The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Neocons, liberals, realists, and all that

October 18, 2005

A few days ago Younghusband posted some thoughts about an old post of mine, in which I argued that, from an IR theory perspective, “neoconservativism” is not an alternative vision of international politics on par with realism and liberalism. I further claimed that neoconservativism shares more with the liberal than the realist tradition of IR theory.

Younghusband asked, in essence, if neocons were leftists (let’s put aside jokes about old Trotskyites changing their words but not their tune, at least for the moment). Younghusband’s commentators pointed out that we shouldn’t equate IR theories, such as liberalism and realism, with political ideologies or specific policies. Nathan, of Registan put it this way: “realism and liberalism in the IR sense should primarily be understood as theories rather than political positions.”

I agree, but with important qualifications.

I cannot stress enough the importance of not conflating IR theories with contemporary political ideologies or with concrete policies. This is a common mistake made by undergraduates in “Introduction to International Politics” classes. Realism and liberalism, in their various incarnations, are claims about the key processes and mechanisms that operate in international politics.

At the same time, realism and IR liberalism are not ideologically neutral. Both involve some important wagers about world politics. IR liberals generally believe that force and coercion can be transcended (or, if you prefer, ‘tamed’) through some combination of international institutions, norms, democratization, etc. Realists disagree. They further endorse a realpolitik approach to international relations that subordinates the pursuit of, for example, liberal values to reason of state. When core state interests aren’t at stake, however, realists believe that states can pursue more traditional values. Thus, John Mearsheimer argues that US intervention in Rwanda would’ve been just fine.

It should come as no surprise, then, that IR liberalism fits more comfortably than realism within the ideological frameworks of political-theoretic liberalism, while one can find elements of Burkean conservativism and philosophical republicanism in the realist tradition. Yet one can be an American-style liberal and generally endorse a realist conception of international processes, and one can be an American-style conservative but side with IR liberalism when it comes to a belief in the pacifying effects of trade and democracy. It doesn’t help matters, of course, that American conceptions of “liberal” and “conservative” have a very complicated relationship with the liberal and conservative political-theoretic tradition.

So, is neoconservativism and IR theory or an ideology? The correct answer is “both.” Neoconservatives make a number of wagers about international political processes, from which they draw policy prescriptions. Some of these are superficially realist, such as a skepticism of international institutions, but I read their underlying criticisms as deriving from a liberal perspective. For them, international institutions would be fine if they weren’t dominated by the wrong sort of states, if they lived up to their responsibilities in terms of promoting human rights, and if they weren’t corrupt and subject to the worst sort of bureaucratic pathologies. Institutions don’t have intrinsic value for neoconservatives, nor do necons believe that they necessarily grease the wheels of US hegemony. Instead, they should be judged entirely on whether they hurt or hinder American efforts to promote a more liberal economic and political order. From my perspective, this sounds pretty liberal – in the IR sense – even if it leads to courses of action that align with realist policy prescriptions.

When we examine neoconservativism as an IR theory, however, the same caveats I discussed above with respect to IR liberalism and realism apply. A neoconservative theory of world politics is not the same thing as the specific policies implemented by the Bush administration.

Steven Hurst makes this point well in “Myths of Neoconservativism: George W. Bush’s ‘Neo-conservative’ Foreign Policy Revisited’ (International Politics 42,1, March 2005, pp. 75-96). Drawing upon Daalder’s and Lindsay’s typology in America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, Hurst argues that Bush foreign policy is more driven by “conservative nationalism” than by “neoconservativism.” He tags both approaches as broadly “realist.” I don’t agree with his characterization of neoconservativism, but I think there is a very close affinity between elements of realist thought and “conservative nationalism.”

The takeaway point for us is that neoconservativism is not only a form of IR liberalism, but also has a good deal in common with ideological liberalism. The specific policies adopted by the Bush adminsitration, however, do not represent a pure translation of either ideology or of IR theoretical claims into practice. Foreign policy is, after all, a product of actual politics… with all the resulting messiness, contradictions, and compromises.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.