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Jefferson and Truman Weren’t Conservative Internationalists

In addition to the many other problems [1] with the “conservative internationalism” Nau describes in his book [2] of the same name, he has made an exceedingly odd selection of presidents that he claims for this view. Nau identifies Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan as conservative internationalists, and his main reason [3] for doing so is this:

These four American presidents did more to expand freedom abroad through the assertive use of military force than any others.

If the foreign policy records of the four presidents seem to have little in common, that is because they represent very different foreign policy traditions and are being thrown together in a bid to offer something to almost everyone. Jefferson and Polk could arguably be identified as part of the same tradition, and both were undoubtedly territorial expansionists, but it makes no sense to see them as having much in common with internationalists of a later century. When Jefferson pursued expansionist policies, he did so without relying on military force, and when he resorted to the use of force he was not doing so for expansionist reasons, much less to “expand freedom abroad.” Polk pursued territorial expansion by force, but was not particularly concerned with “expanding freedom abroad.” The inclusion of Truman is strange for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Truman is obviously a liberal internationalist in the same tradition as his predecessor. It is questionable how much Truman did in office that resulted in the expansion of freedom abroad. Containment policy arguably helped to defend free or semi-free societies where they existed, but by design it was not an expansionist doctrine.

That leaves Reagan, who is the only one of the four that deserves the label conservative internationalist, and even he doesn’t really fit Nau’s definition. Nau’s conservative internationalism is designed to use a misreading of Reagan’s foreign policy as the essence of an entire tradition that supposedly dates back to the earliest years of the republic, but it should be clear that these four presidents aren’t part of the same tradition and some of them don’t even qualify as internationalists.

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11 Comments To "Jefferson and Truman Weren’t Conservative Internationalists"

#1 Comment By Will in Mississippi On November 13, 2013 @ 11:14 am

When I saw the title of Nau’s book, it struck me as intriguing because conservative internationalism is a concept worth exploring as an alternative to “isolationism” (more an epithet than an actual category) or liberal internationalism. Unfortunately, the book didn’t deliver on my expectation. Someone should write a book or article sketching what conservative internationalsim might be. It’s something both “conservative” and “internationalist.”

#2 Comment By Liam On November 13, 2013 @ 11:54 am

The idea that Polk was expanding freedom by the Mexican War is beyond laughable on its face. Mexico had abolished slavery during its struggle for independence. The Mexican War was designed in part to expand the scope of the US empire of slavery, which is why it so strongly opposed by the anti-slavery side.

#3 Comment By BD On November 13, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

In terms of giving people freedom, what about FDR, Wilson and Lincoln? FDR used force to liberate Western Europe and much of Asia (including three former adversaries) and Wilson helped put an end to some monarchies. And Lincoln freed millions of slaves, which one could argue were in a foreign country at the time of their liberation.

Plus, when it comes to using actual force, who exactly did Reagan free? The Grenadans?

#4 Comment By steve in ohio On November 13, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

“who exactly did Reagan free?”

Well (as Ronnie would say) only eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In fact, the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 right after he left office. He would be the first to share credit with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and even Gorbachev.

Would Reagan be a conservative interventionist today? I like to think that with an end to the expansionist Soviet empire, he would return to a more Taft-like foreign policy. Bill Buckley, his intellectual mentor, seemed to be moving in that direction at the time of his death in 2008.

#5 Comment By William Dalton On November 13, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

“Plus, when it comes to using actual force, who exactly did Reagan free? The Grenadans?”

The Grenadans certainly think so.


#6 Comment By BD On November 13, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

But even giving Reagan credit for the end of the Cold War, I don’t see how he used military force to do so. Unless the military buildup itself is considered “force”, in which case an argument could be made for JFK and Teddy Roosevelt.

As for Grenada, I’m sure they’re quite thankful–but in terms of sheer numbers, how does that compare to the hundreds of millions freed by our intervention in WWII?

#7 Comment By Myron Hudson On November 13, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

It’s telling that our cabal of interventionists, now trying on the title of internationalists, still avoid any reference to the dreaded Wilson, who for decades has been one of the bugbears of conservatives. However, “making the world safe for democracy” certainly matches the “freedom agenda” regardless of how the latter is marketed.

I don’t think that anything now being test ballooned by the neocons differs substantially from the Project For A New American Century. This would be right out of Woodrow Wilson’s playbook.

#8 Comment By James Canning On November 13, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

Liam – – Yes, and we should remember that Henry Clay argued against US annexation of Texas, on grounds it would strengthen the slaveowner interest in the US Congress and thereby make civil war more likely.

#9 Comment By James Canning On November 13, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

Did Reagan “expand freedom”? Soviet Union was headed for collapse, even if Reagan had kept spending on “defense” within the bounds of the Carter administration.

#10 Comment By Zathras On November 13, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

Implicit in the tying together of 4 very different presidents is the neo-con idea that internationalism is a goal unto itself. The presidents listed, however, used internationalism as a means to reach specific ends, which were very different as described above.

#11 Comment By philadlephialawyer On November 13, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

Neither Jefferson nor Polk were internationalists. As for being conservatives, well, our current liberal/conservative model doesn’t really fit past politics, but Jefferson, after all, was a revolutionary, and, subsequantly, he did lead what I suppose could be called the “liberal” opposition to the Federalists. Polk was more or less a conservative, as that notion was understood during his time.

Truman was a liberal internationalist. Not a conservative one.

Reagan fits the bill. A conservative internationalist.

However, there was this thing called the Cold War going on during Reagan’s era. And there actually was a challenge (however overplayed and exaggerated) extant at that time to the US led international order. Whether Reagan would have been an internationalist today is another story.

Basically, internationalism was pretty much not only out of power, but non existent, in the USA from around 1800 to around 1900 (oddly, perhaps, there was some internationalist sentiment in the 1780’s and ’90’s). Starting with the Spanish American war, internationalism became more prevalent. But conservatives were hardly leading the way. Most conservatives were not internationalists at least until WWI, many other not until WWII, and others still not until the Cold War.

During the Cold War, yes, most conservatives tended to be internationalists, and even took the lead in that regard. But the Communist threat from the 1940’s through the late ’80’s, like the fascist threat from the twenties and thirties to the end of WWII, was a finite thing. With the end of the Cold War, it is hard to see why a true conservative in the USA would continue to be an internationalist, at least in the sense of favoring an aggressive FP. There is no current threat to the US led world order, nothing at all like Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the USSR or the PRC under Mao. Thus there is no predicate for an aggressive FP.

Neo cons are sort of like those Japanese soldiers who “held out” on isolated Pacific islands until the 1960’s. The war is over, whether they know it or not or accept it or not.

And the lumping of four very different presidents from different eras is not even close to real history.