Toward a New Conservative Foreign Policy Consensus

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 upended political discourse in the United States. Although his election affected debates in both domestic and foreign affairs, the impact on the latter seems to have been the most consequential. As one commenter noted, Trump’s election has led to the bonfire of many of the established concepts of American foreign policy and grand strategy. The bonfire continues to rage. 

Much of the debate has taken place on the political Right. Although there are some distinctively conservative views of America’s approach to the world—a commitment to national sovereignty and a concomitant distrust of supranational institutions; a realist recognition of the role of power, including military power, in foreign affairs; and a concern for order and stability at home and abroad—conservatives have disagreed among themselves regarding the purpose of American power

Foreign Policy Taxonomies 

Political scientists and international security specialists have employed two dominant paradigms to examine foreign relations: “realism,” which focuses on the relative power of states in the international system; and “liberal internationalism,” which stresses the role of cooperation, norms, and international institutions in the international system.

These two paradigms have given rise to various taxonomies of policy—for example, “primacy,” “strategic disengagement,” “selective engagement,” and “cooperative internationalism.” U.S. foreign policy, however, has never fit perfectly into any one of these categories.

Historians provide a different perspective. A taxonomy that has gained traction in the recent past can be traced to the work of Walter McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania and Walter Russell Mead in his book, Special Providence. Mead identified four “schools” of American foreign policy since the founding of the republic. First, the Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with liberty at home, have traditionally been suspicious of a large military and large-scale international projects. George McGovern’s plea to “come home, America” and the presidency of Jimmy Carter are recent examples of this approach. 

In contrast, Hamiltonians have tended to support international engagement in order to support not only American power but also prosperity. They have focused on armed diplomacy on behalf of opening foreign markets and expanding the U.S. economy. 

Jacksonians support a strong military, albeit one that should be used rarely. Once employed, however, the Jacksonians believe the goal should be the application of overwhelming force in order to bring the enemy to its knees. World War II is the clearest example of the Jacksonian use of force. 

Finally, Wilsonians are moral missionaries, willing to use force in order to spread democracy, as in the case of George W. Bush in Iraq. But they also prefer to cede sovereignty to international (actually transnational) institutions, as in the case of Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden.

Throughout most of American history, the debate among conservatives has been between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. That changed in the wake of 9/11 when George W. Bush combined Wilsonianism and Hamiltonianism, a hybrid that goes under the rubric of “neoconservative,” an approach that has called forth the ire of many conservatives. Indeed, many interpreted the election of Trump as an explicit rejection of neoconservative foreign policy. 

Trump’s Foreign Policy

Analysts have struggled to categorize Trump’s foreign policy. It seems to have represented a fusion of Hamiltonianism and Jacksonianism. But what did this mean in practice? As I argued in American Greatness a year after Trump’s election, it was possible to discern the outlines of a “Trump doctrine” based on five pillars. Some other writers argued along similar lines

The first pillar was a healthy nationalism, not ethnic or racial nationalism but civic nationalism, better described as patriotism. This is fundamentally a belief that the primary purpose of American power is to advance the interests of American citizens, not an imaginary global community. In so doing, he aroused the anger of our unpatriotic and anti-nationalist elite who fancy themselves “citizens of the world.” 

The second pillar—and a corollary of the first—was a state-centric view of international politics, which Trump called “principled realism.” This approach views international institutions and “global governance” with great skepticism. It holds that the United States should not cede sovereignty to international institutions in order to be embraced by the mythical “international community” nor should the primary purpose of U.S. foreign policy be to defend a rule-based liberal international order. 

Of course, under this doctrine, the United States supported international institutions to the extent that they advance U.S. interests. But while it is in the interest of the United States to cooperate with other states within this international system, such cooperation depends on reciprocity. This is especially important in the areas of trade and alliances. In principle, free trade is good for countries in the international system but for too long, the United States has pursued trade agreements that have not favored the United States. The principle of reciprocity is necessary to redress this imbalance.

The third pillar was armed diplomacy. For too long, American policymakers have treated force and diplomacy as an either-or proposition. But understood properly, force and diplomacy are two sides of the same coin. As Frederick the Great observed, “diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” The threat of force increases the leverage of diplomats. The Trump Administration’s approach to Russia, Iran, and North Korea were examples.

The fourth pillar of the Trump doctrine was prioritizing economic growth and leveraging the new geopolitics of energy. The Trump Administration moved expeditiously to lift regulations that hampered U.S. domestic productivity across the board, but especially in the area of energy production. Under Trump, domestic oil and gas production increased as a result of the technical revolution associated with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and directional drilling. Trump exploited America’s energy potential to take advantage of the new geopolitics of energy. Biden’s reversal of Trump’s energy policy has contributed to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. 

The fifth pillar was a defense of liberal principles. Critics claimed that the Trump Administration subordinated defense of such principles to other considerations. Of course, prudence dictates that the United States should attempt to spread its principles only when it can do so in a cost-effective manner. Experience illustrates that the United States has been safer and more prosperous in a world populated by other democratic republics. But the United States faces limits. It cannot unilaterally spread democracy throughout the world. 

The “National Conservative” Option

So where do we go from here? In a recent New York Times column, Hawks Are Standing in the Way of a New Republican Party,three “national conservatives,” Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin offer a rebuke of their comrades on the Right, whom they accuse of pushing “liberal imperialism.” Although they don’t use the term in the Times piece, theirs is a denunciation of neoconservatives.

From the post-Cold War ‘Washington consensus’ (the idea that privatization, deregulation and free trade would lead to broad prosperity) to the post-9/11 regime-change wars, ‘crusader’ foreign policy immiserated ordinary people: Thoughtless NATO expansion bred resentment in a wounded-but-still-strong Russia, setting the stage for recurring crises; economic ‘shock therapy’ applied by disciples of Milton Friedman empowered predatory oligarchs in post-Soviet lands; the shattering of Arab states in the name of ‘freedom’ created ungoverned spaces across vast swaths of the Middle East and North Africa, kindling terrorism and sending millions of migrants into Europe.

The authors would replace this “old, broken fusion of pro-business libertarians, religious traditionalists, and foreign-policy hawks” with a new consensus, based on two pillars.

The first is a “sound restraint, especially where the United States doesn’t have formal treaty obligations, and a general retrenchment of the Western alliance’s ambitions.” The second is “domestic industrial prowess and energy independence.” 

Both of these pillars have something to commend them, but as in the case of the viewpoint that Ahmari, et al., attack, something is missing: prudence, which ultimately must be the basis of a sound foreign policy consensus. Aristotle called prudence the virtue most necessary for the statesman. Prudence requires an examination of the means available in light of the ends one seeks. This means answering these questions: what are the U.S. interests at stake? What are the courses of action available? What are the risks associated with the various courses of action? What is the likelihood of success?

Regarding the first pillar, the idea of restraint in U.S. foreign policy is nothing new. As John Quincy Adams wrote in 1821, “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

But there are sound geopolitical reasons for an American foreign policy based on forward defense and alliances focused on what the great geopolitical writer, Sir Halford Mackinder, called the Eurasian “heartland.” Mackinder argued that control of the Eurasian heartland by a hostile power could threaten peripheral maritime powers like Britain and the United States. Nicholas Spykman contended that the solution to Mackinder’s geopolitical dilemma was to establish a series of alliances on the “rimlands” of Eurasia, the amphibious littorals between the heartland and the great off-shore islands of Great Britain and the American continent to prevent the formation of such a coalition. This is the geopolitical rationale for continued U.S. support of NATO on the one hand and Japan on the other. If George Kennan is the father of containment, Nicholas Spykman is its godfather.

NATO proved its worth during the Cold War, but some on the Right now question its viability. I would argue that the geopolitical and strategic justification of NATO is still operative, but that as the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict illustrates, our overreach in the wake of the Cold War created a problem and needs to be reconsidered. Arguably, NATO made a strategic error by expanding too far to the east. Although the inclusion of the Visegrad states of Central Europe (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) made both cultural and strategic sense, including the Baltic States and threatening to embrace other former Soviet states, especially Ukraine, was a strategic “bridge too far.” 

Regarding the second pillar, the authors are right to note the shortcomings of “market fundamentalism”—the belief that adherence to free markets is always the best policy—to address strategic issues. Experience teaches that market and free trade often fail to account for changing geopolitical circumstances. But the sort of “industrial policy” that they recommend has a long history of failure, which they fail to acknowledge. 

Toward a New Consensus

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has oscillated between the poles of what might be called “idealistic Wilsonianism,” based on liberal internationalism and its faith in transnational institutions (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden) and “muscular Wilsonianism”: attempts to spread democracy by force (George W. Bush and a substantial part of the Republican Party foreign policy elite). Trump rejected both foreign policy approaches, which accounts for the fury he aroused from both factions. 

Conservatives need to achieve a new consensus on foreign policy but the program offered by the New York Times authors, one based on restraint as the single guiding principle, falls short because doctrinaire restraint is just as formulaic and lacking in prudence as the options they criticize. The content of such a consensus has been described by a number of writers, including Henry Nau, Robert Kaufman, and Colin Dueck. This approach goes by a number of names including “conservative internationalism” (Nau) and “conservative nationalism” (Dueck). 

I call my own formulationPrudent American Realism.” No matter the name, what this general approach has in common is the recognition that the internal character of regimes matters and that our foreign policy must reflect the fundamental principles of democratic republicanism. But unlike liberal internationalism, which holds that international law and institutions alone are sufficient to achieve peace, this approach understands that there are certain problems that can be addressed only through the prudent exercise of power.

In addition to fusing principle and prudence, a new conservative foreign policy consensus should stress several operational concepts. First, it must distinguish between friends and allies, on the one hand, and enemies and adversaries, on the other. Joe Biden’s quest for a nuclear agreement with Iran while stiff-arming Israel and the Sunni states of the Middle East violates this principle.

Second, a new consensus should accept the need for forward defense, forward presence, and freedom of navigation. Its geostrategic goal should be to maintain America’s traditional maritime alliance along the rimlands of Eurasia, in order to keep a potential Eurasian hegemon contained. 

Third, this consensus should recognize that the internal character of regimes matters for U.S. foreign policy, a principle that can be found in Thucydides, who noted that an important goal of both Athens and Sparta was to establish and support regimes similar to their own, democracies in the case of Athens and oligarchies for Sparta. The inference one can draw is that the security of a state is enhanced when it is surrounded by others that share its principles and interests. 

But although the internal character of regimes matters, a new conservative foreign policy consensus should recognize the need to limit our aspirations when it comes to “spreading democracy” abroad. The Times authors are also right to denounce what often passes today for liberal “values:” a virulent cultural libertinism that dissolves bonds of family and tradition.

Fourth, this consensus must accept the classical connection between force and diplomacy. For too long, American policymakers, motivated by the assumptions of liberal internationalism, have acted as if diplomacy alone is sufficient to achieve our foreign policy goals. A new conservative foreign policy consensus recognizes that diplomacy and force are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, as the authors of the Times column rightly argue, a new conservative foreign policy consensus should not hesitate to use economic power as an instrument of foreign policy. Finance, trade, technology, and energy are powerful means of leveraging national power. 

A “new” conservative foreign policy consensus must be the “old” prudential melding of power and security on the one hand with prosperity and the preservation of American principles on the other. U.S. foreign policy should take its bearings from George Washington’s Farewell Address: 

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.

Such prudence should guide U.S. foreign policy.

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About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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