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Conservative Internationalism Is Not Bushism

A reply to Michael Desch's "Neoconservatism Rebaptized"

Michael Desch uses, if not abuses, the review of my book, Conservative Internationalism, to wage his own personal war against neoconservatives. Surprisingly, because he is an academic, he ignores the intellectual and historical contributions of my study; and not so surprisingly, because he is a realist, he objects most strenuously to the conservative and liberal internationalist’s “shared dream of a world led by the United States toward ever more political and economic liberalism.”

Realists, like Desch, spurn the spread of freedom and prefer to use military force to balance power and coexist with tyrants who abuse freedom. Liberal internationalists, on the other hand, support the spread of freedom but do so through diplomacy and international institutions while reducing the use of military force to a “last resort” after negotiations fail.

The main traditions leave a large gap between lofty goals that don’t require much military exertion and muscular means that pursue little more than coexistence with evil. At times, some liberal internationalists and realists break away from their traditions to combine the spread of democracy and use of military power. That was Sen. Scoop Jackson and the liberal-internationalist neocons in the 1970s-1980s and Condoleezza Rice and the democratic realists in the 2000s. Many neocons, however, were liberals not conservatives, advocating social engineering at home and abroad; and some democratic realists were imperialists, seeking to gain or maintain American hegemony.

The neocons and democratic realists offer symptoms not solutions that something more fundamental is missing. My book develops this missing third tradition (fourth if you count nationalism separately). Conservative internationalism spreads freedom like liberal internationalism, disciplines the use of military force by priorities and compromise like realism, and seeks a world of limited government and sovereign states like nationalism. In his zeal to equate this tradition with neconservatism, Desch distorts all the following points.

First, all Americans are classical liberals. They believe in individual liberty and equality. There are no Metternichs in America’s experience (as Desch labels Bush 41 and Brent Scowcroft) who revere authority and tradition over liberty and opportunity. But not all Americans are internationalists who believe that freedom is universal; some are realists/nationalists who believe freedom is unique. And not all internationalists believe in big government. Some, like Thomas Jefferson, believe that individuals and nations should govern themselves by local institutions or they have no business governing others by centralized institutions.

Second, conservative internationalists arm their diplomacy before and during negotiations, not just after negotiations fail as liberal internationalists prefer. Conservative internationalists know that if democracies use military force only as a last resort, despots, who use force congenitally, will use military force during negotiations to achieve their objectives outside negotiations.

But conservative internationalists do not believe you can spread liberty everywhere at once, as George W. Bush did. They prioritize the spread of freedom on the borders of existing freedom, much the way realists discipline the use of force by geopolitics. Thus, securing freedom in Ukraine and Turkey along the border of existing freedom in Europe counts for more than securing freedom in Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or other countries remote from the borders of freedom; and securing freedom in South Korea and Taiwan in Asia counts for more than securing freedom in Burma or Mongolia. Bush 43 did just the opposite: he paid little attention to democracy in Turkey, Ukraine, or South Korea in his zeal to spread it to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fourth, conservative internationalists know when to compromise, to cash in military leverage for gains in freedom. They seek a world of sister republics, not world government or American hegemony. These republics are democratic, to be sure, but they are also sovereign and retain their separate arms, a second amendment right for nation-states. As Jefferson said of future states in North America: “keep them in the union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.”

Jefferson and the other presidents I studied were masters of conservative internationalism and highly successful. Ronald Reagan, whom Desch lumps together with Bush 43 as a failure, never accepted the division of Europe that enslaved eastern Europe, refused to be diverted by lesser conflicts in Lebanon and Central America, and risked a major arms race not to defeat the Soviet Union in a conventional military sense but to make Soviet leaders concentrate on the compromise he was offering inside negotiations, namely reduced nuclear weapons and globalization. By contrast, George W. Bush diverted to Iraq, never offered wider Middle East negotiations until 2007, and ended his second term with a military surge not a diplomatic achievement.

Harry Truman, long claimed by liberal internationalists, was more conservative than Franklin Roosevelt in two crucial respects. He invited Churchill to Fulton, Missouri, already in March 1946—something Roosevelt would have never done—to declare in his “Iron Curtain” speech that the conflict with the Soviet Union was about the future of freedom not about geopolitics. And when the Soviets blockaded Berlin in 1948, Truman told his advisers, all of whom urged that the United States abandon West Berlin, “we stay, period,” confirming the use of force before and during, not just after, negotiations.

James K. Polk, who secured the western territories, may have been the greatest conservative internationalist. He never used force without sending an envoy to negotiate, and he ended a bitter war by accepting a compromise negotiated by an envoy he had fired three months earlier. U.S. forces left Mexico entirely within six months even though they had occupied Mexico City and might have stayed or even annexed the country over the long term.

Sadly, Desch misses all this intellectual and historical nuance. If he is looking “for some deep psychopathology at work,” he might start with his own obsessions.

Henry R. Nau is professor of political science and international affairs in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.