Asked to weigh in on co-keynoting a conference with national security adviser John Bolton, Tucker Carlson demurred, saying different perspectives should be heard. Bolton was similarly deferential toward the Fox News host when asked the same question, but with a twist. “I’m delighted to be after him,” Bolton cracked. “That’s called a diplomatic answer.”
Many of the main voices at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference reject a foreign policy of forever war. This includes not just Carlson but fellow keynoter Peter Thiel (“On this most important issue Donald Trump is right,” Thiel said at the 2016 Republican convention. “It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.”), organizer Yoram Hazony, who was sharply critical of neoconservatives in his own speech, and best-selling author J.D. Vance.
But a nontrivial number of speakers who were on the schedule purely for their foreign policy expertise would have been comfortable during the administration of George W. Bush, who was no nationalist conservative. Bolton, who at one point stressed the common ground between President Trump and John McCain, illustrated how to package the old foreign policy to appeal to those interested in a new conservatism.
That is, speak in concrete terms about American interests and security rather than abstract appeals to American values; invoke Samuel Huntington, whose “Clash of Civilizations” is a major influence among nationalist conservatives; play up nationalist concerns about China; don’t talk about democracy promotion or nation-building; quote Edmund Burke liberally.
It’s important because while Bush and McCain always grounded their foreign policy in morality and universalism, the “blood and soil” appeals they both disdained (although American nationalism has always been more complicated than lineage, ethnicity or geography) were crucial to their wars of choice achieving popular support. Neoconservatism shorn of nationalism can easily be marginalized, as it largely was during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
Bolton has always rejected the neocon label. “It’s one of these bumper stickers that people like to advocate,” he said at Tuesday’s conference, dismissing attempts to shoehorn his views into some specific foreign policy camp. And it is true that he is a skeptic of democracy promotion and some of the other more idealistic components of the Bush doctrine.
At the same time, Bolton has supported most preventive wars the United States has waged since 9/11 and continuing the Afghanistan war long after it has achieved any obvious results. He seeks a new Cold War, replacing the Soviet Union with China, Iran, Iraq or some other country that can be said to be the main hotbed of radical Islam, regardless of which strain. It is difficult to see what would have been different if Bolton’s role would have been filled with a neocon.
Nor was Bolton’s refusal to repeal and replace the Bush foreign policy anything unique. Several speakers made only the most cosmetic changes as they threatened Iran, defended Saudi Arabia, and otherwise watered down Trump’s campaign promises. Clifford May declined to be a “policeman of the world,” offering to instead be “sheriff,” saying intervention skeptics—he all but called them “isolationists”—were unwilling to protect America in the same way various television or movie characters in many Westerns were. (Clint Eastwood, you’ll recall, was ready to get out of Afghanistan when he spoke to the 2012 Republican National Convention.)
These mild messaging changes remain important. “This is a president who was elected to get us out of wars and not get into new wars,” said former Bolton chief of staff Fred Fleitz in a statement. “But unlike Barack Obama, the use of force is on the table and he will use it if he needs to.” (Fleitz is rumored to be on the list of people who might replace Dan Coats as director of national intelligence.) May also said at the conference that less interventionist nationalists were following Obama’s path.
This has been a longstanding problem. Conservatives who are skeptical of our wars tend to speak out on other topics, like domestic policy. The people said to have real national security or foreign policy experience are neocons or worse. There is no diversity of opinion. The American Spectator’s Tom Bethell once remarked that the Tea Party was like the pre-neocon conservative movement, but just as ripe for neocon takeover. Is this true of national conservatism too?
Consider that Tom Cotton and Nikki Haley are among the would-be successors to Trump. Cotton is at least aligned with Trump on immigration. It is not clear that Haley, like Bolton, even goes that far. If nationalists are going to criticize libertarians alongside neoconservatives, they must lay out their own vision of prudence and restraint.
There is much that is promising about the nationalist project. It would be a shame if it was used an excuse to repeat past conservative mistakes on war and peace.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.