So much changes in 15 years. The last Republican president announced that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” The current Republican president rebuffs the possibility of canceling arms deals with Saudi Arabia over that country’s barbarity. When the current Republican president is asked whether he loves the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, he barely attempts to clarify the remarks: “Let it be whatever it is to get the job done.”
Meanwhile, the advocates of a hawkish and idealistic foreign policy are abandoning the GOP. Bill Kristol is alienated from his longtime political home. I recall fondly a meeting of the Philadelphia Society where Max Boot said America should make a 50-year commitment to Iraq, as it had to Japan and Germany. A student stood up and asked why we should stay there into his 70s, provoking a mixture of laughter and hooting. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Now Boot has written a book about his disaffection from conservatism. He’s not alone.
Taken together, we have the failures in the Iraq War, the unwillingness of Americans — particularly conservatives — to buy into arguments for regime change in Syria, the election of Donald Trump, and the public separation of some idealistic hawks from the party. It begins to look like foreign-policy realists have, by default, routed their idealist rivals.
I wouldn’t be so sure.
I can’t claim to be a mere spectator in these debates. I joined with conservative critics of the Iraq War years ago. And have pushed against almost every American intervention since. I’ve jeered at those hawks, accusing them of wasting America’s blood and treasure in a foolish bid to democratize every sand dune and atoll on earth. I used to call myself an isolationist, a label I give up only reluctantly. I’m glad of the newfound skepticism about intervening in the Middle East that is becoming almost general on the American Right.
But, if we are all realists now, we should admit this is all temporary. It may not be long before national circumstances bring foreign-policy idealists back from the brink and grant us policy that is motivated (and misled) by their high ideals.
First, Americans are not very comfortable with the moral and reputational costs of realist statecraft. Many Americans — particularly those who aspire to its leadership classes — are cringing at Trump’s comments about Saudi Arabia or North Korea.
The idealist streak in American foreign policy also takes deep inspiration from America’s success in the 20th century, in which America defeated despotisms three times over, in two epic world wars and in the Cold War. America’s entry into World War I and World War II could never have been sold to the country in terms of snatching the financial and naval primacy of world leadership from the British Empire — one of the real and most enduring practical effects of the war. If foreign-policy realists try to justify themselves as the party that will safely and effectively manage America’s declining influence in world affairs, they will make themselves detestable.
The idealist streak in American foreign policy is also the product of America’s inherited Protestant imagination. When you hear even supposedly secular people talk about the progress of mankind, or the arc of history, you are hearing a peculiar form of America’s liberal millenarianism. This moral worldview makes it harder for Americans to intervene in our interests and then remain indifferent to the subjects of our intervention. As America becomes less Protestant, this wellspring of our idealism in foreign affairs will begin to dry up. But I expect we have a long way to go before it is emptied.
The watchword of realism is caution. And I would caution anyone from thinking that America’s realists have won out within the Republican party for long. We may soon need our own surge to keep the territory we hold.