The testy exchange this summer over U.S. counterterrorism practices—involving two leading potential GOP presidential candidates, Kentucky senator Rand Paul and New Jersey governor Chris Christie—is part of a broad and consequential new debate among Republicans over foreign policy and national security. In the past, conservatives and Republicans have tended to agree more than they disagree on such issues.
The notion of a strong national defense, in particular, has been a bedrock principle for conservatives for decades. But tight fiscal constraints, voter fatigue with foreign wars, the rise of a powerful libertarian strain within the GOP, and the reelection of President Obama (together with his relative domestic political success on foreign-policy issues) have all raised the question of where Republicans and conservatives are headed when it comes to America’s role in the world. It is no longer inconceivable that a truly prominent GOP presidential candidate next time around might argue for deep defense cuts, strengthened civil liberties for terror suspects, and reducing U.S. military commitments overseas.
Into this debate steps Henry Nau, a Reagan-administration official and professor at George Washington University. His project in this book is to delineate and argue for a distinct historical and philosophical tradition in American foreign policy that is both internationalist and conservative. He locates this tradition in the words and actions of several U.S. presidents. For Nau, some of the main principles of conservative internationalism are an emphasis on freedom over stability in foreign countries; the proper coordination of force and diplomacy; a certain skepticism toward multilateral organizations; and a willingness to use force to promote liberty. Nau’s chosen tradition is internationalist in its support for U.S. engagement abroad along with the promotion of democracy as a core foreign-policy principle; and it is conservative in its determination to back diplomacy with force, and in its commitment to democratic accountability in international forums rather than to transnational governance or multilateralism per se.
The presidential case studies Nau puts forward are uniformly interesting, even if some are more convincing than others. The selection of Reagan, in a way the central figure of the book, as a conservative internationalist will surprise nobody, and Nau examines Reagan’s specific foreign-policy priorities and successes with a keen understanding based not only on some of the latest primary sources but on his own time in that administration. Truman’s strong foreign policy is a model to which more and more conservatives have become attracted over the years, and rightly so, though of course Truman was far from conservative in his domestic politics. Polk is perhaps the most fascinating case of all, and certainly a neglected one in modern presidential mythology. Here we have a man who set out to establish the United States as a truly transcontinental power through massive territorial expansions westward, did so, and then stepped down after only one term in office—a remarkable achievement.
Jefferson is more problematic. No doubt he remains the most articulate spokesman for U.S. conservative principles of limited government, and his handling of the Louisiana Purchase as well as the Barbary pirates earns him foreign-policy credit. But it is difficult to see his management of relations with Great Britain, including his handling of the issues of the trade embargo and naval impressment, as anything but an example to be avoided: He drove New England’s economy into the ground and antagonized the British over matters of principle, without maintaining the military power to match either his principles or the British.
Nau makes a plausible overarching case for the existence of a distinct conservative-internationalist tradition in American diplomacy, and one deserving of fresh examination in the age of Obama. It is quite clear, for example, that President Obama usually feels no pressing need to support his diplomatic remonstrations with adequate force, or to make his actions conform to his words, in cases such as Syria or Iran. The president says that Iranian nuclear weapons are unacceptable, but very few—least of all in Tehran—believe that he really means it. He declares that “Assad must go,” but does little to make it happen. Whatever one’s policy preferences in such cases, it should be obvious that Obama does not normally coordinate American diplomatic statements with the prospect of meaningful action. Instead, he makes public statements when necessary, and tries to avoid international distractions in order to focus primarily on domestic political objectives. A conservative-internationalist approach would operate very differently.
#page#For Nau, conservative internationalism starts from the premise that the underlying purpose of American foreign policy is to promote freedom overseas. How, one might ask, would this differ from the policies pursued by President George W. Bush, or from those often described as neoconservative? The answer is that Nau looks to bring greater discipline and discrimination to the American tradition of democracy promotion, while simultaneously rescuing it from Obama’s relative lack of interest. There is indeed a common cause here between Nau and the neoconservatives, in the assumption that America must stand for something in world politics beyond its own narrow interests; but, after all, this is an assumption large numbers of Americans share.
Nau is quite critical of Bush’s foreign-policy record in several respects. He suggests that the invasion of Iraq may have been a bridge too far, in attempting to leapfrog democracy promotion into unfavorable territory. He further suggests that Bush ought to have cashed in on the leverage gained from that invasion to pressure Iran diplomatically in 2003–04. This is not to say that he shares the hostile mentality of Bush’s liberal critics. On the contrary, Nau is deeply sympathetic to many of the assumptions and decisions of the Bush administration, and certainly does not want to see lost whatever geopolitical gains were made during those years. But Nau’s version of conservative internationalism would focus on democracy promotion in materially vital and proximate rather than peripheral regions; cash in diplomatically on superior military strength, as Reagan did in 1987 with the INF Treaty; and resist surpassing what the American public will bear in terms of international cost or expense.
I have a lingering sense that Nau’s book overemphasizes democracy promotion as the one central driving purpose behind American foreign policy. The Arab Spring, now turned to winter, has once again revealed what early neoconservatives such as Jeane Kirkpatrick intuited—namely, that pressure for revolutionary change on U.S. allies can easily backfire in ways that are both authoritarian and profoundly anti-American. In such cases, the starting point for U.S. foreign policy cannot simply be democracy promotion, however subtly pursued. The starting point must be the clear-eyed pursuit of American national interests, especially national-security interests, of which democracy promotion is only one aspect. A more tough-minded approach would have handled U.S. relations with Egypt, for example, very differently than Obama has over the past three years.
Still, the great strength of Nau’s book is that he is right about most of the big challenges facing U.S. foreign policy right now, including challenges for conservatives. The real question today is not so much whether the U.S. will advance democracy overseas, but whether it will even defend it. A striking number of Americans seem to have concluded that the mistakes made and costs sustained in Iraq constitute an argument for ignoring current international security challenges altogether. President Obama has played into this conclusion and benefited from it. His incremental dismantling of America’s military power and strategic presence abroad is creating a more dangerous world, as authoritarian powers feel increasingly free to act in the knowledge that the U.S. will do nothing. Most liberal Democrats and academics, together with the mainstream press, cannot fathom this fact and simply will not see it.
Conservative Republicans have historically been the last group to give up on effective strategic leadership overseas. But a rising anti-interventionist faction within the GOP argues that U.S. military power is itself the problem—the main source of national debt, and the main source of America’s problems overseas. Neither of these things is true. So in the coming years, whatever else they have in common, conservatives will have to make a choice. Do we seriously believe that America will be safer and stronger, and the world freer and more stable, if we help to accelerate the trend toward strategic weakness and international disengagement begun by Barack Obama?
– Mr. Dueck is an associate professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II.