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Too Many Imperialisms

Peter Beinart thinks “neoconservatism” has lost any distinctive meaning. It no longer has anything to do with the kind of right-leaning empirical social science that characterized the original neoconservatives, nor does it imply someone who used to be on the left but moved right. Nor does it distinctively mean a hawk or an advocate of spreading democracy, since there are liberals who favor democratization and neocons (like Krauthammer) who oppose it, while “hawk” is simply too broad.

So, Beinart suggests a change in terminology:

There’s a better way. Retire “neocon,” which is rarely used coherently, if it even can be anymore, and often leads commentators (sometimes unwittingly) into dangerous territory. Call the people who want America to dominate the world militarily without the constraints of international institutions and international law “imperialists.” Yes, the term has negative connotations, but what distinguishes people like Kristol and Abrams from those liberals who also support military force in places like Bosnia and Syria is precisely the former’s open scorn for the idea that America should be bound by rules that other nations help craft. Liberal interventionists trace their intellectual ancestry to Woodrow Wilson, who tried to turn international affairs into a sphere regulated by law. Neocons scorn Wilson and revere Theodore Roosevelt, who believed, at least for part of his career, in unfettered American power.

Roosevelt is commonly called an imperialist. And some of his neocon disciples have embraced the term too. After 9/11, Max Boot argued in The Weekly Standard that the United States should “embrace its imperial role.” Niall Ferguson, who would be ranked among the world’s most prominent neoconservatives if he hadn’t been born a Christian in Scotland, has written an entire book arguing that America is an empire and should be a better one.

If people like Kristol and Abrams think “imperialist” undersells their commitment to universal ideals, they can call themselves “democratic imperialists,” thus distinguishing themselves from “realist imperialists” like Krauthammer and Bolton.

I see where he’s coming from, but I think he suffers from an excess of idealism. It’s true that liberal hawks pay more lip service to the idea of a law-like international order, but in practice they have been more than willing to bend the rules to achieve what they consider appropriate goals. The Kosovo war was conducted without any authorization from the United Nations; since it was also not a response to an attack on any NATO member, it’s hard to see what the justification was in international law. Both the Iraq War, which widely supported by liberal hawks, and the Libyan intervention, which was their project, substantially exceeded the mandate the United Nations was willing to extend. These were projects to use American power to shape events, not examples of constructing international norms that are broadly constraining.

Moreover, the international institutions for collective security and collective restraint that liberal internationalists are so proud of were substantially designed to legitimate American dominance. Indeed, if global American hegemony is equated with imperialism, Wilson himself is not so easily classified in some kind of contrast to imperialism. The Washington consensus today is that America must maintain such hegemony and prevent any serious rival from developing. If favoring hegemony makes you an imperialist, then it’s an even less-restrictive term than neoconservative or hawk.

I may be that we need a new term, not so much because “neoconservative” has come to mean “Jewish conservative” but because nobody knows what the word means (nor really ever did – the word began as an insult, after all). But finding a new word is not so easy.

“Hawk” won’t do because it doesn’t make any sense in many contexts. Many neoconservatives are eager for war in Syria. But is that a “hawkish” perspective? Hawks are properly those who are skeptical about the possibility of peaceful relations with potential rivals, and who favor erring on the side of greater military preparedness and a more forceful response to challenge. None of that describes a desire to dictate the outcome of the Syrian civil war, nor many of the other neoconservative pet projects of the past generation.

“Imperialist” or “hegemonist” won’t do because there is a broad consensus in favor of American hegemony that goes way beyond the neoconservative tribe. And if we’re to somehow distinguish “imperialists” from “hegemonists” or others – like Beinart himself – who believe in an American-led international order, how would we do it? Is it a matter of degree? Of kind? After all, even the neoconservatives don’t favor a literal American Empire, with indefinite American rule over far-flung foreign provinces. At least not yet.

And, as Beinart persuasively argues, democratism won’t do either, because some neoconservatives are less than enthusiastic about promoting democracy either with the sword or not, while there are plenty of liberals who do favor democracy promotion, some even by force (though many not).

So what’s distinctive about the neocons?

If I had to identify something distinctive about neoconservatives these days, it’s not hawkishness nor belief in the spread of democracy nor fidelity to the notion of American hegemony. I think the distinctive characteristic is an almost mystical belief in the power of the will in international affairs, the notion that victory ultimately belongs to the party who really, really wants it. Relatedly, there is a notion – common to Krauthammer and Kristol, Bolton and Boot, Ferguson and Kagan and McCain – that a robust willingness to use force is itself a sign of national health. I don’t think “imperialism” is the best word for capturing that nuance, and for now I will delicately decline to suggest another.

On the other hand, I think anti-imperialist is a very promising term. As Beinart notes:

This typology also offers a comfortable niche for Ron and Rand Paul, who, although commonly called isolationists, don’t want to isolate America from international commerce. A better term for them is “anti-imperialist,” or what Walter Russell Mead has called “Jeffersonian,” as their core belief is that America’s transformation from a republic into an empire imperils freedom at home.

I think the “anti-imperialist” coalition is potentially larger than just Jeffersonians; why not include dovish Hamiltonians (like myself) and genuine believers in international law under the tent? Indeed, I think the term is potentially quite useful, in that it identifies a common enemy – the consensus Washington assumption that global American hegemony ought to be preserved, entrenched and where possible extended – rather than a common vantage point of attack. Genuine believers in a law-based international order could make common cause with libertarian-inclined non-interventionists – but not if they have to agree on what they are fighting for, rather than what they are fighting against. If they do that, they’ll have a falling out over national sovereignty. Similarly, war-skeptical Hamiltonians would reject either an overly intrusive supra-national infrastructure or an ideology that was strictly opposed to interventionism. But they might be eager to ally with people with such views against efforts to prosecute new wars, or entrench the assumption of American hegemony internationally.

If nothing else, “anti-imperialist” seems like a pretty good description of what holds together the motley crew at this magazine, not all of whom are ideologically committed to anti-interventionism and not all of whom are nostalgic for the America First right.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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