America Needs a Truly Conservative Foreign Policy
Not isolation—and not imposing our traditions on the world.
It’s been a bad year if you are a conservative. In fact, from a foreign and defense policy perspective, it’s been a bad start for the new millennium. Coming from a traditional understanding of conservatism, a belief that the lessons and traditions of the past have inestimable value and that the world can never be made perfect and that attempts to urge it towards perfection often do more harm than good, then Clinton, Bush II, and Obama foreign and military policies have all failed, if not equally, then at least with similar results.
Clinton engaged in nation building in an attempt to bring about a progressive democratic expansion. Noble, but not conservative, and a failure in light of destabilization in eastern Europe, Africa and North Korean nuclear weapons development. The neoconservative Bush administration followed and, having been saddled with Clinton’s half-measures against terrorism, they attempted to transplant a preplanned democracy in the Middle East while decrying critics of their efforts for having low expectations. Ambitious, but now tragic in hindsight in terms of human lives lost and animus won. Neither Western culture nor democracy found soil suitable for their roots in the fallow Middle East. Obama’s progressive “lead from behind” policy, with its rejection of American exceptionalism and nonadherence to its own red lines, has left instability whereever it has touched and stronger authoritarian rule in the Middle East, Russia and China. This is not unsurprising given the trust that the left has extended to centrally planned governments over time.
All three foreign policies were progressive and all failed. Maybe it’s time to try a classically conservative approach to the world beyond our borders. What would that look like, many might ask? Do you mean isolationism? Do you mean a withdrawal from the world? Of course not. Classic conservatives recognize that the world does exist and that it will and must impact each nation and each must react to those impacts according to established principles and traditions. Certainly the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, in fact the most influential nation that has ever existed, must be prepared to play a leading role, a role that a conservative foreign policy must seek to, well, conserve. How should we go about that?
A Conservative Foreign Policy
A conservative foreign policy for the United States begins with an acknowledgement that the United States occupies a leading position in the present international order and has as its first goal the sustainment of that position and the current international order that extends from it. This can be accomplished through three principal paths; by strengthening the position of the United States in the realms of diplomacy, information, military competition and economics, by acting to prevent or stall the rise of competitors, or a combination of the first two.
Such actions acknowledge a central core tenet of conservative thought: that human nature is unchanging and that we are who we have always been—warring, competitive and wanting. To address these realities, humans have established rules or normative behaviors that funnel these negative impulses into actions that are additive to human society rather than destructive. Armies to defend borders, technologies and inventions to improve lives and free capital markets that lift all of society rather than just an elite few. Conservatives also believe that the knowledge of the ages continues to informs us, that most of the great questions have been answered and can be found in the writings of Moses and Plato, Smith and Ricardo, as well as Madison and Hayek. Again, there is an essential sameness about humans across the arc of their history on the planet that is unchanging.
No, conservatives are not isolationists. To be sure, a strict foreign-policy originalist would have the United States take up Washington’s injunction to avoid entangling alliances, but such an action would be regressive, and conservatives are not opposed to change over time but prefer that it occur in a thoughtful way at a moderate pace. As it is, the United States possesses a complex web of alliances, and even conservatives admit that the nation’s interests have expanded from the narrow set of policies inherited from the Founders to a broad portfolio of world-wide concerns that are tied to a globalized free trading economy, a mature international system of laws, and a complex web of mutual-security arrangements. Such an acceptance of the current status quo also acknowledges tradition and order, as many of these relationships have been established incrementally over time through the Article II, Section 2 “Advise and Consent” power of the United States Senate, acquiring Constitutional authority in the process. Stated bluntly, treaty commitments to defend Lithuania via the NATO Treaty or Japan via the Mutual Defense Treaty are as binding upon the American people as their responsibility to defend New York or California from attack. To assert otherwise undermines the legitimacy of the American republic and its constitutional form of government.
Conservatives believe there is something worth conserving. Delegitimizing the republic would erode a second belief of a conservative foreign policy: That Western civilization, the product of Greece, Rome, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Enlightenment, represents a fundamental "good" system of values and societal organization. This understanding is currently under assault and endangered by entities and individuals that do not ascribe to individual liberty, religious freedom, private property or free trade. These ideals represent a condition that classic conservatives suggest should be aspired to by other nations, but never imposed by American power. To act otherwise would deprive other nations of their right to self-determination, including the choice to stand outside of the West and its values.
Conservatives do not seek to actively impose their ideas upon other nations. Subscription to the values of the West should be offered as an option for all states, but their will must be respected. Conservatives believe in the sovereignty of the individual and the decentralization of power away from central governments and institutions, both on the national or international scale. They instinctively view global institutions with skepticism, even as they promote the rule of law. They walk a fine balance between the desire to establish rules that protect basic human rights, liberty and private property while still seeking to resist the inevitable accumulation of power by institutions in the name of security. Conservatives as far back as John Locke recognized the need for government, but only as a guarantor of liberty and private property. When institutions grow so large and powerful that they seek to encumber the individual or seize property for the “public good,” then they can be said to have removed themselves to a position outside of the Western system and hence should no longer reap its benefits. Knowing what is to be opposed is at least as important as what is to be supported for conservatives. Those who would choose to acquire benefits by force, as history demonstrates many are apt to do, should be defended against, shunned and isolated from the wealth of the Western system through sanctions and/or embargoes.
The combination of the terms “conserve” and “defend” conveys a deep reluctance to pursue active aggression. Americans can be presumed to have changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense for a reason. Beyond the obvious desire to reform an outdated institution, the initiative demonstrated a clear desire to signal that the United States had no aggressive intent, nor a desire to pursue an international crusade to remake the world. Rather, “Defense” was to demonstrate that the United States would support the stability while projecting an example for the rest of the world to emulate, or not. The bottom line was that the United States planned to take a larger and yet more subdued role on the world’s stage.
Conservatives do not go in search of dragons. Given the enduring nature of man as an aggressive competitor, conservatives understand that trouble will come calling soon enough, so it is not necessary to send the Army beyond the periphery of the United States' borders and its treaty obligations. While the Cold War brought about a more active role for the United States containing Communist expansion, the early conservative leadership of Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated a desire to defend large while remaining institutionally small, placing his emphasis on new nuclear weapons while cutting conventional forces in a “New Look” strategy. Ronald Reagan, the great conservative icon of the later twentieth century and an avowed opponent to nuclear weapons, took an opposite track, building up a plethora of conventional forces while seeking to slash his strategic arsenal. Each understood the conservative principle that peace is guaranteed only when a nation is so overwhelmingly strong so as to deter attackers. However, both attempted to approach government and security from a fiscally conservative position, with differing success.
Eisenhower, with his awe-inspiring reputation as a victorious World War II general was able to hold the line against Communism with an ambiguous threat of nuclear weapons while significantly cutting back on conventional forces. “Ike” shifted money within the government and the Department of Defense to achieve his aims while setting the nation’s post-World War II budgetary imbalances aright. Reagan, an economist by education, spent lavishly on the military while deregulating the economy, mistakenly believing that economic growth would overcome short-term deficits. One of the drawbacks to Reagan’s defense buildup was that it was enacted simultaneously with what has been come to be known as “The Second Offset.” This “offset,” began during the Carter administration, promised to replace quantity with quality, resulting in a smaller force that was many times more lethal than its antecedent. Of course, the higher-capability weapons cost more, and ship and aircraft numbers across the services dropped precipitously, but the thought was that when the chips were down the Congress would turn the spigot back on and ramp up production of these high-end platforms to get the force back into war-fighting form.