National Security & Defense

Is There Still a Conservative Foreign Policy?

Flight operations aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Persian Gulf, November 2016. (Photo: US Navy)
Trump did not create the divide in the GOP policy world — he exposed it.

The Trump victory and the Republican establishment’s mostly negative reaction to it have in matters of foreign policy called into question who is conservative, who not — and whether the old ideological rubrics even matter anymore.


For all practical purposes, there are no real isolationists today, at least of the 1930s mode. “Isolationism” is more a slur than a description of a common conservative ideology.

Even a Senator Rand Paul does not wish to unilaterally bow out of NATO — despite what he may say or write to paleo-conservative audiences. Readers of the American Conservative probably do not wish to bring all U.S. troops home from strategic U.S. bases in the spirit of the 1930s (when we actually had lots of bases abroad).

Rather, neo-isolationism today is akin to something like neo-interventionism of the late 1930s — a guarded willingness, mostly in reactive and defensive fashion, to use force only for perceived American interests abroad, without committing U.S. military resources in service to other nations or causes other than narrow American interests, however defined.

Note the paradox in the present controversies over H. R. McMaster: His nominally neo-isolationist and “America first” critics thought McMaster was too soft on Iran (he purportedly favored a reactive “let Iran break the deal and then pounce” approach). Instead, they advocated preemptively nullifying the Iran Deal — a move that could bring matters to an interventionist head and more quickly square Iran off against the U.S.

Neo-isolationists do not believe that the U.S. should shoulder the burdens of ensuring that the post-war global order remains operative, given that the perceived costs are too high, and returns to the U.S. are too ambiguous.

Neo-isolationism has become embedded within domestic populist doctrine based on the idea that interventionists themselves are often elite idealists who do not pay the costs of their own preferred policies — but that middle class Americans do, being asked to fight and die in places like Kandahar or Taji for reasons that remain unfathomable to them.

The challenge of neo-isolationism is that it is often evoked but rarely in any practical sense implemented in toto.


The term has come back into currency with the rise of Trumpism and the inability to make the accusation of “isolationist” stick to either Trump or his supporters. Jacksonianism supposedly harkens back to Andrew Jackson’s “don’t tread on me”–style brashness — a willingness to hit hard against those who threaten the U.S. or its perceived interests, without worrying much about anything other than the restoration of deterrence.

The principle is that if adversaries harm a stay-at-home America, we will harm them far worse—but without concern about the aftermath on the ground, and with no presumptions that the United States has the responsibility or power to craft solutions that might involve long-term commitments. Live and let live — or let die — is the Jacksonian credo.

The key to Jacksonianism is that foreign policy and military action are calibrated solely in immediate and often ad hoc terms of U.S. interests (“to ask nothing that is not clearly right and to submit to nothing that is wrong”). It is essentially retaliatory and punitive in nature.

Jacksonians are not bothered about the sometimes frequent use of force overseas — only the conditions of its employment. A Jacksonian is no neo-isolationist; he wishes to have a profile abroad, but, far more significantly, a reputation not as a global fixer but as someone other nations respect and leave alone, given the deleterious consequences of provoking America.

When other nations and powers see America as both self-interested and volatile, the world, Jacksonians think, is a safer place — and without all the global policing and posturing.

When other nations and powers see America as both self-interested and volatile, the world, Jacksonians think, is a safer place — and without all the global policing and posturing. With some justification, Trump is seen as a Jacksonian, but such a stance is difficult to maintain in the globalist and interconnected world of the 21st century — in which a thuggish failed state like North Korea believes that it can take out Google, Facebook, and Apple in 45 minutes, and a half-million people living in their vicinity.


Realists are committed to traditional post-war U.S. leadership abroad, especially America’s role in what we used to call stewardship of the “free world.” But engagement realists, if unlike both neo-isolationists and Jacksonians, nevertheless similarly have no illusions about human nature.

Nations are mere collections of people and thus operate according to predictable patterns of behavior. Talk of human rights, democracy, soft power, multilateralism, and collective security through international organizations is all fine and good and may be of propaganda value on the world stage. But realists accept the tragic view that abundant force, economic and cultural clout, military readiness, perceptions of armed strength, alliances, balances of power, maintenance of deterrence — all these ancient concepts are what alone keeps a nation, and its allies and interests, secure.

Realists might wish that the world were more democratic, but they assess a nation’s friendliness based not on the degree to which it emulates American political and culture norms, but rather on whether it is stable, loyal, powerful, and likely, in frequent cases, to have the same strategic interests as the United States in preserving a post-war order that’s lasted more than 70 years.

Realists see peace as an aberration, and tension and war as the tragic norms in history. They do not wish to experiment with utopian bromides that can trigger dangerous instability. They are more likely to read Thucydides, Machiavelli, or Hobbes than Rousseau or Kant.

Realists see peace as an aberration, and tension and war as the tragic norms in history. They do not wish to experiment with utopian bromides.

For realists, tension and occasional crises are the prices we pay for deterring aggressors. Tranquility is rare, but the relative absence of existential wars is achievable.


The “new” conservatives, in the foreign-policy sense, were originally often former globalists and liberals who maintained their optimistic faith in the power of freedom and democracy to lessen tensions and wars abroad. But they had lost the illusion that most countries could or would become democratic on their own, even if they had the wherewithal to risk it. They implicitly conceded that while the desire for freedom may be innate to humans, the messy business of building a republic or democracy might not be.

A neocon further believes that Jacksonianism and realism offer only short-term solutions to world tensions. Because Saddam Hussein is merely a manifestation of a dysfunctional Arab society, it would do little good just to remove him, in realist or Jacksonian fashion, because someone just like him would appear in his place.

Instead, only changing the root causes of the pathology — and this entails “nation-building” — will create the conditions under which autocracy and dictatorship are impossible. And as the world eventually reaches a critical mass of Francis Fukuyama–like end-of-history democratic governments, the Husseins and Assads will supposedly disappear gradually.

Neocons justify greater diplomatic efforts and foreign-aid investments abroad, as well as the likelihood of more costly foreign interventions, as the short-term price of establishing a long-term solution to global tensions. And as former liberals, the “new” conservatives believe that U.S. foreign policy abroad must reflect American values and that one purpose of our foreign policy is to spread the American idea of human rights and freedom, often regardless of the preexisting nature of the would-be recipient of U.S. fire and friendship.

In neocon thinking, dictators such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or the Saudi royal family can never be true allies, given that they are autocrats who squelch Western ideas of freedom. Though they’re not as dangerous to our interests as an ISIS or al-Qaeda, they put their own survival above their nations’ “true” interests.

Neoconservatism is the most expensive, in blood and treasure, of all ideologies, though rarely reckoned so by its proponents.


Globalists, once almost always confined to the Left, do not believe in American exceptionalism. Rather, in Socratic fashion, they assume that they are “citizens of the world.” Global culture is their faith. Many are even libertarians, arguing that everything from iPhones and Facebook to the U.N. and global climate initiatives are inevitably creating one sophisticated, postmodern world out of many Neanderthal and pre-modern tribes. Just wait a bit, “don’t do stupid sh**” (as Obama himself described the Obama foreign-policy doctrine), and perhaps the masters of the universe in Menlo Park will unite us, and war itself will fade.

The globalists’ ultimate vision is one of 7 billion world residents, materially well off and holding the progressive worldview of Western, globe-trotting Silicon Valley executives, academics, foundation heads, deep-state bureaucrats, and elites in the entertainment industry, the media, and government. All such sophisticates find themselves far more similar to one another and to their counterparts in other nations than to their own kinsmen living just a few hundred miles inland from their coastal enclaves.

Globalism is a resurrection of the Western democratic confidence of 1913 that a world war could not break out.

I include globalists in the arena of conservative thinking in the age of Trump not because they fit traditional definitions of conservative custom and practice, but because in some sense they have gone full circle back to join isolationists and neo-isolationists in their view about the use of force and military expenditure. Some conservative globalists believe that America’s popular culture and its hip, cool, and insidious corporatism, while in some cases regrettable, are obviating the need for military interventionism and costly defense spending. In their estimation, this is a good thing, given that ties of mutual profit and free-market affluence are making a relic of war and armed force in general. Walk down University Avenue in Palo Alto and the new Esperantists in the sidewalk cafés believe that millions like them in Europe and Asia are rendering nationalism passé.

Globalism is a resurrection of the Western democratic confidence of 1913 that a world war could not break out — interlocking business, trade, and economic interests would keep the peace.

The Never-Ending Cycle

All these various worldviews do not operate in a vacuum; they go in and out of vogue depending on how well they operate on the world stage, or at least how fairly they are analyzed and described in the media. In general, we do not take a long-term historical view of their relative merits across time and space but rather calibrate their efficacy based on their immediate success or failure in the current politically charged landscape.

Trump did not create these fissures. Instead he tore off the scab of conservative unity and left an open wound of acrimony. In the process, he blew up the neoconservative argument — the formerly dominant Republican foreign policy — and perhaps all who embraced it. In his (post facto) nationalist attacks on the Iraq War, nation-building, and George W. Bush, Trump positioned neoconservatism as a naïve understanding of human nature that was both too costly to the nation and too hypocritical in the way it allotted those costs, and he thought it could never work in the tribal Middle East.

In that populist sense, he united neo-isolationists, Jacksonians, and realists through their shared pessimistic appraisal of human nature, and the principle that Americans owed more to their own self-interests and nationalist concerns than they did to humanity in general. Trumpism assumed that, by the 21st century, an Algeria, Somalia, or China was more than free to become democratic if they chose to — without the need for the permission of, much less help from, the U.S.

If Trumpians were deemed too cynical, then they would argue that while timeless human values were worth defending the world over and would eventually make a safer world and a more secure America, we nonetheless had no practical and cost-effective way to implement such visions. Nor did we have the mechanisms to ensure that all Americans would share the burdens of apparently optional wars and interventions.

An irony of the Trump wedge is that globalists of the Left, both those in the Obama camp and adherents of Hillary Clinton’s, were able to win over many neocons in 2016 election. The anti-Trump movement of Democrats and neoconservatives shared a faith in the ability of an American diplomatic and military elite of “wise” men and women, along with bipartisan institutions, think tanks, organizations, the media, and universities, to form global partnerships to promote end-of-history democratic and cultural protocols that promote peace and stability, from globally redistributive climate accords to multiparty agreements such as the Iran Deal.

They deemed themselves optimists about human nature, seeing no tribal impediment to democracy, for example, in the Islamist culture of so much of the Middle East. Trump’s achievement, if it can be so termed, may have been to return neoconservatives to their natural neo-liberal affinities and alignments with liberal allies.

A final cynical note. There are a few, but not many, doctrinaire neo-isolationists, Jacksonians, realists, neo-cons, or globalists. Take a survey of Trump’s current foreign-policy team, and it would be hard to find a single ideological doctrine that guides James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, or Rex Tillerson — or Donald Trump — at least in the fashion of a Jacksonian such as Steve Bannon. As aspect of Trump’s current challenges is that “bombing the sh**” out of ISIS is a sort of engagement in the Middle East that neo-isolationists abhor. Dropping a MOAB in Afghanistan is not retreating from foreign entanglements, nor is bombing WMD depots in Syria. A Pat Buchanan applauds Trump’s “American first” sympathies, but Trump’s most fervent supporters are currently accusing his NSC appointees of being too timid and in particular too shy about confronting Iran or being more active in the Middle East.

In some sense, Trump has never squared the circle of proclaiming that he wanted to punish our enemies while also staying out of the business of others. Being dedicated to both agendas is a hard thing to do — a dilemma that explains why conservative foreign-policy labels mean little if anything these days.


The Korean Game of Thrones

Europe Between Trump and Putin

The Great Muslim Civil War — and Us

— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.


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