The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Still not buying it

July 17, 2008

Donald Douglas replies to my post on neoconservatism, which was of course a reply to his original post. Unfortunately, he does so by misreading my argument on two key points. First, he claims that “Jackson wants to argue that neoconservatism can’t be foundational in American foreign policy because it violates an inherent ‘liberal internationalist’ conception of American exceptionalism that is purportedly the only legitimate kind” of exceptionalism. Second, he claims to see in my post “an antipathy to neoconservatism as an autonomously legitimate ideational foundation for theories of American foreign policy.” Neither of these points are accurate readings of my position.

Let me take the second point first. Douglas makes a category mistake when he reads my analytical and social-scientific argument as though it were a normative critique: he assumes that when I talk about how a policy is legitimated, I am making some sort of judgment about whether that policy is inherently legitimate. The difference is critical. I am not arguing about the ultimate normative status of the neoconservative argument about American foreign policy — at least, not in this exchange. That’s a deliberate decision on my part, and it goes to my own rather strict Weberian code of scholarly ethics about intervening in public policy debates. I do not feel that it is appropriate for a scholar with social-scientific aspirations and commitments to engage in purely partisan or ethical debate while claiming to operate as a social scientist; this is because I believe, and have argued at length elsewhere, that once someone enters into a partisan-political debate they necessarily abandon the ground of social science and by rights ought to forfeit the prestige associated with their social-scientific credentials. But human beings don’t make that switch all that well, I find, so something of the social-scientific prestige accompanies the scholar who is now making a purely political or ethical intervention. In a way I simply think that’s not fair; nor is it logically consistent. Hence, I make a point of avoiding such arguments whenever possible.

That said, I do feel that there is an appropriate role for social-scientific scholarship in political discussions, and that is to call inaccurate claims to account, to point out logical inconsistencies, and to force adherents of one or another point of view to confront the limitations of their particular take on the world. That’s the job of the teacher in the classroom, and I think it’s also the job of the social scientist in the political realm. The reason I decided to wade into this discussion was that the factual claim that Douglas made — a claim that is also made by Kagan, and to some extent by Rathbun — looked, and continues to look, faulty to me. The claim in question is the claim that neoconservatism is not a new position in US foreign policy debates, but goes back either to the founding of the republic (Douglas, Kagan) or to the early part of the 20th century (Rathbun). That claim looks faulty because my reading of the empirical evidence leads me to a different conclusion: that neoconservatism is a reconfiguration of certain rhetorical and conceptual elements, chief among them ‘exceptionalism’, which have indeed been floating around in public discussions of US foreign policy for generations — but which occur in different configurations during the course of those generations. The neoconservative configuration, which conjoins exceptionalism and a universalist notion of ‘civilization’ in a way that affords or enables the unilateral use of military force so as to achieve broad normative goals (such as “democratization”), is not a configuration which one finds in the writings and speeches of anyone I know of before the middle of the 20th century. At that point, we find people like James Burnham and Irving Kristol and Norman Podhertz taking successive US presidents to task for not being aggressive enough in dealing with Communism; the conceptual and rhetorical basis for their policy-recommendations was a recognizable form of the neoconservative configuration of rhetorical elements that we see so prominently today.

Once again, as clearly as I can say this: nothing in my argument has the slightest implication for the desirability or undesirability of neoconservatism as a perspective on US foreign policy. One might approve or disapprove of neoconservatism and find nothing objectionable in my social-scientific argument about its origins; likewise, one might disagree with my argument about its origins and either approve or disapprove of neoconservatism itself. I am not making any kind of partisan-political statement about the worth of neoconservativism, although I am well aware that neoconservatives might read my argument that way because of the practical utility of the claim that neoconservatism goes back to the founding of the republic — “the Founders” are almost mythic religious figures in American public discussions and debates, so enlisting them on one’s side is a powerful political move. If my empirical argument is correct, and I think that it is, then it makes that enlisting of “the Founders” considerably more difficult (at least in principle; I remain skeptical about the ultimate efficacy of blogosphere debates about these matters to actually impact public discussion, but I continue to plug away so I suppose that indicates that I am not entirely convinced that this is an impossibility). But that implication needs to be separated from the argument itself, which stands or falls on its own merits. And neoconservatives who want to convince me — and others! — that a reading of US foreign policy discussions and debates which aligns George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan and pits them against Andrew Jackson, Robert A. Taft, and Henry Kissinger, have a great deal of empirical spade-work to do before they have a chance of doing so.

Briefly, on Douglas’ first point: nowhere in my original piece, or in any of my published writings, do I make any reference to liberal internationalism as anything like an inherently acceptable or uniquely morally justified approach to US foreign policy. (Indeed, I have generally argued the opposite: the moral self-righteousness of liberal idealists frightens me, as does their disingenuousness in occasionally pretending that their policy-recommendations are purely and uniquely based on “reason” or “rationality” instead of stemming from a specific historical tradition and set of cultural and rhetorical resources.) Instead, I’d argue that liberal internationalism is just one of the many anti-exceptionalisms that have been deployed over the course of American history; in this case, liberal internationalism opposes exceptionalism by claiming that the US is one large rational actor among others, and therefore ought to behave in the way that rational state actors behave, perhaps by practicing self-restraint and entering into binding institutional agreements with other states. It’s not even the default position in US foreign policy debates — traditionally, that was the kind of exceptionalism that pointed in the direction of isolation and unilateral interventions when absolutely necessary. To say that neoconservatives have “reconfigured” or “rehabilitated” exceptionalism is not to pass any kind of judgment on whether any particular version of exceptionalism is “right” — I’m not even sure how to speak to that issue — but merely to make an empricial observation that exceptionalism c. 2008 means something different than exceptionalism c. 1798 or 1948.

Oh, one final point: The only implication of most of my argument here for Rathbun’s original piece is that he has, perhaps unwittingly, accepted a neoconservative re-writing of American intellectual history as fact rather than propaganda. Rathbun’s actual argument is not about the intellectual history of neoconservatism; it’s about the present-day structure of foreign-policy attitudes among American elites. That argument stands or falls in a way that is completely detached from the issue of whether neoconservatism is decades or centuries old.

website | + posts

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.