A Conservative Foreign Policy

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.

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  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on October 28, 2009 - 21:13

    I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the substance of what you wrote, but I’d take issue with a few things, mostly having to do with the use of words–the sort of thing that probably drives everyone crazy when they read it. Consider this a few footnotes on peripheral matters.

    First, conservatism isn’t a neutral, non-ideological thing. This seems a fair partial summation of a conservative outlook:

    “..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.”

    That “partial” qualifier is important, though. What you’ve left on the cutting-room floor is the most important part: That conservatives have a very particular idea of what that culture is and what those social norms are, one that is inevitably entirely out of step with what they actually are.

    It’s like the comments I made on your previous post about the use of “free markets” and “laissez-faire economics.” Those who advocate the policies erroneously given those labels aren’t really advocating minimal or no government intervention in an economy–they still favor massive intervention. It’s just a matter of what kind of intervention.

    Here, on this matter of “conservatism,” it’s the same. You offer a good encapsulation of conservatism, but it leaves out the fact that what the conservatives, by and large, would impose on us is as radically different as what the liberals, who, by your formulation, would bear the stamp of ideologists, would impose. That’s precisely why the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and the rest are NOT out of step with conservatism.

    Moving on to your main subject, I think you miss a crucial point when analyzing the Bush 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.”

    That would be a “radical militarist liberalism” if it correctly described neo-conservatism. You’ve fundamentally misapprehended the point of neo-conservatism, though. It was never aimed at improving places like Iraq.

    Neo-conservatism was born of Cold War-era conservative “thinking,” if that word can be so abused as to apply it here. The basic idea was that the U.S. should, in simplest terms, rule the world. In concrete terms, use its position as the only superpower to aggressively control the world’s resources, and eliminate any threat to them, and to prevent the rise of any potential rival in any area deemed vital. That’s the neo-con approach to policy as presented, prior to the Bush administration, by such creatures as the Project for a New American Century and the Weekly Standard, and it had remained unchanged since its initial formulation in the first Bush administration, where it was authored by Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and others who ended up running the second Bush’s regime. Back then, such an approach became a scandal when exposed by the press, and was abandoned. The last Bush administration adopted it as the official National Security Strategy of the United States.

    Those in the Bush administration didn’t go to Iraq because they had some grand vision of a bright, shining Iraq full of happy liberal democrats (small “l”, small “d”). That was never even a consideration. They went there to consolidate control of the oil, and other than that, they didn’t particularly care about what happened. The administration didn’t even open an office of post-war planning for Iraq until a few days before the U.S. attack–over a year after they’d decided on a war policy, and seven months after they’d been very vocal about it. It was an afterthought.

    This played out in the complete chaos that immediately followed the invasion. The original head of what became the provisional authority was fired because of his insistence on building a democratic Iraq first, then worrying over divvying up the countries’ resources. Bremer was brought in as replacement, and initiated the series of delays in building a government until the resources could be divided up between the foreign (mostly U.S.) interests looking to control them.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on October 29, 2009 - 01:04

    Yet the US didn’t simply install a dictatorship friendly to us, and now Iraq’s government has awarded early contracts to China and BP. I give some credence that at least Bush the Younger (if not Cheney and Wolfowitz) truly believed that part of this would involve spreading democracy. Perhaps they could rationalizing controlling world resources by a claim that they also were helping the Iraqi people. If they had simply installed a new Iraqi pro-American dictator, then they’d be in a much “better” situation (at least short term).

    Perhaps Ayatollah Sistani, whose pressure to push democracy forward quickly or risk Shi’ias joining early in the insurgency, forced Bush’s hand.

    I also wonder about what conservatism really is. I was talking to a conservative here the other day — voted McCain, is angry about Obama’s spending, spectacle on health care, and is a Christian. Yet he is voting “no” on the effort to repeal same sex marriage because, as he put it “we shouldn’t stick our noses in other people’s business.” There is a good chance that for the first time in US history a state will by referendum approve same sex marriage — and if so, it will be because a lot of conservatives think it’s inline with the traditions of Maine as they understand them.

  3. #3 by Nathaniel Burns on October 29, 2009 - 02:01

    Scott, I would like to post a request for your next blog…something regarding the health care bill. I noticed you last wrote on this topic when you wrote about Olympia Snowe’s actions to get the bill out of committee. I was very happy with that (I actually contacted her office the day before that vote to tell her I demanded she vote yay). However, the recent actions of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are disturbing. I want to see a bill on health care reform passed, badly. But I do not want to see the Democrats just plow this through Congress without regard for dissenting opinions (I am so enraged that I even started this sentence with a conjunction…). What are your opinions on this matter?

    • #4 by classicliberal2 on October 29, 2009 - 03:33

      “However, the recent actions of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are disturbing. I want to see a bill on health care reform passed, badly. But I do not want to see the Democrats just plow this through Congress without regard for dissenting opinions (I am so enraged that I even started this sentence with a conjunction…).”

      Cool your jets, Nate. The reasons the Democrats look as though they’re FINALLY going to ignore the Republicans and pass a bill with a public option is because almost all of the Democrats, who hold a supermajority, support it (and though they’re only just beginning to realize it, they’re elected to govern, not to “get along” with the electoral losers), the public overwhelmingly supports it (72% in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll), and no Republican–not one, not even Olympia Snowe–has been willing to work with them on anything. If your rage is directed at the Democrats on this matter, it’s VERY misplaced.

    • #5 by Michael Arnis on October 29, 2009 - 07:02

      Scott, I too would look forward to another post on health care reform.

      Your piece on Senator Snowe noted the difficulties of implementing reforms passed with razor-thin margins. It will take 4 years to implement the insurance market reforms, and another four to effectively institute the quality and cost containment provisions. People from Maine, more than any other state, have seen how difficult it can be to get traction on innovative health care ideas.

      Also, I’m interested in your perspective on what the republicans might face should they gain one or two majorities in 2010. I agree with you: once passed, the insurance reforms are here to stay. They will, however, increase health care spending, and yet, no one will want to dismantle them. The chant of placing a bureaucrat between you and your doctor has made it difficult to promote cost-containment ideas that rely on better coordination of care, decreased variation and increased quality, and rewarding healthier outcomes. Why would any conservative write an amendment that places a bureaucrat between me and information (from comparative effective analyses) on what works? If they oppose a Medicare Commission, then how would they control Medicare costs? By increasing premium contributions or the age of eligibility? Thanks for your thoughts…

  4. #6 by Scott Erb on October 29, 2009 - 02:04

    Yikes, when Nate’s emotions rise to the point that he is starting sentences with conjunctions, well, something has to be done! I’ll see what I can do…

  5. #7 by Mike Lovell on October 29, 2009 - 15:02

    Scott,

    Great Post as usual. The way I see things from my position is that our foreign policy changed from conservative to something other than at least as far back as the end of WWII. Maybe it was further, I don’t know.

    After we started divvying up Europe with the Soviets, I think we really began to flex our muscles a bit more than we should have. While strategically speaking, from a military logistical standpoint, Germany, Korea, The Phillipines are great holding posts for our armed forces, I have been long in favor of the more isolationist stance. Sure, train the local forces up and get them ready to defend themselves. However, once we had taken care of that, we should really have redeployed our soldiers back to the homefront, and figured out our numbers games from there.

    You said:
    “If they had simply installed a new Iraqi pro-American dictator, then they’d be in a much “better” situation (at least short term).”

    Short term would be right, after all look at our great influence with the Shah of Iran, and how that worked for our overall relations long term!

    As with my view on domestic policy, I think our foreign policy should be much more conservative in that we let countries/regions pretty much run themselves. Should their decisions turn to coming at the U.S. for whatever reason, then we have the option to respond and “encourage” them to get some different thought processes. And if they choose instead to turn inward upon themselves and start murdering massive sectors of their populace, then let them. I know it sounds cold to say that, and I’m not one to diminish the loss of life, but the second we start going into places to stop these things, that’s when the foreign party social arrangements start gaining traction, and we start all over again…

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