Conservatives argue against social engineering. The idea that the power of the state can be brought to bear on society in a way that will shape and transform that society is seen as arrogant and dangerous. It is dangerous because the government will be tempted to abuse power to achieve transformation, denying liberty and free choice; it is arrogant because the government and political leaders put themselves on a pedestal to determine how the proper society should look.
This is a powerful conservative argument, and the dangers of over-bureaucratization and government intrusion into every day life have been proven time and time again around the world. It also is, at base, not an ideological argument. It’s not saying that government has no role to play, or that the state should “leave everything to the markets.” Rather, the state’s role should be complementary to the culture and social norms of a society, and in fixing problems should go slowly and avoid attempts to radically manipulate the culture. Indeed, conservatism is fundamentally anti-ideological because it distrusts those who claim to know the “Truth” with a capital “T.”
In the US, the so-called conservative movement has veered away from this. In the Limbaughs and Hannitys, as well as many Republican leaders in politics, conservatism has sometimes become a radical ideology in its own right. Many conservatives have their own view of how the country should be, and see their political movement as a force for change. Looked at this way, Senator Olympia Snowe, who considers health care reform as a problem solving approach but wants to minimize the scope of change, is a truer conservative than those who want to fight an ideological jihad. True conservatism is pragmatic. Original conservatism in fact saw society as an organic whole, with culture and tradition trumping theory and ideology.
Nowhere has the Republican party veered farther from conservatism in recent years than in foreign policy. In both Iraq and Afghanistan an ideology-driven view of reality convinced President Bush that democracy would flourish there if only the dictators were removed and the US made the region “safe for democracy.” This envisioned a massive big government social engineering experiment in the region, remaking post-Ottoman culture into one that would support an enlightened democracy. This would require tolerance of diverse opinions and groups, political compromise, effective rule of law, and accountability. This so-called “neo-conservatism” was really a radical militarist liberalism, with ambitious designs to shape the world in our image. Its aggressive dismissal of “old Europe” when France and Germany wouldn’t play along, and belief that somehow the US would succeed and convince others to join has a brashness traditional conservatives would reject.
Democrats, on the other hand, tend to embrace a neo-liberal foreign policy which focuses on building economic links and transnational efforts at building global governance. The goal is to build institutions to facilitate cooperation and provide predictability in world politics so that states can cooperate with confidence, and make sacrifices when need be, knowing that other states will do likewise. The goal is to minimize the danger caused by relative power differentials so that states don’t see the system as a competitive anarchy. Rather, it is an orderly confederation, with systems of conflict resolution. Included in this is a focus on international law, with a hope for cooperation to promote human rights.
When Obama was elected, Europeans had high hopes that Obama would radically shift US foreign policy from neo-conservative unilateralism to a cooperative institutionalist approach. Yet the role the US is expected to play in such a system is wrought with contradictions. The US is the premier military power, and thus should play the lead role in Afghanistan. We should provide most of the muscle, but not try to dominate the decision making — that’s a tough thing to ask anyone to do in any context! The American public remains skeptical of many international institutions, especially if we’re not leading. Neo-liberal institutionalism is out of step with US political culture.
Is there a third way — a conservative foreign policy? A conservative foreign policy would recognize first that as a superpower the US faces international obligations in a manner differently from other states. Canada, Germany and EU states can devout their entire armed forces to peace keeping missions, but the US clearly cannot. That would be a much larger burden. The US by dint of its size and geographic position has different interests, and culturally the US is not as ‘global’ minded as the EU. So how might a conservative foreign policy look?
First, it would be more realist in character than activist. The US would rethink its global role and redefine interests more specifically to protect the US, and defend against threats from abroad. This might include a rethinking of NATO and other alliance obligations, and certainly would require a downsizing of foreign commitments. By moving away from either neo-conservatism or trying to be a guarantor of global stability, the US would save a lot of money and not get sucked into interventions that weaken the country and kill US soldiers. In short, the US would give a nod to its “isolationist” heritage and step back from trying to shape world affairs.
In response to pressures from neo-liberal institutionalism, the US could agree to be involved in institutions from a perspective of national interest. This would mean that the US might not be as involved in building international governance as the Europeans would prefer, but it also would mean that the US wouldn’t feel a need to undercut major global treaties or institutions like the International Criminal Court. In my heart I would like a more activist US, but the reality is that given the political culture, the difficulty in passing treaties, and the specific interests of the country, a gap in perspective and policy between the EU and the US is inevitable. If we’re not trying to shape or undercut global efforts, that’s better than trying to shape or undercut them.
This still leaves open a wide range of unresolved questions. Is a tough global climate change treaty in our interest? What are our interests vis-a-vis the third world? How do we respond or deal with countries whose human rights policies we oppose? Those issues would be worked out politically within the US, and we’d choose to cooperate to the extent that a public will to cooperate emerges.
I write this as someone whose foreign policy perspective is far more European than American. I tend to embrace the kind of multilateral approach of Germany, which is skeptical of sovereignty and very supportive of institutions. Yet in looking at the state of American politics, that kind of approach isn’t likely to emerge here any time soon. Given the economic and global challenges the country faces, the “Cold War mentality” is anachronistic, and neo-conservatism has already failed. A conservative foreign policy may be the best way to avoid disasters which occur when a state tries to maintain a level of power and control it is no longer capable of exercising.
The left will want more active engagement to solve problems, focus on human rights, and work on global concerns. The right will want the US to recapture its role as the superpower guarantor of peace and stability, and try to maintain a global leadership role. The left will be disappointed because their goals aren’t reflected yet in American political culture. The right will be disappointed because the US lacks the money and capacity to maintain a hegemonic role. The best alternative for now would be a conservative approach or cutting back on our commitments, focusing on direct interests, and cooperating with others in a mutually beneficial manner.