August 3, 2008


Conservative Internationalism: Jefferson to Polk to Truman to Reagan (Henry R. Nau, August/September 2008, Policy Review)

This essay...argues... that Ronald Reagan tapped into a new and different American foreign policy tradition that has been overlooked by scholars and pundits. That tradition is “conservative internationalism.” Like realism and liberal internationalism, it has deep historical roots. Just as realism takes inspiration from Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt and liberal internationalism identifies with Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, conservative internationalism draws historical validation from Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan. These four American presidents did more to expand freedom abroad through the assertive use of military force than any others (Lincoln doing as much or more to expand freedom domestically by force). But they expanded freedom on behalf of self-government, local or national, not on behalf of central or international government, as liberal internationalists advocate, and they used force to seize related opportunities to spread freedom, not to maintain the status quo, as realists recommend. All of these presidents remain enigmas for the standard traditions. The reason? They represent the different and overlooked tradition of conservative internationalism.6

Jefferson is claimed by isolationists and liberal internationalists, but he was neither. He doubled the size of American territory, and although this expansion took place on the North American continent when America was militarily weak, Jefferson ’s policies can hardly be called isolationist or pacifist. In fact, he used all the military, especially naval, power that the United States had at the time and combined threats and diplomacy deftly to seize the opportunity to grab Louisiana. The Louisiana Purchase may have fallen into his lap, as some historians later argued, but he had to place his lap in the right position to catch it.

James Polk expanded American territory by another 60 percent. And, yes, he expanded American freedom — which, although tarnished by black slavery (which Mexico had abolished in 1829), gave at the time the vote to more white male citizens than any other country and launched a trajectory of future emancipation that, with all its blemishes, made America the leading light of liberty in the twentieth century. He was one of the most ambitious and successful American presidents, and while his star, like that of Jefferson, has been diminished by rear-view mirror charges of racism and imperialism, he was, again like Jefferson, a pioneer of his day not only in expanding liberty and but also understanding the close and reciprocal interaction between force and diplomacy — a particular emphasis, as I will show, of conservative internationalist thinking.

Harry Truman expanded for the first time the cause of freedom beyond the confines of the western hemisphere and inspired the Cold War policy of militarized containment that incubated democracy in Japan, Germany, and throughout Western Europe. Had Truman not inserted American forces on European soil to stop a potential Soviet advance from Berlin to the English Channel, liberty might well have been lost in the very countries where it originated.

Ronald Reagan then transformed Truman’s containment policy into a competitive strategy to defeat, not just co-exist with, the Soviet Union. He saw the opportunity to end Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe that none of his predecessors saw and ultimately opened the doors of freedom for communist Europe and a good part of the rest of the world as well.

Before we consider the conservative internationalist foreign policies of these four presidents, let ’s look in more detail at the principal tenets of the conservative internationalist tradition and explore how this tradition differs from realism and liberal internationalism.

Main tenets

We can summarize the conservative internationalist tradition in terms of eleven tenets. First, the goal of conservative internationalist foreign policy is to expand freedom and ultimately increase the number of democratic, constitutional and republican governments in the world community. In this respect, conservative internationalism shares the same goal as liberal internationalism. Modern conservatives are liberals. They believe in liberty and do not defend the authoritarian status quo as traditional conservatives did. But they are classical liberals like Jefferson who embrace the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith. They are not social liberals. Like Fredrick Hayek and William F. Buckley, they shout “stop” to the ideas of economic and institutional equality when those ideas threaten liberty.

Thus, conservative internationalists give priority to liberty over equality and work to free countries from tyranny before they recognize these countries as equal partners in international diplomacy. Jefferson and Polk were unequivocal about expanding liberty, even if it involved imperialism, because they believed that liberty would eventually bring greater equality. By contrast liberal internationalists give priority to equality over liberty and grant all nations, whether free or not, equal status in international institutions, because they believe treating countries equally will eventually encourage liberty. For conservative internationalists, legitimacy in foreign affairs derives from free countries taking decisions independently or working together through decentralized institutions; for liberal internationalists, legitimacy derives from all countries, free or not, participating equally in universal international organizations.

Second, conservative internationalism focuses initially on material, not ideological, threats. In this respect, it shares much with realism. Both focus on immediate dangers and do not seek military might or imperialism for its own sake. Poverty (Darfur) or oppression (Myanmar) abroad is not enough to trigger intervention, as it may be for some liberal internationalists. There has to be a physical effect on the United States, as realists require, such as terrorist attacks or oil supply disruptions. In the absence of material threat, conservative internationalists are perfectly content with domestic “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The difficulty today is that material threats to freedom are more difficult to perceive. Terrorism is an “immanent” rather than an “imminent” threat. It is present potentially everywhere in sleeper cells and illegal arms networks, but it is not visible actually in any specific location until it happens. Such a threat blurs the distinctions between known threats which can be contained, emerging threats which can be preempted, and future threats which have to be prevented. Compared to Soviet missiles, the terrorist threat is more emerging and future than known. To cope with such a threat, conservative internationalists expect to have to take more preemptive or preventive actions, not as matters of choice but of necessity. Neither containment, which realists recommend, nor treating terrorism as crime, which liberal internationalists recommend, is likely to suffice.

Third, while conservative internationalism starts with threat and geopolitics, it does not end there, as realism does. Conservative internationalism seeks a balance of power that not only defends the status quo but also seizes related and incremental opportunities to expand freedom. It seeks, in short, a balance of power tilted toward freedom. Force is useful not just to deter despots but also to weaken them. Liberal internationalists consider such offensive use of force as provocative and detrimental to diplomacy. Conservative internationalists see it as incentivizing negotiations. Jefferson, Polk, and Truman all positioned forces to seize opportunities to change the status quo. Perhaps the best example is Ronald Reagan ’s policy toward Eastern Europe. As I recount below, he established early on that his objective was not just to stabilize Eastern Europe, as containment and realists prescribed, but to revoke the Yalta compromise and set Eastern Europe free. This policy did not call for direct intervention to “roll back” communism. Rather, it was a patient diplomacy of outcompeting the Soviet Union across the broad front of economic, military, and ideological contestation. Had Reagan stopped with geopolitics, Gorbachev may have never climbed to the top of Russia ’s leadership scaffold. Russia needed him to meet Reagan’s deeper challenge of domestic reform, not merely to stabilize Russia’s military position in Eastern Europe.

Fourth, although conservative internationalism is more ambitious than realism, it is prudent in picking its targets for expansion. It espies the incremental opportunities for freedom primarily on the periphery or borders of existing free societies. Truman succeeded ultimately because he gave priority to freedom in Western Europe where strong democratic countries (initially Britain and later France and Italy after they avoided communist governments) surrounded recent or still fascist ones (pre-war Germany and after the war, Spain, Portugal, and Greece). He did not get distracted by Eastern Europe, Latin America, or the Middle East, where democratic influences were much weaker. Similarly, Reagan concentrated on freedom in Eastern Europe, which is why he avoided costly military ventures elsewhere.

Both Truman and Reagan accepted the reality that the United States might have to cooperate with nondemocratic governments in lower-priority areas to secure freedom in higher-priority areas. Conservative internationalism does not support a universal campaign to end tyranny everywhere. In theory, it believes that democracy is universal. But, in practice it promotes democracies where they are most easily influenced by the proximity and power of existing democracies. It encourages an “inkblot” rather than “leapfrog” strategy to expand freedom.

Fifth, conservative internationalism expects to use more force to achieve its objectives than realism or liberal internationalism. The reasons are simple. The objective of expanding freedom is more ambitious than preserving stability favored by realists, and the obstacle to expanding freedom is authoritarian and oppressive states that readily use force against their own people and thus are not likely to compromise with other nations, as liberal internationalists expect, without a contest of strength. As Ronald Reagan once put it pointedly: “if [oppressive countries] treat their own people this way, why would they treat us any differently? ” For conservative internationalists, therefore, force is not a “last” resort that kicks in after diplomacy and economic sanctions fail; it is a “parallel” resort that accompanies diplomacy at every turn — demonstrating resolve, creating policy options, and narrowing the maneuvering room of authoritarian opponents. Conservative internationalists remind us that there was no diplomatic option of un inspectors in Iraq (whom Saddam Hussein had kicked out in 1998) until a massive invasion force assembled in the Persian Gulf.

Force is not a last resort that kicks in after diplomacy fails; it accompanies diplomacy at every turn.

By contrast, liberal internationalists aspire to domesticate world affairs and therefore play down the use of military force. They do not reject the use of force. Far from it — Wilson and Roosevelt, preeminent liberal internationalists, led America into war. But liberal internationalists believe it is possible to reduce the salience and use of military force in international affairs. Wilson ’s League of Nations as well as Roosevelt’s un sought to pool national military forces into a single international force which, because it was now preponderant, could be downsized through disarmament and arms control to constitute a police force. Diplomacy and international institutions would suffice to resolve international disputes and, if some states resisted peaceful solutions, economic sanctions would bring them to heel. The use of traditional military force was a last resort and then only with the consent and thus legitimacy of the international community as a whole.

Sixth, as prevalent as force is in a conservative internationalist perspective, it does not substitute for diplomacy. The best force can do is win a war. It cannot win the peace. Defeated governments and countries have to be reconstructed. That ’s a diplomatic task. Thus conservative internationalists give equal weight to force and diplomacy. They time diplomatic initiatives to coincide with maximum military strength and know when to cash in military gains to advance diplomatic ones. The best example here, I will show, is President Polk. He was a master at marrying the use of force and diplomacy. So was Ronald Reagan.

Seventh, diplomacy for conservative internationalists does not mean primarily international institutions. Conservative internationalism is not enthusiastic about international institutions even if, or one might say especially if, these institutions are effective. It advocates a “small government” version of internationalism and thus does not favor, like liberal internationalism, the construction of a world community through centralized organizations and rules. Nor is conservative internationalism indifferent to the big government or garrison state implications of foreign policies that pursue military adventures beyond immediate dangers.7 Conservatives are naturally suspicious of governments and favor self-reliance and civil society institutions. They take their cue from Thomas Jefferson. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson said: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted to govern himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? ”8 Jefferson laid down the conservative internationalist precept that the first and best government is self-government and that national and international governments should only do what local and national governments cannot do.

Democracy, for conservative internationalism, is not only a local process, but also a difficult one.

Eighth, democracy for conservative internationalism is not only a local process, but also a difficult one. Culture constrains democracy. It may not make democracy permanently impossible in some countries, as some realists argue, but it does make democratic development messier and more imperfect than liberal internationalists expect. Enduring democracy has three key pillars: regular (not one-time) elections in which competing parties rotate in power; elected authorities that control the major bureaucracies, especially the military; and an independent civil society that protects free speech, private property, and impartial justice. None of these pillars is easy to construct. Best then to target democracy where it is most likely to succeed, namely on the border of existing democracies, and make compromises with authoritarian realities in other places as long as the process of freedom inches forward.

Ninth, the best tool for inching freedom forward not only in bordering but also distant regions is economic engagement or the free movement of goods, capital, and people. Both conservative and liberal internationalists agree on this point. But liberal internationalists see a greater need to moderate international markets through international regulations and foreign aid. They worry about greed and inequality and promote legal structures to restrain business. Conservative internationalists have more confidence in self-reliant individuals exercising private choice in a competitive marketplace. They worry about unaccountable institutions and corruption and rely more on religious and other moral foundations of society to restrain individual license. Conservatives see development not as a process of helping others, full stop, but of helping others help themselves.9 Free trade encourages self-help; aid creates dependency, not only among recipients but also among donors who become addicted to compassion and paternalism.

Liberal internationalists worry about greed and inequality and promote legal structures to restrain business.

Tenth, and unlike liberal internationalists, however, conservative internationalists do not expect economic liberalization to lead automatically to political liberalization. Liberal internationalists believe that powerful historical forces, particularly the forces of modernization, abet the march of freedom. The world will eventually become free and force obsolete if prosperity spreads far enough and diplomacy is patient enough. Conservative internationalists are not so sure. They support modernization and globalization but worry that political freedom may not follow ineluctably from economic development. Ideologies shape human behavior more deeply than material forces, and cultures do not disappear with prosperity. Fascist regimes in Germany and Japan modernized but did not liberalize. And China today is modernizing but not democratizing. Hence it is essential to maintain the role of force should modernization merely produce stronger adversaries. What is more, modernization brings new ideological challenges. It secularizes and potentially weakens the spiritual and moral character of some societies, while it uproots traditions, especially religious traditions, and radicalizes the politics of other societies. Conservative internationalists see a continuing role for religion in a secular world; liberal internationalists tend to see secularism prevailing.

Eleventh, and perhaps most important, conservative internationalism accepts the premise that public opinion in free societies is the final arbiter of American foreign policy. Unlike realism it does not assume that foreign policy elites know best or that public opinion will always accept a policy as long as it succeeds. But unlike liberal internationalism, it is also not willing to wait for unanimous consent to act. No democracy requires unanimity to act domestically, and no community of democracies, let alone institutions that include both democracies and nondemocracies, should require unanimity to act internationally.

However, because conservative internationalism expects to use force more aggressively than either realists or liberal internationalists, it faces a tougher sell with public opinion. In democracies, public support for war is limited, especially if casualties persist or the threat is less visible, as in the case of terrorism. That reluctance, most of us would agree, is probably a good thing. Hence, when faced with persisting public opposition either at home or among democratic countries, conservative internationalism is more willing to scale back or terminate interventions. It seems incongruous to conservative internationalists to persist in a policy to spread freedom to new democracies if that policy cannot be sustained by majority support in the old democracies.

The best way to illustrate these eleven tenets of the conservative internationalist tradition is to explore the policies of the presidents that pioneered this tradition and compare their policies along the way with other presidents that fit standard interpretations more easily — Jefferson with Hamilton and realists, Polk with Andrew Jackson and nationalists, Truman with Franklin Roosevelt and liberal internationalists, and Reagan with both liberal internationalists (Jimmy Carter) and realists (Richard Nixon).

Tenet Two is, of course, quite wrong. There simply has been no serious threat to America since we gave the Brits the heave ho, and even that didn't require war, though we opted for one. Besides, no policy that is as ideal driven as the one he outlines could constrain itself to only being implemented when there were physical threats.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 7:51 AM

As refreshing as it may be to have James Knox Polk rightfuly included among the greatest American presidents, unfortunately this author fails to connect the dots.

To suggest that Polk's achievements are "tarnished" by slavery and imperialism is to omit the long-term benefit to humanity of the very robust American internationalism which forms the subject of the article.

All on earth, including the blacks, the Indians, the Mexicans, the Europeans, the Asians--all of us--are better off because the United States had seized destiny. Had there been no Jefferson, no Jackson, no Polk, there would have been no world government, no law given to the world, to knock down the evils of Kaisarism, Nazism, Nipponism and Communism.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 3, 2008 9:08 AM

The Civil War was a necessary war for America to fulfill its historic mission.

Posted by: Ibid at August 3, 2008 12:12 PM

But the South was no threat.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2008 2:17 PM

The Big Stick.

The Great White Fleet's cruise had a point. We can go anywhere and our ships will be ready to fight. Do not come here and expect any less from us.

Posted by: Mikey at August 3, 2008 3:26 PM

Perhaps you should have told the south how outmoded they were in 1859 OJ.

The United States are; and from it Freedom will send its torch. Best to have that domestic argument done and over.

Posted by: Mikey at August 3, 2008 3:31 PM

There wasn't enough difference between North and South to fight a war over and blacks would have fared better without abolition being forced on the South.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2008 5:05 PM

I disagree with Our Hosts: Point Two is vital. What it says is that we will do nothing overt or violent unless you p* us off.

This puts remarkably tight constraints on the behavior of would-be enemies, and those constraints are precisely those that lead (eventually, over the long term) to the sort of world we want.

And the important thing about the Civil War was not the war itself, although it was important; much more important was the Reconstruction, or rather the failure of the Reconstruction. It was the first clue we had that Imperialism, in the old-fashioned sense that Marx railed about, was not a profitable endeavor and was therefore not a fit activity for us to pursue. The lesson was further driven in later, of course.


Posted by: Ric Locke at August 3, 2008 5:28 PM

It's wrong though, which is why presidents just manufacture fake incidents to take us to volitional wars.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2008 7:12 PM
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