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.