I haven’t read Henry Nau’s book (I admit, I wasn’t aware of it), but gosh darn it I sure am annoyed to learn from Daniel Larison that he’s decided that the term to use for rebooting neoconservative foreign policy is “conservative internationalism.” Because I was really hoping that word would wind up meaning something else.

To start with, I don’t see why “internationalism” and “interventionism” should be understood as synonyms. From where I sit, “internationalism” should be opposed to “nationalism” – that is to say, it should represent a vision of enlightened self-interest that recognizes our inevitable interconnectedness with other states and, further, that this interconnectedness is generally desirable. An internationalist could be more aggressive or more pacific – there’s no necessary implication of a bias toward warfare. Canada has a very “internationalist” approach to its relations with other states, with a free-trade agreement with its largest neighbor, a very open immigration policy, an enthusiastic participation in international organizations and peacekeeping operations, and a longstanding commitment to collective security through NATO. But it would be bizarre to characterize Canadian foreign policy as aggressive or interventionist. (Incidentally, I think nationalism can also be more- or less-aggressive. A country can zealously defend its existing territory and prerogatives without seeking to expand territorially or to assert its dominance over neighboring states. Historically, though, nationalism has tended to be associated with expansionist and aggressive foreign policy.)

Similarly, it should be possible to be more “liberal” or more “conservative” in one’s internationalism. If I were to characterize the difference, I’d say that liberal internationalism is more universalist and comprehensive in its ambitions, more inclined toward supra-national institution-building and to moving international law away from a customary basis and toward explicit universal rules with an enforcement mechanism. A conservative internationalist, then, would be expected to be more wary of these trends – more comfortable with customary law than with explicit universal rules, more comfortable with states organizing for collective security than with supra-national institutions of universal pretension.

As I say, I haven’t read Nau’s book, but right from the subtitle I see an enormous problem: if James Polk was an “internationalist” of any sort, conservative or otherwise, then the term really is devoid of useful meaning. Polk pursued a policy of aggressive nationalist expansion on all fronts, threatening war with Britain to get a resolution of the Oregon boundary dispute, annexing Texas and waging aggressive war with Mexico to conquer what is now the American West, and attempting to purchase Cuba. There’s no obvious applicability of Polk’s foreign policy to an age when territorial expansion is no longer an option, but at a minimum it should be possible to agree that building a continental empire by force should be seen as the antithesis of any kind of internationalism, liberal or conservative.

It would be useful to have a term for a perspective that sought to maximize American interests within the context of understanding those interests as best-served by a relatively harmonious and stable international order, and that saw a proper role for America as the world’s leading power in trying to foster such an order. Useful because not every argument against militarism and hegemonism proceeds from non-interventionist premises, and because the imperatives of power make it very hard for me to see America ever adopting the foreign policy of, say, Switzerland. “Realism” is an inadequate term because  it brings along the intellectual baggage of the academic theory of the same name; Walter Russell Mead’s term, “Hamiltonianism,” might do but it’s relatively obscure and tends to be reduced to the notion that foreign policy should promote American commercial interests, which is too narrow a definition for the purpose.

“Conservative internationalism” might have done well. It might have appealed to people who favor greater restraint, a greater emphasis on diplomacy, a greater respect for the sovereignty and legitimate interests of other states, and a greater interest in order and stability, than has been the case with American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War – but who don’t want to think of themselves as narrow-minded “isolationists” or hard-hearted “realists” or people who “blame America first.” So it’s a shame to lose the word to someone who appears to want it to serve the opposite purpose.

UPDATE: I see that in a subsequent post, Daniel Larison has already made the same point about Polk that I made above. I would like to second his view that it makes no sense to call Jefferson a “conservative internationalist” either. As for Truman, if I were to guess, I’d say Nau sees a discontinuity between the liberal internationalism of the UN and the “conservative internationalism” of NATO, and wants to draw attention specifically to anti-Communism as a template for what “conservative internationalism” should be. All that would be consistent with the idea that he’s using the term to re-boot neoconservatism.

Reagan is a tough one because his legacy remains highly contested. Reagan bombed Libya and withdrew from Lebanon. He built the MX missile and signed the INF treaty. He pursued a policy of confrontation with Brezhnev and a policy of détente with Gorbachev. His unilateral intervention in Grenada and support for the Salvadoran regime and for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua loomed large at the time, but pale in comparison to America’s earlier Cold War intervention in Indochina or its post-Cold War interventions in Panama, Kosovo, and Iraq. Similarly, his Administration facilitated the democratic transition in South Korea and the Philippines, but only after a history of supporting the right-wing dictators of those countries.

If you want to make a case for Reagan as the proper heir of Truman in a neo-conservative foreign policy tradition, you can do that, and if you want to you can call that tradition “conservative internationalism.” On the other hand, I think you can also make the case for Reagan as the proper heir of Eisenhower – as more a builder and husbander of national resources than a wanton spender thereof, and, though anything but an anti-interventionist, as genuinely committed to the “peace” part as well as the “strength” part of “peace through strength.”