Is there such a thing as a conservative foreign policy? There was during the Cold War, but now the answer appears to be "no." People who consider themselves conservative and are so considered by others hold widely different views on the general role of the United States in world affairs and on specific foreign policy issues. These differences are rooted in the two strands of conservative thought that exist in America, classic conservatism and doctrinal conservatism. Yet some key assumptions and values are common to most conservatives and much less common among liberals and other non-conservatives. These could be the basis for a robust nationalism that would unite most conservatives, distinguish conservative foreign policy sharply from its liberal alternatives, and have great appeal to the bulk of the American people.
Variations on a Theme
The modern world has had three major political ideologies. Liberalism--the ideology of individualism, free markets, the rule of law, limited government and the rights to life, liberty and property--is associated with John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and other eighteenth and nineteenth-century European and American thinkers. Its primary social base is the middle class and bourgeoisie of commercial, industrial and industrializing societies. Socialism has included theories varying from social democratic reformism to softline Marxism to hardline, revolutionary Leninism and Maoism. These theories differ on the possibility of social change through democratic means, on the role of democracy in a socialist state, and on the extent of state control of the economy. They agree, nonetheless, on a substantial role for the state in economic affairs, economic equality, national ownership of core industries, and state promotion of the economic well-being of the social bases of socialism among the poor, the proletariat and the peasantry.
In contrast to liberalism and socialism, classic conservatism is not directed to realizing a particular vision of the good society. It embodies instead a general attitude toward order and change, defending the former and constraining the latter. The goal of conservatism is to "preserve, protect and defend" existing social, economic and political culture and institutions. Conservatives, however, may well support modest changes in the existing order so as to maintain it against revolutionary change or collapse. Bourgeois middle-class liberalism and working-class socialism oppose each other, but "the true antithesis of conservatism", as the editor of this journal has put it, "is not liberalism or socialism but radicalism, which also is best defined in terms of an attitude towards change--in its case one of uncritical approval."
Significant intellectual and political conservative movements appear only when serious threats exist to the established order. Since it is a response to specific threats to specific cultures and institutions, one manifestation of conservatism has little or no relation to other manifestations, and the proponents of conservatism in one time and situation may well be its opponents in another. Conservatism is thus a positional ideology. Edmund Burke is its primary proponent because he formulated and consistently expressed conservative ideas in defense of threatened institutions wherever they were located: Hindu institutions in India, the monarchy in France, mixed government in Britain, democracy in America. He articulated the same arguments and logic against the very different forces that were threatening these very different systems.
Conservatism has appeared as an intellectual and political movement at various times in the history of the West: in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries against the threats the rising absolute monarchies posed to medieval pluralism; in England at the end of the sixteenth century in response to the challenge the rise of Puritanism was posing to the existing church-state establishment; in much of Europe at the end of the eighteenth century in response to the threat posed by the French Revolution and its accompanying movements; and in nineteenth-century Europe in response to the demands for suffrage by first middle-class and then working-class movements.
The primary manifestation of classic conservatism in Europe was the response to the French Revolution. As a result, in Europe conservatism came to be associated with aristocracy, landed wealth and opposition to, or at least skepticism concerning, industrialization and democracy. As the aristocratic-landed classes' response to the liberalism of the bourgeoisie and the socialism of the emerging working class, it remained a potent force in most European countries well into the twentieth century. Landed aristocracies and gentry have now virtually disappeared in Europe, yet elements of this traditional conservatism, and its opposition to liberal individualism and competitive capitalism, continue in some places. Traditional conservatism and its modern offshoots dominated the British Conservative Party until the Thatcher revolution in the 1970s.
In the United States on the other hand, the absence of an aristocracy, the plentitude of free land, and the pervasive bourgeois and commercial ethos rendered this traditional form of conservatism of minimum consequence in American history. Its one serious manifestation was the defense of the Southern "peculiar institution" articulated by, among others, John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh and George Frederick Holmes. A more general conservatism was present in the political thinking of the Founding Fathers--Adams, Madison and Hamilton in particular--even though they were revolutionaries who fought a war of independence and created an unprecedented political order. In many respects they were, and saw themselves as, conservatives opposing a revolutionary attempt by the British government to undermine their liberties and centralize control over its colonies. They articulated many conservative ideas and were viewed as conservative by European conservatives including Burke and Gentz. For one hundred and fifty years after independence, however, major threats to American institutions, with the notable exception of that posed by Southern slavery, did not exist, and classic conservatism was virtually absent from American political discourse.
What has been called conservatism in America is very different. It is a conservative form of liberalism, opposed to popular or democratic liberalism. It has been assigned many labels, including "Whiggery" by Louis Hartz and "market conservatism" by a perceptive Russian analyst. It is, however, perhaps best termed doctrinal conservatism. This conservatism is identified with the promotion of commerce and industry, laisser faire capitalism, private enterprise and a minimal role for government. It is associated historically with the interests of property owners, entrepreneurs and the bourgeoisie, and opposed to the interests of the less wealthy classes. In Europe it is known as liberalism and its proponents are found in liberal parties. In America, by contrast, doctrinal conservatism manifested itself in Hamiltonianism, the "New Whiggery" after the Civil War, and most recently in the neoconservatism of the 1970s and 1980s.
Doctrinal conservatism differs fundamentally from classic conservatism. The latter sets forth no utopia and has no program for fundamental change. Doctrinal conservatism has a vision to be realized and hence, for it, as Gertrude Himmelfarb has argued, a "conservative revolution" is not an oxymoron.
Each of these strands of conservatism thus has a different relation to liberalism. Traditional, aristocratic conservatism stood in sharp opposition to liberalism, but lost that battle in Europe and was never able to mount one in America. Classic conservatism opposed liberalism when the latter challenged the existing order, but defended liberal values and institutions when they represented the existing order and were under attack by other forces. American doctrinal conservatism is the Whig sibling of American democratic liberalism, both of them the children of John Locke. Doctrinal conservatism squabbles continuously with its sibling, but it cannot reject their common parentage without denying itself.
The Cold War and After
The Cold War proved kind to conservatives and difficult for liberals. The American nation confronted a rival superpower possessed of immense natural resources, a huge, technologically advanced defense industry, a five million-man army, thousands of nuclear weapons, a multi-continental array of allied and satellite states, and a messianic and intellectually impressive ideology that appealed to political movements with hundreds of millions of supporters throughout the world. America was threatened, and the classic conservative response was to give overwhelming priority to developing the policies and the means for countering that threat. Communist ideology was also the polar opposite of the laisser faire ideology of doctrinal conservatives. Thus ideology and national interest combined to make the containment of the Soviet Union and the defeat of communism the dominant objective for both classic and doctrinal conservatives, as well as for the great bulk of the American public apart from a few dissident intellectuals.
American liberals, on the other hand, while generally recognizing the evils of communism, also tended to play down the extent to which it posed a threat to American society, and stressed the importance of pursuing other, liberal foreign policy goals, such as the promotion of economic development, the reduction of inequality, the elimination of tyranny and the protection of human rights. During most of the Cold War, however, Republican and Democratic administrations subordinated these goals, which they recognized as legitimate, to the goal of containing communism. The liberal goals were only seriously pursued when, as with the Alliance for Progress, they could be justified as contributing to that overriding anti-Soviet aim.
The Soviet threat turned conservatives into defenders of American liberal institutions and transformed mainstream American liberals into the articulators of classic conservative ideas. The pre-eminent conservative philosopher (and theologian) of the early Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr, was, as the archetype mainstream liberal, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said, "the father of us all." "In preserving the achievements of American liberalism", I argued in 1957, "American liberals have no recourse but to turn to conservatism. For them especially, conservative ideology has a place in America today." Many liberals did support conservative anti-communist polices. Other liberals, however, were less concerned with defending America's imperfect liberal institutions against a monstrous evil than they were worried about being "outflanked on the left." They searched for elements of liberal virtue in Soviet communism, and denigrated the idea that serious conflicts of values and interests existed between the Soviet Union and the Free World. Along an ideological continuum, mainstream liberals shaded off into Henry Wallace liberals, fellow-travelers and outright apologists, overtly or covertly, for the Soviet Union. This progression had its own philosophical logic. "In almost every instance", Niebuhr observed in 1953, "the communist evil is rooted in miscalculations which are shared by modern liberal culture." For some liberals, one miscalculation easily led to another.
The end of the Cold War removed the need to subordinate the pursuit of liberal foreign policy goals to the overriding demands of national security against the Soviet threat. Freed from this constraint, liberals could now go forward to do good in the world. Their goals commanded great attention and support in the media and among elite groups. In addition, the position of the United States as the only superpower, with primacy in virtually every domain of power, seemed to provide liberals with the wherewithal to pursue those goals. "Enlargement", "humanitarian intervention" and "foreign policy as social work" were the result.
In contrast, the end of the Cold War discombobulated conservatives. They lost their central unifying purpose. While liberals had no problem rushing out to pursue long-standing liberal goals, conservatives had great problems even defining conservative goals. Almost no conservatives were isolationist in any meaningful sense, but beyond that they did not agree on much and endorsed a wide variety of different and often contradictory foreign policy stances, embodying varying degrees of interventionism, realism, neorealism, idealism, nationalism, internationalism, triumphalism, restraint, protectionism and free trade. The absence of an identifiable major foreign threat to American society and institutions seemed to remove any rationale or need for classic conservatism.
Neoconservatism, in the meantime, had emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as the newest form of doctrinal conservatism and the dominant form of conservative thinking in those decades. Its intellectual godfather was Milton Friedman; its most articulate advocate was Irving Kristol; its political embodiment was Ronald Reagan. Once the Cold War was over, a significant gap opened up between neoconservative and classic conservative views on foreign policy, and neoconservative views often converged with those of liberals. The end of the Soviet Union enabled neoconservatives to join their ideological siblings in efforts to reform the world in their image of the good society.
The differences between neoconservatism and classic conservatism are reflected in a 1998 survey of conservative foreign policy and national security experts identified by the Heritage Foundation. Slightly more than 50 percent of those polled called themselves "conservative", while just 20 percent said they were "neoconservative." Both groups rejected isolationism by overwhelming margins. Neoconservatives also endorsed the promotion of human rights as a cornerstone of American foreign policy, supported foreign economic aid, believed in the efficacy of economic sanctions, favored peacekeeping as a central mission of the U.S. military, and did not oppose a prolonged U.S. military presence in Bosnia. On all these issues, they clearly agreed with most liberals and differed significantly from those experts who identified themselves simply as conservative. Immigration is another defining issue between classic and doctrinal conservatives. Neoconservatives also are significantly less likely than conservatives to believe that U.S. military forces have been reduced too much and that military spending is too low.
Like liberals, neoconservatives wish to use American power to promote the American dream abroad. They emphasize, however, somewhat different elements of that dream from the liberals, a difference reflected in the work abroad of the Republican and Democratic affiliates of the National Endowment for Democracy. The former gives priority to promoting markets and private enterprise, the latter democracy and elections. Neoconservatives emphasize the role of the United States as global policeman, liberals its role as global social worker. They unite, however, in assigning the United States the global mission of promoting good abroad, in contrast to the classic conservative emphasis on preserving good at home. Conservatism, it would thus seem, has come to a pretty pass when classic conservatism has lost its raison d'tre and neoconservatism joins with liberalism in promoting "global meliorism."
A Conservative Credo?
Given these developments and the varied views of conservatives on specific foreign policy issues, it is conceivable that people who call themselves conservative only share a preference for that label. It is also possible, however, that neoconservatives and classic conservatives may agree on some assumptions and concepts, the totality of which distinguishes them from liberals and other non-conservatives. A set of conservative first principles would not necessarily provide definitive positions on specific policy issues, but could provide a framework within which conservatives could debate and to which they could relate their differences over policy issues, much as Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Trotskyites, Kautskyites, Bernsteinians and others debated their differences within a shared Marxist framework.
What, if anything, do conservatives have in common? Clinton Rossiter explicitly addressed this issue in his penetrating 1955 volume, Conservatism in America. He argued that what he termed "Conservatism" (capital C), that is, classic conservatism, and "American conservatism", that is, doctrinal conservatism, disagree on several key issues, but agree on the following basic conservative principles:
"the superiority of liberty to equality;
the fallibility and potential tyranny of majority rule;
the rights of man as something earned rather than given;
the prime importance of private property for liberty, order, and progress;
the essential role of religious feeling in man and organized religion in society;
the conservative mission of education;
the existence of immutable principles of universal justice."
In addition, Rossiter suggested, American doctrinal conservatives might also, with qualifications, agree to classic conservative principles concerning "the mixed and immutable nature of man", "the natural inequality of men", "the inevitability and necessity of social classes", "the desirability of diffusing power", "the balancing of rights and duties, of freedom and responsibility", "the importance of inherited institutions, values, symbols, and rituals", and "a government whose marks are dignity, authority, legitimacy, justice, constitutionalism and the recognition of limits."
This is a fairly comprehensive formulation of conservative ideas. With respect to contemporary debates and the distinctions between conservatism and liberalism in America, three characteristics of conservative thought deserve emphasis: belief in God, conception of human nature, and commitment to the nation.
Conservatism is rooted in religion; liberalism is not. Obviously some liberals are religious, but more often they are secular, atheistic or agnostic. A few conservatives, following Hume, may share these views. Yet, while conservatives may or may not actively practice religion or be members of a church, it is difficult to be conservative without being religious. By and large conservatives believe in God, and since Americans are overwhelmingly a Christian people with a small but important Jewish minority, the God of American conservatism is the God of the Old and New Testaments. In contemporary America, religious commitment and conservatism march arm in arm in battle against secularism, relativism and liberalism. In conservatism, man is not the measure of all things. A Supreme Being and a supreme law, natural or divine, exist that are outside the control of human beings. To reject the existence of a Supreme Being and a supreme law transcending human will is to start down the path toward moral anarchy and "might makes right." "If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God)", T.S. Eliot observed in 1940, "you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin." An alternative, secular approach would argue that man is both the measure and the maker of all things, that individuals and societies determine for themselves what is right and what is wrong, and what they decide is right or wrong so long as they are able to make it so.
Religion is the source of conservative concepts of human nature and human relations. In conservative thinking, human beings are capable of love, generosity, heroism and self-sacrifice, but they are also capable of hate, greed, cowardice, violence, envy, pride, lust and a passion for power. Original sin is a reality, evil exists in human nature, and since, as Madison said, men are not angels, governments (as well as other social mechanisms) are necessary to control them and then must be controlled themselves. From a conservative perspective, evils can be moderated and contained, but they cannot be eliminated. The opposing view would hold that people are basically good and that evil is the product of the wrong institutions and policies. If men can only discover the right institutions and policies, they can abolish war, crime, poverty, inequality and other evils.
Conservatism thus views conflict and even violent conflict as an inherent aspect of the human condition. Real conflicts of interest exist among groups and societies. These are not the result of misunderstanding, faulty communications or shortsightedness, but are rooted in the human condition, self-interest, and the struggle for wealth, security and power. While mutual gains are possible, in almost every relationship there are winners and losers, or at least those who win or lose more and those who win or lose less. A contrary view would argue that a natural harmony exists between individuals and groups and that conflicts, particularly between states, are the result of misunderstandings and misperception of their "true" interests. Liberals tend to assume that both sides in a conflict equally desire agreement and strive to reach it. Conservatives believe that both sides equally desire victory and attempt to achieve it. They live in a Hobbesian, not a Lockean, world. Liberals assume that increased interaction between people and groups enhances understanding, accommodation and a convergence of interests. Conservatives are dubious.
Liberals tend to believe that the end of whatever is the current major conflict means the end of all conflict, hence the indulgence in euphoria in 1918, 1945 and 1989. Conservatives know that the end of one conflict creates the basis for another one. They agree with Robin Fox that
"wars are not a disease to be cured, but part of the normal human condition. They stem from what we are, not from some contingencies of what we do from time to time ('history'). They are, like religion and prostitution, basic responses to basic human fears and hopes."
Liberals, on the other hand, believe that war is an aberration that can be eliminated by promoting dialogue among peoples, expanding international trade, implementing arms control treaties, reducing military spending, and strengthening the UN.
Given the nature of the world, conservatives rank devotion to country along with devotion to God. Patriotism is a--perhaps the--prime conservative virtue. Conservatives give their highest loyalty to their country, its values, culture and institutions. Unlike most liberals, they see international institutions not as good in themselves but good only insofar as they contribute to furthering the well-being of the American nation. Non-conservatives tend to degrade national identity either in favor of ethnic, racial, gender or other sub-national identities, or in favor of identity with supranational institutions and ideals.
Conservatives believe that foreign policy should promote the national interest, although they may differ as to exactly how that interest should be defined. They also resist intrusions on national sovereignty by international organizations, courts or regimes. Liberals are more likely to see, as Martha Nussbaum does, "national pride" as "morally dangerous" and to promote cosmopolitanism over patriotism. The conservative, on the other hand, would agree with Coleridge that cosmopolitanism not rooted in nationality is "a spurious and rotten growth", and that the true patriot will scorn "the false philosophy or mistaken religion which would persuade him that cosmopolitanism is nobler than nationality, and the human race a sublimer object of love than a people."
In contrast to conservatives, liberals tend to question the legitimacy of the nation-state. From a liberal point of view, particularistic identities are bad because they are exclusive, creating a line between "us" and "them." Liberals instead look forward, as Strobe Talbott once said, to a time when "nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; [and] all states will recognize a single global authority." In a similar vein, Richard Sennett denounces "the evil of a shared national identity", and Amy Gutmann argues that it is "repugnant" for American students to "learn that they are, above all, citizens of the United States." Liberal scholars such as Richard Rorty and David Hollinger even find it necessary to chide their fellow liberals for denigrating patriotism and to warn them of the political consequences of doing so.
Anti-national sentiments are not restricted to liberal academics: they also exist among business elites. In 1996, for instance, Ralph Nader wrote to the top executives of one hundred large American corporations, pointing to the substantial benefits they received from being located in this country and suggesting that they might show their support for "the country that bred them, built them, subsidized them and defended them" by having their officers and directors open their annual stockholders meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the Republic for which it stands. Half the companies did not respond. One (Federated Department Stores) answered favorably; others, such as Ford, refused on the grounds that they were multinational not American corporations, while others denounced Nader's proposal as totally nefarious. Aetna's CEO called it "contrary to the principles on which our democracy was founded." Motorola's respondent condemned its "political and nationalistic overtones." Price Costco's CEO asked, "What do you propose next . . . personal loyalty oaths?" Kimberly-Clark's executive said it was a "grim reminder of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s."14 The equation of patriotism with McCarthyism may appeal to some businessmen and liberals, but it will not sit well with the American public and should not sit well with American conservatives of any stripe.
Throughout much of the world, but particularly in the United States, economic globalization is creating a growing gap between denationalized elites and nationalist publics. An international class of businessmen, officials, academics, journalists and others has arisen whose members constantly travel, interact with each other, and advocate policies to expand trade, investment and profits, and to promote liberal democracy and market economies. These goals, however, often run counter to the economic interests and cultural concerns of the mass publics in their societies. The consequences, as Kofi Annan has warned, are nationalist, illiberal and populist reactions to globalization. The United States is not immune to these trends.
American wealth and power are at their peak. The national unity, economic equity and cultural integrity of America are not. In the broadest sense, American national identity is under challenge from a multiculturalism that subverts it from below and a cosmopolitanism that erodes it from above. Patriotism is passŽ among large sectors of American elites. Conceivably, in the future serious external threats to America could arise from China, Russia, Islam or some combination of hostile states. At present, however, the principal threats to American unity, culture and power are closer to home. The appropriate response of both classic conservatives and neoconservatives is to come together in support of a robust nationalism that reaffirms some basic truths. America is a religious country. Patriotism is a virtue, Universalism is not Americanism. Nationalism is not isolationism.
These truths resonate with the American people. In their commitment to God and country, conservatives differ from many liberal elites, but they are at one with the American people. America was in large part created for religious reasons, and throughout American history foreign observers have identified the intense commitment to and extensive practice of religion as distinguishing characteristics of the American people. This is as true, and perhaps even more true, today than it has been in the past. By every conceivable measure, America stands apart among wealthy countries in its high degree of religiosity. In cross-national polls, Americans also are almost always more patriotic and take greater pride in their country than people of other nations. Patriotism and religion are central elements of American identity.
The American public, unlike many American elites, is also robustly nationalistic in many of its views on particular foreign policy issues. The 1998 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations survey on public opinion and foreign affairs revealed significant, and in many respects growing, differences between the views of the public and those of foreign policy leaders on many key issues. The public holds a highly conservative view of the future, 53 percent believing the twenty-first century will be more violent than the twentieth century, in contrast to only 23 percent of the leaders, 40 percent of whom believe it will be less violent. Overwhelming majorities of both the public and the leaders believe that preventing nuclear proliferation, combating terrorism, and maintaining American military superiority should be "very important" goals of American foreign policy. Far more than the leaders, however, the public strongly supports curtailing the flow of illegal drugs into the country, reducing illegal immigration, and protecting the jobs of American workers. Sixty percent of the public, but only 36 percent of the leaders, believes tariffs are necessary to protect certain manufacturing jobs. The public also is far more opposed to economic assistance programs and military interventions abroad than are the leaders, yet by a small margin the public supports expansion of military spending while the leaders by a slightly larger margin oppose it.
These data suggest that robust nationalism could have substantial public appeal and could also serve as an alternative to more narrow isolationist measures that might also win public support. Robust nationalism is an alternative to divisive multiculturalism, xenophobic isolationism and wimpy universalism. It is a foundation on which conservatives could unite to promote American national interests abroad and national unity at home.Essay Types: Essay