This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.
At its most exemplary, conservative nationalism is a democratically oriented and civic form of patriotism, a love of a particular place, maintaining that the world is best governed by independent nation-states and that only within the context of such states can a free citizenry experiment with constitutional forms of self-rule. In foreign policy, conservative nationalists focus on preserving and promoting their own country’s interests, rights, values, security, traditions, and way of life, in the belief that it is entirely legitimate to do so. Within the United States, a kind of conservative American nationalism was the mainstream bipartisan political and foreign-policy tradition for most of the country’s history. But America’s Founders also hoped that the nation’s example of popular self-government would eventually spread worldwide, and they saw no contradiction between holding out that hope, or even pressing it forward, and preserving U.S. national sovereignty.
As a matter of historical record, the original American colonies were founded by English Protestant settlers, and this specific cultural and religious heritage provided the context for U.S. founding principles. Over the years, some U.S. nationalists have defined their identity mainly in religious or ethnic terms. This has long encouraged tensions between an ethnic definition of the American nation and a civic one. Yet in their Declaration of Independence, the American revolutionaries stated that “all men are created equal,” justifying their rebellion in part by claiming certain universal natural rights. These claims were informed by beliefs well described as classically liberal. There has consequently been within the United States, from the very beginning, a kind of “American creed,” a civic religion or national identity with some notably classical liberal elements, including the rule of law, individual freedom, majority rule, equality of right, enterprise, progress, and limited government. As 19th-century Marxists such as Friedrich Engels noted, this classical-liberal creed made it difficult to promote socialism within the United States. This is what Engels meant by American exceptionalism — and he found it exceptionally frustrating.
In terms of its worldwide implications, the leaders of the American Revolution hoped that it would encourage the spread of republican forms of government and the creation of a new international system, characterized by peaceful commercial exchange, individual liberty, the rule of law, and human progress. They rejected the 18th-century European state system as corrupt, militaristic, warlike, and autocratic. Of course, the pressing question was inevitably how to interact with states still part of that Old World system. To varying degrees, the Founders and succeeding generations embraced America’s westward continental expansion, to create what Thomas Jefferson described as an “empire of liberty.” They also embraced commercial opportunities overseas. In this sense, U.S. economic and territorial expansion beyond existing boundaries long predated America’s later rise as a global power. Simultaneously, however, these very same early statesmen cherished the preservation of U.S. independence, and for that matter held to a policy of prudent disengagement from European alliances, a policy laid out formally by George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address, in which he said that “the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” This emphasis on avoiding what Jefferson later called “entangling alliances” became a key component of U.S. foreign policy throughout the 19th century. Early American statesmen saw no essential contradiction between expanding the sphere of republican governments and preserving their nation’s independence.
Partisan political debate over the precise foreign-policy implications of American nationalism was evident from the start. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton agreed on American exceptionalism, U.S. sovereignty, and the long-term expansion of republican governments. They did not agree on the foreign-policy implications. Whereas Jefferson envisioned the United States as a vast, decentralized, agrarian republic, Hamilton looked to encourage a centralized treasury and nascent American manufacturing, along with the other apparatus of state power in the international arena, including a professionalized armed forces. During the 1790s, Jefferson tended to sympathize with revolutionary France; Hamilton, with Great Britain. It was precisely these differences between Jefferson and Federalists such as Hamilton that Washington hoped to quell in issuing his Farewell Address. To his mind, one advantage of non-entanglement overseas was the avoidance of domestic factional hostility inside the United States.
Each round of 19th-century American territorial expansion was typically characterized by some significant internal debate over whether such expansion was constitutional, cost-effective, or appropriate. These genuine philosophical differences were often bound up with sectional interests and party politics — along with support of, or opposition to, individual presidents. And presidents sometimes acted aggressively to direct American territorial expansion. Jefferson, for example, decried the centralization of executive authority, but when the opportunity presented itself in 1803 to purchase the vast Louisiana territory from France, he freely did so, admitting that he had stretched the Constitution until it cracked. Later waves of attempted territorial expansion and U.S. warfare against Britain, Mexico, and Native American tribes brought intense controversy and debate, pitting those Americans who favored expansion against those who did not. Both sides often argued that the other was betraying U.S. founding principles. And yet America’s nationalist foreign-policy consensus held firm. It was a heated dispute between partisans who shared the same underlying premises.
Out of the heat of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson offered a fundamental alternative to the American nationalist foreign-policy tradition. He conceived of and explained his decision to go to war in terms of his country’s ability not only to help defeat Germany militarily but also to lead in the creation of a transformed global order characterized by democratic governments, national self-determination, collective security, open trading arrangements, freedom of the seas, multilateral organization, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and general disarmament. A League of Nations was to be the capstone of this new U.S.-led order, containing at its heart what Wilson envisioned as a “virtual guarantee of territorial integrity and political independence” for each member state. Wilson’s great innovation was not simply to argue that American liberal values needed to be vindicated by force on the European continent, though this was dramatic enough in itself. Nor was it simply to tie his League project to the achievement of progressive reforms inside the United States, though he did that as well. His innovation was also to say that only through binding, universal, and formal multilateral commitments on the part of the United States could progressive liberal values be vindicated — worldwide. And in the process, Wilson disparaged the goal of maintaining a “balance of power.” In the end, the U.S. Senate refused to pass the Versailles Treaty by the required two-thirds vote. But Wilson had laid down a marker, ideologically, that would not disappear. The Wilsonian vision would become an animating force in American foreign policy, politically and internationally, over the course of the next century.
Republicans, for their part, had grave concerns about Wilson’s liberal internationalist vision from the beginning, along with its domestic implications. But they disagreed over how far exactly to correct or resist it. In particular, they were divided between hawkish forms of conservative American nationalism and more non-interventionist versions. As of 1918–19, the most common foreign-policy view among Republican senators favored a limited post-war alliance with France and Great Britain. But the final outcome of the League debate was essentially a victory for non-interventionists such as Senator Robert LaFollette. That outcome underpinned GOP foreign-policy approaches throughout the 1920s and into the opening years of World War II. Then Republicans again divided, with one side arguing for U.S. aid to Great Britain against Nazi Germany and the other side opposing it. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor settled that debate in favor of the GOP’s foreign-policy hawks.
The rise of the Soviet Union after World War II reinforced the new predominance of national-security hawks within the GOP. Strict non-interventionists were marginalized. But in reality, many conservative nationalists had to be dragged into a set of post-war U.S. commitments overseas, and the only thing that ensured their support was a fierce anti-Communism. No subsequent Republican president could entirely ignore the continued force of conservative American nationalism at the grassroots level, and most achieved political and policy success by incorporating aspects of it into their overall approach. The manner in which they did so varied considerably from one president to the next. Those who failed to strike effective balances on this score — such as Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 — tended to lose elections, whatever their other virtues.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the most common Republican feeling with regard to the party’s foreign-policy record was one of satisfaction. But already in the 1990s, non-interventionists had resurfaced, led by social conservative Pat Buchanan, on the one hand, and libertarian Ron Paul, on the other. Though they seemed marginal at the time, over the long run, these voices — and Buchanan’s, in particular — proved prophetic. President George W. Bush managed to rally most hardline GOP nationalists to his policy of a War on Terror, combined with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and a “freedom agenda” for the Middle East. But frustrations in Iraq raised some obvious criticisms, and once Bush left office the GOP again splintered into its most basic divisions. In 2016, insurgent candidate Donald Trump took advantage of these divisions to do what had previously seemed impossible — upend the dominance of foreign-policy hawks in favor of other approaches. The actual foreign policy of the Trump administration, however, was a hybrid or mixture of these tendencies.
The Trump administration’s foreign policy is therefore best understood as a resurgence of one specific form of conservative American nationalism — a less interventionist version — against Wilsonian foreign-policy legacies in both parties. Trump’s foreign-policy emphases appear unprecedented only if earlier historical experience is ignored. To be sure, Trump did not run as a liberal internationalist. But neither did most 20th-century Republican presidents. Nor is doubling down on dreamy Wilsonian foreign-policy assumptions the great necessity of our time. The liberal internationalist or Wilsonian tradition suggests that long-term global progress toward greater economic interdependence, democracy promotion, and multilateral organization ultimately combine to leave ancient patterns of power politics obsolete. Each post–Cold War president prior to Trump operated on some key premise within this tradition. President Bill Clinton hoped that expanding the zone of market-oriented U.S. allies through “democratic enlargement” would promote American values and interests at minimal cost. President George W. Bush hoped that preventive military action, combined with regime change in Iraq, would undermine support for jihadist terrorists inside the Muslim world. President Barack Obama hoped that international accommodations led by the U.S. would help to promote multilateral coordination around liberal policy goals. No doubt all three sets of hopes were sincere. And all three had certain foreign-policy successes. Yet in the end, all three were overly optimistic in very significant ways.
To be specific: History never ended. Historically normal patterns of strategic competition, international conflict, and great-power politics never entirely disappeared. Authoritarian powers both large and small discovered new ways to adapt and survive. And contrary to post–Cold War expectations, the major powers of the world did not all converge upon a single liberal democratic model or ideal. If anything, the 21st century has seen a resurgence of great power competition. The conclusion of the Cold War did not bring an end to geopolitical realities. It only reconfigured them.
For conservative nationalists, as for all Americans, the realization that progress is not inevitable, and that history has not ended, ought to lead to a shift in foreign-policy emphases. Expanding international cooperation and human rights are both worthy goals, but neither in itself can be the starting point for U.S. grand strategy. Greater weight must be placed on supporting America’s allies and pushing back against its rivals and adversaries within an internationally competitive environment. The answer is not to disengage. Nor is it to think that rivals can be lectured into accommodation — much less blasted away in a burst of regime change. Rather, the answer is for the United States to prepare for steady, long-term, robust competition with a range of serious competitors — above all, China — so as to better protect existing democracies against a variety of threats. What is required is a carefully calibrated and tough-minded politics of prudence.
U.S. diplomatic efforts should start with traditional alliances, rather than obvious competitors. There is little point in being half-hearted while protecting American primacy. But there is also no need to prioritize strategies of preventive war or regime change as uppermost doctrinally, since unsuccessful interventions overseas only serve to undermine broader U.S. interests. The default preference should be regionally differentiated strategies of attrition, assertive containment, and peace through strength. Transformational global projects or promises from all directions must now be met with considerable skepticism. Today’s great challenge is not to promote or transform any progressive world order but simply to defend existing democracies. The United States remains much stronger than some believe. If it pursues tough-minded foreign-policy approaches, tapping into its profound capabilities, it can outlast its challengers and succeed. That will involve a bringing together of confidence and self-restraint, in the best traditions of American foreign policy.
This article originally ran at RealClearPublicAffairs.