I’ve been following with interest the condemnatory thread engendered by my old friend, Reihan Salam’s Slate piece, “Why I Am Still a Neocon.” I’m sorry to have to tell Salam that I think many of the criticisms are justified. If you want to see a good roundup of such criticisms, go visit Daniel Larison’s blog; he has been fairly exhaustive.

I’m joining the thread to try to introduce some analytical clarity, and to see whether any case can be made for neoconservatism as such – rather than make a case for internationalism more broadly and then simply impute that case to the much more specific views of neoconservatism.

First of all, “Neoconservative” and “Bush administration” shouldn’t be treated as synonyms; by the same token, “moralized foreign policy” isn’t a synonym either. The Bush administration, for all its ideological zeal, had to deal with the actual world, and inevitably strayed from whatever one might identify as the “one true path” of neoconservatism. Moreover, many key figures in the administration – Donald Rumsfeld, for instance – have never really been thought of as proper neoconservatives (though Rumsfeld has been lionized by plenty of neoconservative figures).

As well, plenty of foreign policy types have undertaken actions for moral reasons without thereby becoming neoconservatives. Old-fashioned liberal internationalism is one morally-inflected foreign policy stream that should not be identified as neoconservative; so is more contemporary humanitarian interventionism. Realists can also make room for morally-motivated actions, like the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews which was substantially made possible by George H. W. Bush (not that he got much credit for it).

Moreover, virtually everyone involved in any stream of foreign policy thinking embraces the concept of collective security to some degree. There are virtually no true isolationists out there – most definitely including Rand Paul. So nobody should say, in effect, I’m a neoconservative because I believe that NATO retards the development of intra-European rivalries, or the American alliance with Japan reassures some other Asian countries that we will restrain any revival of Japanese nationalism. Plenty of realists would say the same.

Salam’s initial column suffers from a surfeit of confusion about all of the above, but particularly on the question of morality in foreign policy. Salam’s example of immoral American behavior relates to Nixon’s support for Pakistan during the 1971 crackdown in East Pakistan. He decries that support, and wishes America had stood up for democracy and human rights. But Pakistan was at the time an American ally, and India,  whose intervention ultimately led to independence for Bangladesh, was considered a vague hanger-on of the Soviet bloc. Realistically, he’s not complaining that America didn’t intervene against Pakistan; he’s complaining that America didn’t reduce its level of support for Pakistan in the wake of the crackdown – or use its leverage to induce Pakistan to act with more restraint. Neither action sounds remotely like neoconservatism either in theory or in practice. What they sound most like is the Carter policy in the late stages of the Shah’s reign in Iran – a policy that absolutely can be defended on the merits, but for which I strongly doubt you can find a single neoconservative defender.

His follow-up column at National Review makes clearer the true heart of his argument, to whit: that American hegemony is good for the world and, hence, for America, and needs to be maintained even at a high cost. To maintain that hegemony, we need to retain a massive military advantage over any plausible combination of adversaries, define our interests globally, and reassure our allies that our primary needs from them are support functions rather than building substantial independent military capabilities.

That is a perspective very worth debating – I’ll hopefully debate it later today – but it should not be identified with neoconservatism but rather with what I would call the “Washington consensus” that has obtained for roughly 25 years, and that is only recently coming under any kind of serious scrutiny. The neoconservative persuasion antedates the “unipolar moment” of the 1990s, and the reason that lots of people who do not call themselves neocons refuse to associate themselves with the label is not merely a matter of avoiding unpleasant associations but because they do not agree with certain views that are quite central to neoconservatism as it actually exists.

If we’re to be more precise, then, neoconservatism should be characterized by three attributes in particular.

First, neoconservatism’s main analytical insight is that the internal character of a regime can have a material effect on its foreign policy. Specifically, the mid-century totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union derived their legitimacy in part from their status as revisionist, expansionist powers, and hence could not adopt a policy of peaceful coexistence without succumbing to internal contradictions. A foreign policy aimed not merely at deterrence but at changing those regimes’ character was the only solution to the threat they posed to international order. Neoconservatives don’t want to spread democracy simply because they are nice. They want to spread democracy because they believe that democracies will be naturally more aligned with each other and because democracies will be naturally less inclined to undertake expansionist wars that threaten the international system.

Second, neoconservatism is fundamentally activist, by which I mean not merely that it has an expansive view of national interests or that it has no moral problem with intervening in other countries, but that it holds as an article of faith that power cannot be husbanded. On the contrary, a vigorously activist and successful power will grow more powerful simply by virtue of having demonstrated such vigor. Another way of putting it is that neoconservatives don’t really believe that an aggressive power will trigger balancing by lesser powers; rather, they believe that an aggressive power will more-likely trigger bandwagoning. Therefore, inasmuch as the United States wants to grow in power and not shrink, it needs to err on the side of action.

Third, neoconservatives have a strong bias against the legitimacy and value of international law. Skeptical of the restraining power of custom or tradition, neoconservatives tend to see law as meaningful only as an expression of an entity with a monopoly of violence. As such, in the international sphere there is only “law” if some entity is willing to use overwhelming force to ensure that said law is obeyed. The United States is unique in today’s world in potentially occupying the role of that entity, and recurrent dreams of a “league of democracies” or some such are attempts to come up with an entity that would have many of the characteristics of the United States without obviously being a single, hegemonic nation.

There is an insightful kernel of truth in each of the above tenets, but that insight is often badly abused in practice. To take the first, Nazi Germany in particular really probably couldn’t endure without continually being on the attack, and the best evidence of that fact is that it launched a thoroughly mad war on the Soviet Union when it had not yet forced Britain into a separate peace (and at the same time that its ally, Japan, attacked the United States in a similarly mad expansion of the war). And more generally, the notion of some degree of separation between regime interests and the national interest is a valuable one for thinking about how other states behave.

But the insight is badly abused when we conclude that democracies will never be aggressive or expansionist. Britain, France and the United States all have expansionist and imperialist histories, and they continue to have expansive views of their national interests and prerogatives to intervene that they do not apply to other actors in the international system. Modern India and Israel should also be added to the list of such democracies. Populist, illiberal democracies may be among the most conflict-prone regimes on earth. But the insight is even more badly abused when truths about Nazi Germany and imperial Japan are applied to other powers that may be hostile and unfree, but are not obviously expansionist or even revisionist. Traditional authoritarian regimes are among the most cautious in terms of their foreign policy, and even some highly ideological regimes, like Iran, have not been nearly as aggressive as neoconservative theory suggests they must be. Indeed, the neoconservatives may well have been wrong about the Soviet Union itself, and George Kennan, who saw more continuity than discontinuity with pre-Soviet Russian history, more correct.

The second insight also contains a kernel of truth. There are indeed times when an active power provokes bandwagoning rather than balancing – plenty of realists would agree. But the opposite is also true. The United States easily assembled a broad coalition to fight the Gulf War because Iraq had aggressively conquered and absorbed another sovereign state. Countries all over the world saw that behavior as a threat – and rather than seek to placate the aggressor, rushed to support (and even goaded) a power that proposed to reverse the aggression. By contrast, the coalition assembled to fight the Iraq War was much more limited, precisely because America was viewed in much of the world as the aggressor. There was some bandwagoning by minor countries around the American banner, but much more widespread concern about what our actions portended about America’s global aims. Today, concerns about Chinese revisionist pretensions have driven a number of Pacific Rim states into closer alliance with the United States. This is balancing behavior. But if the United States began to support Japanese nationalist pretensions to revisionism with the enthusiasm with which the neocons supported Georgia’s 2008 war, or launched an unprovoked attack on North Korea comparable to our war against Iraq, that calculus would undoubtedly change – quickly, dramatically, and not in our favor.

As for the last insight, yes, international law lacks a police power to back it up definitively. But that does not mean that it has no value or meaning. Law and respect for law is a signaling mechanism to other states about the character of the state they are dealing with. Cavalierly asserting that the law can’t stand in the way of our righteous action sends a very clear signal: that we recognize no restraint. That is not going to make any other state comfortable unless they agreed with us in our assessment of our own absolute righteousness. And that discomfort poses actual costs to our ability to conduct an effective foreign policy, whether for humanitarian purposes or for the protection of our national interest.

In other words, neoconservatism’s genuine insights are modest and contingent. We can’t cavalierly assume that Iran’s regime interests are identical to its national interests (rightly considered, Iran and the United States have no material interests in conflict), and should take into account the ideological basis of the regime when we consider its likely foreign policy. But we also can’t cavalierly assume that, because it is an ideological regime, it is inherently aggressive and expansionist – particularly when there is almost no actual evidence of such ambitions. We should not assume that, say, Russia’s actions in the Crimea will “automatically” generate balancing by European powers, and that we can therefore take a blasé attitude towards events in a far off country of which we know nothing. But by the same token we should not assume that there will be a bandwagoning effect around any attempt to “lead” a coalition to “force” Russia to rescind its annexation and withdraw from that territory. A law-based approach to both conflicts may be emotionally unsatisfying, and may fail, but may still be more responsible and more likely to achieve success than an approach – favored by actual card-carrying neoconservatives if not by Salam – that emphasizes the threat or use of force, unilaterally if necessary.

In actual practice, neoconservatives have a tendency to be stopped clocks, hammers that see every problem as a nail. And stopped clocks and hammers are not good guides to policy, regardless of where they are stopped or how hard the hammer. They would add more value to the foreign policy debate if they would return to the empirical rigor of the original neoconservatives in domestic policy, and stop behaving as if they had found some kind of eternal truths.

Salam, given his intellect and his preexisting sympathies, is an excellent person to begin that kind of change within the self-identified neoconservative ranks. But to change, you first have to acknowledge that you have a problem.