Home / Articles / Why Some Neo-Cons Are Wrong About U.S. Foreign Policy
Experience and history teach only this, wrote the philosopher Hegel in 1827: that people and governments never learn anything from history or act on principles derived from it. Americans’ confusion over foreign policy in the post-Cold War era would certainly seem to bear him out. Democrats and Republicans alike are divided into quarreling factions, all of whom justify their various agendas on the basis of spurious appeals to real, but irrelevant history, or relevant appeals to spurious history. Thus do some Democrats and Republicans today argue that America rose to greatness on the strength of protectionist trade policy and restrictive immigration policy, and insist that it return to those roots. True, the U.S. did have high tariffs over much of its history and did at times panic over the influx of “undesirable” immigrants. But so too has the U.S. been eager to trade with any country in the world that would do so on equal terms, and no nation has been more open to newcomers. The Clinton administration, by contrast, justifies its “enlargement” of democracy, environmental agendas, and promotion of market economies by reference to America’s idealistic tradition. But the Wilsonian crusades they espouse were not in the U.S. tradition until the twentieth century, and their record has been decidedly mixed, from the gunboat diplomacy in Latin America and botched colonial rule over the Philippines to the billions wasted in foreign aid to corrupt, socialistic, or incompetent Third World governments, to “state-building” boondoggles ranging from South Vietnam to Somalia, Haiti (three times), and Bosnia.
One of the more egregious misreadings of history is that of some neoconservatives, who complain that Clinton has not gone far enough in the promotion of American ideals worldwide. They want the United States to exercise nothing less than a “benevolent global hegemony.” They claim that only by crusading on behalf of universal democratic principles can the United States remain true to its birthright. And they insist that such a crusade would amount to a neo-Reaganite policy. They have every right to preach their crusade, they may even be right to preach their crusade. But in my judgment they are grossly wrong to drape their crusade in the mantle of Ronald Reagan.
William Kristol and Robert Kagan first sounded this trumpet in Foreign Affairs (“Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” July-August 1996). They began by noting that conservatives today are adrift— no argument there— because even though conservatives disdain the soft multilateralism of Bill Clinton and the neoisolationism of Patrick Buchanan, they have found no alternative apart from “some version of the conservative ‘realism’ of Henry Kissinger and his disciples.” Hence the need for someone to outline a genuinely “conservative view of the world and America’s proper role in it.” The authors then move on to compare our situation today to that of the mid-1970s, when Richard Nixon and Kissinger practiced realpolitik and allegedly lost sight of American values. Reagan challenged the “tepid consensus” that “accepted the inevitability of America’s declining power.” In the 1976 campaign he called for “an end to complacency in the face of the Soviet threat,” insisted on “moral clarity and purpose in U.S. foreign policy,” and “championed American exceptionalism when it was deeply unfashionable.” He lost out that year because, the authors relate, Democrats and even most Republicans were still reeling from the Vietnam War and were “appalled by Reagan’s zealotry.” But he did transform the Republican Party and, after his win in 1980, transformed the world as well.
I bow to no one in my admiration for Reagan. But let us stop for a moment to think about the historical account above. First, the authors’ criticism of Nixon and Kissinger ignores the very historical setting of the mid-1970s to which they themselves allude: the post-Vietnam syndrome and domination of Congress by liberal, even neo-isolationist Democrats who had just passed all manner of restrictions on the president’s exercise of foreign policy. Just think of the cutoffs of funds for bombing in Southeast Asia and continued assistance to South Vietnam and the anticommunist force in Angola, the War Powers Act, the campaign against covert action by the CIA, the sharp reductions in defense spending, and the overall loss of confidence in, if not contempt for, U.S. engagement abroad. How on earth, under such circumstances, could Nixon and Kissinger have executed the sorts of policies Reagan championed?
Contrary to the dismissive tone of these authors, one might rather praise Nixon and Kissinger for pulling off a tough-minded geopolitical strategy of detente and liquidation of the Vietnam War that minimized the damage done to America’s global position by Vietnam, turned the tables on the USSR through the opening to China, and thus made it possible for a Reagan to go back on the Cold War offensive once the United States regained its poise. The authors’ account also ignores the fact that Nixon could not have appealed to American “exceptionalism” in any case because by 1969 the American moral consensus had cracked and was at war with itself. If anything, the anti-war left had captured the moral high ground, leaving Nixon with no choice but to practice realpolitik. Finally, the authors fail to note that Nixon’s outreach to Southerners and blue collar workers— future “Reagan Democrats” — what made possible the coalescence of the Reagan coalition by the end of the decade. Neoconservatives, in fact, were among the last on board.
Having thus set the stage with a less than accurate historical backdrop, Kristol and Kagan move on to define their neo-Reaganite foreign policy. Now that the “evil empire” is vanquished, they write, the U.S. must aspire to exercise a “benevolent American hegemony.” For never has the U.S. had such a golden opportunity to promote democracy and free markets abroad, while Americans themselves “have never had it so good.” Hence, the “appropriate” goal of the United States should be “to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible.” The authors dismiss those gloomsters who warn of imperial overstretch or the danger of conjuring enemies, and call instead for a sharply increased U.S. defense budget “to preserve America’s role as global hegemon”; measures to enthuse the American people, perhaps through some form of military conscription; and a bluntly moral foreign policy that aims at “actively promoting American principles of governance abroad.” After all, the revolting alternative would be to pursue business as usual with authoritarian states such as China, and such “Armand Hammerism should not be a tenet of conservative foreign policy.”
To all that I would say, first, that “benevolent hegemony” is a contradiction in terms. Such a self-conscious, self-righteous bid for global hegemony is bound to drive foreign rivals into open hostility to the U.S. and make our allies resentful and nervous. Secondly, the authors’ argument again ignores the historical record, which demonstrates that U.S. diplomacy has been most successful when it weighs in against would-be hegemons such as Germany and the Soviet Union for the purpose, as John F. Kennedy said, “to make the world safe for diversity.” But Kristol and Kagan would have us arrogate to ourselves a hegemony for the purpose of making the world over in our image. Thirdly, there is a huge difference between promoting democracy for the purpose of undermining an aggressive dictatorial enemy, and turning some authoritarian country into an enemy because it is laggard in embracing American values.
Which methodology did Reagan employ? Clearly the former one, and if you are inclined to doubt that, just try to imagine a secret staff meeting in which Reagan, Alexander Haig, Caspar Weinberger, Bill Casey, Richard Allen, Fred Ikl, Richard Perle, and Richard Pipes— tough-minded strategists all— indulge fantasies of a U.S.-policed Wilsonian New World Order? No, Reagan’s genius lay in his recognition that freedom-fighting rhetoric backed (unlike Jimmy Carter’s) by military strength and deft geopolitics is a mighty weapon of war against tyranny, but not any sort of utopian blueprint. If anything, Reagan was remarkably cautious about interventions abroad, as evidenced by the fact that he sent forces abroad fewer times in eight years than Clinton did in four. Yet Kristol and Kagan would have us believe that the purpose of Reagan’s campaign to bring down the Soviets was to supplant their ideological hegemony with one made in the U.S.A.
The authors then write, “History also shows … .” Now whenever you hear that phrase, watch out! because history will almost invariably not show what follows. “History shows,” they claim, that “the American people can be summoned to meet the challenges of global leadership if statesmen make the case loudly, cogently, and persuasively.” The authors cite two examples: how Harry Truman and the Congress resisted the arms buildup needed to wage the Cold War until the Korean War broke out, and how the Carter administration resisted increasing the defense budget until the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. I don’t know what Kristol and Kagan were thinking when they crafted that paragraph, but those examples would appear to prove the opposite of what they claim, to wit, that Americans tend not to rally until a loud, cogent disaster persuades them to do so. I assume that Kristol and Kagan are not hoping for another Korean war or Sputnik-type shock to whet Americans’ appetite for hegemony.
But I can’t help thinking of Woodrow Wilson’s complaint that the only way for a president to “compel compliance” from Congress is to get the nation into “such scrapes” and make such “rash promises” abroad that the Senate cannot disavow him without shaming the United States. And indeed, the authors conclude with a clarion call that would appear to invite scrapes and rash promises: “[Conservatives] hark back to the admonition of John Quincy Adams that America ought not ‘go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ But why not? The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their heart’s content, as Americans stand by and watch.” Adams’s counsel may have been wise in 1823, they concede, but today “a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.”
I cannot let any slap at John Quincy Adams go unavenged. “Why not?” ask the authors rhetorically. Here’s why not: because if you go abroad in search of monsters, you will invariably find them even if you have to create them. You will then fight them, whether or not you need to, and you will either come home defeated, or else so bloodied that the American people will lose their tolerance for engagement altogether, or else so victorious and full of yourself that the rest of the world will hate you and fear that you’ll name them the next monster. And by the way, was it not Ronald Reagan who reminded America in such moving cadences of its calling to be an exemplary City on a Hill? Kristol and Kagan also fail to quote the sentences that immediately follow Adams’s “go not abroad in search of monsters.” The reason not to is that to do so “would involve the United States beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, avarice, envy, and ambition… . America might become the dictatress of the world, but she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.” The road to hell, that is, is paved with good intentions, as we Vietnam veterans know.
I bear no grudge against Kristol or Kagan. I even agree with them that the U.S. must play a leading role in the world, affirm its values without apology, and recommend them to all mankind. But I believe that the American people and Congress are already, to their credit, on board for an engaged foreign policy, that the quarter of a trillion dollars in our annual Pentagon budget is no trifling sum, and that premature, imprudent crusades are the best way to play into the hands of real “isolationists.” Above all, I fear that the sins of commission that excessive zeal may provoke are more dangerous in our present era than any sins of omission borne of inordinate prudence.
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