some Soviet officials privately.  At a time, therefore, when America should be planning to reduce its overseas commitments, exception must be made for Asia.  Since the entire region benefits from the stability created by the U.S. troops, East Asian nations should begin paying the full cost of these troops.

It is not only its standing as the world's most populous nation that earns China special consideration by Washington.  Because it borders Russia and is Asia's only potential geopolitical counterweight to Japan, China is a key element in any American formula to block potential Russian or Japanese expansion.  Also raising China high on the calculus of American concerns is America's historic, even romantic, fascination with China.  More than any other nation, it has attracted generations of American religious, economic, and political missionaries who seem to have been "called" to serve China.  Conservatives, too, have felt this "call," typically arguing that America's global destiny is fulfilled across the Pacific, not the Atlantic, and that at the heart of this is an intimate relationship with a pro-American China.

Principle 8. Expand opportunities for Americans.

American living standards can be raised through specific foreign policies.  Negotiating liberalized trade, for example, gives American consumers greater access to foreign goods and American producers greater access to foreign markets.  International agreements on patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property protects American inventors, writers, and artists.  A vastly restructured foreign aid program that requires recipient nations to adopt free market policies spurs Third World economic growth which then creates new markets for American exports and new sources for American imports.  And environmental accords that preserve the global ecology without undermining economic growth enhance Americans' quality of life.

Principle 9. Give no nation or organization a veto over American actions.

Washington may find approval of its actions by other nations comforting.  Yet making this a condition of such actions will paralyze foreign policy and could force America to act against its interests.  No matter how the Persian Gulf War ends, a dangerous legacy of Bush's handling of it has been his refusal to act without first winning approval from the United Nations Security Council and from Moscow and Beijing.  Neither the United Nations nor any nation should be allowed to veto U.S. actions.

Principle 10. Stability is not the goal of foreign policy.

There is no inherent virtue in stability.  Instability, after all, at times topples evil regimes, as the persistent conservative call for the rollback of the Soviet Empire recognized.  At the same time, conservatives cannot remain indifferent to the potential dangers of global instability.  Nor can conservatives forget that, as Owen Harries noted in this journal's last issue, "continuity, gradualness, predictability, and order" may be the defining conservative value.  Whether stability thus is an appropriate goal or guiding principle of policy depends on what is being stabilized and on the costs of destabilization.  Only when instability specifically threatens American interests should ensuring stability be an aim--as when instability threatens the world's energy supply, or when instability in Central or South America threatens Mexico or the Panama Canal, or when instability in Europe invites Germany or Russia to dominate the Continent, or when instability in Asia allows Japan or China to dominate the region.  In each case it is not the instability itself that is to be countered, but the specific results of the instability.  This means that Washington need not be a global policeman automatically rushing to calm unrest, aggression, and other forms of instability everywhere.

From these ten principles, America can shape its post-Cold War foreign policy.  From these principles too it is obvious that conservatives are reluctant internationalists.  They know that America is less in need of a foreign policy than perhaps any other nation, for, of all nations, America is least threatened by and can better endure crises anywhere in the world.  They know too, having seen it confirmed, that interventionist foreign policy requires a more active and larger federal government than is good for the nation.  This understanding contributes to the admirable conservative instinct for isolation.  So does, of course, the conservative reflex to look inward, preferring to solve the problems in the family, community, school, church, and synagogue before solving them in the world.

To be sure, some world problems require America's attention.  But the burden of proof is borne by those urging this attention and intervention.  They very convincingly made the case for this during the Cold War.  As a result, conservatives overcame their global hesitations and enthusiastically championed and led the multifront campaign against Moscow-led communism.  But with the Soviet threat receding, conservatives rightly ask that Washington make anew the case for why and where America should be involved actively in the world.

There is a case for this, but it must be made explicitly.  George Bush must identify, as did Harry Truman in 1947, those dangers that the world poses to America.  Unless Americans understand these dangers, they cannot be asked to risk their lives and property in pursuit of a foreign policy.  The Bush administration, in situation after situation, must provide the relevant answer to the haunting, compelling question posed last spring in this journal by Patrick Buchanan: If North Korea attacks South Korea, "why should Americans be first to die?"  This is a question poignantly raised again by the war in the Gulf.

The old--and satisfying--answer to Buchanan was that the De-Militarized Zone dividing the Koreas is America's first line of defense against international communism.  A similar answer could have been given for a dozen other American troop deployments in a dozen other world hot spots.  This answer no longer suffices.  For a new answer to be credible it must convince Americans that their nation's interests are at risk in Korea.  In this case, they probably are; East Asia is too important to America for Korea to be united under communist and anti-American rule.  American interests similarly must--and can--be invoked to explain why the nation needs activist policies to guarantee access to the Panama Canal, freedom of the seas, protection from missile attacks, and so forth.  But if arguments fail to convince, then Washington has no right to intervene with resources or force.

What this means is that instead of a global foreign policy, America can conduct specific policies for specific regions.  Instead of a willingness for near-universal intervention, America can intervene selectively.  Washington should find nothing wrong in declaring that some areas of the world are much more important to America than most others.  Washington should find nothing wrong in saying that while it is unacceptable for a foreign power to control the Panama Canal or Cuba, America is not much affected by who controls Angola or Cambodia or even South Africa or if a South American country embraces socialism.

For a conservative, the goal of foreign policy is not a successful crusade for democracy or for human rights or for spreading the American way of life.  These are worthy ends for individuals and private organizations to pursue; they do not justify, however, the federal government deploying Americans in harm's way or even spending taxpayer money on them.

For a conservative, the only legitimate goal of American foreign policy is the creation of a world environment in which America is left alone and at peace, in which America can trade and raise its living standards, in which Americans can expand their options and enrich their lives.

Essay Types: Essay