Un néoconservateur est un homme de gauche qui s’est fait braquer par la réalité. Un néolibéral est un homme de gauche qui s’est fait lui aussi agresser par la réalité, mais n’a pas porté plainte. Irving Kristol
Aussi loin que je me souvienne, j’ai été néo-quelque chose: néo-marxiste, néo-trotskyste, néo-gauchiste, néo-conservateur et, en religion, toujours néo–orthodoxe, même quand j’étais néo-trotskyste et néo-marxiste. Je vais finir néo-. Juste néo-, c’est tout. Néo-tiret-rien. Irving Kristol
Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state. In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs. Such reforms would include, of course, social security, unemployment insurance, some form of national health insurance, some kind of family assistance plan, etc. In contrast, it is skeptical of those social: programs that create vast and energetic bureaucracies to “solve social problems.” In short, while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state. It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt. Irving Kristol (« What Is a ‘Neo-Conservative’?”, Newsweek, January 19, 1976)
La France n’est pas gouvernée par l’aile droite du PS, mais par des néoconservateurs, dans tous les domaines, à quelques exceptions près… D’ailleurs, leurs alliés sont désormais issus du bloc réactionnaire: déchéance de nationalité, état d’urgence, surenchère pénale, droit du travail. Pouria Amirshahi (député socialiste français)
Ne l’oublions pas : à l’exception du sénateur Joe Lieberman et de quelques autres, le parti démocrate s’est radicalement éloigné de la tradition qui fut celle de Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman et de John Kennedy, combattants de la guerre contre le totalitarisme. Tout acquis aux enfantillages post-modernes de l’anti-capitalisme, de la lutte des races et des sexes, et de l’utopie pacifiste, qui a gagné les cœurs d’artichauts des élites de l’Union européenne, ce parti Démocrate fait tout ce qu’il peut pour saboter la lutte contre l’Islam radical. Ses candidats sont à l’unisson de son idéologie. Hillary et Obama n’ont pas de grand désaccord sur le fond, seulement sur leur ambition. Hillary a levé tant de fonds, que sa campagne regorge d’argent. Obama aussi. Hollywood, fief traditionnel des Clinton, adoooore Obama, oui ma chère ! Quelle prestance ! Pour peu, on demanderait à Robert Redford ou à Brad Pitt de jouer son rôle dans le prochain film. C’est qu’Obama est soutenu par toute l’extrême-gauche la plus hystérique, celle qui prie ardemment pour que les Etats-Unis perdent toujours et partout, celle qui voit dans les Etats-Unis la source de tous les maux de la planète, y compris la Guerre de Cent Ans et les caries dentaires. Son pasteur, à Chicago, – Obama est sénateur de l’Illinois – est un agité du bonnet, raciste noir, ségrégationniste à rebours, ancien Black Muslim, – qui déclarait que le 11 septembre fut la punition (justifiée) de l’Amérique -, et qui s’attaque au « racisme sioniste », etc. On aura reconnu les antiennes fascisantes de l’extrême-gauche. Les fanatiques de la haine de l’Amérique se sont engagés à fond du côté du beau gosse. Hillary est trop modérée. Elle a voté, comme la plupart des sénateurs démocrates, qui se tortillent comme des bretzels pour nier l’avoir fait, les pouvoirs de guerre à Bush pour envahir l’Irak. Traîtresse ! Elle a beau se justifier, c’était par opportunisme, mes chéris ! (…) Qui emportera le concours de beauté ? Comme son mari, Hillary, gagnante et présidente, gouvernerait au gré des sondages, avec, à la différence de Bill, qui n’a qu’une idéologie, celle du narcissisme, un fort fond de gauchisme soixante-huitard, jamais renié et un amour immodéré de l’étatisme, façon nanny-state (l’Etat-nounou). Mais n’oublions pas que le Clintonisme, c’est une propension illimitée au mensonge au service d’une ambition narcissique démesurée. C’est une vénalité hors du commun, une aptitude singulière à corrompre tout ce qu’ils touchent, le tout couronné par la certitude indomptable que tout ce que je fais est légitime et inconditionnellement justifié. Bill et Hillary incarnent la génération de Woodstock dans ce qu’elle a de pire : I, me, me, mine, (Je, moi, moi, le mien), comme chantaient les Beatles. Laurent Murawiec
In fact, the original strand of neoconservatism didn’t pay any attention to foreign policy. Its earliest members were veterans of the anti-communist struggles who had reacted negatively to the leftward evolution of American liberalism in the 1960s. They were sociologists and political scientists who criticized the failures and unintended consequences of President Lyndon Johnson’s « Great Society » programs, especially the war on poverty. They also bemoaned the excesses of what Lionel Trilling called the « adversary culture » — in their view, individualistic, hedonistic, and relativistic — that had taken hold of the baby-boom generation on college campuses. Although these critics were not unconditional supporters of the free market and still belonged to the liberal camp, they did point out the limits of the welfare state and the naiveté of the boundless egalitarian dreams of the New Left. These thinkers found outlets in prestigious journals like Commentary and The Public Interest, founded in 1965 by Kristol and Daniel Bell (and financed by Warren Demian Manshel, who helped launch Foreign Policy a few years later). Intellectuals like Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, and a few others took to the pages of these journals to offer a more prudent course for American liberalism. They were criticized for being too « timid and acquiescent » by their former allies on the left, among them Michael Harrington, who dubbed them « neoconservatives » to ostracize them from liberalism. Although some rejected the label, Kristol embraced it. He started constructing a school of thought, both by fostering a network of like-minded intellectuals (particularly around the American Enterprise Institute) and by codifying what neoconservatism meant. This latter mission proved challenging, as neoconservatism often seemed more like an attitude than a doctrine. Kristol himself always described it in vague terms, as a « tendency » or a « persuasion. » Even some intellectuals branded as part of the movement were skeptical that it existed. « Whenever I read about neoconservatism, » Bell once quipped, « I think, ‘That isn’t neoconservatism; it’s just Irving.’ » Regardless of what it was, neoconservatism started to achieve a significant impact on American public life, questioning the liberal take on social issues and advancing innovative policy ideas like school vouchers and the Laffer Curve. If the first generation of neoconservatives was composed of New York intellectuals interested in domestic issues, the second was formed by Washington Democratic operatives interested in foreign policy. This strand gave most of its DNA to latter-day neocons — and Kristol played only a tangential role. The second wave of neoconservatives came in reaction to the nomination of George McGovern as the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate. Cold War liberals deemed McGovern too far to the left, particularly in foreign policy. He suggested deep cuts in the defense budget, a hasty retreat from Vietnam, and a neo-isolationist grand strategy. New neocons coalesced around organizations like the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger, journals like Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary (the enigmatic Podhoretz being the only adherent to neoconservatism in all its stages), and figures like Democratic Sen. Henry « Scoop » Jackson — hence their alternative label, the « Scoop Jackson Democrats. » These thinkers, like the original neoconservatives, had moved from left to right. Many of them, even if members of the Democratic Party, ended up working in the Reagan administration. Others joined the American Enterprise Institute and wrote for Commentary and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, some original neoconservatives, like Moynihan, became Scoop Jackson Democrats. Thus, the labels became interchangeable and the two movements seemed to merge. But this elided significant differences between them. On domestic issues, Scoop Jackson Democrats remained traditional liberals. In the 1970s, while Jackson was advocating universal health care and even the control of prices and salaries in times of crisis, Kristol was promoting supply-side economics and consulting for business associations and conservative foundations. On foreign-policy issues, Scoop Jackson Democrats emphasized human rights and democracy promotion, while Kristol was a classical realist. They agreed, however, on the necessity of a hawkish foreign and defense policy against the Soviet empire. (…) Although a few other neoconservatives followed Kristol’s realist line (Glazer and, to some extent, Jeane Kirkpatrick), for most of the others the idea of retrenching and playing a more modest international role disturbingly looked like the realpolitik that had led to détente and other distasteful policies. The vast majority of Scoop Jackson Democrats advocated a more assertive and interventionist posture and continued to favor at least a dose of democracy promotion (most notably Joshua Muravchik, Ben Wattenberg, Carl Gershman, Michael Ledeen, Elliott Abrams, Podhoretz, and others). Their legacy would prevail. Thus, the neocons — the third wave — were born in the mid-1990s. Their immediate predecessors, more so than the original neoconservatives, provided inspiration. But they developed their ideas in a new context where America had much more relative power. And this time, they were firmly planted on the Republican side of the spectrum. Kristol’s son, Bill, played a leading role, along with Robert Kagan, in this resurrection through two initiatives he launched — the Weekly Standard magazine and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a small advocacy think tank. Bill Kristol and Kagan initially rejected the « neoconservative » appellation, preferring « neo-Reaganism. » But the kinship with the second age, that of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, was undeniable, and there was a strong resemblance in terms of organizational forms and influence on public opinion. Hence the neoconservative label stuck. The main beliefs of the neocons — originated in a 1996 Foreign Affairs article by Kagan and Bill Kristol, reiterated by PNAC, and promulgated more recently by the Foreign Policy Initiative — are well-known. American power is a force for good; the United States should shape the world, lest it be shaped by inimical interests; it should do so unilaterally if necessary; the danger is to do too little, not too much; the expansion of democracy advances U.S. interests. But what was Irving Kristol’s view on these principles and on their application? Toward the end of his life, the elder Kristol tried to triangulate between his position and that of most neocons, arguing in 2003 that there exists « no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes » (including patriotism and the rejection of world government), and minimizing democracy promotion. But at this point, the movement’s center of gravity was clearly more interventionist and confident of the ability to enact (democratic) change through the application of American power than Kristol could countenance. He kept silent on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while the Scoop Jackson Democrats and third-wave neocons cheered. Thus, ironically, when most people repeat the line about Kristol being « the godfather of neoconservatism, » they assume he was a neocon in the modern sense. But this ignores his realist foreign policy — while also obscuring the impressive intellectual and political legacy he leaves behind him on domestic issues. Justin Vaïsse
What happened to the evangelicals? They were supposed to be the bedrock of the Ted Cruz candidacy. Yet on Super Tuesday he lost them to Donald Trump. (…) How could this have happened? A more scripturally, spiritually flawed man than Trump would be hard to find. As several anti-Trump evangelical voices have argued, Christian witness cannot possibly support a thrice-married man with such an impressive list of sins, featuring especially spectacular displays of the seven deadlys. These theological arguments are both eloquent and impassioned but, in this season of fear and anxiety, beside the point. This time around, evangelicals are not looking for someone like them. They’re looking for someone who will protect them. They’ve tried backing exemplary Scripture-quoting Christians — without result. After Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum and considerations of Cruz himself, they are increasingly reluctant to support like-minded candidates who are nonetheless incapable of advancing their cause in a hostile political arena so dominated by secularism. They have no illusions about Trump. They have no expectations of religious uplift. What he offers them is not spirit but “muscle” (to borrow a word from the notorious former professor Melissa Click of the University of Missouri). (…) The message is clear: I may not be one of you. I can’t recite or even correctly cite Scripture. But I will patrol the borders of Christendom on your behalf. After all, who do you want out there — a choir boy or a tough guy with a loaded gun and a kick-ass demeanor? The essence of Trump’s appeal everywhere, far beyond evangelicals, is precisely the same: “I’m tough, I will protect you.” That’s why he remains so bulletproof. His lack of policy, the contradictory nature of his pronouncements that pass as policy — especially their capricious eruption and summary abandonment — have turned out to be an irrelevance. (…) That’s the reason none of the rhetorical outrages that would have destroyed another candidacy have even left a mark on Trump. (…) Which is why the only possible way to stop Trump is a full-scale, open-the-bomb-bay-doors attack on the very core of his appeal: his persona of the tough guy you can trust to protect you. It may be too late. But everything else will simply bounce off the Teflon. Charles Krauthammer
Big-government populism, small-government austerity, or conservative reform? It’s hard to believe that the United States, having resisted the siren song of socialism during its entire 20th-century heyday (the only major democracy to do so), should suddenly succumb to socialism’s charms a generation after its intellectual demise. Indeed, the prospect of socialist Bernie Sanders, whatever his current momentum, winning the Democratic nomination remains far-fetched. The Dems would be risking a November electoral disaster of historic dimensions. Yet there is no denying how far Sanders has pulled his party to the left — and how hard the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, has been racing to catch up. The Republicans, on the other hand, are dealing with a full-scale riot. The temptation they face is trading in a century of conservatism for Trumpism. The 2016 presidential race has turned into an epic contest between the ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump and traditional conservatism, though in two varieties: the scorched-earth fundamentalist version of Ted Cruz, and a reformist version, represented by Marco Rubio (and several so-called establishment candidates) and articulated most fully by non-candidate Paul Ryan and a cluster of highly productive thinkers and policy wonks dubbed “reformicons.” Trump insists that he’s a conservative, but in his pronouncements and policies, conservatism seems more of a rental — a three-story penthouse rental with Central Park view, to be sure — than an ideological home. Trump protests that Ronald Reagan, too, migrated from left to right. True, but Reagan’s transformation occurred in his 40s — not, as with Trump, in his 60s. In radically different ways, Trump and Sanders are addressing the deep anxiety stemming from the secular stagnation in wages and living standards that has squeezed the middle and working classes for a generation. Sanders locates the villainy in a billionaire class that has rigged both the economic and the political systems. Trump blames foreigners, most prominently those cunning Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and Saudis who’ve been taking merciless advantage of us, in concert with America’s own leaders, who are, alternatively, stupid and incompetent or bought and corrupt. (…) Trump has limited concern for the central tenet of American conservatism (and most especially of the tea-party movement) — limited government. (…) Trump has not yet called Vladimir Putin wonderful, but he has taken a shine to the swaggering mini-czar who seems to run his trains on time. When informed that Putin kills opponents and journalists, Trump’s initial reaction was, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, also,” the kind of moronic what-about-the-Crusades moral equivalence that conservatives have railed against for decades. Although, to be fair, after some prompting, Trump did come out against the killing of journalists. (…) My personal preference is for the third ideological alternative, the reform conservatism that locates the source of our problems not in heartless billionaires or crafty foreigners, but in our superannuated, increasingly sclerotic 20th-century welfare-state structures. (…) Paired with a president like Rubio (or Chris Christie or Carly Fiorina, to go longshot), such an agenda would give conservatism its best opportunity since Reagan to become the country’s governing philosophy. Unless the GOP takes the populist leap. In which case, a conservative restoration will be a long time coming. Charles Krauthammer
The New Hampshire results have solidified the reigning cliché that the 2016 campaign is an anti-establishment revolt of both the Left and the Right. Largely overlooked, however, is the role played in setting the national mood by the seven-year legacy of the Obama presidency. Yes, you hear constant denunciations of institutions, parties, leaders, donors, lobbyists, influence peddlers. But the starting point of the bipartisan critique is the social, economic, and geopolitical wreckage all around us. Bernie Sanders is careful never to blame Obama directly, but his description of the America Obama leaves behind is devastating — a wasteland of stagnant wages, rising inequality, a sinking middle class, young people crushed by debt, the American Dream dying. Take away the Brooklyn accent and the Larry David mannerisms and you would have thought you were listening to a Republican candidate. After all, who’s been in charge for the last seven years? Donald Trump is even more colorful in describing the current “mess” and more direct in attributing it to the country’s leadership — most pungently, its stupidity and incompetence. Both candidates are not just anti-establishment but anti–status quo. The revolt is as much about the Obama legacy as it is about institutions. Look at New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton had made a strategic decision, as highlighted in the debates, to wrap herself in the mantle of the Obama presidency. Big mistake. She lost New Hampshire by three touchdowns. Beyond railing against the wreckage, the other commonality between the two big New Hampshire winners is in the nature of the cure they offer. Let the others propose carefully budgeted five-point plans. Sanders and Trump offer magic. Take Sanders’s New Hampshire victory speech. It promised the moon: college education, free; universal health care, free; world peace, also free because we won’t be “the policeman of the world” (mythical Sunni armies will presumably be doing that for us). Plus a guaranteed $15 minimum wage. All to be achieved by taxing the rich. Who can be against a “speculation” tax (whatever that means)? So with Trump. Leave it to him. Jobs will flow back in a rush from China, from Japan, from Mexico, from everywhere. Universal health care, with Obamacare replaced by “something terrific.” Veterans finally taken care of. Drugs stopped cold at the border. Indeed, an end to drug addiction itself. Victory upon victory of every kind. How? That question never comes up anymore. No one expects an answer. His will be done, on earth if not yet in heaven. Yes, people love Trump’s contempt for the “establishment” — which as far as I can tell means anything not Trump — but what is truly thrilling is the promise of a near-biblical restoration. As painless as Sanders’s. (…) There certainly is a crisis of confidence in the country’s institutions. But that’s hardly new. The current run of endemic distrust began with Vietnam and Watergate. Yet not in our lifetimes have the left and right populism of the Sanders and Trump variety enjoyed such massive support. The added factor is the Obama effect, the depressed and anxious mood of a nation experiencing its worst economic recovery since World War II and watching its power and influence abroad decline amid a willed global retreat. The result is a politics of high fantasy. Things can’t get any worse, we hear, so why not shake things up to their foundation? Anyone who thinks things can’t get any worse knows nothing. And risks everything. Charles Krauthammer
The candidacy of Donald Trump is the open sewer of American conservatism. This Super Tuesday, polls show a plurality of GOP voters intend to dive right into it, like the boy in the “Slumdog Millionaire” toilet scene. And they’re not even holding their noses. In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has endorsed the Code Pink view of the Iraq War (Bush lied; people died). He has cited and embraced an aphorism of Benito Mussolini. (“It’s a very good quote,” Mr. Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd.) He has refused to release his “very beautiful” tax returns. And he has taken his time disavowing the endorsement of onetime Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke—offering, by way of a transparently dishonest excuse, that “I know nothing about David Duke.” Mr. Trump left the Reform Party in 2000 after Mr. Duke joined it. None of this seems to have made the slightest dent in Mr. Trump’s popularity. If anything it has enhanced it. In the species of political pornography in which Mr. Trump trafficks, the naughtier the better. The more respectable opinion is scandalized by whatever pops out of the Donald’s mouth, the more his supporters cheer him for sticking it to the snobs and the scolds. The more Mr. Trump traduces the old established lines of decency, the more he affirms his supporters’ most shameless ideological instincts. Those instincts have moved beyond the usual fare of a wall with Mexico, a trade war with China, Mr. Trump’s proposed Muslim Exclusion Act, or his scurrilous insinuations about the constitutionality of Ted Cruz’s or Marco Rubio’s presidential bids. What too many of Mr. Trump’s supporters want is an American strongman, a president who will make the proverbial trains run on time. This is a refrain I hear over and over again from Trump supporters, who want to bring a businessman’s efficiency to the federal government. If that means breaking with a few democratic niceties, so be it. (…) Mr. Trump exemplifies a new political wave sweeping the globe—leaders coming to power through democratic means while avowing illiberal ends. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is another case in point, as is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A Trump presidency—neutral between dictatorships and democracies, opposed to free trade, skeptical of traditional U.S. defense alliances, hostile to immigration—would mark the collapse of the entire architecture of the U.S.-led post-World War II global order. We’d be back to the 1930s, this time with an America Firster firmly in charge. That’s the future Mr. Trump offers whether his supporters realize it or not. Bill Buckley and the other great shapers of modern conservatism—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Robert Bartley and Irving Kristol—articulated a conservatism that married economic dynamism to a prudent respect for tradition, patriotism and openness to the wider world. Trumpism is the opposite of this creed: moral gaucherie plus economic nationalism plus Know Nothingism. It is the return of the American Mercury, minus for now (but only for now) the all-but inevitable anti-Semitism. It would be terrible to think that the left was right about the right all these years. Nativist bigotries must not be allowed to become the animating spirit of the Republican Party. If Donald Trump becomes the candidate, he will not win the presidency, but he will help vindicate the left’s ugly indictment. It will be left to decent conservatives to pick up the pieces—and what’s left of the party. Bret Stephens
There is no denying that a globally engaged America comes at a steep price. But the history of our still young nation is full of warnings that a lack of American engagement comes with an even higher price of its own. We only have to look at the bloody history of the twentieth century to see the price that America, and the world, pays when we ignore mounting problems. When we have listened to voices urging us to look inward, we have failed to meet threats growing abroad until it was almost too late. And now, we are on the verge of repeating that mistake once again. Other nations are not sitting idly by waiting for America to, as President Obama termed it, “nation build at home.” Many of our nation’s adversaries and rivals have been emboldened by our uncertain foreign policy. So as instability spreads and tyrants flourish, our allies want to know whether America can still be counted on to confront these common challenges. Whether we will continue to be a beacon to the rest of the world. Just last week I read a speech on this very topic. But it was not delivered by some American neoconservative commentator, but rather by the Foreign Minister of France. He said about us, and I quote the English translation, “Nobody can take over from the Americans, especially from a military point of view. Given the power of the United States, an American ‘disengagement’ – if this would be the proper way to qualify it – is a global disengagement, with the risk of letting major crises fester on their own.” End quote. We are often led to think that other nations are tired of the role America has played in global affairs. But in fact, it is the fear of a disengaged America that worries countries all over the world. (…) Some on both the left and the right try to portray our legacy as one of an aggressive tyrant constantly meddling in the world’s crises. But ask around the world and you’ll find that our past use of military might has a different legacy. Our legacy is a crumbled wall in Berlin. It’s the millions of Afghan children – including many girls – now able to attend school for the first time. It’s vibrant democracies and steadfast allies such as Germany, Japan and South Korea. Our legacy is that of a nation that for two centuries has planted its feet and pushed out against the walls of tyranny, oppression and injustice that constantly threaten to close in on the world, and has sought to replace these forces with the spread of liberty, free enterprise, and respect for human rights. (…) From his first days in office, President Obama has seemed unsure of the role that American power and principles should play around the world. He has failed to understand that in foreign policy, the timing and decisiveness of our actions matter almost as much as how we engage. The President has spoken about the need to shift American foreign policy away from the conflicts of the Middle East and place increased focus on Asia. But our foreign policy cannot be one that picks and chooses which regions to pay attention to and which to ignore. In fact, our standing as a world power depends on our ability to engage globally anywhere and at anytime our interests are at stake. (…) The results have been devastating. We are left with the high likelihood of the worst possible outcome: a divided Syria, with a pro-Iran murderous dictator in control of part of the country, and radical jihadists in control of much of the rest. Our closest allies in the region are now openly questioning the value of our friendship. (…) The President’s failure to negotiate a security cooperation agreement with Iraq was yet another instance in which this administration ambled aimlessly through a situation that should have prompted careful strategic maneuvering. It ensured the return of Al Qaeda to Iraq and the creeping authoritarianism of a Maliki government increasingly in the sway of Tehran. And in Afghanistan, the White House has often shown a lack of commitment that has put at risk the very real gains we and the Afghans have made. Libya, Syria, Iraq and maybe soon Afghanistan are haunting examples of the sad and predictable results that have come when this administration has gotten the policy – and just as importantly – the timing wrong. (…) We should start by acknowledging the fact that a strong and engaged America has been a force of tremendous good in the world. This can be done easily by imagining the sort of world we would live in today had America sat out the 20th Century. Imagine if the beaches of Normandy were never touched by American boots. Imagine if our foreign aid had not helped alleviate many of the world’s worst crises. Imagine if nuclear proliferation had continued unfettered by U.S. influence. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of the world’s democracies may not exist had America remained disengaged. Marco Rubio (20 nov. 2013)
I think we developed in the Republican Party a—well, you know, the buzzword for it is ‘neoconism.’ But I think what it is, it’s an ideology—it’s really an idealistic approach to things. But it’s a combination of idealism and, if you will, brute force. Brent Scowcroft
So what to do now? The Republicans’ creation will soon be let loose on the land, leaving to others the job the party failed to carry out. For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be. Robert Kagan
Kagan — the preeminent neoconservative scholar and author who made headlines when President Obama improbably cited his article on “The Myth of American Decline,” and again when his cover story for The New Republic critiquing Obama’s foreign policy zipped through the West Wing — has had a major influence on Rubio’s worldview. The former adviser to politicians from Jack Kemp to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton says he spoke with Rubio on and off during his first two years in office, and Rubio cited Kagan’s 2012 book The World America Made in his remarks at the Brookings Institution later that year. In the book, Kagan argues that world orders are transient, and that the world order that has been shaped by the United States since the end of World War II — defined by freedom, democracy, and capitalism — will crumble if American power wanes. But he also posits that the modern world order rests not on America’s cherished ideals — respect for individual rights and human dignity — but on economic and military power, and that its preservation requires bolstering America’s hard power. The National Review (2014)
Frum’s thesis (…) is that the conservative movement became enamored with the trappings of power during the Reagan presidency, and stopped making the argument that America’s problems stem from our sprawling and dilapidated welfare state. Instead conservatives, like Reagan, told Americans they could indeed have it all: tax cuts and entitlements, big government at half the price. Frum’s solution was for conservatives to step back from the Republican Party, care somewhat less about elections, and spend more time convincing Americans that a radical reduction in the size and scope of government is necessary and just. (…) What really interested me, though, was Frum’s typology of post-Reagan conservatives. He divides them into three groups. There are optimists, led by Jack Kemp. There are moralists, led by William J. Bennett. And there are nationalists, led by Pat Buchanan. Optimists say public policy is a matter of incentives. Human beings all want to do the right thing, but taxes and regulation get in the way. Cut taxes, reduce regulation, resurrect the gold standard, and people will flourish.For the moralists, incentives are not enough. Character counts. Crime, welfare, education matter more to a moralist than tax rates or Social Security. Government can and should foster a public morality. And if conservatives do not promote bourgeois values such as fidelity, thrift, discipline, modesty, and hard work, then liberals will use their social and political power to promote values of their own. Nationalists are concerned with the erosion of American sovereignty. Defense treaties commit us to wars we cannot win and should not fight. Trade agreements displace workers. Immigration alters the ethnic composition of the nation. The solution is to place “America first, and second, and third,” as Buchanan put it in the title of a famous National Interest essay. It is worth considering where these groups stand today. Kemp protégé Paul Ryan is clearly the leader of the optimists. Donald Trump is clearly the leader of the nationalists. But I can’t tell you who the leader of the moralists is. I can’t name a prominent conservative known for advocating public morality, a political leader who has taken a stand on crime, on welfare, on family policy, on education. A major education bill was recently signed into law with little fanfare and even less debate. The Powerball jackpot has grown to more than $236 million, and no one bats an eye, no Republican presidential candidate suggests that gambling harms the weak. Where did the moralists go? To some degree they were victims of their own success. Crime has fallen. Welfare was reformed. Standards and testing were written into education law. Other issues became more pressing. After 9/11, a lot of the moralists became heavily invested in foreign and defense policy. Defending the Iraq war, and advocating a strategy that could improve our situation there, was a full-time job. President Obama forced conservatives to adopt a defensive position—against Obamacare, against immigration reform, against the Iran deal. The disappointing endgame in Iraq, and the Republican elite’s drive to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the diminishing returns from globalization created the conditions for a nationalist revival. This outcome is unfortunate. The moralists were once the most interesting and intellectually vibrant school of conservatism. They accurately identified a weakening of American self-confidence, a growing sense of entitlement and anomie, the importance of civil society and the cultural fabric. And they are needed once more. The conditions of our cities and suburbs, the state of our schools, the disintegration of the family, gun violence, opioid addiction, mental illness, pornography, welfare—these are subjects ripe for fresh policy analysis. Some of that work is being done. But it rarely finds expression in the public square. A new politics of character would incorporate the best insights of the other schools of conservatism while rejecting their excesses. It needn’t be beholden to the idea that tax cuts will generate enough revenue to pay for themselves. It would recognize that immigration and trade bring costs as well as benefits even as it condemns rhetorical excess. It would treat seriously the idea that government matters. And, perhaps most importantly, in the uncertain and turbulent political era we seem to be entering, a new politics of character would not be necessarily attached to one political party.
Like not a few revolutionary movements that have fallen on hard times, neoconservatism is experiencing a schism. Two camps are starting to face off over the question of the true faith, with the first embracing orthodoxy and the second heresy. The question they face is simple: Should the neocons continue to move right, serving as the advance guard of an embattled GOP? Or should neoconservatism become true to itself by returning to the center? Will the movement, in fact, morph back into what it was at its inception in the late 1960s when it belonged firmly to the Democratic Party—moderate on domestic issues and mildly hawkish on foreign policy? (…) The orthodox camp is based mostly in New York. It wants to combat the decadent liberal elites—the new class—that are supposedly corrupting the Republic. (…) The second and more novel camp consists of what might be called heretical reverters. Reverters dismiss the notion that America has not changed. One of the shrewdest and most perceptive neocons, Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution, noted in the Washington Post, “Here’s the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat.” The reverters—who include, among others, David Frum and David Brooks, and are largely based in Washington, D.C.—suggest that the GOP needs to get up to speed, to dump overboard the detritus that it has accumulated over the past several decades. (…) The argument of the reverters, at bottom, seems to be that neoconservatism needs to reboot. Indeed, the reverters even seem to have discovered a new female savior—Hillary Clinton. And so, if neoconservatism has a future, it’s in the Democratic more than the Republican Party. To understand this new development, it’s helpful to consider the arc of neoconservatism. In its original incarnation, neoconservatism’s salvation doctrine was to reconvert the Democratic Party to its anticommunist roots and a more sober view of social policy. Irving Kristol called for a “combination of the reforming spirit with the conservative ideal”—the notion that liberalism could conserve the best in conservatism. (…) There can be no doubt that as staunch cold warriors, or, if you prefer, liberal internationalists, the neocons viewed the Republican Party, which was led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, both realists and promoters of détente, with unease. The neocons, who had started out as Trotskyists, espoused a social-democratic program in domestic policy. Essentially, they were Hubert Humphrey Democrats. The neocons clustered around Sen. Scoop Jackson, whose adviser was Richard Perle. They didn’t want détente with the GOP itself; they beseeched Democrats to decry their opponents as selling out human rights and American ideals. Then came Jimmy Carter. Despite Carter’s support for human rights abroad, the neocons bridled at his derogation of the communist threat and failure to support the shah of Iran from being overthrown by radical Islamists. The neocons became counterrevolutionaries. Their failure to create regime change in the Democratic Party meant that they began enlisting in the GOP. More precisely, they flocked to the banner of Ronald Reagan, a former New Deal Democrat turned conservative, or, in their eyes, the first neocon. (…) Once the evil empire imploded, the neocons embarked upon the new project of reconciling Jews and evangelicals within the GOP. Yet no matter how fervent their embrace of the GOP may have been, the neocons began to flirt with the Democratic Party once more when Bill Clinton was the nominee in 1992. This was the first sign of an alliance between the liberal hawks and neocons that would flourish during George W. Bush’s presidency. The neocons had found the realist George H.W. Bush wanting for his failure to topple Saddam Hussein, his attempts to curb Jewish settlements in the West Bank, his refusal to intervene in the Balkans, and his tepid response to Tiananmen Square. Clinton, by contrast, denounced the “butchers of Beijing” and seemed to offer the prospect of tough action in the Balkans against the Serbs. The refusal of Clinton to appoint any neocons, apart from providing Richard Schifter with the token position of assistant secretary for human rights, did little to maintain their ardor. Still, as Clinton’s second term neared its end, neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, writing in National Review, assessed his tenure fairly favorably. As Podhoretz noted, Clinton had been no pushover: he intervened in the Balkans and launched missiles at Iraq. Moreover, he severely curbed welfare benefits. In short, the McGovern era had come to end with Clintonite centrism. (…) The new Popular Front forged between the neocons and liberal hawks collapsed during the Iraq War, however, as liberals bailed out once the war went south. Might there be a reunion, this time with the neocons courting the liberal hawks rather than the liberal hawks trying to court the neocons? The more conciliatory neocons have begun to send up signal flares. It isn’t simply David Brooks’s paeans to Obama. Robert Kagan has praised what he calls “Obama the Interventionist” in his Washington Post column: “Obama believes the world yearns to follow us, if only we restore our worthiness to lead. Personally, I like it.” Even the Weekly Standard has begun to reassess its seemingly intractable hostility to all things Clinton. Vigilant neocon-spotters will have noticed that the Standard featured not one but two items praising the idea of Hillary as secretary of state. (…) The fact is that the neocon passion for Hillary may not be as outlandish as it seems at first glance. For one thing, Hillary was instrumental in getting Madeleine Albright appointed secretary of state in 1997, and they remain close friends. (…) Whether or not Hillary actually behaves like a hawk in office is another question. She might seek to push peace talks on Israel and the Palestinians. Reaching an agreement with Iran would be a big feather in her cap. So would negotiating an arms-control deal with Russia in exchange for dismantling the Bush administration’s proposed missile-defense system in Eastern Europe. (…) But for now, the neocons touting a reversion to the movement’s original, more liberal precepts seem intent on creating a new chapter in the saga of a movement that has been repeatedly written off as dead. Perhaps reaching out to the Obama administration will help rejuvenate neoconservatism. It could prove to be a more comfortable fit than either side might anticipate. Jacob Heilbrunn
The loyalty of the neocons has always been to an ideology of American exceptionalism, not to a particular party. This is what separates the neocon conversion to Clinton from previous examples of Republicans endorsing Barack Obama. Colin Powell wasn’t making an ideological statement. He was making a practical one, based on his distaste for where the GOP was headed. For the neocons this is a much more heartfelt moment. They have invested decades in trying to reshape the GOP into their own image, and were quite successful at it. But now a formidable challenge is taking place as the GOP reverts to its traditional heritage. The impulse of the neocons to return to the Democratic Party should not be wholly surprising. In 1972, for example, Robert L. Bartley, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, wrote that the fledgling neoconservatives represented “something of a swing group between the two major parties.” He was right. The neoconservatives had their home in the Democratic Party in the 1960s. Then they marched rightward, in reaction to the rise of the adversary culture inside the Democratic Party. George McGovern’s run for the presidency in 1972, followed by the Jimmy Carter presidency, sent them into the arms of Ronald Reagan and the GOP. But it wasn’t until the George W. Bush presidency that the neocons became the dominant foreign policy force inside the GOP. They promptly proceeded to wreck his presidency by championing the war in Iraq. Today, having wrecked it, they are now threatening to bolt the GOP and support Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump for the presidency. Something like this scenario is what I predicted in the New York Times in July 2014. Trump wasn’t around then as a force inside the GOP. But already it seemed clear that some of the leading neocons such as Kagan were receptive to Clinton. Now, in a Washington Post column, Kagan has gone all in (…) but he elides the fact that many of Trump’s positions are not all that different from what the GOP has espoused in the past when it comes to domestic issues. It is on foreign affairs where Trump represents a marked shift and it is this that truly troubles the neocon wing. Trump has made it clear that he’s dubious about foreign interventions. He’s indicated that he would treat with Russian president Vladimir Putin. His entire foreign policy credo, such as it is, seems to have a Jacksonian pedigree—don’t tread on me. For its part, neoconservatism has always had a nationalistic streak. But Trump represents everything that the neocons believed that they had purged from the GOP. He represents continuity with the Buchananite wing, the belief that America should tend to its own knitting before launching hopeless wars abroad. When it comes to foreign policy, however, the second generation of neocons such as Kagan does not trace its lineage back to Ohio Senator Robert Taft but to the one that Republicans in the early 1950s reviled: the Truman administration. Here we come full circle. The origins of the neocons are in the Democratic Party. Should Clinton become the Democratic nominee and Trump the Republican one, a number of neocons may make common cause with Clinton. Watch Rubio’s ranks first. Jacob Heilbrunn
After nearly a decade in the political wilderness, the neoconservative movement is back, using the turmoil in Iraq and Ukraine to claim that it is President Obama, not the movement’s interventionist foreign policy that dominated early George W. Bush-era Washington, that bears responsibility for the current round of global crises. Even as they castigate Mr. Obama, the neocons may be preparing a more brazen feat: aligning themselves with Hillary Rodham Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign, in a bid to return to the driver’s seat of American foreign policy. To be sure, the careers and reputations of the older generation of neocons — Paul D. Wolfowitz, L. Paul Bremer III, Douglas J. Feith, Richard N. Perle — are permanently buried in the sands of Iraq. And not all of them are eager to switch parties (…) But others appear to envisage a different direction — one that might allow them to restore the neocon brand, at a time when their erstwhile home in the Republican Party is turning away from its traditional interventionist foreign policy. (…) Consider the historian Robert Kagan, the author of a recent, roundly praised article in The New Republic that amounted to a neo-neocon manifesto. He has not only avoided the vitriolic tone that has afflicted some of his intellectual brethren but also co-founded an influential bipartisan advisory group during Mrs. Clinton’s time at the State Department. (…) Other neocons have followed Mr. Kagan’s careful centrism and respect for Mrs. Clinton. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in The New Republic this year that “it is clear that in administration councils she was a principled voice for a strong stand on controversial issues, whether supporting the Afghan surge or the intervention in Libya.” And the thing is, these neocons have a point. Mrs. Clinton voted for the Iraq war; supported sending arms to Syrian rebels; likened Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to Adolf Hitler; wholeheartedly backs Israel; and stresses the importance of promoting democracy. (…) Of course, the neocons’ latest change in tack is not just about intellectual affinity. Their longtime home, the Republican Party, where presidents and candidates from Reagan to Senator John McCain of Arizona supported large militaries and aggressive foreign policies, may well nominate for president Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been beating an ever louder drum against American involvement abroad. In response, Mark Salter, a former chief of staff to Senator McCain and a neocon fellow traveler, said that in the event of a Paul nomination, “Republican voters seriously concerned with national security would have no responsible recourse” but to support Mrs. Clinton for the presidency. Still, Democratic liberal hawks, let alone the left, would have to swallow hard to accept any neocon conversion. (…) Far from ending, then, the neocon odyssey is about to continue. In 1972, Robert L. Bartley, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal and a man who championed the early neocon stalwarts, shrewdly diagnosed the movement as representing “something of a swing group between the two major parties.” Despite the partisan battles of the early 2000s, it is remarkable how very little has changed. Jacob Heilbrunn
Attention: un sauvetage peut en cacher un autre !
Et le refus suicidaire des autres candidats de sacrifier leur ambition personnelle pour le bien de leur pays et de leur parti …
Tant l’establishment que nombre d’intellectuels républicains commencent à s’inquiéter …
Pendant qu’un temps, avec Bernie Sanders, les Démocrates semblent avoir été tentés par le socialisme le plus radical …
Comment ne pas voir l’incroyable chassé croisé qui se dessine …
A l’instar de la menace, d’un des principaux théoriciens de la pensée néoconservatrice et jusqu’ici soutien de Rubio, de voter pour une Hillary Clinton à l’opportunisme pourtant aussi crasse que son passé …
Face à un parti républicain revenu semble-t-il à l’isolationnisme de ses débuts …
Retour finalement logique des néoconservateurs à leur bercail d’origine …
Ou, après la trahison Obama, juste retour des choses et du parti démocrate à ses véritables valeurs ?
That neocons would exit the GOP to support Clinton was clear from the start.
February 26, 2016
Anyone looking for further converts to the Hillary Clinton campaign might do well to look at the Marco Rubio campaign. If Clinton is the leading liberal hawk, Rubio is the foremost neocon candidate. In 2014 National Review published an article about him titled “The neocons return.”
Whether it’s Cuba or Iran or Russia, he stakes out the most intransigent line: “I disagree with voices in my own party who argue we should not engage at all, who warn we should heed the words of John Quincy Adams not to go ‘abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.’” Not surprisingly, he’s surrounded himself with neocon advisers, ranging from Max Boot to Jamie Fly to Elliott Abrams.
If Donald Trump, as seems more than likely, prevails in the GOP primary, then a number of neocons may defect to the Clinton campaign. Already Robert Kagan announced in the Washington Post on Thursday that he intends to back Hillary Clinton if Donald Trump receives the GOP nomination. The fact is that the loyalty of the neocons has always been to an ideology of American exceptionalism, not to a particular party.
This is what separates the neocon conversion to Clinton from previous examples of Republicans endorsing Barack Obama. Colin Powell wasn’t making an ideological statement. He was making a practical one, based on his distaste for where the GOP was headed. For the neocons this is a much more heartfelt moment. They have invested decades in trying to reshape the GOP into their own image, and were quite successful at it. But now a formidable challenge is taking place as the GOP reverts to its traditional heritage.
The impulse of the neocons to return to the Democratic Party should not be wholly surprising. In 1972, for example, Robert L. Bartley, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, wrote that the fledgling neoconservatives represented “something of a swing group between the two major parties.” He was right. The neoconservatives had their home in the Democratic Party in the 1960s. Then they marched rightward, in reaction to the rise of the adversary culture inside the Democratic Party. George McGovern’s run for the presidency in 1972, followed by the Jimmy Carter presidency, sent them into the arms of Ronald Reagan and the GOP.
But it wasn’t until the George W. Bush presidency that the neocons became the dominant foreign policy force inside the GOP. They promptly proceeded to wreck his presidency by championing the war in Iraq. Today, having wrecked it, they are now threatening to bolt the GOP and support Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump for the presidency.
Something like this scenario is what I predicted in the New York Times in July 2014. Trump wasn’t around then as a force inside the GOP. But already it seemed clear that some of the leading neocons such as Kagan were receptive to Clinton. Now, in a Washington Post column, Kagan has gone all in.
He decries Republican obstructionism, antipathy to Obama, and the rise of Trump. The tone is apocalyptic. According to Kagan,
“So what to do now? The Republicans’ creation will soon be let loose on the land, leaving to others the job the party failed to carry out. For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.”
This itself represents a curious case of neocon hyperbole. Kagan is an eloquent writer, but he elides the fact that many of Trump’s positions are not all that different from what the GOP has espoused in the past when it comes to domestic issues. It is on foreign affairs where Trump represents a marked shift and it is this that truly troubles the neocon wing.
Trump has made it clear that he’s dubious about foreign interventions. He’s indicated that he would treat with Russian president Vladimir Putin. His entire foreign policy credo, such as it is, seems to have a Jacksonian pedigree—don’t tread on me.
For its part, neoconservatism has always had a nationalistic streak. But Trump represents everything that the neocons believed that they had purged from the GOP. He represents continuity with the Buchananite wing, the belief that America should tend to its own knitting before launching hopeless wars abroad. When it comes to foreign policy, however, the second generation of neocons such as Kagan does not trace its lineage back to Ohio Senator Robert Taft but to the one that Republicans in the early 1950s reviled: the Truman administration.
Here we come full circle. The origins of the neocons are in the Democratic Party. Should Clinton become the Democratic nominee and Trump the Republican one, a number of neocons may make common cause with Clinton. Watch Rubio’s ranks first.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
The Next Act of the Neocons
Are Neocons Getting Ready to Ally With Hillary Clinton?
The New York Times
July 5, 2014
WASHINGTON —è is the editor of the National Interest and the author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.”
Where Have All the Neocons Gone?
Having wrecked the Right, will neoconservatives revert to their left-wing origins or double down on the GOP?
The American conservative
January 12, 2009
As Barack Obama prepares to take the inaugural oath, it almost seems otiose to note that his victory represents a sweeping repudiation of the neoconservative movement. Though neocons such as Randy Scheunemann formed a kind of Praetorian Guard around John McCain during his presidential campaign, their truculent approach to foreign affairs sabotaged rather than strengthened McCain’s electoral appeal. The best that Sarah Palin, a foreign-policy neocon on training wheels, could do was to offer platitudes about standing by Israel. It seems safe to say, then, that the neocon credo is ready to be put out to pasture.
Or is it? One problem with this line of argument is that it’s been heard before—sometimes from the neoconservatives themselves. In 1988, after George H.W. Bush replaced Ronald Reagan, neocon lioness Midge Decter fretted, “are we a long, sour marriage held together for the kids and now facing an empty nest?” Then in the late 1990s, Norman Podhoretz delivered a valedictory for neoconservatism at the American Enterprise Institute. Neoconservatism, he announced, was a victim of its success. It no longer represented anything unique because the GOP had so thoroughly assimilated its doctrines. In 2004, a variety of commentators scrambled to pronounce a fresh obituary for neoconservatism. The disastrous course of the Iraq War, Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím said, showed that the neoconservative dream had expired in the sands of Araby.
Yet the neocons show few signs of going away. The Iraq surge was devised by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and spearheaded by William Luti, a protégé of Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney who is currently at the National Security Council. Its success has prompted some neocons to claim vindication for the Iraq War overall. Nor has the network of institutions that the neocons rely upon melted away, from the Hudson Institute, where Scooter Libby and Douglas J. Feith are now ensconced, to the Weekly Standard and Fox News.
It’s also the case that the realists inside the GOP feel more embattled than ever. Sen. Chuck Hagel has pretty much resigned from the GOP itself as well as from his Senate seat, denouncing Rush Limbaugh and others as retrograde conservatives. What’s more, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who has co-authored a new book with Zbigniew Brzezinski about the challenges facing the next president, has been informally advising Obama. Scowcroft told CNN, “I think we developed in the Republican Party a—well, you know, the buzzword for it is ‘neoconism.’ But I think what it is, it’s an ideology—it’s really an idealistic approach to things. But it’s a combination of idealism and, if you will, brute force.” As Scowcroft sees it, the neocons remain in control of the GOP. “Where do I go?” he recently asked me.
Still, if the neocons aren’t necessarily on the ropes, it would probably be equally mistaken to deny that something has changed. They have undeniably suffered a number of setbacks. The sun has set on the flagship neocon newspaper, the New York Sun, a victim of the financial crash. The citadel of neoconservatism, AEI, has ousted Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, and Reuel Marc Gerecht. Meanwhile, Robert Kagan has incorporated realist tenets into his writings, while David Frum, who co-wrote with Richard Perle the standard neocon foreign-policy text, An End to Evil, and who previously demanded the expulsion of allegedly unpatriotic conservatives from the conservative pantheon (a move Russell Baker called reminiscent of the Moscow purges), now seems to be hinting at, among other things, a reassessment of neocon foreign policy. “I cannot be blind,” he conceded in a farewell address to National Review Online last month, “to the evidence … that the foreign policy I supported has not yielded the success I would have wished to see.”
Looking ahead, the neocons do not have an obvious horse. In the past they have glommed on to everyone from Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson to Colin Powell, whom William Kristol briefly touted for president. Another problem is that George W. Bush himself has increasingly deviated from neoconservatism. With the fall of Donald Rumsfeld, on whom the neocons tried to blame the mismanaged Iraq War, Vice President Dick Cheney has lost out to the combination of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Even Kristol seems to have shed some of his habitual fervor, musing about the shortcomings of capitalism in his New York Times column and expressing the hope that Obama will put aright what has gone wrong.
The result has been something of an identity crisis in the ranks of the neocons. Like not a few revolutionary movements that have fallen on hard times, neoconservatism is experiencing a schism. Two camps are starting to face off over the question of the true faith, with the first embracing orthodoxy and the second heresy. The question they face is simple: Should the neocons continue to move right, serving as the advance guard of an embattled GOP? Or should neoconservatism become true to itself by returning to the center? Will the movement, in fact, morph back into what it was at its inception in the late 1960s when it belonged firmly to the Democratic Party—moderate on domestic issues and mildly hawkish on foreign policy?
The orthodox camp is based mostly in New York. It wants to combat the decadent liberal elites—the new class—that are supposedly corrupting the Republic. It views Barack Obama as a dangerous, unreconstructed 1960s-type radical and pins its hopes on Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Writing in the November issue of the British neocon journal Standpoint, Midge Decter, for example, upbraids Palin critics for their unwillingness to recognize her brilliance. Decter, a longtime foe of the feminist movement, depicts Palin as someone of unalloyed virtue who incarnates the Victorian virtues celebrated by Gertrude Himmelfarb. According to Decter, Palin is “young, handsome, clever, firmly married, a mother, a serious Christian, a right-to-lifer who has been successful at virtually everything … to which she has turned a hand or mind or body.” Obama, by contrast, offers “for those with ears old enough and practiced enough to hear … the same old prescriptions and cadences of the 1960s radical left.”
When it comes to the Iraq War, the followers of orthodoxy maintain, liberals deserve a pasting. Peter Wehner, a former Bush adviser and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, condemns opponents of the surge as congenitally hostile to the American creed: “Is it not fair to say that what was at work in them was an ideological antipathy not just to an American President, but to America’s cause?”
Decter’s son, John Podhoretz, who has been tapped to become editor of Commentary, in that magazine’s December issue raised the prospect of a radical Obama presidency. Podhoretz noted that Obama is “a man who has lived in and around elite universities since he was eighteen years old …” And Podhoretz’s surprising conclusion? The election did not repudiate the notion that America is a center-right country.
The second and more novel camp consists of what might be called heretical reverters. Reverters dismiss the notion that America has not changed. One of the shrewdest and most perceptive neocons, Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution, noted in the Washington Post, “Here’s the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat.” The reverters—who include, among others, David Frum and David Brooks, and are largely based in Washington, D.C.—suggest that the GOP needs to get up to speed, to dump overboard the detritus that it has accumulated over the past several decades. They want no part of Sarah Palin, seeing her as a recipe for electoral disaster. They also see the fate of the British Tories, who have wandered in the wilderness for years, as a cautionary tale. The argument of the reverters, at bottom, seems to be that neoconservatism needs to reboot. Indeed, the reverters even seem to have discovered a new female savior—Hillary Clinton. And so, if neoconservatism has a future, it’s in the Democratic more than the Republican Party.
To understand this new development, it’s helpful to consider the arc of neoconservatism. In its original incarnation, neoconservatism’s salvation doctrine was to reconvert the Democratic Party to its anticommunist roots and a more sober view of social policy. Irving Kristol called for a “combination of the reforming spirit with the conservative ideal”—the notion that liberalism could conserve the best in conservatism. Former Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, who did much to smooth the path of the neocons into the GOP, astutely observed in 1972 that the neocons “are something of a swing group between the two major parties. Their political outlook is that of establishmentarians looking for an establishment worthy of the name, and many of them are longtime Democrats with new Republican leanings.”
There can be no doubt that as staunch cold warriors, or, if you prefer, liberal internationalists, the neocons viewed the Republican Party, which was led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, both realists and promoters of détente, with unease. The neocons, who had started out as Trotskyists, espoused a social-democratic program in domestic policy. Essentially, they were Hubert Humphrey Democrats. The neocons clustered around Sen. Scoop Jackson, whose adviser was Richard Perle. They didn’t want détente with the GOP itself; they beseeched Democrats to decry their opponents as selling out human rights and American ideals.
Then came Jimmy Carter. Despite Carter’s support for human rights abroad, the neocons bridled at his derogation of the communist threat and failure to support the shah of Iran from being overthrown by radical Islamists. The neocons became counterrevolutionaries. Their failure to create regime change in the Democratic Party meant that they began enlisting in the GOP. More precisely, they flocked to the banner of Ronald Reagan, a former New Deal Democrat turned conservative, or, in their eyes, the first neocon. Neocons such as Elliott Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick landed posts in the Reagan administration, but the true believers on the outside weren’t satisfied. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Midge Decter all chided Reagan for his pragmatism. Podhoretz even condemned him for “appeasement by any other name” for his policies in the Middle East and toward the Soviet Union. Later, Podhoretz claimed that Reagan was suffering from delusions about the Cold War, indulging in the “fantasy of communist collapse.” Once the evil empire imploded, the neocons embarked upon the new project of reconciling Jews and evangelicals within the GOP.
Yet no matter how fervent their embrace of the GOP may have been, the neocons began to flirt with the Democratic Party once more when Bill Clinton was the nominee in 1992. This was the first sign of an alliance between the liberal hawks and neocons that would flourish during George W. Bush’s presidency. The neocons had found the realist George H.W. Bush wanting for his failure to topple Saddam Hussein, his attempts to curb Jewish settlements in the West Bank, his refusal to intervene in the Balkans, and his tepid response to Tiananmen Square. Clinton, by contrast, denounced the “butchers of Beijing” and seemed to offer the prospect of tough action in the Balkans against the Serbs. The refusal of Clinton to appoint any neocons, apart from providing Richard Schifter with the token position of assistant secretary for human rights, did little to maintain their ardor. Still, as Clinton’s second term neared its end, neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, writing in National Review, assessed his tenure fairly favorably. As Podhoretz noted, Clinton had been no pushover: he intervened in the Balkans and launched missiles at Iraq. Moreover, he severely curbed welfare benefits. In short, the McGovern era had come to end with Clintonite centrism. It was realist Republicans, to the consternation of William Kristol and Robert Kagan, who were denouncing Clinton for intervening abroad. The new Popular Front forged between the neocons and liberal hawks collapsed during the Iraq War, however, as liberals bailed out once the war went south.
Might there be a reunion, this time with the neocons courting the liberal hawks rather than the liberal hawks trying to court the neocons? The more conciliatory neocons have begun to send up signal flares. It isn’t simply David Brooks’s paeans to Obama. Robert Kagan has praised what he calls “Obama the Interventionist” in his Washington Post column: “Obama believes the world yearns to follow us, if only we restore our worthiness to lead. Personally, I like it.” Even the Weekly Standard has begun to reassess its seemingly intractable hostility to all things Clinton. Vigilant neocon-spotters will have noticed that theStandard featured not one but two items praising the idea of Hillary as secretary of state. The tone of both seemed to be “yes, we should.” Under the heading “Hail Clinton,” Michael Goldfarb, McCain’s deputy communications director during the campaign, blogged that she is “likely to be a nuisance to Obama whether she is inside or outside of his administration, but as our top diplomat she could reprise a role that made Powell a kingmaker in this year’s election. And perhaps she could even present the case for war with Iran to an insubordinate United Nations in the event that Obama’s personal diplomacy somehow fails to deter the mullahs from their present course.”
The Standard’s Noemie Emery went even further. In her view, “For the moment, Hillary Clinton will be the conservatives’ Woman in Washington, more attuned to their concerns on these issues than to those of the get-the-troops-home-now wing of her party, a strange turn of events for a woman whose husband was impeached by Republicans just ten years ago, and whose ascent that party had dreaded since she went to the Senate two years after that.” Indeed.
The fact is that the neocon passion for Hillary may not be as outlandish as it seems at first glance. For one thing, Hillary was instrumental in getting Madeleine Albright appointed secretary of state in 1997, and they remain close friends. Albright is a liberal interventionist of the first order. Her father, Josef Korbel, a former Czech diplomat, was a cold warrior. Albright herself ardently pushed for intervention in the Balkans, first as Clinton’s United Nations ambassador, then, more effectively, as secretary of state. Albright will have the opportunity to weigh in on hot-button foreign-policy issues such as relations with Russia.
In addition, Albright, together with former Clinton defense secretary William S. Cohen, has headed a U.S. Institute for Peace and Holocaust Museum task force on genocide. Its new report, released on Dec. 8, is called “Preventing Genocide.” It could prove almost as influential for the Obama administration as the neocon-inspired “Defense Planning Guidance” of 1992, which called for American unilateral domination of the world, was for George W. Bush’s presidency. Albright and Cohen’s document calls for the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Committee that would work with key national security officials. It further states that the director of national intelligence should “initiate the preparation of a National Intelligence Estimate on worldwide risks of genocide and mass atrocities.” Finally, it recommends that the secretary of defense and U.S. military leaders develop military guidance on genocide prevention and response and “incorporate it into Department of Defense (and interagency) policies, plans, doctrine, training, and lessons learned.” The report’s aims are noble, but it is essentially a stalking horse for liberal intervention. It would create a permanent bureaucracy with a vested interest in insisting upon armed interventionism whenever and wherever the U.S. pleases—the Congo, Georgia, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and so on.
Indeed, Hillary may appoint a number of liberal interventionists. Russia-expert Michael McFaul, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is an adviser to Obama and is reportedly angling for the post of assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. In 2007, writing in the Washington Post, together with Abbas Milani, McFaul argued, “the United States must recommit to a policy of encouraging democratization inside Iran, because only a democratic regime will stop supporting terrorist groups abroad and repression at home.” McFaul also wants to push for democracy inside Russia. Another possible Clinton appointment might be Samantha Power, who has strenuously advocated more intervention backed by the United Nations. Power declared in Time in 2007 that as abuses mount in Burma and Darfur “a coalition of the concerned must insist that what is manifestly true of the economy is also true of human rights: in this age, there is no such thing as a purely ‘internal matter.’” How far removed is this from Bush’s rhetoric about freedom sweeping the globe in his second inaugural address?
Power’s conclusion epitomizes the distinction between the liberal interventionists and neocons on one side and realists on the other. Realists tend to believe that the internal nature of a state does not decisively affect its foreign-policy decisions. A democratic Iran might be no less likely than an authoritarian Iran to seek nuclear weapons. The country simply pursues its traditional national interests. Liberal interventionists take a different view. They want to expand democratic norms, by force if necessary, around the globe in the hopes of advancing the dream of a perpetual peace.
Whether or not Hillary actually behaves like a hawk in office is another question. She might seek to push peace talks on Israel and the Palestinians. Reaching an agreement with Iran would be a big feather in her cap. So would negotiating an arms-control deal with Russia in exchange for dismantling the Bush administration’s proposed missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
But the notion that Obama will seek to roll back the American empire is a pipedream. It wasn’t McCain but Obama who declared on the campaign trail that America has to “lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.”
This won’t prevent the unrepentant rump faction of the neocons from denouncing Obama as an appeaser, while looking to either Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich as possible standard-bearers. But for now, the neocons touting a reversion to the movement’s original, more liberal precepts seem intent on creating a new chapter in the saga of a movement that has been repeatedly written off as dead. Perhaps reaching out to the Obama administration will help rejuvenate neoconservatism. It could prove to be a more comfortable fit than either side might anticipate.
Jacob Heilbrunn, whose book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons has just appeared in paperback, is a senior editor at The National Interest.
For many years Kagan was a staple in the broad neo-conservative community. He was a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, but now the only Kagan on their list is his brother, Frederick, who also works on foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Robert also was a founding member with Bill Kristol and Dan Senor of the Foreign Policy Initiative, where he remains on its Board of Directors.
The anti-interventionist paleo-conservative historian Andrew Bacevich characterized him as “the chief neo-conservative foreign policy theorist.” In 2008, the British Guardian ran a profile of Kagan, claiming that for “large sections of the left, Kagan has been blamed for many things, prominent among them being one of the intellectual authors and cheerleaders for the US-led war in Iraq.” But even then, it appears that he was having trouble being pigeonholed; the author of the piece observed that he is “uncomfortable” with the title “neocon” and “insists he is ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ in a distinctly American tradition.” Now Kagan has freed himself to join Hillary in the ranks of progressives who get things done.
In May of 2014, writing in the New Republic, Kagan had a cover story titled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.” It was an important critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. In it he outlined what he called the “cracking” and perhaps “collapsing” of the old world order established at the end of World War II when American leadership predominated, helped to keep the world stable, and prevented the Soviet empire from spreading into Western Europe. He was unhappy that Obama and the American public were retreating from the belief that the United States had a “global responsibility” to stay strong and lead the world, writing that:
Unless Americans can be led back to an understanding of their enlightened self-interest, to see again how their fate is entangled with that of the world, then the prospects for a peaceful twenty-first century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak.
It was a powerful essay. After a forum where he discussed his article, I asked him if he thought it would have any influence on the president. He replied that he hoped so, but he doubted it. He was right to have that fear.
The New York Times ran a feature story about the article, noting Kagan’s hope that it might spark an “interventionist revival.” Kagan’s article was read at the White House, and soon after Obama gave a speech at West Point in which the president presented a “narrower vision for American force in world affairs.” Obama’s speech confirmed to many observers that this was the president’s rebuttal to Kagan.
The article’s author, Jason Horowitz, also noted that Kagan referred to himself as a “liberal interventionist.”
The article also gave us a hint of Kagan’s relationship with Hillary Clinton, so that it should come as no surprise that today, he would publicly endorse her for president. In 2014, he saw her as a “vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes.” It also revealed that Kagan served with a group of bipartisan foreign policy intellectuals who advised her at the State Department, where his wife Victoria Nuland worked under Clinton as an assistant secretary of state. As for Clinton, he told the Times, “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy.”
The Times immediately followed up with another article by the editor of The National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn, a fierce opponent of neo-conservatives and interventionism. He said Kagan and Secretary of State Clinton would be a perfect fit:
Mrs. Clinton voted for the Iraq war; supported sending arms to Syrian rebels’ likened Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to Adolf Hitler; wholeheartedly backs Israel; and stresses the importance of promoting democracy.
What really interested me, though, was Frum’s typology of post-Reagan conservatives. He divides them into three groups. There are optimists, led by Jack Kemp. There are moralists, led by William J. Bennett. And there are nationalists, led by Pat Buchanan.
Optimists say public policy is a matter of incentives. Human beings all want to do the right thing, but taxes and regulation get in the way. Cut taxes, reduce regulation, resurrect the gold standard, and people will flourish.
For the moralists, incentives are not enough. Character counts. Crime, welfare, education matter more to a moralist than tax rates or Social Security. Government can and should foster a public morality. And if conservatives do not promote bourgeois values such as fidelity, thrift, discipline, modesty, and hard work, then liberals will use their social and political power to promote values of their own.
Nationalists are concerned with the erosion of American sovereignty. Defense treaties commit us to wars we cannot win and should not fight. Trade agreements displace workers. Immigration alters the ethnic composition of the nation. The solution is to place “America first, and second, and third,” as Buchanan put it in the title of a famous National Interest essay.
It is worth considering where these groups stand today. Kemp protégé Paul Ryan is clearly the leader of the optimists. Donald Trump is clearly the leader of the nationalists. But I can’t tell you who the leader of the moralists is. I can’t name a prominent conservative known for advocating public morality, a political leader who has taken a stand on crime, on welfare, on family policy, on education. A major education bill was recently signed into law with little fanfare and even less debate. The Powerball jackpot has grown to more than $236 million, and no one bats an eye, no Republican presidential candidate suggests that gambling harms the weak.
Where did the moralists go? To some degree they were victims of their own success. Crime has fallen. Welfare was reformed. Standards and testing were written into education law. Other issues became more pressing. After 9/11, a lot of the moralists became heavily invested in foreign and defense policy. Defending the Iraq war, and advocating a strategy that could improve our situation there, was a full-time job. President Obama forced conservatives to adopt a defensive position—against Obamacare, against immigration reform, against the Iran deal. The disappointing endgame in Iraq, and the Republican elite’s drive to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the diminishing returns from globalization created the conditions for a nationalist revival.
This outcome is unfortunate. The moralists were once the most interesting and intellectually vibrant school of conservatism. They accurately identified a weakening of American self-confidence, a growing sense of entitlement and anomie, the importance of civil society and the cultural fabric. And they are needed once more. The conditions of our cities and suburbs, the state of our schools, the disintegration of the family, gun violence, opioid addiction, mental illness, pornography, welfare—these are subjects ripe for fresh policy analysis. Some of that work is being done. But it rarely finds expression in the public square.
A new politics of character would incorporate the best insights of the other schools of conservatism while rejecting their excesses. It needn’t be beholden to the idea that tax cuts will generate enough revenue to pay for themselves. It would recognize that immigration and trade bring costs as well as benefits even as it condemns rhetorical excess. It would treat seriously the idea that government matters. And, perhaps most importantly, in the uncertain and turbulent political era we seem to be entering, a new politics of character would not be necessarily attached to one political party.
Donald Trump: Defender of the Faith
The Washington Post
March 3 2016
What happened to the evangelicals? They were supposed to be the bedrock of the Ted Cruz candidacy. Yet on Super Tuesday he lost them to Donald Trump.
Cruz still did make a reasonably good showing, winning Alaska, Oklahoma and Texas, the latter by an impressive 17 points. But he didn’t have the great night he needed to put away Marco Rubio and emerge as Trump’s one remaining challenger.
Cruz had done all the groundwork to win evangelicals and sweep the South by putting together strong alliances with local pastors and leaders. And yet, outside Oklahoma and Texas, he lost them to Trump by stunning margins — by 21 points in Alabama, 13 in Georgia, 14 in Tennessee, 16 in Virginia and 36 in, of all places, Massachusetts.
How could this have happened? A more scripturally, spiritually flawed man than Trump would be hard to find. As several anti-Trump evangelical voices have argued, Christian witness cannot possibly support a thrice-married man with such an impressive list of sins, featuring especially spectacular displays of the seven deadlys.
These theological arguments are both eloquent and impassioned but, in this season of fear and anxiety, beside the point. This time around, evangelicals are not looking for someone like them. They’re looking for someone who will protect them.
They’ve tried backing exemplary Scripture-quoting Christians — without result. After Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum and considerations of Cruz himself, they are increasingly reluctant to support like-minded candidates who are nonetheless incapable of advancing their cause in a hostile political arena so dominated by secularism.
They have no illusions about Trump. They have no expectations of religious uplift. What he offers them is not spirit but “muscle” (to borrow a word from the notorious former professor Melissa Click of the University of Missouri).
The transaction was illuminated by Trump’s January speech at Liberty University. His earlier halfhearted attempts to pose as a fellow evangelical were amusing and entirely unconvincing. At Liberty, he made another such I’m-one-of-you gesture by citing a biblical verse in “Two Corinthians,” thereby betraying a risible lack of familiarity with biblical language and usage.
Yet elsewhere in the speech, he described how Christians abroad are being massacred and Christians here at home are under cultural and political siege. He pledged: “We’re going to protect Christianity.”
Interesting locution. Not just Christians, but Christianity itself. What Trump promises is to stand outside the churchyard gates and protect the faithful inside. He’s the Roman centurion standing between them and both barbarians abroad and aggressive secularists at home.
The message is clear: I may not be one of you. I can’t recite or even correctly cite Scripture. But I will patrol the borders of Christendom on your behalf. After all, who do you want out there — a choir boy or a tough guy with a loaded gun and a kick-ass demeanor?
Evangelicals answered resoundingly. They went for Trump in a rout.
The essence of Trump’s appeal everywhere, far beyond evangelicals, is precisely the same: “I’m tough, I will protect you.” That’s why he remains so bulletproof. His lack of policy, the contradictory nature of his pronouncements that pass as policy — especially their capricious eruption and summary abandonment — have turned out to be an irrelevance.
Who cares? His support has nothing to do with actual prescriptions. Tuesday night, the immigration issue ranked low among Republican voters’ concerns. Only about 10 percent deemed it their No. 1 issue. The political success of Trump’s draconian immigration stance lies not in the policy but in the attitude — a not-going-to-take-it-anymore defiance.
That’s the reason none of the rhetorical outrages that would have destroyed another candidacy have even left a mark on Trump. He mocks John McCain’s heroism, insults Carly Fiorina’s looks, fawns over Vladimir Putin — nothing. If anything, he gains support for fearless “telling it like it is” candor.
This is a man who three times last Sunday refused to disavow David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. No other candidate could survive that. Trump not only survives, he thrives. Two days later, he wins seven out of 11 Super Tuesday states and ascends to the threshold of presumptive nominee.
Which is why the only possible way to stop Trump is a full-scale, open-the-bomb-bay-doors attack on the very core of his appeal: his persona of the tough guy you can trust to protect you.
It may be too late. But everything else will simply bounce off the Teflon.
Voir de même:
Whither the GOP?
The Washington Post
January 28, 2016
— Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2016 The Washington Post Writers Group.
The three-cornered fight for the soul of the GOP
The Washington Post
February 11, 2016
Mugged by reality
Once the warrior queen of neoconservatism, Jeane Kirkpatrick died a critic of Bush’s unilateralism. Her death illuminates the conflicting legacies of the movement she helped found.
Dec 14, 2006
The death last week of Jeane Kirkpatrick — ambassador to the United Nations during Ronald Reagan’s first term and the highest-ranking neoconservative in his administration — coincided with President Bush’s rejection of the Baker-Hamilton Commission report on Iraq and his subsequent consultations with neoconservatives to entrench his belief in “victory.” But rather than providing a sobering but inspirational backdrop for Bush’s heroic stand against the foreign-policy establishment, Kirkpatrick’s passing illuminates the conflicting legacies of the ideological movement of which she was once an icon and the confusion that surrounds a president who demands certitudes.
In its obituary, the New York Times buried a surprising scoop about her last act of diplomacy, when she was sent by President Bush on a secret mission to Geneva in March 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq to Arab foreign ministers. “The marching orders we received were to argue that preemptive war is legitimate,” Alan Gerson, her former general counsel, recalled. “She said: ‘No one will buy it. If that’s the position, count me out.’” Instead, she argued that Saddam Hussein was in violation of United Nations resolutions. Her hitherto unknown rejection of Bush’s unilateralism and extolling of international order apparently was her final commentary on neoconservatism.
“A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol remarked in a famously cynical line. At the time of her death, Kirkpatrick was a neoconservative mugged by reality and a shadow of her former ferocious self. Once the warrior queen of neoconservatism, she ended as an unexplained skeptic, less the Valkyrie than the world-weary doubter, akin to the disillusioned Francis Fukuyama but without the tears of an apologetic manifesto. She checked out silently, leaving no equivalent of a political testament.
Norman Podhoretz, who had been her editor at Commentary, disclosed near the end of an obituary he published in the Weekly Standard that she had grown disenchanted. “She had serious reservations about the prudence of the Bush Doctrine, which she evidently saw neither as an analogue of the Truman Doctrine nor as a revival of the Reaganite spirit in foreign policy,” he wrote. “Even so, she was clearly reluctant to join in the clamor against it, which for all practical purposes meant relegating herself to the sidelines.” But Podhoretz declined to reveal more details of her disapproval. Abruptly, he assumed the pose of a commissar, praising her “brilliant service on the ideological front” and awarded her “laurels” for what she “earned in World War III,” though “what I persist in calling World War IV” failed to “tempt her back into battle.” Comrade Podhoretz’s oblique admission of her absence “on the ideological front” and the posthumous anecdote in the Times obituary are the runes of her alienation.
Jeane Kirkpatrick first came to public attention when her article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” was published in Commentary in November 1979. The Georgetown University professor’s slashing attack on the Carter administration, appearing just as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis began, became one of the principal theoretical documents of neoconservatism and platforms for the Reagan campaign. In this seminal piece, which immediately vaulted her to prominence, Kirkpatrick argued that Carter’s adherence to human rights undermined traditional authoritarian regimes allied with the United States in the Cold War. “Authoritarian” states, she posited, could slowly change into democratic ones, unlike “totalitarian” ones. “The history of this century provides no grounds for expecting that radical totalitarian regimes will transform themselves,” she wrote.
History has not been kind to most of her ideas. The opening sentence of her essay betrays it as a howling anachronism. “The failure of the Carter administration’s foreign policy is now clear to everyone,” Kirkpatrick began. But where was she going? Her devastating punch line was that Carter’s “crowning achievement has been to lay the groundwork for a transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to a swaggering Latin dictator of Castroite bent.” It may be hard to remember that Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty was then a red-hot right-wing cause, especially seized upon by Reagan as a surrender of America’s Manifest Destiny, and that the supposed “Latin dictator” is long gone.
Kirkpatrick’s central idea that communism was implacably resistant to change was, of course, belied by the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Carter’s advancement of human rights is generally acknowledged as a contributing factor in its downfall. Kirkpatrick’s awestruck description of gathering Soviet strength, universally shared on the right, was a fundamental misreading of the symptoms of a rapidly decaying system entering its terminal crisis. But in its time her view about the perpetual survival of communism was accepted as an eternal verity.
It may also be little recalled that alongside her mocking of human rights and “moralism” as “continuous self-abasement,” Kirkpatrick ridiculed Carter for not invading Iran, even before the hostage taking. “Where once upon a time an American President might have sent Marines to assure the protection of American strategic interests, there is no room for force in this world of progress and self-determination,” she wrote.
Kirkpatrick’s record in office was as callous as her rhetoric was caustic. The barbarity of Reagan’s policies in Latin America is largely forgotten, while the sordid assault on constitutional government in the Iran-contra scandal that flowed from it is rarely discussed. Kirkpatrick was obsessively fixed on Central America as a decisive cockpit of the Cold War and helped direct the administration’s focus there. In the name of ideological struggle, she rallied support for authoritarian juntas throughout the Western Hemisphere.
On Dec. 2, 1980, a month after Reagan’s election, four Roman Catholic Maryknoll nuns, dedicated to assisting peasants in El Salvador, then ruled by a junta that had provoked a guerrilla insurgency, were murdered; independent investigations and a trial later proved that Salvadoran National Guardsmen killed them on orders from above. Two weeks after these targeted assassinations, Kirkpatrick, just named to the U.N. post, leapt to the defense of the junta. “I don’t think the government of El Salvador was responsible,” she declared. “The nuns were not just nuns; the nuns were political activists.”
Kirkpatrick was an ardent protector of the El Salvador junta, among other juntas from Guatemala (where the regime waged a genocidal war against Indian peasants) to Honduras, and from Chile to Argentina. (After the National Guard massacred more than 900 men, women and children in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote on Dec. 11, 1981, the Reagan administration sent Kirkpatrick’s closest neoconservative ally within the administration, Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for human rights, before a Senate committee to testify that the reports of slaughter at El Mozote, later proved conclusively, “were not credible.” (After pleading guilty to lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal, Abrams was pardoned; he is currently deputy national security advisor in charge of Middle East affairs.)
In August 1981, Kirkpatrick flew to Chile to meet with Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown the democracy there eight years earlier. “Most pleasant,” said Kirkpatrick about their conversation. She announced that the Reagan administration’s intention was to “normalize completely its relations with Chile,” including reinstating arms sales. Two days after her visit, Pinochet used Kirkpatrick’s bestowal of legitimacy to expel the chairman of the Chilean Human Rights Commission and other prominent opposition leaders. One month later, Amnesty International issued a report noting that “torture still appears to be a systematic part of official policy.”
Kirkpatrick considered herself a special friend of the Argentine junta. On April 2, 1982, she attended a dinner at the Argentine Embassy in Washington. While she was there, the regime launched an invasion of the British-governed Falkland Islands off the Argentine coast. The Argentines took Kirkpatrick’s presence as evidence of tacit official approval. The Falklands war that followed between an authoritarian regime and a democracy, between countries led by a military strongman and a conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to whom Kirkpatrick was occasionally compared, had not been foreshadowed in Kirkpatrick’s theories. Nor did she imagine the overthrow of the Argentine junta when it lost the war.
Almost 70 years ago, a new world order was born from the rubble of World War II, built by and around the power of the United States. Today that world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing. The Russia-Ukraine and Syria crises, and the world’s tepid response, the general upheaval in the greater Middle East and North Africa, the growing nationalist and great-power tensions in East Asia, the worldwide advance of autocracy and retreat of democracy—taken individually, these problems are neither unprecedented nor unmanageable. But collectively they are a sign that something is changing, and perhaps more quickly than we may imagine. They may signal a transition into a different world order or into a world disorder of a kind not seen since the 1930s.
If a breakdown in the world order that America made is occurring, it is not because America’s power is declining—America’s wealth, power, and potential influence remain adequate to meet the present challenges. It is not because the world has become more complex and intractable—the world has always been complex and intractable. And it is not simply war-weariness. Strangely enough, it is an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.
Many Americans and their political leaders in both parties, including President Obama, have either forgotten or rejected the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades. In particular, American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back toward the defense of narrower, more parochial national interests. This is sometimes called “isolationism,” but that is not the right word. It may be more correctly described as a search for normalcy. At the core of American unease is a desire to shed the unusual burdens of responsibility that previous generations of Americans took on in World War II and throughout the cold war and to return to being a more normal kind of nation, more attuned to its own needs and less to those of the wider world.
If this is indeed what a majority of Americans seek today, then the current period of retrenchment will not be a temporary pause before an inevitable return to global activism. It will mark a new phase in the evolution of America’s foreign policy. And because America’s role in shaping the world order has been so unusually powerful and pervasive, it will also begin a new phase in the international system, one that promises not to be marginally different but radically different from what we have known these past 70 years. Unless Americans can be led back to an understanding of their enlightened self-interest, to see again how their fate is entangled with that of the world, then the prospects for a peaceful twenty-first century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak.
To understand where America, and the world, may be heading, it is useful to remind ourselves where we have been—of the choices that Americans made decades ago and of the profound, world-changing consequences of those choices.
For Americans, the choice was never been between isolationism and internationalism. With their acquisitive drive for wealth and happiness, their love of commerce, their economic and (in earlier times) territorial expansiveness, and their universalistic ideology, they never had it in them to wall themselves off from the rest of the world. Tokugawa Japan and Ming China were isolationist. Americans have always been more like republican Rome or ancient Athens, a people and a nation on the move.
When, roughly 70 years ago, American foreign policy underwent a revolutionary transformation, it was not a transformation from isolationism to internationalism. What Americans had rejected before World War II was a steady global involvement, with commitments to other nations and responsibilities for the general well-being of the world. That was what the so-called “internationalists” of the time wanted for the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, Woodrow Wilson, and many others believed that Americans ought to take on a much bigger role in world affairs, as befitted their growing power. The United States had become “more and more the balance of power of the whole globe,” Roosevelt observed, and it ought to behave accordingly. And indeed, following the Spanish-American War and for the first two decades of the twentieth century, the United States did pursue a wider and deeper global involvement than it had ever done before, culminating in the dispatch of two million troops to France. When World War I ended, Wilson, like Roosevelt before him, ambitiously set out to make the United States a central player in world affairs. Beseeched by all the European powers after the war—for American financing aid to steady their economies and for American security guarantees against each other—Wilson wanted the United States to commit itself to an enduring global role. The world, he warned Americans, would be “absolutely in despair if America deserts it.” Wilson’s League of Nations (actually it had been Roosevelt’s idea first), although couched in the idealistic language of universal principles and collective security, was meant above all to serve as the vehicle for American power and influence in support of a new liberal world order.
But Americans rejected this role. Disillusioned by the compromises and imperfections of the Versailles Treaty, mourning the loss of more than 100,000 dead soldiers, skeptical about American participation in the league, and spurred on by Republicans eager to defeat Wilson and recapture the White House, a majority of Americans came to oppose not only the league but also the internationalists’ broad vision of America’s global role. This was no absentminded lapse back into nonexistent isolationist traditions. It was a deliberate decision to turn away from the increasingly active global involvement of the previous two decades, to adopt a foreign policy of far greater restraint, and above all to avoid future military interventions beyond the Western Hemisphere. Wilson’s Republican successors promised, and the American public welcomed, what Warren Harding called a “return to normalcy.”
Normalcy in the 1920s did not mean isolation. Americans continued to trade, to invest, and to travel overseas; their navy was equaled in size only by Britain’s, and had fleets in the Atlantic and the Pacific; and their diplomats pursued treaties to control the arms race and to “outlaw” war. Normalcy simply meant defining America’s national interests the way most other nations defined theirs. It meant defending the homeland, avoiding overseas commitments, preserving the country’s independence and freedom of action, and creating prosperity at home. The problems of Europe and Asia were not America’s problems, and they could be solved, or not solved, without American help. This applied to global economic issues as well. Harding wanted to “prosper America first,” and he did. The 1920s were boom years for the American economy, while Europe’s postwar economies stagnated.
To the vast majority of Americans, normalcy seemed a reasonable response to the world of the 1920s, after the enormous exertions of the Wilson years. There were no obvious threats on the horizon. Postwar Weimar Germany was a faltering republic more likely to collapse than to take another stab at continental dominance. Bolshevik Russia was wracked by civil war and economic crisis. Japan, though growing in power and ambition, was a fragile democracy with a seat on the League of Nations permanent council. To most Americans in the 1920s, the greatest risk to America came not from foreign powers but from those misguided “internationalists” and the greedy bankers and war profiteers who would involve the nation in foreign conflicts that were none of America’s business.
This consensus was broad, deep, and bipartisan, and Americans stayed on the course of normalcy for two full decades. They did so even as the world order—no longer upheld by the old combination of British naval might and a relatively stable balance of power in Europe and Asia—began to fray and then collapse. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931; Hitler’s rise to power in 1933; Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, and the German and Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War, in 1936; Japan’s invasion of central China in 1937; Hitler’s absorption of Austria, followed by his annexation and eventual conquest of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939—all these events troubled and at times appalled Americans. They were not ignorant of what was going on. Even back then information traveled widely and rapidly, and the newspapers and newsreels were filled with stories about each unfolding crisis. Reports of Mussolini’s dive-bombers dropping their ordnance on spear-carrying Ethiopians; Germany’s aerial bombing of the civilian population of Guernica; Japan’s rampage of rape, pillage, and murder in Nanking—they were horrific and regrettable. But they were not reasons for the United States to get involved. On the contrary, they were reasons for not getting involved. The worse things looked around the world, the more hopeless it all seemed, the less Americans wanted to have anything to do with it. The United States, it was widely believed, had no vital interests at stake in Manchuria, Ethiopia, Spain, or Czechoslovakia.
In fact, it was not clear that the United States had vital interests anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere. Even after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and the outbreak of a general European war that followed, respected American strategic thinkers, priding themselves on “realistic thinking,” the “banishment of altruism and sentiment” from their analysis, and “single-minded attention to the national interests,” advised that, with two oceans and a strong navy standing between America and every great power in the world, the United States was invulnerable.A Japanese attack on, say, Hawaii, they ruled out as literally impossible. Republican Senator Robert A. Taft felt confident in saying that no power “would be stupid enough” to attack the United States “from across thousands of miles of ocean.” Nor would the United States suffer appreciably if Nazi Germany did manage to conquer all of Europe, including Great Britain, which by 1940 the realists regarded as a foregone conclusion. Taft saw no reason why the United States could not trade and conduct normal diplomacy with a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany just as it had with Great Britain and France. As the historian Howard K. Beale put it, nations “do not trade with one another because they like each other’s governments but because both sides find the exchange of goods desirable.”
Holders of such views were tagged with the disparaging label of “isolationist,” but as Hans Morgenthau later pointed out, they believed at the time that they were upholding the “realist tradition of American foreign policy.” The United States should not range “over the world like a knight-errant,” Taft admonished, “[protecting] democracy and ideals of good faith and [tilting] like Don Quixote against the windmills of fascism.” Taft insisted on seeing the world as it was, not as idealists wished it to be. The European war was the product of “national and racial animosities” that had existed “for centuries” and would continue to exist “for centuries to come,” he argued. To make a difference in the war, the United States would have to send millions of troops across the ocean, make an impossible amphibious landing on shores heavily defended by German forces, and then march across Europe against the world’s strongest army. The very thought was inconceivable. Much as they might wish to help Europe, therefore, Americans had “no power, even if we have the will, to be its savior.”
This view was so dominant and so politically popular that Franklin Roosevelt spent his first years in office muzzling his internationalist instincts and vowing to keep America out of another war—“I hate war!” he roared in a famous address in 1936. After Munich, however, he grew panicked, sensing that the Western powers, Britain and France, had lost the will to stand up to Hitler. And so he began trying to warn Americans of what he regarded as the coming threat. Yet it was difficult to counter the realists’ hardheaded analysis. Roosevelt could not prove that American security was directly endangered by what was happening in Europe. He was left making a case that really did appeal more to sentiment and idealism than to demonstrable threats to the American homeland.
Even if the United States faced no immediate danger of military attack, Roosevelt argued, if Hitler, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan were allowed to have their way, the world would be a “shabby and dangerous place to live in—yes, even for Americans to live in.” America would become a “lone island” in a world dominated by the “philosophy of force.” The “institutions of democracy” would be placed at risk even if America’s security was not, because America would have to become an armed camp to defend itself. Roosevelt urged Americans to look beyond their immediate physical security. “There comes a time in the affairs of men,” he said, “when they must prepare to defend, not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments, and their very civilization are founded. The defense of religion, of democracy, and of good faith among nations is all the same fight. To save one we must now make up our minds to save all.”
Such arguments, along with the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, did help convince Americans that they had a stake in the outcome of the European struggle, but it did not convince them to go to war. That decision followed only after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack, Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war, and America’s full-scale entry into the conflicts in both Europe and Asia were a traumatic shock to Americans, especially for those in positions of power. That which had been deemed impossible had proved possible, and long-held assumptions about American security in a troubled world collapsed in a single day.
The events of 1941 forced a fundamental reassessment not only of America’s global strategy but also of how to define America’s interests. Even as they waged the struggle against Germany and Japan, Roosevelt and his advisers during the war began thinking of how the postwar world ought to be shaped, and they took as their guide what they considered the lessons of the previous two decades.
The first had to do with security. The Japanese attack had proved that vast oceans and even a strong navy no longer provided adequate defense against attack. More broadly, there was the realization—or rather the rediscovery—of an old understanding: that the rise of a hostile hegemonic power on the Eurasian landmass could eventually threaten America’s core security interests as well as its economic well-being. As a corollary, there was the “lesson of Munich”: would-be aggressors in Eurasia had to be deterred before they became too strong to be stopped short of all-out war.
Another lesson was that the United States had an interest in political developments in Eurasia. Walter Lippmann argued that, for Americans to enjoy both “physical security” and the preservation of their “free way of life,” they had to ensure that “the other shore of the Atlantic” remained always in the hands of “friendly,” “trustworthy” democracies. For two decades, people had sneered at “Woodrow Wilson’s demand that the world must be made safe for democracy,” Lippmann commented, but Wilson had been right. Under the control of “free governments the shores and waters of the Atlantic” had become the “geographical center of human liberty.” The Atlantic Charter and Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms reflected this revived conviction that the well-being of democracy in the world was not only desirable but important to America’s security.
Then there was the global economy. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, the United States had sought mostly domestic remedies for the Great Depression, raising its own tariffs, choking off lending abroad, refusing to join other nations in a common monetary policy, and generally protecting the American economy while ignoring the world economy. By 1941, however, Roosevelt and his advisers had concluded that both America’s prosperity and its security depended on a healthy world economy. Poverty and economic dislocation had played a major role in the rise of both Hitler and Bolshevism. The United States bore much of the blame, for although it had been the world’s leading economic power in the 1920s and 1930s, it had failed to play a constructive and responsible role in stabilizing the global economy.
Finally, there was the issue of American public support for global involvement. In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans had been allowed and even encouraged by their political leaders to believe that the United States was immune to the world’s troubles. They could not be allowed to fall back into such complacency. They could no longer regard events thousands of miles away as of no concern to them. To Roosevelt, assuring public support for a larger and more consistent American role in the world was going to be among the greatest challenges after the war. Americans had to understand, as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in April 1943, that “the world problem cannot be solved if America does not accept its full share of responsibility in solving it.”
That share was to be sizeable. convinced that World War II had been the result not of any single incident but rather of the overall breakdown of world order, politically, economically, and strategically, American leaders set out to erect and sustain a new order that could endure. This time it was to be a world order built around American economic, political, and military power. Europeans had proved incapable of keeping the peace. Asia was entirely unstable on its own. Any new order would depend on the United States. It would become the center of a new economic system that would encourage open trade and provide financial assistance and loans to nations struggling to stay afloat. It would take a substantial and active part in the occupation and transformation of the defeated powers, ensuring that some form of democracy took root in place of the dictatorships that had led those nations to war. America would also have to possess preponderant military strength and when necessary deploy sufficient power to preserve stability and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Military force played a central part in the calculations of Roosevelt and his advisers as they set out to establish and defend the new liberal world order. “Peace must be kept by force,” Roosevelt insisted. There was “no other way.” He anticipated that an American occupation force of one million troops would be necessary to keep the peace in Europe, for at least a year and perhaps longer. During the war, the Joint Chiefs envisioned establishing military bases around the world in “areas well removed from the United States” so that any fighting would take place “nearer the enemy” rather than near American territory.
Roosevelt naturally hoped to avoid the repeated and extended deployment of American ground forces overseas, since he feared the public would not tolerate it. But he did expect that the United States would have to send at least planes and ships whenever called upon by the U.N. Security Council. As Cordell Hull insisted at the Dumbarton Oaks conference in 1944, American military forces had to be “available promptly, in adequate measure, and with certainty.” In fact, Roosevelt anticipated that requests from the Security Council would be so frequent that he did not want the president to have to go to Congress each time for approval of the use of force. The Security Council had to have “the power to act quickly and decisively to keep the peace by force, if necessary,” Roosevelt explained, and so the American representative had to be given advance authority to act.
Roosevelt supported the United Nations but was not a great believer in collective security. American power, he believed, would be the key. He saw the United Nations much as Wilson had seen the League of Nations, as a vehicle for U.S. global involvement. Indeed, as the historian Robert Dallek has noted, for Roosevelt the United Nations was partly meant to “obscure” the central role American power was to play in the new world order— obscure it, that is, from Americans.
This new American grand strategy for the postwar world could not have been a more radical departure from “normalcy.” Its goals were not simply defense of the territory, prosperity, and sovereign independence of the American people, but also the promotion of a liberal world order that would defend not only America’s interests but those of many other nations as well. The rise of a Eurasian hegemon would threaten other nations long before it would threaten the United States, for instance, yet Americans now accepted primary responsibility for preventing it. The new strategy was not selfless or altruistic. American officials believed that it was in the best interest of the United States. But neither did it fit the normal definition of the “national interest.” As Dean Acheson explained, Americans had to learn to “operate in a pattern of responsibility which is greater than our own interests.” This was the real revolution in American foreign policy.
The new strategy was not directed at any particular nation or any specific threat—at least not at first. The Soviet Union had not yet emerged as the next great challenge to the new global order. During World War II, Roosevelt and most other top officials expected mutual cooperation with the Soviets after the war, and even as late as 1945, Acheson still believed in the possibility of partnership with Moscow. Rather than responding to a specific threat, the new grand strategy aimed at preventing a general collapse of global order, which meant supporting an open international economic system, enforcing principles of international behavior, supporting, where possible, democratic governments, encouraging a minimum of respect for human rights, as defined in the U.N. Charter, and generally promoting the kind of world that suited Americans and those who shared their beliefs.
This new and wide-ranging set of goals and responsibilities completely reoriented the posture of American foreign policy. Instead of essentially leaning back, waiting for threats to emerge, responding, and then pulling back again, the new strategy required a constant and pervasive forward involvement in the affairs of the world. The new economic strategy aimed to prevent economic crises before they resulted in revolution or despotism. The new military strategy aimed to discourage would-be aggressors before they became aggressors, or as Roosevelt put it, to “end future wars by stepping on their necks before they grow up.”
The new forward-leaning posture became especially pronounced as the postwar era transitioned into the cold war. The Marshall Plan aimed to shore up Western European economies and democracies before they collapsed and succumbed to communism. The Truman Doctrine aimed to bolster Greece and Turkey before they fell to communist subversion. When the communist revolution triumphed in China in 1949, American critics blamed the Truman administration for not doing enough to prevent it—a charge, fair or not, that no one would have thought to make before World War II. The unanticipated North Korean invasion of the South produced panic in Washington and, in the minds of Truman and his advisers, powerfully reinforced the “lesson of Munich.” Henceforth the United States would have to be vigilant and ready to act, with force, anywhere in the world.
All of this was precisely what the anti-interventionist critics had warned about in the 1930s. Taft, a thoughtful and intelligent man, had indeed predicted that, once sent off to the war, American forces would never come home again. Victory would prove as much a curse as a blessing. American troops, Taft had warned, “would have to police Europe or maintain the balance of power there by force of arms” indefinitely. Beale had cautioned that, if freedom and democracy were the goals, as Roosevelt claimed, then the United States was going to have to “maintain democracy by armed force on the Continent of Europe” and keep a “navy large enough to establish ‘freedom of the seas’ … on all the oceans of the world.” It was a prescription at once for bankruptcy and militarism at home and “unadulterated imperialism” abroad.
Roosevelt and other American statesmen originally hoped that the United States would not have to do everything by itself. Roosevelt planned to share global management among the “Four Policemen”—the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. And Truman in 1945 was bound and determined to slash the defense budget and bring as many troops home as possible. Yet within two years after the war ended, the new world order was already teetering on the edge of collapse along with hopes for global partnership with the other great powers. Britain quickly signaled its inability to play its historic role, even in the Mediterranean. China descended into civil war and revolution. And the Soviet Union emerged not as a supporter of the new order but, to American eyes, as its greatest opponent. The result was the disheartening realization that the United States was going to carry the lion’s share of the burden, just as Taft had warned. As Acheson later put it, the United States was going to have to be “the locomotive at the head of mankind,” while the rest of the world was going to be “the caboose.”
Roosevelt had always worried that the American people would never accept such an expansive and seemingly open-ended global role. Three months before he died, in his last State of the Union address, in January 1945, he attempted to rally them for the task ahead. “In our disillusionment after the last war,” he reminded the American public, “we gave up the hope of gradually achieving a better peace because we had not the courage to fulfill our responsibilities in an admittedly imperfect world. We must not let that happen again, or we shall follow the same tragic road again—the road to a third world war.”
That was the last time, before 1989, that an American statesman would think of American global responsibilities without reference to the Soviet Union or to international communism. The onset of the cold war, the panicked American response to Soviet policies in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, and the recurrent American paranoia about the danger of communist subversion at home answered FDR’s fears about public support. To many Americans, Soviet communism seemed an even more direct threat to their way of life than Hitler and the Nazis. Fighting it, therefore, proved an easier strategy to comprehend and support than shouldering “responsibilities in an admittedly imperfect world.” Although there was intense and often divisive debate over foreign policy during the cold war, and much dissent voiced by critics of anti-communist containment, especially during and just after the Vietnam war, a majority of Americans proved consistently willing to go to great lengths in the name of containing communism. In the late 1940s and 1950s, they provided billions of dollars for European reconstruction and made military alliances with former adversaries such as Japan and Germany and other European powers they had once disdained and mistrusted. They even extended nuclear guarantees to deter a Soviet conventional invasion of Europe, voluntarily making themselves targets of Soviet nuclear weapons in the event of a European war. In the 1950s and 1960s, they often spent 10 percent or more of their GDP on defense. They deployed hundreds of thousands of troops overseas, indefinitely, in Europe and Asia—almost a million during the Eisenhower years. They fought in costly wars in Korea and Vietnam, with uncertain and unsatisfying results.
Justifying everything in terms of the anti-communist struggle may have been, to borrow Acheson’s phrase, “clearer than truth,” but it worked. Fear of communism, combined with fear of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical threat, allowed a majority of Americans and American policymakers to view practically any policy directed against communist forces, or even against suspected communist forces, anywhere in the world as directly serving the nation’s vital interests. In 1965, even David Halberstam believed that preventing a communist victory in Vietnam was “vital to our national interest.” A decade and a half later, Jimmy Carter, who had come to office warning, not entirely unreasonably, against an “inordinate fear of communism,” was forced to announce a dramatic shift of policy in response to a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a country that not two Americans in a million could have found on a map and where no direct American interest could be identified, other than the fact that the Soviets were there. Yes, the general feeling went, the United States had taken on unprecedented global responsibilities, but it had done so because American interests were directly threatened by an unprecedented global challenge.
So Americans for more than four decades proved willing to support the expansive and active foreign policy that Roosevelt and his advisers had envisioned—indeed, probably much more than they envisioned—and the results were extraordinary. In the half-century following World War II, the United States successfully established, protected, and advanced a liberal world order, carving out a vast “free world” within which an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity could flower in Western Europe, East Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes rose to dangerous levels, the period was characterized above all by peace among the great powers. The United States and the Soviet Union did not come to blows, and just as importantly, the American presence in Europe and East Asia put an end to the cycles of war that had torn both regions since the late nineteenth century. The number of democracies in the world grew dramatically. The international trading system expanded and deepened. Most of the world enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity. There was no shortage of disasters and near-disasters, as well as the two costly wars in Asia—but the strategy was largely successful, so much so that the Soviet empire finally collapsed or voluntarily withdrew, peacefully, under the pressure of the West’s economic and political success, and the liberal order then expanded to include the rest of Europe and most of Asia. All of this was the result of many forces—the political and economic integration of Europe, the success of Japan and Germany, and the rise of other successful Asian economies—but none of it would have been possible without a United States willing and able to play the abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order.
America’s ability to play this role at all was due lessto the special virtues of the American people than to some remarkable advantages that put the United States in a historically unique position. The most important advantage was geography. For centuries the world’s cockpits of conflict had been in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where multiple powers shared common neighborhoods, jostled for primacy, and engaged in endless cycles of military competition and warfare. When the United States emerged as a great power at the end of the nineteenth century, it alone enjoyed fundamental security in a neighborhood in which it was already the unquestioned hegemon. This, along with its wealth and large population, gave the United States the ability to dispatch the bulk of its armed forces thousands of miles away to engage in protracted military operations. It also allowed the United States to station large numbers of troops permanently overseas if it so desired. And it could do all of this without leaving itself vulnerable to a neighboring power.
No other nation in the world was ever so situated. Even that other great island superpower, Great Britain, sat too close to the European continent to be invulnerable to attack, especially when the airplane and the long-range missile became major tools of warfare. Nor had Britain succeeded in securing its core strategic requirement: preventing the emergence of a hegemon on the continent. Although successful for two centuries in maintaining and managing its overseas empire, Britain failed to prevent the rise of German hegemony twice in the twentieth century, leading to two devastating wars that ultimately undid British global power. Britain failed because it had tried to play the role of balancer in Europe from “offshore.” Britons’ main concern was always defense of their far-flung empire, and they preferred to stay out of Europe if possible. Their inability or unwillingness to station troops on the continent in sufficient number, or at least reliably to guarantee that sufficient force would arrive quickly in an emergency, led would-be aggressors to calculate that decisive British military force would either not arrive on time or not arrive at all.
After World War II, Americans’ unique geographical advantage made possible an unprecedented global strategy. The United States was able to move beyond traditional national defense and beyond offshore balancing. It was able to become effectively both a European power and an Asian power, with troops permanently stationed “onshore” in both theaters simultaneously. The presence of American troops acted to remove doubt by potential aggressors that the United States would fight if its allies were attacked. For the next seven decades, this American presence enforced a general peace and stability in two regions that for at least a century had known almost constant great-power conflict.
Just as remarkable was the degree to which the rest of the nations in the liberal world generally accepted and even welcomed America’s overwhelming power. Again, the reason had as much to do with power and geography as with ideological affinity. It was true that for most nations in the world the United States appeared to be a relatively benign hegemon. But the core geopolitical reality was that other nations faced greater and more immediate threats from their neighbors than from the distant Americans. When those neighbors grew menacing, they looked to the United States as a natural partner—comforting for its ability to project power and defend them but comforting also for its distance.
The United States thus violated some of the cardinal rules of international relations. For decades, realists had believed that the only peaceful and stable world order was one based on a multipolar balance of power, a “concert” of nations poised in rough equilibrium in a system that all the players regarded as necessary and legitimate—like Europe in the years following the Congress of Vienna. This was the world with which Henry Kissinger felt comfortable and which he constantly predicted, even in the 1960s, was just right around the corner. Unipolarity was supposed to be inherently unstable and short-lived, because other great powers would always band together to balance against a power grown too strong—as had happened in Europe in response to the rise of France and Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Richard Nixon expressed this alleged realist truism in a speech, no doubt penned under Kissinger’s influence, in 1972. “We must remember,” Nixon declared, that “the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended period of peace is when there has been balance of power. It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises. So I believe in a world in which the United States is powerful. I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing.” But the United States was already disproving this thesis.
The broad acceptance of American power, best demonstrated by the large number of its allies and the absence of powerful nations joining the Soviet Union against it, created a unique situation in the world. No other nation in history had ever played such a role on a global scale, and arguably no other nation possibly could. The situation could not conform to a theory because it could not be replicated. It was sui generis.
Geography made it possible for the United States to play this unique role in the world, but as the 1920s and 1930s showed, the question of whether the United States would take it on was up to the American people. Nothing required them to play such an abnormal part in world affairs. During the cold war, they did it primarily out of fear of communism. But what would happen when the Soviet Union disappeared and the threat of communism vanished? The question seemed moot for four excruciatingly long decades when no one ever really expected the Soviet Union to give up the geopolitical competition. But the unanticipated fall of the Soviet empire and the collapse of international communism after 1989 inevitably raised anew the question of how to define America’s purpose and its interests in the absence of an obvious threat. Suddenly, Americans were back to where Roosevelt had left off in the early 1940s, when the challenge had been to avoid the mistakes of the 1920s and 1930s. But would anyone remember the original grand strategy, devised in the brief moment before the Soviet Union arose to dominate American strategic thinking? Would the original grand strategy still seem relevant at the end of the twentieth century? Or had Americans, as the political scientist Robert Osgood worried in the 1950s, “become so transfixed by their fears of communism” that they had forgotten “what they are for in their obsession with what they are against”?
When the cold war ended, many did believe that the United States could finally unburden itself of the vast global responsibilities that it had shouldered for more than four decades. As in the 1920s, the world of the early 1990s seemed safe enough. The former Soviet Union was in a state of economic and political collapse; China, following the Tiananmen Square massacre, was diplomatically and economically isolated. Americans’ biggest concern at the time was the booming economy of Japan, which, as it turned out, was just about to fall into 20 years of stagnation. So what grave threat required America to continue its abnormal, outsized role in the world? Could not the United States return to being more of a normal nation with a more normal definition of its national interests?
In September 1990, in an article titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” Jeane Kirkpatrick argued precisely that. With the Soviet Union collapsing, there was no longer a “pressing need for heroism and sacrifice.” The cold war had given foreign policy “an unnatural importance” in American life. The “foreign policy elite” had grown accustomed to thinking of the United States as having “expansive, expensive, global purposes” that “transcended … apparent American interests.” It was time for the United States “to focus again on its own national interests,” by which she meant national interests as “conventionally conceived”—“to protect its territory, wealth, and access to necessary goods; to defend its nationals.” This was the “normal condition for nations.”
Kirkpatrick expressed what many felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and not just the followers of Patrick Buchanan, who found much to praise in her essay. Francis Fukuyama also argued that with communism vanquished and democracy triumphant, there were no other great geopolitical or ideological challenges on the horizon. The chief threat of the future—as he suggested in his famous essay “The End of History?”—would be boredom, the empty tediousness of life lived under a vapid, soul-killing Western liberalism. Others noted Paul Kennedy’s warnings about “imperial overstretch” and worried that America’s extensive global military commitments, no longer justified by a Soviet enemy, would put it at a disadvantage in a world where geoeconomics trumped geopolitics. Realists called for a sharp retraction of American military commitments overseas, the withdrawal of troops from Europe and Asia, and even a return to what they called the “offshore balancing” of the 1920s and 1930s.
Still, and remarkably, for the first two decades of the post-cold-war era the United States pursued the original pre-cold-war grand strategy. The event that set the tone for the next dozen years was comparatively minor. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, and in a matter of days conquered and annexed it. Brutal though the action was, by comparison with the seismic events of the bloody twentieth century, it was small beer. The border between the two nations, like most boundaries in the Arab world, had been arbitrarily drawn by the British Empire. Kuwait had been under Iraqi suzerainty under the Ottomans, and leaders in Baghdad had long regarded it as an Iraqi province. Saddam further justified the invasion as support for an allegedly popular (though largely manufactured) rebellion against the Kuwaiti royal family.
Inside and outside the Bush administration, self-described realists argued that the United States draw the line not at Kuwait but at Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s oil was not that important, Colin Powell argued, and the risks of “a major confrontation” with Saddam and his army were high, so the “most prudent” option would be to defend the Saudis. “We can’t make a case for losing lives for Kuwait,” Powell argued, “but Saudi Arabia is different.” Dick Cheney worried that driving Saddam out of Kuwait was going to cost “one hell of a lot of money,” that Americans had a “short tolerance for war,” and that, after all, “the oil goes mostly to Japan.” James Baker took a similar view, as did a majority of Democrats in Congress, as did a majority of Americans. A poll taken in November 1990 showed that 51 percent of Americans were opposed to trying to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait by force and that only 37 percent were in favor of it. Most favored economic sanctions to punish Saddam.
Other Bush advisers, however, led by Brent Scowcroft, saw things differently. Saddam’s invasion, they believed, was “the first test of the postwar system.” For half a century the United States had taken the lead role in deterring and punishing would-be aggressors. Although driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait would be “costly and risky,” Scowcroft feared that failure to do so would set “a terrible precedent—one that would only accelerate violent centrifugal tendencies—in this emerging ‘post-Cold War’ era.” Appeasement of aggression in one region would breed aggression elsewhere. To President Bush, it was all reminiscent of the 1930s. This time, he recalled in his memoirs, “I wanted no appeasement.” Speaking to the American people on the eve of war, Bush described American objectives not in terms of national interests but in terms of a “new world order,” in which “the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.” Much like Roosevelt in 1939, he argued that “a world in which brutality and lawlessness are allowed to go unchecked isn’t the kind of world we’re going to want to live in.”
Thus did Roosevelt’s original grand strategy—the defense of a liberal world order against collapse, responding not to any single, specific threat but to whatever political, economic, or strategic challenges might arise—seem to reemerge after the long cold war. After 1990, the United States, despite occasional protectionist pressures at home, generally sought to expand free trade and worked in cooperation with other governments, even at moments of economic crisis, to prevent a collapse of the global economic system. The United States also undertook to expand its alliance system, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.
In the decade following the fall of the Berlin Wall, moreover, the United States also conducted a number of sizeable military operations—seven to be precise, roughly one every 17 months: in Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Iraq again (1998), and Kosovo (1999). None were a response to perceived threats to vital national interests. All aimed at defending and extending the liberal world order—by toppling dictators, reversing coups, and attempting to restore democracies in Panama and Haiti; preventing mass killing or starvation in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo; deterring or reversing aggression in the Persian Gulf in 1991; and attempting to prevent the proliferation of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 1998. When Bush sent 30,000 troops to remove the corrupt dictator Manuel Noriega, it was not, as George Will wrote approvingly at the time, in order to pursue national interests “narrowly construed,” but to fulfill “the rights and responsibilities that come with the possession of great power.” When Bush then carried out in Somalia what was arguably the most purely humanitarian, and therefore most purely selfless, intervention in American history, he told the public, “I understand that the United States alone cannot right the world’s wrongs.” But the “people of Somalia need … our help” and “some crises in the world cannot be resolved without American involvement.”
The United States, in short, was the “indispensable nation,” as Bill Clinton would proclaim—indispensable, that is, to the preservation of a liberal world order. Such was the thinking behind most of Clinton’s foreign policy initiatives: the enlargement of NATO, which included the extension of unprecedented military guarantees to such nations as Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states; the billions sent to try to save Boris Yeltsin’s faltering democratic experiment in Russia; and the intense focus on containing North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, designated as “rogue states” because they defied the principles of a liberal world order. Conflicts in remote and troubled parts of the world were not considered irrelevant to American interests but were viewed within this broader context. After the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, Clinton officials argued, according to David Halberstam, that “Serb aggression” was intolerable— not because it threatened American interests directly, which obviously it did not, but because it tore at “the very fabric of the West.”
Even the American confrontation with Iraq, beginning in the late 1990s and culminating in the U.S. invasion in 2003, had begun as a world order issue, before it became subsumed by George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” When President Clinton ordered four days of bombing and missile attacks against suspected Iraqi weapons production facilities at the end of 1998, he warned that, if Saddam were not stopped, “The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists. … If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow.” In the twentieth century, Americans had “often made the difference between chaos and community, fear and hope. Now, in the new century, we’ll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past.” At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest. Of all the American interventions of the post-cold-war era, only the invasion of Afghanistan could be understood as directly related to America’s own national security.
The long interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly played a part in undermining American support, not just for wars but for the grand strategy that led to those wars. However, that support had been shaky from the beginning. Polls throughout the 1990s showed Americans wary of overseas interventions, even though the public generally supported their presidents when they used force. Opposition parties generally opposed the interventions undertaken by both Democratic and Republican presidents. Democrats voted against George H. W. Bush’s Persian Gulf war; Republicans opposed the Clinton administration’s interventions in Haiti and the Balkans as superfluous “international social work” and “nation-building” that were divorced from American national interests. Realists in the academy and the think tanks pecked away at successive administrations, warning of overreach and “imperialism.” Perhaps like the cartoon character that runs beyond the edge of the cliff and hangs with legs churning in the air before falling, support for the globally active policies of the 1990s was a kind of forward inertia, fueled by the energy of the late cold war, and gravity was eventually going to bring it to Earth.
The conventional wisdom these days is that Americans are war-weary. But it may be more accurate to say they are world-weary. During the cold war, after all, Americans had much greater reason for war-weariness—Korea and Vietnam were 14 times more costly in terms of American deaths than Afghanistan and Iraq—but they never fully rejected the global anti- communist containment strategy that had gotten them into the wars. Today’s mood seems more analogous to the 1920s. More than 50 percent of Americans today believe that the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—the highest number ever recorded since Pew started asking the question 50 years ago.
At the core of this public attitude is no doubt the desire to avoid more wars. But as the 1920s and 1930s showed, a determination to stay out of war can affect broader foreign and economic policies. In the 1930s, the desire to avoid war led Congress to pass the Neutrality Acts, to prevent Americans from even trading with belligerents in a foreign war lest the United States be dragged in on one side or the other. Such an action may be inconceivable today, but the reasoning behind it is visible. Polls these days show that Americans are not only averse to using military force but also to actions short of war. More than 50 percent agreed that it was “more important” that the United States “not get too involved in the situation in Ukraine” than that it “take a firm stand” against Russia, which 29 percent found more important. Many of those not wanting to get “too involved” may fear that any involvement could eventually lead to a possible military confrontation—and they’re not entirely wrong. As in the 1920s and 1930s, Americans can see the slippery slope.
Historians often refer to the “maturing” of American foreign policy since the nineteenth century. But if nations can learn, they can also unlearn. These days it is hard to watch both the conduct and the discussion of American foreign policy and not sense a certain unlearning, a forgetting of the old lessons on which the grand strategy was premised. Perhaps this was inevitable. World War II is as distant from today’s “millennials” as the Civil War was from the generation of the 1930s. A generation that does not remember the cold war, but grew up knowing only Iraq and Afghanistan, is going to view America’s role in the world differently. Combine that with the older generations that have tired of playing the old role, and it is hardly surprising that enthusiasm is flagging. Americans today are not isolationists, any more than they were in the 1920s. They favor the liberal world order insofar as they can see how it touches them. But they are no longer prepared to sacrifice very much to uphold it.
This is understandable. Americans have been Atlas carrying the world on their shoulders. They can be forgiven for feeling the temptation to put it down. Under the best of circumstances, playing the role of upholder of the liberal world order was always a monumental task. At the dawn of the American era, Truman called it “the most terrible responsibility that any nation ever faced.” George Kennan was convinced that the American people were “not fitted, either institutionally or temperamentally, to be an imperial power in the grand manner.” Actually, he underestimated them, for Americans maintained their global commitments for decades, better than most nations.
Yet the burden has been immense, and not just the obvious costs in lives and treasure. Americans have spent vast amounts on defense budgets, more than all other major powers combined. Can’t U.S. allies carry more of the burden? The question has been asked since the dawn of the cold war, but the answer has always been: probably not. The same factors that have made the United States uniquely capable of supporting a world order—great wealth and power and the relative security afforded by geography—help explain why American allies have always been less capable and less willing. They have lacked the power and the security to see and act beyond their narrow interests. So where they failed before they will fail again. Even twenty-first-century Europeans, for all the wonders of their union, seem incapable of uniting against a predator in their midst, and are willing, as in the past, to have the weak devoured if necessary to save their own (financial) skins. There are moral costs, too. Like most people, Americans generally like to believe that they are behaving justly in the world, that they are on the side of the right. If possible, they like to have legal or institutional sanctions for their action, or at least the general approval of like-minded nations. On the two occasions in the past 100 years when the United States contemplated taking on a central role in global affairs, in 1918 and 1945, American leaders insisted on simultaneously creating world organizations that could, at least in theory, provide this legitimacy for American actions.
The problem is, the world lacks any genuine overarching legal or institutional authority, much less a democratic authority, to which all nations subordinate themselves. Questions of right and wrong are settled not according to impartial justice but usually according to the distribution of power in the system. Americans have usually had to use their power to enforce their idea of justice without any assurance beyond their own faith that they are right. This is a heavy moral burden for a democratic people to bear. In their domestic lives, Americans are accustomed to having that burden spread evenly across society. The people make the laws, the police enforce the laws, judges and juries mete out justice, and the prison officials carry out the punishment. But in the international sphere, Americans have had to act as judge, jury, police, and, in the case of military action, executioner. What gives the United States the right to act on behalf of a liberal world order? In truth, nothing does, nothing beyond the conviction that the liberal world order is the most just.
This moral conundrum was easier to ignore during the cold war, when every action taken, even in the most obscure corners of the world, was justified as being in defense of vital national interests. But actions taken in defense of world order are fraught with moral complexity. Americans and Europeans argue that Ukraine’s sovereignty should be inviolate and that the people of Ukraine should be allowed to pursue their aspirations to be part of Europe. Vladimir Putin justifies his invasion of Crimea on the grounds of ancient historical ties and in response to American and European meddling in Russia’s historical sphere of influence. Who is there to adjudicate between these competing claims of justice? Who can determine which side is right and which side is wrong? It does no good to invoke some allegedly superior twenty-first-century morality against an inferior nineteenth-century morality. No more in this century than in previous centuries is there either perfect morality or perfect justice to be found in the international system. Nor do great powers come to disputes with clean hands, in this or any other century. All are selfish; all are morally compromised. And indeed, the more power a nation has, the more it is likely to act in ways that cannot be squared with a Christian or Enlightenment morality.
Who is to say that even defense of the liberal world order is necessarily good? The liberal world order was never put to a popular vote. It was not bequeathed by God. It is not the endpoint of human progress, despite what our Enlightenment education tells us. It is a temporary and transient world order that suits the needs, interests, and above all the ideals of a large and powerful collection of people, but it does not necessarily fit the needs and desires of everyone. For decades many abroad and some Americans at home saw it as a form of Western imperialism, and many still do. Communism may have failed, but authoritarianism and autocracy live on. And it is that form of government, not democracy, that has been the norm throughout history. In recent decades the democracies, led by the United States and Europe, have had the power to shape the world. But who is to say that Putinism in Russia or the particular brand of authoritarianism practiced in China will not survive as far into the future as European democracy, which, outside of Great Britain, is itself only a little over a century old?
A liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power. Putin seeks to impose his view of a world order, at least in Russia’s neighborhood, just as Europe and the United States do. Whether he succeeds or fails will probably not be determined merely by who is right and who is wrong. It will be determined by the exercise of power.
This is a disturbing thought for a nation that has grown weary of exercising power. Hans Morgenthau once observed that Americans are attracted to the “illusion that a nation can escape … from power politics,” that at some point “the final curtain would fall and the game of power politics would no longer be played.” Many escapes have been offered over the past two decades. In 1989, Fukuyama told Americans that with the end of history there would be no more “serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy.” Liberal progress was inevitable, and therefore nothing need be done to promote or defend it. Such thoughts were echoed throughout the 1990s. The age of geopolitics had supposedly given way to the age of geoeconomics. What America needed in the new era was less “hard power” and more “soft power.”
Such was the reigning conventional wisdom, at least from the end of the cold war until 2008 and the beginning of the financial crisis. Then the paradigm shifted. Suddenly, instead of the end of history, it was the end of America, the end of the West. Triumphalism turned to declinism. From the post-cold-war utopia it became the post-American world. Yet this, too, turned out to be a form of escapism, for remarkably, whether the liberal world order was triumphing or America and the West were declining, the prescription remained the same: There was nothing to be done. Whereas before it had been unnecessary, and even wrong, for the United States to use its power to shape the world, now, suddenly, it was impossible, because the United States no longer had sufficient power.
Today more than 50 percent of Americans believe the United States plays “a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago.” One senses that, for many Americans, this decline is not a reason for panic but comes as something of a relief. Less power means fewer responsibilities. A sense of futility, today as much as in the 1920s and 1930s, is both an invitation and a justification for a return to normalcy.
The sense of futility has affected policymakers, too. Senior White House officials, especially the younger ones, look at problems like the struggle in Syria and believe that there is little if anything the United States can do. This is the lesson of their generation, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan: that America has neither the power nor the understanding nor the skill to fix problems in the world.
This is also escapism, however, for there is a myth embedded in this plea of futility. It is that wielding power effectively was ever any easier than it is today. With rose-colored glasses we look back at the cold war and imagine that the United States used to get others to do what it wanted, used to know what it was doing, and used to wield such overwhelming power that the world simply bent to its will or succumbed to its charms. But American policy during the cold war, despite its ultimate success, was filled with errors, folly, many near-disasters, and some disasters. From the beginning, allies proved rebellious, resentful, and unmanageable. American domestic politics made sensible policies difficult and sometimes impossible to sustain. The world economy, and the American economy, lurched from crisis to crisis. American military power was at its best a most uncertain instrument. In Vietnam, whether inevitably or because of bad policymaking in Washington, it failed miserably. In Korea, it almost suffered a complete catastrophe. The most successful presidents of the era, from Truman to Reagan, did not always seem successful to their contemporaries and suffered significant setbacks in their foreign policies. Can the architects of today’s foreign policies really believe that Acheson and his colleagues, or the policymakers in the Johnson or Nixon or Carter administrations, had an easier time of it?
Any nation’s foreign policy is bound to fail more often than it succeeds. The attempt to influence the behavior of people even in the domestic setting is difficult enough. To influence other peoples and other nations without simply annihilating them is the most difficult of all human tasks. It is also in the very nature of foreign policy, as in human affairs generally, that all solutions to problems only breed more problems. This is certainly true of all wars. There is no perfect ending to any war, even those fought with the clearest and most straightforward of objectives. The Civil War did not put an end to the terrible plight of blacks in America, though it cost over half a million lives. World War II ended with the Soviet Union in control of half of Europe and opened the way to another four decades of superpower confrontation.
When a nation uses its power to shape a world order, rather than merely for self-defense or conquest, the tenuousness of solutions is even more pronounced. Military actions for world order preservation are almost by definition limited both in scope and objectives. World order maintenance requires operating in the gray areas between victory and defeat. The measure of success is often not how wonderful the end result is, but whether the unsatisfying end result is better or worse than the outcome if there had been no action. To insist on outcomes that always achieve maximum ends at minimal cost is yet another form of escapism.
Today, however, Americans seem overwhelmed by the difficulty and complexity of it all. They yearn to return to what Niebuhr called “the innocency of irresponsibility,” or at least to a normalcy in which the United States can limit the scope of its commitments. In this way America has perhaps returned to the mood of the 1920s. There is a difference, however. In the 1920s, it was not America’s world order that needed shoring up. Americans felt, mistakenly as it turned out, that it was Britain’s and Europe’s job to preserve the world order they had created. Today, it is America’s world order that needs propping up. Will Americans decide that it matters this time, when only they have the capacity to sustain it?
You never miss the water ’til the well runs dry, or so the saying goes. One wonders whether Americans, including their representatives and their president, quite understand what is at stake. When President Obama first took office five years ago, Peter Baker of The New York Times reported that he intended to deal “with the world as it is rather than as it might be.” It is a standard realist refrain and has been repeated time and again by senior Obama officials as a way of explaining why he decided against pursuing some desirable but unreachable “ideal” in this place or that. What fewer and fewer seem to realize, however, is that the last 70 years have offered Americans and many others something of a reprieve from the world “as it is.”
Periods of peace and prosperity can make people forget what the world “as it is” really looks like, and to conclude that the human race has simply ascended to some higher plateau of being. This was the common view in Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century. At a time when there had not been a war between great powers in 40 years, or a major Europe-wide war in a century, the air was filled with talk of a new millennium in which wars among civilized nations had become impossible. Three-quarters of a century and two world wars and a cold war later, millennial thoughts return. Studies cited by Fareed Zakaria purport to show that some “transformation of international relations” has occurred. “Changes of borders by force” have dropped dramatically “since 1946.” The nations of Western Europe, having been responsible for two new wars a year for 600 years, had not even started one “since 1945.” Steven Pinker observes that the number of deaths from war, ethnic conflict, and military coups has declined—since 1945—and concludes that the human race has become “socialized” to prefer peace and nonviolence.
The dates when these changes supposedly began ought to be a tip-off. Is it a coincidence that these happy trends began when the American world order was established after World War II, or that they accelerated in the last two decades of the twentieth century, when America’s only serious competitor collapsed? Imagine strolling through Central Park and, after noting how much safer it had become, deciding that humanity must simply have become less violent—without thinking that perhaps the New York Police Department had something to do with it.
In fact, the world “as it is” is a dangerous and often brutal place. There has been no transformation in human behavior or in international relations. In the twenty-first century, no less than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, force remains the ultima ratio. The question, today as in the past, is not whether nations are willing to resort to force but whether they believe they can get away with it when they do. If there has been less aggression, less ethnic cleansing, less territorial conquest over the past 70 years, it is because the United States and its allies have both punished and deterred aggression, have intervened, sometimes, to prevent ethnic cleansing, and have gone to war to reverse territorial conquest. The restraint showed by other nations has not been a sign of human progress, the strengthening of international institutions, or the triumph of the rule of law. It has been a response to a global configuration of power that, until recently, has made restraint seem the safer course.
When Vladimir Putin failed to achieve his goals in Ukraine through political and economic means, he turned to force, because he believed that he could. He will continue to use force so long as he believes that the payoff exceeds the cost. Nor is he unique in this respect. What might China do were it not hemmed in by a ring of powerful nations backed by the United States? For that matter, what would Japan do if it were much more powerful and much less dependent on the United States for its security? We have not had to find out the answers to these questions, not yet, because American predominance, the American alliance system, and the economic, political, and institutional aspects of the present order, all ultimately dependent on power, have mostly kept the lid closed on this Pandora’s box.
Nor have we had to find out yet what the world “as it is” would do to the remarkable spread of democracy. Skeptics of “democracy promotion” argue that the United States has often tried to plant democracy in infertile soil. They may be right. The widespread flowering of democracy around the world in recent decades may prove to have been artificial and therefore tenuous. As Michael Ignatieff once observed, it may be that “liberal civilization” itself “runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” Perhaps this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle. In the absence of such efforts, the weeds and the jungle may sooner or later come back to reclaim the land.
One wonders if even the current economic order reflects the world “as it is.” A world in which autocracies make ever more ambitious attempts to control the flow of information, and in which autocratic kleptocracies use national wealth and resources to further their private interests, may prove less hospitable to the kind of free flow of commerce the world has come to appreciate in recent decades.
In fact, from the time that Roosevelt and Truman first launched it, the whole project of promoting and defending a liberal world order has been a concerted effort not to accept the world “as it is.” The American project has aimed at shaping a world different from what had always been, taking advantage of America’s unique situation to do what no nation had ever been able to do. Today, however, because many Americans no longer recall what the world “as it is” really looks like, they cannot imagine it. They bemoan the burdens and failures inherent in the grand strategy but take for granted all the remarkable benefits.
Nor do they realize, perhaps, how quickly it can all unravel. The international system is an elaborate web of power relationships, in which every nation, from the biggest to the smallest, is constantly feeling for shifts or disturbances. Since 1945, and especially since 1989, the web has been geared to respond primarily to the United States. Allies observe American behavior and calculate America’s reliability. Nations hemmed in or threatened by American power watch for signs of growing or diminishing power and will. When the United States appears to retrench, allies necessarily become anxious, while others look for opportunities.
In recent years, the world has picked up unmistakable signals that Americans may no longer want to carry the burden of global responsibility. Others read the polls, read the president’s speeches calling for “nation-building at home,” see the declining defense budgets and defense capabilities, and note the extreme reticence, on the part of both American political parties, about using force. The world judges that, were it not for American war-weariness, the United States probably would by now have used force in Syria—just as it did in Kosovo, in Bosnia, and in Panama. President Obama himself recently acknowledged as much when he said, “It’s not that it’s not worth it. It’s that after a decade of war, you know, the United States has limits.” Such statements set the web vibrating. In East Asia, nations living in close proximity to an increasingly powerful China want to know whether Americans will make a similar kind of calculation when it comes to defending them; in the Middle East, nations worried about Iran wonder if they will be left to confront it alone; in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, American security guarantees are meaningless unless Americans are able and willing to meet them.
Are they? No one has taken a poll lately on whether the United States should come to the defense of its treaty allies in the event of a war between, say, China and Japan; or whether it should come to the defense of Estonia in a Ukraine-like conflict with Russia. The answers might prove interesting.
Meanwhile, the signs of the global order breaking down are all around us. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea was the first time since World War II that a nation in Europe had engaged in territorial conquest. If Iran manages to acquire a nuclear weapon, it will likely lead other powers in the region to do the same, effectively undoing the nonproliferation regime, which, along with American power, has managed to keep the number of nuclear-armed powers limited over the past half century. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are engaged in a proxy war in Syria that, in addition to the 150,000 dead and the millions displaced, has further destabilized a region that had already been in upheaval. In East Asia, nervousness about China’s rise, combined with uncertainty about America’s commitment, is exacerbating tensions. In recent years the number of democracies around the world has been steadily declining, while the number of autocracies grows. If these trends continue, in the near future we are likely to see increasing conflict, increasing wars over territory, greater ethnic and sectarian violence, and a shrinking world of democracies.
How will Americans respond? If the test is once again to be “national interests” narrowly construed, then Americans may find all of this tolerable, or at least preferable to doing something to stop it. Could the United States survive if Syria remains under the control of Assad or, more likely, disintegrates into a chaos of territories, some of which will be controlled by jihadi terrorists? Could it survive if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, and if in turn Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt acquire nuclear weapons? Or if North Korea launches a war on the South? Could it survive in a world where China dominates much of East Asia, or where China and Japan resume their old conflict? Could it survive in a world where Russia dominates Eastern Europe, including not only Ukraine but the Baltic states and perhaps even Poland? Of course it could. From the point of view of strict “necessity” and narrow national interest, the United States could survive all of this. It could trade with a dominant China and work out a modus vivendi with a restored Russian empire. Those alarmed by such developments will be hard-pressed, as Roosevelt was, to explain how each marginal setback would affect the parochial interests of the average American. As in the past, Americans will be among the last to suffer grievously from a breakdown of world order. And by the time they do feel the effects, it may be very late in the day.
Looking back on the period before World War II, Robert Osgood, the most thoughtful of realist thinkers of the past century, discerned a critical element missing from the strategic analyses of the day. Mere rational calculations of the “national interest,” he argued, proved inadequate. Paradoxically, it was the “idealists,” those who were “most sensitive to the Fascist menace to Western culture and civilization,” who were “among the first to understand the necessity of undertaking revolutionary measures to sustain America’s first line of defense in Europe.” Idealism, he concluded, was “an indispensable spur to reason in leading men to perceive and act upon the real imperatives of power politics.” This was Roosevelt’s message, too, when he asked Americans to defend “not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments, and their very civilization are founded.”
Perhaps Americans can be inspired in this way again, without the threat of a Hitler or an attack on their homeland. But this time they will not have 20 years to decide. The world will change much more quickly than they imagine. And there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.