Neocon to Realist: Q&A
I received a number of questions related to my piece about converting from “neocon to realist.” Here are a few, slightly edited, followed by my responses.
As a much older former Straussian (from the days when they were an interesting but seemly harmless academic cult), I’m curious if you got the deep neocon indoctrination via a “political philosophy” course at Brown (I doubt it) or just embraced it, as you write, as a reaction against the dull PCism pervading an elite college campus?
No. In fact, when I was a student at Brown, I lamented that neoconservatism was largely absent in international-relations curricula. I remember readings in my coursework on democratic peace theory, which I found compelling at the time. By and large, though, my understanding of neoconservatism came from my own reading, beginning at a relatively young age, as well as from conversations with neoconservative mentors who were kind enough not only to hire me as a research assistant, but also to engage me in thoughtful discussions. Neoconservative ideas gave me a weapon to wield against the “dull PCism,” as you call it, on campus. I wonder: would college students at elite universities be more or less receptive to neoconservativism if they had more conservative professors?
You don’t tell us how you accommodated in your worldview U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other dictatorial nations. Were there some “scruples” that affected your evaluation of those places, where some religions are essentially banned, unlike Iraq under Saddam Hussein, where religious minorities were able to coexist peacefully with various strains of Islam? In your view at that time, did the United States’ “responsibility to act as a ‘force for democracy and human rights in the world’” end at the borders of the Gulf States?
One of the reasons I became a neoconservative is that I was troubled by American “hypocrisy,” as I saw it at the time, vis-à-vis the Gulf States. When I was at the State Department from 2008 to 2009, for example, I was struck by how indifferent the permanent bureaucracy seemed to the human-rights situation in the Gulf States. When I would try to engage them on the issue, foreign-service officers in particular tended to cite “realism” as a rationale for status quo approaches to our “Gulf partners.” It struck me as both immoral and incautious not to weigh human rights in our calculus of how to engage these countries, so I took seriously the views of neoconservatives, who, more so than other conservatives, are willing to question U.S. relationships with the Gulf States on human-rights grounds.
The Arab upheaval and its consequences have made me rethink the issue. The Gulf monarchies, unlike other governments in the region, have prevented their countries from descending into chaos and civil strife—a scenario that could redound, ironically enough, to the detriment of democratic reformers in those societies. In a region awash in sectarian war, the U.S. preference for stability among the Gulf monarchies strikes me as a reasonable choice.
There’s a wide spectrum between 9/12/2001 neoconservatism and realism (which means many things to many people). What is your attitude towards the role of the U.S. as the guarantor of the post WWII international order? How big a sphere of influence do you want to allow Russia and China? Is there anything they could do that you would push back against? Should the U.S. oppose a theoretical Russian incursion into the Baltic? … Oppose Chinese plays for hegemony in the South China Sea?
U.S. leadership has maintained a world order conducive to peace between the great powers. This is an achievement that is hardly inevitable. In this sense, I see no realistic alternative, in the near term, to an international order underwritten by the United States. At the same time, domestic trend lines in the United States provide little confidence that the current course is sustainable. The United States is still uniquely situated to play the role of a global convener. So perhaps Washington should focus on crafting a balance of power in critical regions that acknowledges legitimate Russian and Chinese aspirations yet provides space for the United States to transfer security responsibilities to its allies. More so than the United States, I believe that front-line states, over time, should bear the burden of balancing Russian and Chinese power.
A number of readers commented on the following sentence, noting that it evokes neoconservative ideas: “In realist insights I discerned the roots of a sustainable strategy—one that could preserve the enlightened ideals of Western civilization, at least as long as it remained mindful of America’s historic role as a global stabilizer as well as the universalistic ethos that often animates its people.”
One reader asked:
I wonder what you mean, exactly, by “the enlightened ideals of Western civilization,” and what you consider to be “America’s historic role as a global stabilizer,” as well as what you divine to be “the universalistic ethos that often animates its people”? Isn’t this consistent with what neoconservatives claim to believe in? If not, in what way is it different? How do these statements differ from your previous belief in the U.S. as a “benign ‘empire’” and a force for “democracy and human rights”?
I still share with neoconservatives an aspiration to defend human rights and liberal democracy, which originate from the “enlightened ideals of Western civilization.” I also believe that, in many parts of the world, human dignity—not to mention American interests—would be better protected if free markets and liberal democracy were to take root.
The question is how to create a world order congenial to these ends. I now disagree with neoconservatives that benign imperialism, replete with preemptive war and protracted nation-building ventures, is a responsible means of getting there. For realism to prevail in the American context, however, U.S. policymakers need to account for the particularities of American culture. A persistent ideological strain throughout American history is the notion that American ideals are universal and that the United States has a special obligation to advance them around the world. This belief, in my view, at least partly accounts for why the American people have been willing, since the end of WWII, to assume the burden of pacifying critical regions through permanent military deployments. I am skeptical that realist policymakers can secure a political mandate from the American people without at least rationalizing their preferred policies against a moralistic backdrop.
Trump and the Republicans are advocating some sort of “revolution,” which is decidedly not a conservative notion … You know who was a true (Burkean) conservative? Obama. He brought us slow change, stability and a reverence for family and community. Why don’t you believe in him?
I wouldn’t call Obama a “Burkean conservative,” but I agree that he refrained, for the most part, from pursuing revolutionary change. I think Obama’s legacy is very much up in the air. Many of the most problematic aspects of the Obama years—the deterioration in race relations, tax hikes, and expansion of government, for example—were bipartisan affairs many years in the making. That said, the Obama presidency did embolden fringe groups, both on the right and left. I’m most familiar with the alt-right. Will they move in a responsible direction, or will they make viruses like white nationalism and anti-Semitism a permanent feature of our political discourse? If American politics move in a more extremist, polarized direction, Obama will share the blame.
You write very well and persuasively. But I am not yet persuaded. Your transformation from neoconservative to whatever you are now seems rather abrupt. Not that people don’t or can’t change. But by your own description you were, and are, essentially expressing opinions and offering analyses for some form of compensation.
Many of those who have commented have gone through similar changes. So have I. But it’s one thing for someone who isn’t essentially doing it for the money to change his views. It’s quite another for someone whose living depends on expressing his views to make such a change.
It’s as if a bishop in one religion decided to convert to an entirely different one and change the source of his paycheck. It’s a situation that arouses suspicion. It’s not easy to take someone like that seriously. You recognize that fact when you say, “Charges of opportunism invariably follow those whose views evolve, for a certain type of cynic can never concede that even the most battle-hardened insiders do, from time to time, follow their conscience.”
I cannot help but look with suspicion at some of what you say….
I suppose the ultimate question is this: of what use to us are your new beliefs? To what extent should we rely on your analyses and conclusions or, for that matter, on professional pundits of any stripe?
Perhaps I’m naïve, but “professional pundits,” in my experience, don’t offer political commentary “for the money.” Most of us could be making far more doing other things. Indeed, what can make pundits so dangerous at times is that many are true-believing ideologues determined to enact their ideas into policy.
Wharton School professor Philip Tetlock found that experts are about as reliable in their predictions as “dart-throwing chimps.” His research suggests to me that suspicion is an entirely sensible reaction to pundits’ analyses and conclusions.
Do you identify with Reagan’s foreign policy, which I’ve always thought in shorthand as idealist goals through realist means?
I’m reluctant to identify as a Reaganite. Not because I don’t admire the Reagan administration’s achievements—I do—but more because of the consequences of Reagan’s legacy on my generation of conservatives. Reagan’s success in the Cold War has inspired today’s conservatives to abandon small-government principles. Reagan made the conservative movement more comfortable with the idea that deficits in the name of ever-increasing defense spending are sustainable, even desirable. The Reagan administration’s idealism may have been appropriate in that particular moment of the Cold War, but it ultimately fueled a more sweeping view, that democratic universalism provides a rationale for American hegemony even in the absence of an existential threat to the United States.
What does your new realist brain tell us we should have done in Syria? Aid the Kurds?
The biggest mistake in Syria has not been ours. It was the decision by the Syrian opposition to abandon nonviolent resistance and put the country on a path to civil war. I am persuaded by the work of Maciej Bartkowski and others, which suggests that nonviolent resistance has potential even against adversaries like Islamic State. I would favor non-lethal U.S. assistance to liberal groups that are committed to challenging Islamic State and other extremists with a strategy of civil resistance.
I received a number of questions on Trump and the piece’s “Trump-like ideology,” as one reader put it. For example …
Curious how your conversion fits with your views on Trump. His foreign instincts strike me as deeply realist—in both the lay and academic senses of that term—which I found both appealing and refreshing.
Whether or not Trump is a “realist,” I fear that realist intellectuals are making the same mistake with Trump that neoconservatives made with George W. Bush. Neoconservatives invested too much in a president who may or may not have shared their ideological intuitions, but certainly lacked the temperament and skill to enact policy with competence. Some of Trump’s critiques of the foreign-policy establishment have merit, but his cavalier rhetoric as a candidate and decidedly mixed performance since his election make me question whether he can implement a realist strategy with care and prudence.