One of Washington's most exclusive clubs during the 1990s was the annual board dinner of The National Interest. Presided over by founding editor Owen Harries and often kicked off with a presentation by Henry Kissinger, the group included Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving, Bea and Bill Kristol, Samuel Huntington, Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Pipes, Charles Krauthammer, Marty Feldstein, Eliot Cohen, Peter Rodman and a host of other conservative thinkers, writers and doers, including just about everyone now characterized as a "neoconservative."
What I always found fascinating about these dinners was their unpredictability. People's views were very much set in concrete during the Cold War; while this group was divided into pro- and anti-détente camps, virtually everyone (myself included) had staked out territory years before. The Berlin Wall's fall brought a great change, and there was no clear mapping between one's pre-1989 views and the ones held thereafter. Roughly, the major fault line was between people who were more realist and those who were more idealist or Wilsonian. But everyone was trying to wrestle with the same basic question: In the wake of the disappearance of the overarching strategic threat posed by the former USSR, how did one define the foreign policy of a country that had suddenly become the global hegemon? How narrowly or broadly did one define this magazine's eponymous "national interest"?
It was at one of these dinners that Charles Krauthammer first articulated the idea of American unipolarity. In the winter of 1990-91, he wrote in Foreign Affairs of the "unipolar moment"; in the Winter 2002/03 issue of The National Interest, he expanded the scope of his thesis by arguing that "the unipolar moment has become the unipolar era." And in February 2004, he gave a speech at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in which he took his earlier themes and developed the ideas further, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. He defined four different schools of thought on foreign policy: isolationism, liberal internationalism, realism and his own position that he defines as "democratic globalism", a kind of muscular Wilsonianism--minus international institutions--that seeks to use U.S. military supremacy to support U.S. security interests and democracy simultaneously.
Krauthammer is a gifted thinker and his ideas are worth taking seriously for their own sake. But, perhaps more importantly, his strategic thinking has become emblematic of a school of thought that has acquired strong influence inside the Bush Administration foreign policy team and beyond. It is for that reason that Krauthammer's writings, particularly his AEI speech, require careful analysis. It is in the spirit of our earlier debates that I offer the following critique.
The 2004 speech is strangely disconnected from reality. Reading Krauthammer, one gets the impression that the Iraq War--the archetypical application of American unipolarity--had been an unqualified success, with all of the assumptions and expectations on which the war had been based fully vindicated. There is not the slightest nod towards the new empirical facts that have emerged in the last year or so: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the virulent and steadily mounting anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, the growing insurgency in Iraq, the fact that no strong democratic leadership had emerged there, the enormous financial and growing human cost of the war, the failure to leverage the war to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and the fact that America's fellow democratic allies had by and large failed to fall in line and legitimate American actions ex post.
The failure to step up to these facts is dangerous precisely to the neo-neoconservative position that Krauthammer has been seeking to define and justify. As the war in Iraq turns from triumphant liberation to grinding insurgency, other voices--either traditional realists like Brent Scowcroft, nationalist-isolationists like Patrick Buchanan, or liberal internationalists like John Kerry--will step forward as authoritative voices and will have far more influence in defining American post-Iraq War foreign policy. The poorly executed nation-building strategy in Iraq will poison the well for future such exercises, undercutting domestic political support for a generous and visionary internationalism, just as Vietnam did.
It did not have to be this way. One can start with premises identical to Krauthammer's, agree wholeheartedly with his critiques of the other three positions, and yet come up with a foreign policy that is very different from the one he lays out. I believe that his strategy simultaneously defines our interests in such a narrow way as to make the neoconservative position indistinguishable from realism, while at the same time managing to be utterly unrealistic in its overestimation of U.S. power and our ability to control events around the world. It is probably too late to reclaim the label "neoconservative" for any but the policies undertaken by the Bush Administration, but it is still worth trying to reformulate a fourth alternative that combines idealism and realism--but in a fashion that can be sustained over the long haul.Essay Types: Essay