Reaganism v. Neo-Reaganism

Reaganism v. Neo-Reaganism

Mini Teaser: Reagan knew the difference between a conservative foreign policy and Wilsonian interventionism. Do his soi-disant heirs know it too?

by Author(s): Richard Lowry

If neither neoconservatism nor paleoconservatism really represents American conservative views on foreign policy, neither does traditional realism. A policy rooted in amoral calculations of power and interest--grand strategies associated with Richelieu, Metternich, Kissinger and others--will never sit comfortably with Americans. The falsity of the core belief of the academic realists, that the internal nature of regimes doesn't matter, is demonstrated before our eyes daily.

Nor, as Burke argued, is clinging mindlessly to the status quo in an ever-changing world true conservatism. George Will, for instance, lodges powerful criticisms against Wilsonianism. But he sometimes seems to take it as a given that undemocratic political cultures are fated to stay undemocratic. This view cannot account for the liberalization of Europe, Latin America and Asia, or indeed for the entire "third wave" of democratization that swept the Second and Third Worlds from the 1980s onwards.

There is no longer any need to have a stale debate on the role of values in American foreign policy. It was settled long ago: They have a central one. That has been the case since Woodrow Wilson, as even Henry Kissinger acknowledges, and has become even more pronounced as the Christian Right--a vital member of the GOP coalition--has taken a greater interest in the world from an idealistic perspective. The question is whether vital distinctions and limits will be ignored as unnecessary, amoral accretions on our national strategy. A foreign policy can be prudent and moral at the same time. Indeed, insofar as prudence creates the conditions for increased success, it will be more moral than an unrealistic but self-consciously moral foreign policy that costs the nation dearly.

As numerous authors have outlined in these pages, this necessarily ties conservative strategy to a kind of realist thinking. The term realism is routinely rendered in sneer quotes in neoconservative commentary, as if nothing could be more contemptible. Neoconservatives maintain that realists are in fact unrealistic, that they systematically underestimate the power of idealism and the possibility of change in the world. There is something to this, but a conservative foreign policy begins with a keen sense of the contours of international reality, of the limits it places upon and the opportunities it holds for American power, and of the local conditions that must guide our actions in any part of the world. Prudence may never make for a rallying cry, but it is indispensable to a successful foreign policy.

A truly realistic foreign policy--and thus a truly conservative one--would be aware of the power of ideals and the necessity of expressing U.S. foreign policy in idealistic terms. It should have imagination and seek to shape the world to our advantage. But it should be prudent, flexible, aware of power relationships and immune to juvenile excess. It might be called "neo-realism", or what Krauthammer has termed "democratic realism."

Conservatives and Foreign Policy

Several basic principles guide a conservative foreign policy, grounded in realism and conservative understandings of liberty and the American character. The first is that the best defense is a good offense. Conservatives are realistic about the world and its disappointments and dangers. They know war has always been with us and always will be, and that there are foreign actors who are so evil, intransigent or ambitious that only force will stop them. They are comfortable with wielding power and realize its importance. The Bush Doctrine--of pursuing threats where they originate rather than waiting for an attack--is a sound one for the post-9/11 world and accords with this vein in conservatism.

The second, related to their realism about the world, is a healthy skepticism about government action. If conservatives are believers in the law of unintended consequences at home, they should be believers in it abroad as well. A bombing raid may not bear much relation to a welfare program, but foreign interventions--especially ones more ambitious than simply punishing or defeating a given enemy--will have the same dismaying tendency to go astray and so can never be undertaken lightly as prospective "cakewalks."

This leads to the third bedrock principle: a healthy appreciation for all the instruments by which national power is projected. Conservatives have slipped--partly under the influence of the bully-boy rhetoric of the neocons--into a lazy contempt for diplomacy, allies and multilateral institutions. All are necessary tools in a foreign policy oriented toward the correct goals. All these tools can be grossly inefficient (such as unconditional foreign aid) or maddeningly corrupt (as evident in the UN Oil for Food scandal), or they can prompt unintended consequences worse than the problems they were created to solve. But the power of these tools and others cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Conversely, many neoconservatives place far too much reliance on the U.S. military--an inspiring faith that stems from admiration of the institution. While American military power is indubitably a force for good, it is important to understand its true strengths and its fundamental purpose--to smash enemies of the United States. To throw combat units into nation-building projects with little or no preparation, as has happened in Iraq, serves neither the end of successfully achieving our policy goals nor the interests of the military as an institution.

The fourth principle is a proper appreciation for the role of democracy in fostering liberty. Democratic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq have been useful--even inspiring--exercises. The Afghan elections provided a boost of legitimacy to the U.S.-favored leader there and served to further isolate Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants. The January 30 vote in Iraq gave Iraqis a jolt of confidence as they undertook a national project for which they had the chief responsibility--namely, showing up and voting--for the first time in decades. It satisfied the demands of the most powerful player in the country, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and may have been the only way to create a government with enough legitimacy to navigate the country's religious and ethnic tensions. But, as a general matter, elections by no means guarantee a liberal society.

Liberty is a creature of institutions and culture that must be built slowly over time. Economic liberty is often the precursor of political liberty. Some neoconservatives dismiss this as economic determinism. It is really a core belief of Anglo-American liberalism from Locke onward. Elections without a proper institutional and cultural grounding will not necessarily produce liberty--and in some cases they can be the least important ingredient in it. The rule of law and institutions bolstering non-electoral facets of constitutional liberalism have as much to do with liberty, prosperity and freedom as electoral democracy, a fact that should increase our patience for reforming authoritarian governments.

Indeed, if a U.S. intervention in a threat-producing region of the world can inspire the creation of unthreatening governments with political and economic systems that are benign versions of the region's norms, that is a perfectly reasonable goal. If the minimal conditions of pluralism can be attained, along with enduring stability (another value neoconservatives blithely dismiss), then we should be satisfied. This is certainly more attainable than a strategy implicitly based on the singular and exclusive legitimacy of American-style democracy.

Finally, any conservative foreign policy must be grounded in American traditions, built on the four schools identified by Walter Russell Mead: the Wilsonians (the crusading idealists), Jacksonians (the bloody-minded nationalists), Hamiltonians (the capitalists) and Jeffersonians (the lead-by-example-only idealists). Jacksonians are ignored at conservatives' peril, since they are such an important part of the conservative coalition, even if one without much in the way of intellectual expression. Their support is crucial for any sustained and difficult military intervention, and they will never support one for purely humanitarian reasons. This is why many of the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s were undertaken without formal congressional support, and why--absent the WMD case--it would have been difficult for Bush to muster support for an invasion of Iraq. It is also why Kristol and Kagan complained in the 1990s that the American public wasn't willing enough to go slay monsters willy-nilly, blaming "[w]eak political leadership and a poor job of educating the citizenry to the responsibilities of global hegemony."

Moreover, in these days of the all-volunteer force, it is the Jacksonians who are wearing the nation's uniform--especially in the combat branches. As military sociologists have noted, with an all-volunteer force, the combat branches of the military are increasingly the NASCAR warriors. These traditional members of America's fighting class do not shrink from sacrifice but want their losses incurred in pursuit of something enduring, important, practically attainable and related to American interests. Conservatives recognize that U.S. strategy is unsustainable if it is based on a Wilsonian elite's interventions that a Jacksonian citizenry will not sustain.

The Reagan Synthesis

So a conservative foreign policy has a sober framework of power, appreciates the imperatives of geopolitics and harbors a guarded optimism about the power of change. It integrates into its fiber conservative notions of political liberty, economic freedom, the role of the state, the power of culture and a realistic appraisal of human nature, as well as sheer pragmatism. It is aggressive in conducting a proactive defense against today's threats and is colored by American exceptionalism, but its application is framed by realism's appreciation for power and its limits.

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