The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

What We Talk About When We Talk About Neoconservatism

June 17, 2011

A Guest Post by Jonathan Caverley in reply to Dan Nexon

The irony of being accused of taking texts in directions their original authors might not have intended by the scholar behind Harry Potter and International Relations is too delicious to pass up. Plus I am sensitive to accusations like Nexon’s (might as well confront that elephant head on).

I am not slighting Professor Nexon’s excellent TNR piece and book. In fact our approaches are quite similar; we both drag a body of writing into a discipline to which the original authors evinced little desire to enter. There are always problems inherent to this, but it can be productive. Nexon used Harry Potter to make cogent observations on globalization, and this justifies a somewhat (ahem) esoteric reading of JK Rowling. Whereas Harry Potter-related injuries are limited to scrapes on the pale, tender skin of the privileged, neoconservative-informed policies have killed a lot of people and cost a lot of money. So considering neoconservatism systematically and from a variety of perspectives seems a useful exercise.

I wrote the article because I did not buy realists’ self-serving lumping together of neoconservatism and liberalism. I argue that neoconservatism’s policy recommendations are largely motivated by the belief that democracies play with a severe handicap in the game of power politics. If that’s true, then neoconservatism cannot be considered antithetical to the self-styled foreign policy wing of realism, which claims “Power can be used only if it can be mobilized. Two variables are particularly important for this: the state’s extractive ability and inspirational capacity” (holla Brian Rathbun). I conclude that “Lack of enthusiasm for democratization is not really a logical proposition for neoclassical realists so much as a taboo left over from their ancestors.”

Nexon does not challenge me on neoclassical realism. He does not challenge my claim that neoconservatism and realism share similar starting assumptions. He does not challenge my interpretation of neoconservatism as a theory of a democratic handicap. He does not challenge my claim that democratic weakness explains neocon enthusiasm for primacy, the revolution in military affairs, bandwagonning logic, and preventive war.

Nexon briefly makes the case for neoconservatism as liberalism, but what truly motivates his 4,000 word post is a disagreement with my claim that neoconservatism suggests spreading democracy as a means of balancing, a small but important component of the article.

I’ll address both criticisms, but we should first acknowledge our debate’s slightly absurd nature. Neither Nexon nor I are considered neocons (as far as I know); any claim by us to a singular, true understanding should strain belief. Never mind that neocons (like realists and liberals) disagree among themselves, and that they (and JK Rowling) couldn’t care less about what Nexon and I think of them. Not surprisingly then, non-neocons disagree on neoconservatism.

Nexon cites two (excellent) pieces written/co-written by one person to describe a nonexistent scholarly consensus. Nexon might agree with Michael Desch’s (deliberate) nonsense phrase, but Gerard Alexander defines neoconservatism as balance of threat realism, and Aaron Rapport equates it with systemic constructivism. And those are just North American scholars.

Neoconservatism is not some mutant form of foreign policy liberalism. Consider my admiration for Derek Jeter, but my contempt for every other aspect of his team. I cannot (will not!) be considered a Yankees fan. One might therefore conclude that other reasons explain my respect for Jeter. Excepting democratization and human rights, neocons dismiss every mechanism associated with IR liberalism: transnational norms, trade, and institutions. Perhaps they are not motivated by liberal logic.

A really, really strong desire to spread democracy does not make them any more liberal. I’m sure Minka Kelly loves Jeter with all her soul, but if she could not even bring herself to say something nice about Mo Rivera, it’s doubtful we’d consider her a Yankee fan either.

On to the bulk of Nexon’s post. To support my assessment of neoconservatism as a theory of democratic weakness, I surveyed a lot of literature to find some common themes. Trying to synthesize so many writers in order to critique a grand theory necessarily leads to simplification. But consider the essential assumptions of realism. Now find me five realists that agree with all of them.

To use Nexon’s terms, I cheerfully plead guilty to extrapolation, but that would seem to be a good alibi against the crime of esotericism. Esoteric thinking assumes a code unlocking truths within a canonical document for the initiated. I go to the opposite extreme, trying to find something uniting the diverse group calling themselves neocons. Given his treatment of Harry Potter, and given that block quotes from a single article are 30% of his post, Nexon appears a very black pot.
Interestingly, with the possible exception of Muravchik, Nexon pulls quotations from the more realpolitik-oriented of the neocons to challenge my argument that neoconservatism is not motivated by core realist principles. I’ll deal with them quickly.

Kirkpatrick’s magisterial article argues for the strategic and moral foolishness of simultaneously promoting liberalism within traditional authoritarian states while refusing to do likewise in totalitarian Soviet satellites, i.e. “participat[ing] actively in the toppling of non-Communist autocracies while remaining passive in the face of Communist expansion.” Among other things, the article nicely captures the neoconservative spectrum of power-mobilizing regimes: liberal America weak and vacillating, autocracies perhaps less weak and certainly less threatening, totalitarian states expansionist and strong. Schweller would approve.

The Krauthammer quotations lamenting the American penchant for cutting deals that shift unfavorably American relative power support my case.

As for Kagan, John Mearsheimer called and wants his American pacifier piece back.
Regarding the Muravchik article, rather than wade through the single article that literally makes up 30% of Nexon’s post, can I just give Dan that one and ask people to look at the dozens of other pieces I cite?

Let me emphasize that I agree that there is often a very strong moral impetus to the neoconservative desire to spread democracy, but this cannot be separated from neoconservatives’ equal obsession with power in a dangerous world. To paraphrase Nexon on Harry Potter, for IR scholars neoconservatism is something of a Rorschach Blot, capturing various anxieties about international affairs. I look at the blot though the prism of its realist antagonist. Wading into the “neo-neo” debate I decided that there was little fundamental to their principles to explain their very different policy preferences.

Now Nexon does not think that neoconservatism is a grand theory, and that neo-classical realism is “an amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories.” One could make the same claim about liberalism. All grand IR theories with multiple advocates get pretty fuzzy when you try to pin them down, but that does not make thinking about theory, and especially comparing theories, unproductive. To paraphrase Eisenhower, grand theories may be useless, but grand theorizing is indispensible.

As the old insult goes, Nexon has failed me on a Rorschach test, which brings me to his thoughts on peer review. Nexon plucked my article from obscurity because he was “pissed off” by my use of texts about which he had a pretty strong opinion. He would have rejected my article based on this. He then extrapolates (!) that because he would have rejected it, then peer review failed. Nexon is not alone; most academics assume the N of our “peers” to be 1, as the expressions of wounded amour propre in the original post’s comments amply demonstrate. We all know that the review process is pretty arbitrary; in terms of publishing I was lucky to not get Nexon as my referee (although I suspect he would have given great feedback, as I did get from Millennium, which by the way is one of the few IR journals that does desk rejects).

But before we moan about how much of what we consider drivel gets published, spare a thought for the Type II errors. Perhaps we should let more stuff see the light of publication and then let the discipline as a whole (which largely ignored my article) or Duck of Minerva (which trashed it) sort it out.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.