Jacob Heilbrunn rightly praises Danielle Pletka for exposing the hollowness of the Republican internal debate on foreign policy. It’s past time for a discussion of what, exactly, America aims for in the world beyond its borders, and how the government should work abroad to advance the interests of the citizens it exists to serve. (That debate shouldn’t be confined to the GOP, either—a national conversation is in order.) Yet there’s an unsettling undercurrent to Pletka’s article: the effort to rebrand neoconservatism as internationalism.
Pletka is hardly the only example of this. A major Foreign Policy essay by John McCain, whose views are almost the Platonic ideal of neoconservatism, repeatedly uses the label. The American Enterprise Institute has launched the American Internationalism Project, co-chaired by former senator Joe Lieberman, another neocon. The project’s media presence has been full of neoconservative bromides.
This is somewhat understandable. As National Review’s Reihan Salam has pointed out, “the distinction between Republican internationalism and Republican hawkishness often appears to have collapsed.” The neoconservatives have become the primary voice of GOP foreign policy. The conservative-realist intellectual tradition—which in the past claimed prominent names like Eisenhower, Nixon, Kissinger and Scowcroft—has largely vanished, even though it is certainly internationalist. And at times the alleged isolationists earn the epithet. Rand Paul, for instance, filed a budget amendment with the stated purpose of “reduc[ing] spending by withdrawing the United States from membership in the United Nations.” It’s hard to say that’s internationalism. But the same time, Paul has called himself a realist and, (rumor has it) was influenced deeply by a recent book on ur-realist George Kennan.
The new label erases all the ideological space between the part of Rand Paul that wants out of Turtle Bay and the part of John McCain that inexhaustibly desires new wars. This undermines the very conversation that Pletka wants to promote. It also buries the real key to a Republican restoration—the rejection of the neocons’ reflexive interventionism as the party’s foreign-policy fulcrum. This reflex, now being branded “internationalism,” brought America’s international power to its lowest ebb since the days of Carter. Yet the neoconservatives seem to wear their new nametag without irony.