Present Laughter or Utopian Bliss?

Present Laughter or Utopian Bliss?

Mini Teaser: Realists, neoconservatives and the Great Intramural Debate: who speaks for a conservative foreign policy?

by Author(s): Gideon Rose

When the Democrats captured the White House in 1992, after a dozen years in exile, foreign policy was not at the top of their agenda. Many observers felt this a blessing, because clear and mature thought on the subject had not been one of the party's strong suits for many years.

Yet for all the criticism heaped upon it, the Clinton administration has actually not done too badly. When they received strong cards from the Bush administration, as with NAFTA or the Middle East peace process, the Clintonites have played their hand reasonably well. Trouble has come when they have tried to think for themselves, as with the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, or when they have subordinated everything to domestic politics. On balance, as the editor of this journal wrote much earlier in the administration's life, "Clinton's foreign policy is not an unmitigated disaster. It is not even a mitigated disaster. It is merely quite bad in certain ways that have limited consequences." And while Gore or Bradley could always surprise if given the reins, the odds are that a successor Democratic administration would probably offer more of the same.

On the other side of the aisle, the situation is more complex and, given current polls, perhaps more important. As with the Democrats of yore, the question with regard to Republicans today is whether they will emerge from their years in the presidential wilderness ready to exercise power responsibly. On this score, the record of recent Republican Congresses is a national embarrassment and gives cause for alarm rather than reassurance. Arms control, defense policy, economic sanctions, alliance diplomacy--all have been treated cavalierly, as if they were simply local pork, pure symbolism or opportunities for partisan advantage. The gratuitously blunt rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October is the latest example, but the nadir may have been reached last April when the House of Representatives voted simultaneously not to send ground troops to Kosovo, not to support the air campaign in progress there, and not to pull out. Just what practical guidance such votes were meant to offer is unclear.

Still, foreign policy wisdom is hardly to be expected from legislators, especially during good times, and so their frivolities may say little about how a future Republican administration would perform when faced with the task of running the nation's external affairs, rather than merely yapping at the heels of those who do. Here the views of scribblers and aspiring place-holders might be a better guide, and among Republicans these fall into four distinct camps: populist, libertarian, neoconservative and realist.
The first two can be dismissed quickly because they have few adherents within the professional foreign policy establishment. Buchanan's pitchfork-wielding followers may be an important constituency in the heartland, but in Washington opposing globalization while rehabilitating Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin is considered unsound. The Cato Institute's night watchman-state isolationism, meanwhile, has never caught on with the managers of the world's largest foreign policy apparat. The battle for the next Republican administration's soul thus comes down by default to a fight between the neoconservatives and the realists--although, as we shall see, on different grounds than might at first be apparent.

Both camps derive their views from a comprehensive theory of international politics, with the difference being that neoconservatives emphasize ideology while realists emphasize power. Neoconservatives view global affairs as a clash of systems, with nations competing not only for themselves but also on behalf of larger ideological movements. Realists view international affairs as a struggle for power among states, with national interests trumping ideological concerns most of the time.
Neoconservatives believe that realists fail, as James Burnham once said of Kennan, Lippmann and Morgenthau, "to comprehend dialectics: fail to realize that simultaneously in our age there is taking place an international competition of national states and empires . . . and also an unprecedented revolutionary struggle that is world-wide and civilization-deep."

Realists believe that the causes neoconservatives embrace vary over time--from Trotskyist world revolution in the 1930s, to anti-communism during the Cold War, to democracy promotion today--but that their ideological passion remains constant and dangerous.

In their current incarnation, neoconservatives seek to badger the world into accepting local versions of the American domestic political system. William Kristol and Robert W. Kagan, for example, suggest that the United States should establish a "benevolent global hegemony" resting on an increased defense budget, an infusion of moral concerns into foreign policy, and diplomatic activism--or, in the words of the Weekly Standard, the "three M's . . . Military strength, Morality, and Mastery." They assert that "The United States achieved its present position of strength not by practicing a foreign policy of live and let live, nor by passively waiting for threats to arise, but by actively promoting American principles of governance abroad--democracy, free markets, respect for liberty."

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is really old-fashioned liberalism, albeit of a particularly muscular variety. After all, it was Woodrow Wilson who asked Congress to approve American entry into World War I "for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples . . . for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience." To be sure, neoconservatives reject certain elements in the traditional liberal catechism, such as a belief in the value of international law and institutions, and in the pacific effects of trade and economic interdependence. But they are quite comfortable with other parts of it, such as the need to make the world safe for democracy, and they share liberal hopes that a bright future will dawn once the evil domestic sources of foreign aggression are rooted out.

Realists find such optimism risible. Their conception of international politics as a war of all against all has little room for fundamental progress. Wary balancing yielding temporary stability is usually the best that can be hoped for, they say, with perpetual peace not in the cards, no matter who is playing the game. They believe that the neoconservatives' liberal imperialism is doomed not only to fail but also to provoke a countervailing response from the rest of the world, hastening the end of America's reign as king of the hill; in its place they offer a more circumspect agenda featuring free trade and great power accommodation.

Of the two approaches, the neoconservative one has greater popular resonance, since the United States is indeed a nation "dedicated to a proposition" and Americans have always believed that their political ideals and principles are in theory universally applicable. The Declaration of Independence, as Lincoln noted, gave liberty "not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time." From the Founding onwards, accordingly, Americans have been concerned with (and judgmental about) the domestic order of other countries in a way that pure European realism rejects. The relativist view that foreigners' political practices are presumptively legitimate, expressed most eloquently by George Kennan, is not only unusual on these shores but is in a real sense profoundly un-American.

Yet if the universal significance of the American national experiment has rarely been disputed, its implications for foreign policy have been, and vigorously, allowing a practical and distinctly American realism to creep in through the back door. As Robert W. Tucker pointed out in these pages more than a decade ago, those who believe that the nation should rest content with setting an example for the world have always clashed with those who believe it should try to shape political developments abroad in accordance with American ideals. First emerging in the 1790s, this debate has continued to the present with little change in the basic positions on either side. Most American realists today are actually what Tucker terms "exemplars", wary of the costs associated with a messianic foreign policy and skeptical about the U.S. ability to effect true political change in other countries. Rather than going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, they prefer to cheer along democracy and liberalism from the sidelines. Most neoconservatives, on the other hand, are what Tucker terms "crusaders", more optimistic about the possibility of promoting change abroad and more willing to bear costs in the attempt. They think the United States should wield its power vigorously in support of its values as well as its interests.

American realists seek order and hope it will lead to justice; American neoconservatives seek justice and hope for order. Both values are respected by sensible figures in both camps, with debate emerging over emphasis and sequencing. In practice, therefore, what appears to be a clash between two starkly opposing belief systems turns out to be a more nuanced dispute over just how activist the country's foreign policy should be, and in which situations. The conflict between today's realists and neoconservatives is thus over means rather than ends, an expression of temperament rather than philosophy. Here the realists are the true conservatives, while the neoconservatives--like their liberal cousins--are often quite radical.

"Conservatism and radicalism", Samuel Huntington has written, "derive from orientations toward the process of change rather than toward the purpose and direction of change." Instead of transcendental values and a clear vision of an ideal political outcome, they offer a perspective on the status quo and whether it should be rudely shaken up. In Michael Oakeshott's apt formulation, they are dispositions:
"To be conservative . . . is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."

Even those disposed toward bold adventures in private life, Oakeshott notes, might favor conservatism in politics, because "such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight." If this is true in domestic politics, American realists ask, how much more so is it in the international realm, where, in the absence of a polity, the stakes are higher, instability more dangerous, and social engineering more difficult? With Talleyrand, the realists counsel against too much zeal; with Alan Greenspan, they fear irrational exuberance.

Since conservatism involves a defense of the status quo, it should be most attractive to those under threat or with much to lose. The former was true of Americans during the Cold War, and the latter is true in its aftermath. It is precisely because the United States is the global hegemon, in other words, that a conservative approach to foreign policy is appropriate today. The country's fortunate situation is captured best by the statement of a frank British official earlier in the century:

"We are in the remarkable position of not wanting to quarrel with anybody because we have got most of the world already or the best parts of it, and we only want to keep what we have got and prevent others from taking it away from us."

Preserving such an inheritance so as to bequeath it undiminished to our posterity is not a timid goal but a noble and historically ambitious one.

What, then, might a conservative foreign policy look like? One aspect would be an appreciation of fine distinctions, and here neoconservative gusto may be a weakness rather than a strength. A recent Weekly Standard editorial on "Clinton's Feckless Foreign Policy", for example, argued that,
"it's hard to think of a time when America's international standing was so low, when Washington's credibility was in such disrepair, when an American president and his top advisers seemed so adrift in a sea of international troubles. Hard, but not impossible. From where we sit, the present moment looks a lot like the late 1970s. Obviously, there's no Soviet Union; but the post-Cold War world has its own set of risks, and our weakness is in certain ways as dangerous today as our weakness was in the late 1970s."

Perhaps their chairs simply face in a different direction, but realists can be forgiven if they consider the difference between mortal combat and global hegemony rather significant, and quite sufficient to make any such analogy patently absurd.

Another aspect of a conservative foreign policy would involve a sense of limits as well as opportunities, and here again the neoconservative approach offers reason to be concerned. Because it allows them to envision a world tomorrow that differs from the one today, the neoconservatives' notion that ideas can trump material "realities" is their greatest strength. But it is also their greatest weakness, since it contains no internal check against hubris, no commandment to worship prudence--"the god", as Burke noted, "of this lower world."

Thus an article in the Weekly Standard can demand that "our foreign policy must be ideological--must be designed to advance freedom", and conclude that "we must insist that friendly authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia share power with their own people." Yet it never pauses to consider whether we or the world would be better off exchanging, say, the unpleasant Saudi Arabian or Egyptian regimes for their still more unpleasant oppositions. Again, an editorial in the same magazine can rail against "endlessly trying to 'cope' with problems that are increasingly difficult to cope with--to 'manage' situations that become inherently less manageable", as if a sheer act of will by the United States could somehow make it otherwise.

The most common radical error, and the most dangerous, is the "must go" fallacy--the assumption that the problems of the world and the United States stem not from deep-rooted structural evils but from a few bad men who can be eliminated with relative ease. Such a diagnosis leads to a standard prescription, regularly captured in a Weekly Standard headline: "Saddam Must Go" (12/1/97), "Milosevic Must Go" (7/27/98), "Clinton Must Go" (8/31/98). Unfortunately, the declaration is rarely accompanied by a strategy worthy of the name for the operation in question, leaving the reader's passions aroused without hope of consummation.

Two items on the current agenda, China and Iraq, offer a useful exploration of what a properly conservative approach to foreign policy might look like in practice. China's emergence as a Great Power is clearly one of the central features of the contemporary global scene. Whereas neoconservatives look on this development with alarm because China remains unfree and call for a strategy of containment, conservatives per se take a calmer view. They understand that fast-rising powers are like teenagers--simultaneously brash and insecure, reluctant to accept existing hierarchies and institutions, yet craving recognition and status on their own terms. Since rapid growth often produces social turmoil, and since East Asian politics are multipolar, underinstitutionalized and highly competitive, conservatives recognize that China's rise to power poses risks for all concerned. Yet they do not see conflict as inevitable, and argue that avoiding unnecessary confrontations is more sensible than spoiling for a fight.

One of the chief tasks of American policymakers over the next several years, in this view, will be to analyze the precise nature and extent of Chinese revisionism and determine what Chinese behavior would make accommodation no longer wise. After all, conservatives note, Wilhelmine, Weimar and Nazi Germany were all revisionist powers to some extent, yet obviously merited different responses. Rather than closely hem China in and risk provoking the very outcome we wish to avoid, a conservative foreign policy would try to socialize China into the international system by drawing clear red lines over a limited set of critical issues, such as military actions that threaten regional stability. Apart from that it would let Chinese politics take their natural, modernizing course, trying to stay out of the picture and avoiding taking offense at minor slights and outrages.

As for Iraq, when it invaded Kuwait in 1990, American officials realized that the national interest required direct intervention on a major scale, and so they organized an international coalition to defend Saudi Arabia and oust Saddam Hussein from his new conquests. Once these immediate goals had been achieved, however, there was little consensus about what to do next, with the result that at the end of the Gulf War, Saddam remained in power and the United States resigned itself to enforcing the ceasefire terms and policing the region. While presiding over the end of the Cold War, in other words, Bush administration officials began the cycle once again in miniature, embarking on a regional cold war with a much smaller yet similarly well-entrenched police state, hoping like their predecessors in the Truman years that they could deter and isolate the offending regime until it collapsed of its own weight. Yet nearly a decade later the situation remains unchanged, and frustration with Saddam's survival and provocations continues to grow.

One response, backed by most foreigners and some on the American Left, would scrap containment, rehabilitate Iraq, and count on Saddam to behave responsibly this time around. Another, backed by many on the American Right (the "must go" response), would also scrap containment but move in the other direction toward rollback, whether directly or by proxy. The first option is hardly conservative since it relies for success on unreasonable hopes that Saddam can be trusted. Yet given the high costs of toppling Saddam directly and the high odds against his overthrow by the Iraqi opposition, the second option may be equally imprudent. Here, as during the Cold War, the much-maligned middle path of containment is the obvious conservative choice, offering modest returns on a measured investment and above all doing no harm. Absent a clearly superior alternative, conservative policymakers understand, frustration is an insufficient reason for policy change.

Precisely how such containment should be executed is a tactical matter. A conservative approach to Iraq today would take its cue from the specific threat Saddam poses to specific interests. It would involve, as it were, the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Iraqi policy. Because the containment of Iraq gains depth and legitimacy through the involvement of other countries, paying a price to keep the UN Security Council on board makes sense--but only up to a point. On this and other issues, a conservative foreign policy would work with and through the UN where possible, but around it where necessary. That is, it would consider the UN and other international institutions neither as a solution to the problems of international politics nor as a whipping boy, but rather as one potential mechanism for institutionalizing and thus locking in a global order cut to American plans.

An American foreign policy uninformed by moral values would indeed be reprehensible. But surely one must be skeptical about the feasibility of imposing our values on the world through force and bluster. True conservatives understand that domestic politics are not infinitely malleable, and that international politics are even less so. They do not believe progress to be impossible, only that the best route forward lies in moderation and prudence. They understand, in Burke's words, that "we are not disarmed by being disencumbered of our passions"; they concur in his judgment that "magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great empire and little minds go ill together." Without a liberal compass, American foreign policy would be directionless and adrift; without a conservative hand on the tiller, it would be all sail and no anchor.

The challenge facing Republicans, should they capture the White House, will be to remain conservative and behave like mature adults. During youth, as Oakeshott remarked, "Nothing has a fixed price, everything is a possibility, and we live happily on credit. There are no obligations to be observed; there are no accounts to be kept. . . . The world is a mirror in which we seek the reflection of our own desires."

In person, such an attitude can be fresh and even charming, but in politics it is a serious liability--and one American foreign policy can ill afford in the twenty-first century.

"To rein-in one's own beliefs and desires", on the other hand, "to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one's hands, to tolerate what is abominable, to distinguish between crime and sin, to respect formality even when it appears to be leading to error, these are difficult achievements; and they are achievements not to be looked for in the young."

One can only hope that the Grand Old Party lives up to its name.

Essay Types: Essay