John Ikenberry’s Pissed

30 July 2005, 0440 EDT

At Charles Krauthammer. Remind me never to make John mad.

Charles Krauthammer is well known as the chief polemicist of the neo-conservative movement and op-ed guru of American unilateralism – and he has just outdone himself in writing the most thoroughly risible piece of foreign policy commentary that I have recently seen. Indeed, it is so absurdly fanciful that it is best read as self-parody.

In this new polemical burst, Krauthammer argues that the “post-Cold War era has seen a remarkable ideological experiment: Over the past 15 years, each of the three major American schools of foreign policy – realism, liberal internationalism, and neoconservatism – has taken its turn at running things.” And, surprise-surprise, Krauthammer finds that neoconservatism — in the able hands of the Bush administration — has bested realism and liberal internationalism. One wonders what neo-conservative-guided Bush foreign policy would look like if it had failed!

John launches a number of trenchant criticisms, but he also raises an interesting issue in its own right when he points out that:

Krauthammer wants to suggest that neo-conservatism is more than a democracy promotion ideology – it is a grand strategy that is co-equal in some intellectual sense with the “big boys” of grand strategy, namely realism and liberal internationalism.

Indeed, this is exactly how Krauthammer begins his article: “the post-Cold War era has seen a remarkable ideological experiment: Over the past 15 years, each of the three major American schools of foreign policy–realism, liberal internationalism and neoconservatism–has taken its turn at running things.”

John accepts Krauthammer’s argument. Sort of.

And indeed there is a neo-conservative vision here that can be pieced together. It is not really directly about the promotion of democracy, it is about the exercise of American power and a view that international order is best maintained through American primacy. In effect, the neo-con view is that the U.S. should stand aloof from the liberal international order to exercise power directly. American military power must be put back into the service of the nation’s principles and interests. In doing this, the U.S. must pull back from treaties and international agreements that jeopardize American sovereignty and constrain the exercise of power.

But is neoconservativism on par with realism and liberal internationalism? I’m not convinced.

Realism comes in a wide variety of flavors, but its adherents generally agree on a number of principles:

1. International politics are, at heart, characterized by a struggle for power.
2. Attempts to transcend power – through, for instance, international institutions – are at best misguided and, at worst counterproductive.
3. The primary actors in international politics are states and the leaders of states.
4. They ultimately pursue “state interests” (‘raison d’état’).

An important corollary of these principles is that states should not engage in “ideological crusades” such as democracy promotion. The concerns of power politics should always take precedence over the pursuit of values in foreign policy.

Liberal internationalism also covers a lot of territory, but its proponents generally agree on rather different principles than realists:

1. International politics may involve a struggle for power, but it is possible to construct international orders that restrain power politics.
2. This can be achieved through creating robust international institutions, expanding democracy and political openness, and promoting open markets.

Although these descriptions are oversimplified, they do focus our attention on the degree to which realism and liberal internationalism represent polar opposite positions. Indeed, realism emerged as a coherent body of thought out of the experience of the failure of the League of Nations. Realists criticized so-called “idealists” for their “naive” faith in the power of international law, international institutions, and of disseminating proper norms of international conduct.

One could argue that neoconservativism is distinctive insofar as it borrows principles from both schools. It shares with realism a distrust of international institutions and a belief in the basic efficacy of force, but it borrows from liberalism the view that democracy promotion and the expansion of open markets will bring about a more peaceful international order. Indeed, in “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” (which many consider the most important manifesto of neoconservative foreign policy) Robert Kagan and William Kristol embraced basic Wilsonsian reasoning:

The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy. For both follow from Americans’ belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are not merely the choices of a particular culture but are universal, enduring, “self-evident” truths. That has been, after all, the main point of the conservatives’ war against a relativistic multiculturalism. For conservatives to preach the importance of upholding the core elements of the Western tradition at home, but to profess indifference to the fate of American principles abroad, is an inconsistency that cannot help but gnaw at the heart of conservatism.

Just as Al Gore would later argue in the 2000 debates when George Bush spoke of a “humble” foreign policy, Kagan and Kristol contended that promoting American values would simultaneously promote American intersts

foreign policy should be informed with a clear moral purpose, based on the understanding that its moral goals and its fundamental national interests are almost always in harmony. The United States achieved its present position of strength not by practicing a foreign policy of live and let live, nor by passively waiting for threats to arise, but by actively promoting American principles of governance abroad — democracy, free markets, respect for liberty. During the Reagan years, the United States pressed for changes in right-wing and left-wing dictatorships alike, among both friends and foes — in the Philippines, South Korea, Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union. The purpose was not Wilsonian idealistic whimsy. The policy of putting pressure on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes had practical aims and, in the end, delivered strategic benefits.

It is not for nothing that many describe neoconservativism as “Wilsonsianism with teeth”: as the view that Reagan proved that “moral clarity” could be a kind of “force multiplier.”

But neoconservativism is not a third school of thought. It is not an alternative to realism and liberal internationalism.

Krauthammer makes the classic mistake of the smart policy wonk: he confuses policies with core positions.

Unilateralism is a policy.

Neoconservativism, as an approach to foreign policy, is clearly an extreme derivation of liberal internationalism.

For realists, the failure of international institutions stems from a broader set of problems with putting “norms” and “values” above hard-nosed power politics. The neoconservative critique of multilateralism for its own sake is premised, instead, on a particular set of trajectories from within the American liberal tradition and on a diagnosis of current conditions in international relations.

1. If the United States embodies liberal values – correctly understood – then institutional restraint on the US will always be illiberal.

2. Many international institutions, but particularly the UN, reflect the same leftist “relativistic multiculturalism” that threatens those values at home. After all, the UN is filled with dictators, bureaucrats, human-rights abusers, members of the non-alligned movement, and all sorts of illiberal types. What could be more frustrating than the basic rules of diplomacy that operate at the UN, which allow, for instance, representatives of genocidal regimes to pass judgment on human rights violations?

3. It follows that if we had robust international institutions, understood as ones that genuinely reflected core “western” and “liberal” values, they would improve international order and security. Hence the proposals floating around for “democracy clubs” and the like.

In other words, we should take seriously the claim that neoconservativism involves “a resort to unilateralism when necessary.” The reason it often seems necessary is, in neoconservativism, a failure of the current order, not because of any generalized neoconservative rejection of the possibility of a liberal institutional order.

Of course, all of this means that there’s nothing all that conservative about neoconservativism. I think it is time we gave it another name. The best I can come up with is “Exceptionalist Internationalism.”

Any thoughts?

Filed as:, , and