The 20th century proved that democracies have a major problem when it comes to foreign policy. They often act when they shouldn’t and fail to act when they must. As a result, they seem unable to prevent such foreseeable conflicts as World War II and the Korean War — and sometimes they engage in catastrophic wars for no good reason, as was perhaps the case in Vietnam and Iraq.
The genius of the American form of government is the number of cooks in the kitchen. The problem is that too many cooks make it difficult to form a single coherent strategy. In our government, every element of policy is developed separately to a point that inhibits overall coordination. This diffusion may work for domestic policy, but in foreign policy the effect is to make nearly impossible the implementation of any strategy. The vicissitudes of public opinion that so worried the Framers then tend to become the determinants of policy.
This weakness is most easily overcome when four conditions obtain: First, the president and his closest advisers have enough sense of history to develop a strategic vision. Second, there is a strong consensus in support of the vision within the administration. Third, there is significant public support for the vision. And finally, if all those conditions are met, it becomes possible to institutionalize the strategy, as occurred at the outset of the Cold War with the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Pacific Rim alliances, the Bretton Woods system, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
A democratic foreign policy can be successful even when all four conditions are not met, but public support is perhaps the indispensable element. It is the element that Colin Dueck, a professor of political science at George Mason University, has concentrated on in Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism. The book is required reading for those seeking to make sense of American foreign policy in the age of Trump.
Dueck argues that the president’s approach to foreign policy is far from a mere expression of his personal idiosyncrasies. In fact, he argues that Trump’s broad approach, what he calls “conservative nationalism,” is the oldest American foreign-policy tradition, and was the dominant one from the Founding until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and America’s entry into World War I.
With Wilson began a new tradition, which Dueck terms “liberal internationalism,” marked by an idealistic and unrealistic commitment to schemes such as the League of Nations. In the “great debates surrounding Wilson’s policies,” writes Dueck, the basic elements of conservative nationalism emerged as three distinct foreign-policy tendencies among Republicans: nonintervention (marked by pacifism and isolationism), hardline nationalism (marked by a robust military presence abroad, but one that eschews alliances and multilateral institutions), and conservative internationalism (marked by support for alliances and foreign intervention, but stopping short of Wilson’s globalism).
From the end of World War II until Barack Obama’s first term, conservative internationalists were dominant among Republicans. Dueck sees Trump’s foreign policy — conservative nationalism — as a more balanced synthesis of the three tendencies, especially elevating nationalism relative to conservative internationalism. Dueck quotes Trump in early 2017: “I’m a nationalist and a globalist. I’m both.”
The shift in the GOP voter base to a more working-class and patriotic demographic has paved the way for the ascendancy of the hardline-nationalist instinct, which, as Dueck describes it, is “to maintain very strong defenses, punish severely any threat to U.S. citizens, refuse international accommodations, and otherwise remain detached from multilateral commitments.” The hidden strength of Trump’s particular combination of ambivalence on some issues and strong convictions on others is that it’s more widely held by Republican voters — and, possibly, Americans in general — than perhaps any other foreign-policy approach.
We might wonder whether conservative-nationalist attitudes are coherent enough to serve as the foundation for a lasting grand strategy. We know that voters who hold such attitudes tend to be skeptical of the federal government and big corporations and to take gun rights very seriously. But how do their foreign-policy views actually differ from those of other conservatives?
Twenty-first-century frustrations, writes Dueck, “have led to a resurgence of a distinct form of American nationalism on the Right, emphasizing the need for allied burden-sharing, US sovereignty, and the promotion of American material interests.” There is nothing new in those priorities, though. Conservative internationalists (or “neocons,” in the popular pejorative) emphasize all three.
Perhaps the real difference in Trump’s conservative nationalism is a much narrower view of America’s “material interests.” Trump challenges the conservative establishment (including many in his own administration) to explain just why we should be involved in the Middle East anyway; why we should be spending money on military exercises in South Korea; why we should be underwriting Europe’s security when those very rich Europeans are unwilling to pay for it themselves. Those are very good questions.
Trump’s emphasis on “America first” is decidedly populist and creates an almost inevitable conflict with party elites. For Dueck, the reason may be simple: Unlike working-class Republican voters, “most Republican political, economic, and intellectual leaders do not feel personally harmed or displaced by technological changes, globalization, immigration, or growing ethnic diversity.”
The benefit of this more narrow definition of American interests and of the purposes of American power is that it avoids costly commitments such as those entailed by John F. Kennedy’s promise to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” This foolish declaration implied an American commitment to fight major wars in areas of the world where only peripheral U.S. interests were implicated, leading directly to the Stygian catastrophe of Vietnam.
The potential downside is that Trump’s approach may avoid commitments that are necessary to preserve the nation’s security. As we learned on September 11, 2001, terrorists in small safe havens in the world’s most godforsaken places can kill Americans by the thousands right here at home — likely not the last time we will have to learn that bitter lesson.
So which category does the Iraq War fall into? That is perhaps the question that most starkly separates conservative nationalists from the internationalists, and the dividing line is clearest on the question of the 2007 troop surge. Dueck describes the two choices George W. Bush had after his reelection, with public support for the war dwindling. He could, Dueck recounts, either withdraw from Iraq, in keeping with popular opinion, or double down on victory. “Another president might have chosen the first option. Determined to avoid a failed outcome, Bush chose the second.”
In the past several months, I have heard both a progressive Democratic law professor and a fervent Trump supporter formerly on the staff of the National Security Council say that the Iraq War was a bigger mistake than Vietnam. That is a common view in both parties nowadays. But it is hardly self-evident that a war to remove one of the world’s most dangerous dictatorships, in an area of vital U.S. interests, ending in victory with fewer than 5,000 American dead, was a bigger mistake than fighting a huge Communist-nationalist revolution, in an area of peripheral interest, ending in humiliating defeat with more than 50,000 American dead.
At just under 180 pages, Dueck’s narrative seems a bit too short and elides some crucial questions. For example, Trump attributes North Korea’s more congenial disposition in the last few years to his “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and threats. But is that really what North Korea was responding to? Or did Kim Jong-un sense in Trump’s relative ambivalence toward the U.S. alliance with South Korea an opportunity to split the alliance apart and get the Americans to leave Korea at long last? More strategic analysis of such questions would have been highly illuminating.
In the Persian Gulf in recent months, we have seen an elegant demonstration of the potential downsides to combining a confrontational approach with insouciance toward alliances. Trump boldly withdrew from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, imposing maximalist demands on Tehran regarding Iran’s nuclear program and backing those up with economic sanctions that have proved devastating.
The sanctions were designed to dramatically diminish Iran’s access to the world oil market, and in order to mitigate the impact on world oil prices, we asked our Gulf Arab allies to ramp up oil production to replace the lost supply. The Iranians were sure to see that as an act of economic warfare by the Arab states, against which they would have little choice but to retaliate. And yet when the inevitable Iranian retaliation materialized, in attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, we did nothing. Iran even downed one of our own unmanned aircraft, and still we did nothing. Iran will keep escalating until someone stops it, or until it succeeds in forcing our Arab allies to stop supporting sanctions and assume a more neutral stance in the Gulf.
Conservatives celebrated Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. But the decision has precipitated a showdown in the Gulf. Are we committed to winning it? If not, then the net effect may be merely to precipitate Iran’s nuclear breakout.
In a passage on geopolitics toward the end of the book, Dueck advocates long-term strategies of pressure against adversaries. He asks, “Is a conservative US foreign policy strategy of this type politically possible, or compatible with the recent surge of a more populist nationalism?” He thinks so, but his book may leave you wondering.
This article appears as “Foreign Policy in a Populist Age” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.