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A Post Cold War Conservative Foreign Policy

October 2000 – by Donald J. Devine and David A. Keene

National Greatness Conservatism

Robert Kagan, the top foreign policy theorist of something that has become known as “national greatness” conservatism, has insisted that thoughtful Americans come to grips with the new post cold war world by adopting a new foreign policy construct consistent with his views.1 A serious debate on foreign and military policy cannot be avoided any longer, and traditional conservatives must accept the challenge to state their views.

Since Kagan began his analysis with a criticism of the Clinton-Gore foreign policy, the place to start is with the views articulated by Vice President Al Gore in a major speech on April 30, in Boston. Unfortunately for him, however, in responding to post speech questions, the Vice President was less than adroit in explaining his policies. Indeed, once he got off the script, it did not turn out very well at all. He seemed to imply that those who envisioned any limits to U.S. military involvement abroad ought to be dismissed as out of date “isolationists.” Asked if Republican nominee George W. Bush was part of this “isolationist wing” of the GOP, he intoned: “What he has said has often been isolationist in tone … I think that is a kind of old cold war mentality.”2 The historic fact that both parties assumed a fairly “internationalist” stance during the cold war as their leaders agreed on the need to confront or contain communist expansion seems to have been lost on Mr. Gore. How else would one explain his view that one could be both an isolationist and a cold warrior at the same time?

As a matter of fact, the Vice President seemed to articulate more interventionist policies in the debates that were more consistent with those of the Republican Kagan than did his opponent. Governor Bush, too, sometimes seemed confused as he tried to draw lines between legitimate or wise uses of U.S. power. But he clearly differed with both Mr. Gore and Mr. Kagan and followed the traditional conservative policy when he insisted that an American President must be sure that the nation’s real interests were at stake before he would authorize the use of U.S. forces abroad.3 In suggesting that U.S. forces in the Balkans be removed sooner rather than later, Mr. Bush was specifically differing with the Vice President and rejecting Kagan’s advice. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Kagan had told Mr. Bush that he would be smart “if he stopped talking about pulling U.S. troops out of the Balkans and elsewhere.”4 The Republican Congress was likewise blamed for “singing that [same] neo-isolationist tone for years.”

Mr. Kagan has a very different and broader view of when U.S. forces should be committed abroad than Governor Bush, most Congressional Republicans and all but a small minority of conservatives. He believes the U.S. should be prepared to act militarily in a broad set of circumstances and in many world danger “zones.” He listed these danger zones as Iraq, the Balkans, China-Taiwan, weapons proliferation in India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, stability in Haiti and Columbia and, especially, Russia. “Even the optimists don’t deny that the election of Vladimir Putin could be an ominous development,” he warned. “The devastation of Chechnya has revealed the new regime’ penchant for brutality.”5 The answer to all of these is for the United States to act tough with these “adversaries” and force them to do the right thing. Indeed, his criticism of the Clinton Administration’s use of force is not that it has been too willing to act when U.S. interests have not been at stake, but that it has too often backed off from taking aggressive action.

It is significant, however, that the Kagan areas of concern are mostly the same ones identified by Bill Clinton as important.6 For, although he disagrees with the President’s handling of foreign policy, Mr. Kagan tends to accept Clinton’s priorities rather than those of the GOP’s presidential nominee and the majority of Republicans in Congress. In fact, Kagan and Clinton both call them “isolationists.” His advice to Bush was to separate himself from his fellow Republicans by adopting an even more interventionist and internationalist stance than Clinton or Gore. What Kagan seeks is a Republican president who would be even more willing than Clinton or Gore to use U.S. power to enforce a de facto American hegemony and a set of internationalist or universal values. Mr. Kagan and his associate Bill Kristol, in fact, specifically endorse what they call a “benevolent American hegemony” to police the world.8 Apparently, they have not found their man with George Bush.

Traditional conservatives should join this debate with relish. Conservative priorities differ markedly from those of both Bill Clinton and the national greatness conservatives. The Republican reluctance to accept a never ending commitment of U.S. manpower and treasure in Bosnia and Kosovo was right and Bush’s instinctive desire to get out should be applauded.

From a traditional conservative perspective, there were no American interests involved in Yugoslavia, nor Haiti.9 Contrary to Kagan, Columbia and Iraq were second order problems at best. Condemning immoral regimes or movements abroad is always appropriate but the degree of involvement must be based upon practical questions such as the degree of threat and what reaction can be expected. Nor is it in our interest to talk tough when we would not follow through, as against a nuclear Russia, nor to threaten a country like India that is essential for a rational American policy in Asia. The Clinton-national greatness priorities are based upon ideological dogma, primarily the Woodrow Wilson universalist value that the world must be made safe for democracy, enforced by a global policeman role played by the United States. This dogma and the priorities derived from it, in fact, threaten America’s real interests.

Traditional Conservative Foreign Policy

To the traditional conservative, all foreign policy should be based upon defending America’s interests. These principles are set in the Sharon Statement, crafted on the grounds of William F. Buckley Jr.’s home in 1960, to launch the modern grassroots conservative movement. The test the authors of that simple statement suggested forty years ago is as sensible today as it was then: “American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?”10 That is, every foreign action taken by the nation must serve its just interests and only secondarily that of any abstract values, even democracy, human rights or international goodwill. The authors recognized then as we should today that Americans could “be free only so long as the national sovereignty of the United States is secure” and that can only exist when their rights are protected against all enemies, especially “at present” the greatest threat to those rights in 1960, international communism.

A policy based upon interests rather than ideology or whimsy requires a cold analysis of the facts. As long as communism was the principle worldwide threat to those interests, it was rational to make it the priority for all other action. Anti-communism was not an ideology but a rational strategy to target a very real and dangerous threat to American interests. Indeed, not all Wilsonians were anticommunist.11 Of course, the so-called neoconservatives were but they only became allies of the traditional conservatives belatedly (Irving Kristol was the principal early exception) when their only alternative was four more years of Jimmy Carter, whom they deemed incompetent on foreign policy. When the cold war ended, the anticommunist alliance began to disintegrate, with the neo’s explicitly reasserting Wilsonianism (many publicly allying with Bill Clinton in 1992) and the traditional conservatives (who now included the elder–but not younger–Kristol) stressing national interests.12

A mature understanding of the limits of military power and a reluctance to shed American blood in causes that do not directly affect true national interests are at the heart of any conservative foreign policy. A reluctance to “go to the gun” to right every wrong or a willingness to resist the temptation to tilt at windmills does not an isolationist make. Wilsonians, including Kagan and Kristol and their friends, are attracted to the idea that American power can impose its values on a very nasty world to tame it. These are men who have not read William Graham Sumner nor pondered the foolishness of ordering this very intractable world.13 While those of this school do not shrink from calling for colonialism, they should note that the last to try were not very successful at it in the long run.14 Yes, there is a sort of romantic appeal to saving the world. We do live in the freest and most prosperous society on the face of the earth and others would certainly benefit by following our example. It does not, however, follow that we should or could impose our ideas on them or force them to follow our path. Whenever that has been tried, it has failed and, frankly, it would be wrong to force this even if we could succeed.

The election of Mr. Putin as President of Russia illustrates the difficulty of well-intended intervention. Kagan and the other Wilsonians viewed Putin’s rise with alarm and blamed it on the brutishness of the Russians. They supported the Council of Europe’s threat to suspend Russia if he did not immediately end the Chechen war. Yet, as Charles Krauthammer noted, it was not brutality in Russia but U.S. action that led to Putin.15 Within eleven days of expanding NATO to Russia’s borders, America led its troops into its first war against a nation that did not threaten it or its allies–indeed, against a traditional Russian ally, Serbia. The NATO bombing of Serbia and occupation of Kosovo humiliated Russia and created a national consensus there for a strong leader to do what was necessary to restore Russia’s standing in the world. Even though he understood that Russia had “come under the sway of a cold-eyed cop, destroyer of Chechnya and heir to Yuri Andropov, the last KGB graduate to rule Russia,” Krauthammer discerned that Clinton’s Wilsonian do-goodism was the cause and that because of this a new division threatened Europe, right where NATO and Russia meet.

That the U.S. escaped a ground war in the Balkans without the loss of American troops was perhaps a testament to American weapons sophistication but does not prove that it served American interests. As Henry Kissinger, that most unreconstructed of all American realists, has observed, the U.S. has replaced the Ottoman Turks as the guarantors of the peace in the region and may, like the Turks, be there so long as we are able.16 Many Americans do not seek this role. Just this May, a majority in both houses voted to begin disengagement. In the House of Representatives a bipartisan majority of 264 to 153 voted to begin withdrawing American troops by the following April unless the president could certify that NATO was taking more of the burden. In the Senate even a plea from nominee Gov. Bush not to limit his powers should he become president, did not convince a majority of his party to vote against removal of U.S. ground troops by July 1, 2001 unless Congress extended the deadline. Indeed, the GOP supported it 40 to 15 and with the help of seven Democrats almost prevailed on a 47 to 53 vote.17

Does this mean that Republicans and conservatives do not want a democratic and peaceful world? Of course not, but they do not believe that a worldwide military crusade would or should be the means to attain it. Other nations have the right to determine how they will be governed and some will fight to protect that right. And American resources to perform such a mission are limited. When Bill Kristol was asked on national television where he would send troops in addition to the Balkins he did not flinch. He suggested that we should probably be involved in Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, northern Latin America and even Africa, making the U.S. a very busy world policeman indeed.18 Where did he think he would get the political support to raise the funds and commit the military forces required?

The founders of the American republic hoped that others would look to the U.S. as an example of how men and women could order their affairs so generation after generation might live free. They believed that it would stand as a beacon to men and women everywhere who would emulate us and thereby move closer to a world in which the values we cherish are extended to those millions not fortunate enough to call themselves Americans. It has taken some time and much blood to guarantee that the beacon they lit would survive but their hope is being realized in country after country today by men and women who are choosing freedom rather than having it forced upon them. Benevolent hegemony could not tear down the Berlin wall, but Germans thirsting for the freedoms Americans take for granted could…and did. American bombers could not send Serbia’s proto-communist strongman packing but his fellow Serbians could…and did. U.S. force cannot convert billions of Chinese to its way of life but they are in a position to tell their rulers that they want the freedom and prosperity Americans have…and they are. The world, in the meantime, will remain a dangerous place and the U.S. will need to be well armed and seek allies to even keep its corner of this troubled planet free from harm and to protect its true interests.

An American Interest Foreign Policy

The real threats to American interests are Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, global governance and, potentially, China. Ironic as it may seem, and contrary to the Kagan-Kristol thesis, even the important value of democracy cannot guarantee peace or good relations between states. In fact, a realistic analysis suggests that the more democracy in Islamic countries, the more violent and unstable they are and the worse is the relationship with the U.S. and the West.19 By and large, it is the monarchies that are America’s best Islamic friends in the Middle East. Authoritarians can resist the mobs, especially when it comes to relations with ally Israel–which is much more unpopular with the masses than the elite. The monarchies and the authoritarians from Egypt to Turkey also tend to be more stable and are more effective in fighting terrorism.

It would be nice also to live in a peaceful world in which nuclear “proliferation” was not a problem. But it is important to recognize that it is not proliferation per se that threatens the U.S. but the ability of dangerous, aggressive and unstable nations to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. The Wilsonians obsess over India or even Russia and Pakistan, but it is the specter of nuclear weapons in the hands of rulers of nations like North Korea or fundamentalist ones like Iran, and potentially Afghanistan, or even, someday, a destabilized Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan that should occupy attention.20 How can this possible threat be contained without Russia and India? It is insane for the Wilsonians to alienate these essentially defensive nations that have some interest in protecting their borders from madmen.21

These realities do not reflect a bias against Islam. Abdhurramin Wahid is laying the basis for a more humane Islam in the critical nation of Indonesia. It was the Islamic Supreme Council of America, at a recent international conference with Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, where the prime concern of the attending world’s Muslims was the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and its threats to use terrorism. But this is not the only source of terrorism.22 Delivery means today can be as unsophisticated as suitcase bombs by any discontent with a grudge.23 Unfortunately, this will require somewhat obtrusive monitoring by police authorities. Conservative principles, however, require that they be kept to the minimum necessary and that as much of the enforcement as possible should be by local authorities. Waco, Ruby Ridge and the forced return of Elian Gonzalez suggest the need for the leaven of local authorities who must recognize local sensibilities.

Although it need not happen, all agree that China has the potential for taking aggressive action that may threaten world peace. Its occupation of and sensitivity over Tibet, its training and equipping of the Burmese in Myanmar and its transfer of nuclear and missile technology to rival Pakistan make it the natural opponent of India. But damning China or cutting trade are not real solutions. Trade, indeed, might be a weapon to liberalize it. Yet, the present alliance system of the U.S. relying upon Japan and Taiwan is inadequate. While both should be natural allies, neither alone nor the two together are strong enough to balance China, even with U.S. regional forces. In a Sino-American war, China could maneuver them into neutrality by promising them peace. No, something greater is needed and only Russia and India are strategically located and big enough to fill the bill. India has already sought naval cooperation with Japan and is sending its navy into the South China Sea.24 Russia and India have just signed a mutual cooperation treaty.25 In other words, for two of the three potentially most severe threats, these two giants are essential to protect real U.S. interests. And the Clinton-national greatness alliance wants to scold them every time they slip a democracy lesson! What did national greatness hero, John McCain do when President Clinton traveled to India to build this critical friendship? He criticized the trip as too “extensive” and an excuse for “photo ops.”26 In fact, ties with India desperately needed mending after the cold war and Clinton should do even more.

The threat from global governance is not so much that an all-powerful United Nations will rule the world, although the supine reaction of the component nations to far-reaching decisions by the European Union bureaucracy suggests that this is not impossible.27 Many Americans believe that their nation is immune from world criticism and would have nothing to fear even if the U.N. were active. They forget that the U.S. was widely charged with “war crimes” in Yugoslavia, was investigated by a U.N. group for the “abuse” of capital punishment and was even criticized by Amnesty International for police “torture.”28 The greater problem is that giving responsibility to international bodies will be used as an excuse for the U.S. not to pursue its own interests. It is hard to see how the nations of the world could agree on very much. Yes, the U.N will try to reach broadly–at a recent American Enterprise Institute conference Prof. Thomas Franck found justification for U.N. international action for almost any social or economic purpose. But the only thing a majority can agree on for solving them is for the U.S. to give money. Russia can be helpful here too. Its Security Council veto makes it in its interest not to let the bureaucrats or the General Assembly go too far amuck.

None of this means giving Russia all it wants. It is in our interest (and, incidentally, theirs) to confront them on missile defense.29 There must be a way to protect against rogue state missiles. Their fears could be allayed by sharing early-warning data or even with joint systems, as President Reagan first proposed. This could be done if it is made clear that friendship with them is a top priority and in the interest of both. And India too. Europe is too supine to be reliable, anyway.30 Does anyone think they would go to our assistance over Taiwan? Under the right conditions, Russia or India might.

For the rest of the world, the natural priority for the United States is the Western Hemisphere.31 Geography has created natural neighbors and trading partners, especially if the European Union turns inward. The Monroe Doctrine traditionally made this sphere a high priority but that concept is too hierarchical for today’s more interdependent world. Ronald Reagan’s idea of a hemispheric “accord” set the proper tone. The first step should add Chile to Canada and Mexico in a free trade zone that should be extended throughout the Americas as nations are willing and able. This sphere of good relations should not end there. Ireland and Britain might be interested in the future, as well as ally Turkey and the newly-independent states of central Europe, especially if any or all are blocked from common market entry or discriminated against by it. Reaching further, the normal relationship with all nations, including those of Asia and Africa, should be that of friendship and trade. For, the U.S. has traditionally sought peace and good relations with all.

A Proper Role for America

While “national greatness” conservatives are pretty good at sloganeering and might even call this an isolationist policy, it clearly requires significant American involvement in the world. The traditional conservative might wish a smaller role but will accept this as essential to American interests. Restraint such as we urge should not be taken as acceptance of weakness. None of this will work if we try to defend ourselves on the cheap. For the United States to be humble, it must be very, very strong.

To have an effective policy for the rest of the world, it is essential to first protect the homeland base with effective missile defenses and counter-terrorism efforts. Because the world role outlined here depends upon alliances for most ground troops, it might lead to a smaller standing Army force (although with larger reserves and National Guard). But these will require more mobility and probably would require additional resources. The new military which is even now evolving should emphasize air, naval, intelligence and communication platforms that take advantage of the U.S. superiority in technology and a commitment to maintain that advantage, including the advantage of personnel skills, discipline and morale.32 What neither the national greatness crowd nor the Clinton Administration consider is that a policy’s commitment of forces cannot be greater than the resources available. It will be a challenge to fund the conservative priorities. It is a chimera to expect taxpayers to cough up the cash needed to outfit and equip a global police force.

Neither world policeman nor global scold fit the American republican character. It is true that U.S. progressives have historically seen “their own fate bound up with America’s greater role in the world” and that its founder Herbert Crowley specifically believed that a vigorous foreign policy involvement was critical to their mission for a centralized domestic national policy.33 But theirs was a minority position and never had a mass following. Indeed, after the original national greatness piece was published, Mr. Kristol admitted there was no mass basis for the national greatness conservative position. Certainly, conservatives have not supported either police or scold position.

U.S. culture has neither the necessary ruthlessness for empire nor the sustained arrogance for power. Rather than trying to make everyone a good democrat in a nasty world where even good neighbor Mexico is still mostly authoritarian, conservatives have sought a more modest, republican role-protecting America’s just interests and pursuing friendly relations with all who do not threaten them. George Bush and the GOP Congress are following the historic and traditional conservative policy when they reject missions not in the national interest such as an indefinite commitment of U.S. troops to Bosnia and Kosovo. Their policy of pursuing American interests rather than pursuing internationalist dreams is wise policy and sound principle. That might not be “greatness” to those with imperial pretensions but it is the proper a role for a republic, and it does not take a “great” war to do it right. Let the debate begin.

Dr. Devine, senior scholar and vice chairman at the American Conservative Union, is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a columnist for the Washington Times, the former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and a former associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

David A. Keene is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, a columnist for the Hill, and an attorney with a Washington firm.


1. Robert Kagan, “A World of Problems,” Washington Post, April 10, 2000.
2. “Late Edition, ” CNN, April 30, 2000.
3. Washington Post, October 12, 2000, p. A6, col. 2; October 24, 2000, p. A7, cols. 1-3.
4. Kagan, ibid. See also, Max Boot, “Will Bush Burry ‘Bodybag Syndrome’?” Wall Street Jounal, September 11, 2000.
5. Ibid.
6. Kim R. Holmes, “Humanitarian Warriors: The Moral Follies of the Clinton Doctrine,” Heritage Lectures, July 11, 2000.
7. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, July/August, 1996.
8. See John C. Hulsman, “Kosovo: The Way out of the Quagmire,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, February 25, 2000.
9. Kim R. Holmes, “No U.S. Ground War in Kosovo,” Heritage Foundation Backrounder, April 22, 1999; Stephen Johnson, “The Administration’s Failed Gamble in Haiti,” Heritage Executive Memorandum, May 19, 2000; Henry Kissinger, “Our Nearsighted World Order,” Washington Post, January 10, 2000, A19. Mr. Kristol ( Weekly Standard, October 9, 2000, p.11) tried first to blame Mr. Bush for encouraging Milosevic’s “hanging on” and then tried to take credit for his resignation afterwards (October 16, 2000, p. 11), without any intervening Bush action.
10. The Sharon Statement, The American Conservative Union.
11. Charles Krauthammer, “Reluctant Cold Warriors,” Washington Post, November 12, 1999.
12. Irving Kristol, “A Post-Wilsonian Foreign Policy,” Wall Street Jounal, August 2, 1996.
13. William Graham Sumner, Conquest of the United States by Spain, (Chicago: Regnery, 1965; orig. 1899).
14. David Brooks, “A Kinder, Gentler Colonialism,” Wall Street Jounal, January 15, 1993.
15. Charles Krauthammer, “The Path to Putin,” Washington Post, May 7, 2000.
16. Kissinger, ibid.
17. Washington Times, May 19, 2000, p. A1.
18. William Kristol, “Tim Russert,” CNBC, June 3, 2000.
19. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 256-258, 212-214.
20. Stephen Bryen, “The New Islamic Bomb,” Washington Times, April 10, 2000.
21. See, “Putin Displays More Cautious Leadership, Washington Post, October 23, 2000, p. A14.
22. Geoffrey Smith, “Radical Islam Conflicts With Tradition,” Washington Times, April 15, 2000, p. A6.
23. L. Paul Bremmer, “New Terrorist Threats and How to Counter Them,” Heritage Lectures, July 31, 2000.
24. Richard Fisher, “Welcome India’s Help,” Washington Times, May 18, 2000.
25. Washington Post, October 4, 2000, p. A25.
26. Washington Times, April 5, 2000, p. A1.
27. John L. Bolton, “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?” American Enterprise Institute Conference on Trends in Global Governance, April 4-5, 2000.
28. Washington Times, May 10, 2000, p. A13; Donald Devine, “All For a World Court?” Washington Times, December 7, 1999, p. A15.
29. Baker Smith, “Beware of a U.S.-Russia Deal on Missile Defense,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, April 6, 2000.
30. Irving Kristol, “The Emerging American Imperium,” Wall Street Jounal, August 18, 1997.
31. Ana Eiras and Gerald O’Driscoll, “Advancing Free Trade in Latin America,” Heritage Executive Memorandum, February 9, 2000.
32. Philip Gold, “What Does a 21st Century Defense Require?” Discovery Institute, April 1, 1995.
33. TRB, “Saving the World,” New Republic, May 24, 1999, p. 6.
34. William Kristol, “Should the U.S. Become the World Policeman?” Conservative Political Action Conference, January 30, 1998. See, William Kristol and David Brooks, “What Ails Conservatism?” Wall Street Jounal, September 15, 1997; and,William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy.”

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