What I do object to is his running away from his neoconservative roots. In doing so, he obscures the fact that his formula has been tried before, not only by the good presidents he likes and thinks did well well with…but also those other presidents in whose hands conservative internationalism led to wrack and ruin. This is the central weakness of Nau’s argument: it advances a form of conservatism that has been tried and failed already.
In addition to running away from the neoconservatism that his idea closely copies, Nau wants to pick and choose from other traditions to give it some added appeal. Like the foreign policy he espouses, Nau isn’t willing to accept trade-offs between traditions and doesn’t want to set priorities, but would like to have a little something that each faction in the Republican coalition will find palatable. In his own account of what he thinks conservative internationalism entails, Nau writes:
A conservative-internationalist strategy embraces the promotion of freedom touted by liberal internationalists, the balancing of power advocated by realists, the respect for national will and sovereignty championed by nationalists, and the diplomacy backed by force recommended by neoconservatives.
Right away, we can see the Nau is making some significant omissions and redefinitions to create his hybrid. No one, except perhaps a die-hard neoconservative, believes that “diplomacy backed by force” is something that neoconservatives favor, since there is no American foreign policy tradition more allergic to resolving disputes through diplomacy than neoconservatism. It’s true that they are always first to agitate for the use of force, and they insist on retaining the military option as a possible response to virtually every crisis, but they are reliably horrified by diplomatic engagement if it means that the U.S. doesn’t end up taking military action.
Like neoconservatives, Nau is enamored of democracy promotion, but in his version he would repeat and magnify the mistakes of Bush’s “freedom agenda” as it related to the former Soviet Union and apply them to the countries surrounding both Russia and China. Nau writes:
American foreign policy should seek to increase the number of regimes that are democratic, not just to preserve global stability or defend national borders. But it would seek to do so primarily on the borders of countries where freedom already exists, not in areas such as the Middle East (Iraq) or southwest Asia (Afghanistan). Today the borders of freedom stretch in Europe from Turkey through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland to the Baltic states, and in Asia from India through Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan to South Korea. The greatest threats along these borders come from the major authoritarian states of Russia and China, not from terrorists and rogue states.
So instead of fruitless crusading in the Near East, Nau proposes genuinely dangerous ideological agitation directed against the two major powers in Eurasia. This compounds the major errors of Bush-era foreign policy instead of correcting for them. It doesn’t seem to matter to Nau that his chief empirical claim that “democracy is weaker today on the frontiers of freedom in both Europe and Asia” isn’t accurate, nor is he concerned that the last attempt to do exactly what he recommends failed spectacularly. He treats the past failure of democracy promotion as if it were simply a matter of geography rather than something inherent in the policy. In practice, Nau would have the U.S. agitating for regime change in Belarus and, I suppose, Laos, which might alarm Russia and China to nor purpose while advancing not one concrete American interest.
Nau’s notion of “diplomacy backed by force” is similarly misguided:
The United States should instead be willing to use force before and during negotiations, when it is a choice, not just after negotiations fail, when it is a necessity.
In other words, diplomacy must not simply be backed by the threat of the future use of force, but preceded and accompanied by military build-ups, deployments, and military action. Nau’s answer to a foreign policy debate that is already far too biased in favor of military action and threats is to propose an even more aggressive reliance on and use of military power. He goes so far as to argue that the use of force “does not disrupt negotiations,” which is akin to saying that war does not disrupt peace. Needless to say, negotiations that were preceded and accompanied by military attacks would simply lead to many more wars that should never have been fought. Nau says that conservative internationalism “offers a way to stay engaged in the world at a price the American people can accept,” but he badly misunderstands what “engagement” means and misreads what Americans are willing to accept.