The United States needs a new framework for thinking about its role in the world. And this need is especially pressing for American conservatives. We are entering a world in which the dominant foreign-policy paradigms of the post–Cold War years are of little to no help, and are often downright harmful.
This is as true on the right as on the left. In the post-1989 world, with American power unchallenged, many on the right were tempted by breathtakingly expansive aims little tethered to traditional conservative verities of realism, prudence, and balance: universalizing democracy and free markets throughout the world, forcibly replacing hostile with congenial governments, transforming the Middle East, and eliminating all meaningful guardrails on the operation of the market.
Indeed, it was often difficult to distinguish the goals of the ascendant latter-day “neoconservatism” from those of the center-left. Both sought to transform, flatten, and “globalize” the world, to hasten toward what Francis Fukuyama memorably termed an end to history in which postmodern social-market systems and values would dominate across a borderless world. Notionally “conservative” foreign policy differed little from the aims of, for instance, Bill Clinton, distinguished only by being more hawkish, unilateral, and hostile to restrictions on trade and markets.
This venture has foundered. Part of the reason is that it proved far harder than anticipated. Significant parts of the world proved more resistant to being so transformed than had been widely expected in the 1990s and 2000s. American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed the limits of U.S. ability to remake countries. More broadly, China’s holding to an authoritarian political model and heavy state involvement in the economy, Russia’s turn away from the West, the results of the Arab Spring, and the mixed record of democratization and market liberalization in, for example, Southeast Asia and Latin America showed that the march toward this vision of universalized postmodernity was far from inexorable.
Part of the reason, too, is that Americans began to question whether the whole effort was worthwhile. Even more, they began to wonder whether the goals being pursued were the right ones — a reaction, it should be noted, shared in other parts of the world, especially Europe. The “new world” of thoroughgoing globalization that was enthusiastically anticipated by the center-left and little challenged by the dominant foreign-policy thinking on the right seemed ultimately destined to lead to the leveling and enmeshing of everything, essentially doing away with nations, borders, and particular identities as meaningful realities. This might have appeared to some a glittering vision in the boom days of the 1990s. By the 2010s, with the financial crisis, consistent wage and job pressure on the lives of working Americans, an opioid epidemic, a migration crisis in Europe, and, indeed, what looked to many like an increasing malaise in American (and, more broadly, Western) life, that vision was much less attractive.
Finally, something fundamentally more foreboding than disillusion with hyper-globalization was afoot on the global stage. This was the return of great-power politics. Above all, China’s growing wealth and power were casting a broadening and darkening shadow. The rise of the People’s Republic meant that American strategic and market leverage were declining. At the same time, China’s military buildup and increasing geopolitical assertiveness indicated that Beijing did not think that its primary purpose in the world was to fit nicely into the preexisting “liberal international order” so often bruited about. Russia, meanwhile, had recovered its equipoise and some of its strength and turned decidedly — in some ways, violently — against a friendly approach toward the West. America’s traditional partners in Europe, meanwhile, were fractious and inward-looking.
It all meant that, for the first time in a generation, Americans would live and work in a world defined not simply by the overwhelming strength of the United States and its historical allies but also by the immense and growing power of China, to a lesser but still important extent by an alienated Russia, and by a general diffusion of power away from the network of traditional U.S. alliances.
By the 2010s, then, something fundamental was off in America’s approach to the world. The dizzyingly high goals and “count not the cost” attitude of post–Cold War foreign policy were markedly out of sync with what Americans actually seemed to want and fear and what they were prepared to sacrifice for.
This disjuncture was particularly vivid on the right. The neoconservative ascendancy of the 1990s and 2000s was a bizarre period for conservatism. Neoconservatism was a kind of muscular liberalism — more an aggressive Wilsonianism than conservative, more Gladstone than Disraeli. Conservatism is in essence about the limits of what power — including state power — can accomplish; hence Michael Kinsley’s quip about conservatives’ “treasured sense of futility.” Yet the putatively conservative foreign policy of the post–Cold War period preached that such power could be used to transform first the Middle East and then the whole world.
Moreover, conservatism accepts that a regulated self-interest must be the basis for serious policy — that governments must think first about their own if they are ever to be able to do good for others. Yet Republican policymakers in those years often endorsed grand missions of pacifying and evangelizing the world, callings connected to the concrete interests of normal Americans in only the most strained sense. By the mid 2010s, then, it had become evident to Americans in general and to Republicans in particular that the post–Cold War orthodoxies were seriously misaligned with reality.
This was all very odd and could not last. It did not.
Enter Donald Trump. The election of President Trump represented a stunning, overdue registration by American voters of their recognition that things had gotten off-kilter. A decisive departure from the attitudes of the previous generation was needed, especially given how entrenched they were among wide segments of the American elite. The Trump administration has delivered this, despite the fervent opposition of those wedded to post–Cold War ways.
But breaking from the past is only the beginning. Recognizing that our old paradigms were badly awry and that the world is more competitive than we had expected is a start. But we do not yet have a suitable framework for the future. We do not yet know where we are going or how to get there.
This is especially perilous because of the siren song of a general withdrawal from the world. Having been stung by the overreach of neoconservatism, the Right now runs the risk of seeing full withdrawal from the world as a solution. Yet that would be as unrealistic and unconservative as neoconservatism. Our interests are in the world and the world is shaped by power and its application, and so we must deal with it as it is, not hope that our problems will address themselves on their own.
In a world of great-power competition in which Americans cannot simply get their way, then, we must have a clearer sense of just what the purposes of American foreign policy should be. Which goals should we pursue, and with which should we dispense? Which risks should we run and which sacrifices should we make — and which not? To answer those questions requires that we define our interests more carefully. That will tell us what matters and what does not.
Until quite recently, there had been little to chew on about this from leading Republicans. Fortunately, this is now changing, thanks in particular to a seminal speech Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri delivered at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C., in November. Hawley is not alone. He is among a crop of younger Republican members of Congress — including Senators Marco Rubio, Todd Young, and Tom Cotton and Representative Mike Gallagher — who are wrestling with what a new conservative foreign and defense policy should look like in a world of great-power competition.
But Hawley in his speech provides the most compelling and lucid framework of what a new conservative foreign policy should be about. He roots American foreign policy where it belongs — in the interests of the broad American middle, the proverbial “working, everyday American.” Indeed, Hawley’s might be called a truly republican approach to foreign policy.
Hawley places at the center and orienting point of our policy, domestic and foreign, the well-being of our community, our nation; he does not seek to progressively erode it away within a broadening transnationalism, what he calls a progressive “universalist dream.” He roots our care — our orientation for what our foreign policy should be for — in the flourishing of a particular community, our own. As Hawley emphasizes, this distinguishes him not only from progressives but also from the many Republicans of the preceding generation who essentially subscribed to this “universalist dream,” even if they wanted to pursue it in a different way than those on the center-left. As Hawley put it, too many “conservatives have not fundamentally disagreed with their counterparts on the Left about the ultimate goal of creating a progressive international system. It’s just that they doubted it could be realized through multilateral institutions.”
Moreover, Hawley has a particular conception of what this community is about. Following the Founders, Tocqueville, and a tradition dating back at least to the Greeks, he contends that our community is rooted in a “middle class” orientation as its core identity. America, Hawley argues, is in essence “a middle-class nation,” a nation defined by the “independen[ce,] . . . dignity and power of the working man and woman.” People obviously don’t have to be in the middle class to be great Americans, but our nation is at its core about the ability of ordinary people to live lives dignified by meaningful work, family, community, and faith. The middle class defines our regime — what characterizes us as a political entity.
It is this identity and the need to sustain it that should serve as the guiding principle for our policy. This is not a humdrum statement. Hawley’s approach is fundamentally different from a policy designed, for instance, to unfetter the market and let the chips fall where they may and from one designed progressively to integrate America into the rest of the world. Hawley is for a free market, but he has a higher goal — the well-being of the middle class. And his field of regard is international, but his purposes are not transnationalist — he is committed to a particular community and its flourishing.
Hawley’s contention is that our policy has strayed from serving the well-being of this critical core of our republic — and that our middle class has struggled as a result. As he has pointed out in other contexts, America’s middle class is enduring an opioid epidemic, rising suicide rates, intense pressure on wages, and decreasing job security, all while sacrificing in wars in the Middle East. Taken together, this has made America’s core middle weaker and less confident. This is more than a tragedy for our middle class — it is a threat to our very essence as a republic. If we do not have a strong, confident, prosperous middle class, we are no longer, in a very real sense, America. We are a different — and worse — nation.
If this is where we are, then whatever we have been doing in the past years has not been working. Hawley has spoken in other contexts about how we need to take a fresh look at our domestic policies. In his speech at CNAS, he emphasized this also means a very different approach to our foreign policy. Hawley is of no doubt that our interests require an international orientation. A flourishing middle class requires a congenial international environment; autarky is a route to penury. As he put it, “We seek an international order where we can practice our unique way of democracy . . . [and] that will allow our working people to prosper and to maintain their political and economic independence.”
Hawley has a limpid sense of what this necessitates. To enable the prosperity of our middle class, he observed,
We manufacture and trade — and not among ourselves only, but with others beyond our borders. Our middle-class character makes us a commercial nation, and for that reason, a trading nation too. And so American interests are inseparably bound up with access to other regions of the world on open and equal terms. American security requires that this nation be free to seek out commercial partners and free to negotiate with those partners for terms favorable to all sides.
And this in turn requires a clear standard for policy in the world: “We can only pursue those ends if no region of the world, no key area vital to us, is dominated or controlled by another power.” A hegemonic state could discriminate against others — and in the past such states have regularly done so. The Soviet Union, imperial Japan, Wilhelmine Germany, and Napoleonic France all sought to create economic zones that would benefit them and disfavor and weaken others. The United States cannot afford to allow that to happen in the world’s great markets if its middle class is to prosper.
From this, Hawley makes a logical deduction: Since Asia is by far the world’s largest market, and China the strongest state other than the United States in the international system, China’s dominance over Asia is the challenge of our time. Beijing has already demonstrated in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong, and in the pressure applied to Disney, the NBA, and Nike what kind of treatment of Americans — and others — would result from its dominance of the region. Hawley is unafraid to draw the proper conclusion: “China’s bid for domination is the greatest security threat to this country in this century. And our foreign policy around the globe must be oriented to this challenge and focused principally on this threat.” Conscious of the pressure Americans are under and sensitive to the scale of the challenge, Hawley admonishes that “American might is not limitless, nor are the lives and treasure of the American people. Now we must make hard choices and articulate clear priorities in order to meet the challenge before us.”
Some have criticized Hawley for not providing enough detail. But they miss the point. The new senator from Missouri has laid out a republican framework for how to orient and develop our foreign policy for a new era. It is realistic but not pessimistic or isolationist; nationalist but internationalist; self-interested but enlightened, principled, and aligned with the interests of others. It is designed to resuscitate and sustain America in its truest sense in a world in which that cannot be taken for granted. Thus it is the right frame for the nation — and particularly for conservatives — to use to think and decide about our actions abroad in a much tougher era. Especially given how far we have strayed in the past generation, this is an enormous step.