The Real Conservative Foreign Policy Debate

8 June 2022, 0235 EDT

There’s a battle going down inside the Republican party for what conservative foreign policy ought to be. The problem is that stakeholders in the debate are misrepresenting its terms, and journalistic onlookers are misapprehending what’s really going on.  

A senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the neoconservative think tank, officially put it on wax that, yes, there’s a debate over conservative foreign policy, but it’s between “internationalists” and “isolationists.”  

The way the New York Times tells it, what’s happening within conservatism is less of a debate and more of a vibe shift. The Heritage Foundation, they say, is still the right’s intellectual vanguard, but its preferences are no longer “hawkish.”  

That’s right. The think tank that made the case for Reagan-era arms-racing and support for Third-World dictatorships. The think tank that championed invading Iraq and Afghanistan. The think tank that defended the use of torture. The think tank that has bent over backward to package Trump’s fashy whims as an “ism.” That think tank is being portrayed as “once-hawkish.”

Both of these frames are wrong. There is no “internationalists v. isolationists” confrontation in American conservatism. Heritage, meanwhile, is no foreign policy dove. 

But that’s not to say there’s no vibe shift or debate on conservative foreign policy. There is. It was brewing during the Trump years but was suppressed in the name of sycophancy Republican unity. The fact that intra-conservative disagreement has spilled into public owes to the recent congressional vote on a $40 billion emergency aid package to Ukraine. 11 GOP members of the Senate and 57 members of the House voted against it.  

What we have now is at least three competing but overlapping conservative orientations toward foreign policy—nationalist militarism, neoconservatism, and realpolitik restraint. They’re all downstream of the authoritarian direction on which the party has set. And my sense is that only the former—nationalist militarism—is compatible with how Republicans are morphing before our eyes. But it’s worth parsing the landscape given its unsettledness.  

Nationalist Militarists

We lack stable terminology for the radical right-wing configuration that has gained steam since the Trump years. They’re Trumpist, but not reducible to Trump’s utterances. They’re friendly to white supremacy, conspiracy theories, and billionaires, but sometimes with the faux-ironic detachment of a frat bro expressing his emotions through movie quotes. Biden branded them “Ultra MAGA.” They brand themselves the “new right” or the “post-liberal right.” And they’re plugged into (leading?) the global far right.

Whatever we call this thing, it’s getting Peter Thiel money, it presents itself as anti-establishment, and it’s deeply reactionary and anti-liberal. JD Vance, Tucker Carlson, and Marjorie Taylor Greene are its perfect avatars…though any politically astute and conviction-less conservative will speak in their idiom when it pays to do so. 

Systematic foreign policy preferences do not follow directly from this new-right configuration because its worldview is not internally coherent (as Gabe Winant recently observed on the Know Your Enemy podcast, “Have you ever heard a satisfying account of how it could be that…populist nationalist candidates [Vance and Masters]…are the creatures of Peter Thiel and that’s somehow compatible with the critique of capital…I look forward to hearing how they incorporate Jeff Bezos onto the side of the workers against ‘woke capital.’”).

Think of the nationalist militarists as a constituency that wants the benefits of empire without any of the obligations of its maintenance. The reason why it was possible for the New York Times to confuse Heritage as not-hawkish is that it didn’t recognize the militarism inherent in the nationalist brand of conservatism that Heritage is betting on in the post-Trump era. 

These guys don’t go in for nation-building projects, are skeptical of alliances, and have no intention of waging war against Russia (the far-right’s cultural beacon and exemplar of a feudal traditionalism that they admire). But all of that is compatible with deep currents of ethnonationalist militarism.  

Like Trump, this milieu believes in extreme military strength, just not the alliances that buoy it. They’re happy to turn the national security state against Black Lives Matter protesters and “Antifa” (which is anyone they don’t like). One of its budding intellectuals describes the disorder of campus protests as part of his conversion to post-liberalism.

Most importantly, the nationalist militarists are invested in a clash-of-civilizations worldview that rationalizes inflating the threat from Iran and pursuing a racially charged rivalry with China.  Crucially, and perhaps ironically, such foreign enemies of “civilization” have become a reason not to pursue Keynesian economic policies, full employment at home, or divestment from fossil fuels. 


I mean, do they really need an introduction? A friend once joked that neocons are “democratic peace theorists with guns who define democracy as economic liberalism.” They are the most imperial instantiation of what it means to be liberal. They brand themselves as internationalists, but the only way they know how to relate to the world is through military primacy and neoliberal economic policies. They’ve defined what conservative foreign policy has meant ever since the Gerald Ford era (moment?).  

Until Trump came to power, that is.  

The once-dominant neocons are worried about how conservative foreign policy is changing (or they’re at least worried they’re losing control of it), so they’re quick to publicly table disagreements and characterize everyone they don’t like as “isolationists.”  

Even though they found a way to ingratiate themselves with the Trump administration, they seem to hold the same views of foreign policy as they did in the Bush years. And that shouldn’t be such a surprise. Trump’s foreign policy wasn’t a repudiation of Bush; it was an accentuation of some of his more heinous policies.  In spite of their clash over Ukraine, the nationalist militarists and the neocons largely agree on China and defense spending. The neocons were among the first to call Sino-US relations a Cold War, for instance, and, recently argued that Biden’s $813 billion defense budget—which exceeded even Trump’s largest defense budget—was short-changing the Pentagon. Both also sought to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal.   

And that New York Times piece about Heritage being no longer hawkish? It was built out of several pull-quotes from an AEI affiliate. It makes sense that the neocon framing of Heritage would present it as turning isolationist, thereby distorting the public image of what’s happening in conservatism in a way that might benefit the neocons.

Realpolitik Restrainers

The third group to espouse conservative foreign policy is not necessarily conservative except in the Burkean sense. It’s a straightforward power-prudential realism, and you see it among some paleocons, libertarians, and once-conservative moderates who were uncomfortable with the neocon foreign policy playbook.  

Ross Douthat, despite espousing a mainstream-friendly view of post-liberal conservatism, recently gave voice to this view in expressing skepticism about the lack of endgame in Ukraine.

Restrainers are not solely—or even primarily—on the right, but those who are tend to stress the fallibility of man and the limits of what human beings can achieve through politics. They are therefore fine supporting deal-making with adversaries, worried about the risks of entangling alliances, and skeptical of military interventions of any kind (though the strenuousness of these views come in varying hues).

What’s In It for Us?

What does this conservative factionalism mean for the rest of us? Well, it’s not clear how it will all shake out, but like I said, I think nationalist militarism is the apotheosis of long-suppressed energies within the reactionary right. And that’s ultimately a nightmare for everyone.

If you’re on the left, the restrainers are the only sane ones. Who within the conservative movement thinks China rivalry is folly (or is at least uneager about its prospects)? Who opposes the Pentagon’s largesse? Who is against the expansive powers of the national security surveillance state? Who worries about the risks associated with projecting military power? Only the realpolitik restrainers.  

Of course, if you’re in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the inverse is true—you probably prefer neocons to restrainers, and you probably have some expectation of bipartisanship with nationalist militarists on China because “great-power competition.” You probably also vibe with the elite-civility aesthetic of the neocons contra the vulgarity of the new right.

And that’s the transpartisan confusion of our current historical conjuncture. Both parties are fractured and contested from within, but in ways so different as to be almost incomparable. The key for non-conservatives looking on at the tumult in the Republican party is to not end up doing reputational or advocacy work on behalf of the militarism or white supremacy or imperialism of those who appear to share your agenda.