Toward a Conservative Foreign Policy of Non-Interventionism

During the presidency of George W. Bush, those of us who criticized U.S. foreign policy as overly hawkish tended to be considered “liberal,” a tendency neoconservatives had little reason to resist.  I personally found this very frustrating, for reasons that probably mystify some readers.  Does it really matter whether any given position is suitably “conservative”?  It does to a conservative, because conservatives are supposed to obsess about continuity with the past.  Conservatives are, by definition, strongly committed to the proposition that our received political traditions represent centuries of political wisdom which, at least in the ordinary case, should trump all but the most extraordinarily well-founded private judgments.  This gives self-identified conservatives who part ways with their old cohort an unusually strong stake in substantiating the claim that “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.”

In my own family, the question has arisen from time to time whether my larger-than-life grandfather — a Taft man in the early 50s, a Goldwater delegate at the 1964 Republican Convention, and a committed Republican all his life — would have supported the Bush (43) foreign policy.  My mom says yes, and I suppose I have to accept that strictly on her authority.  My skepticism, however, has been renewed by a couple of recent issues of The American Conservative.

In the March issue, popular and beloved Georgetown professor George W. Carey warned his fellow “traditionalist conservatives” against an unduly bellicose foreign policy that could sustain and extend what is by now almost a “Hundred Years War” — a century-long campaign, since 1917, of Wilsonian crusades to advance American idealism rather than to protect American interests.  In “In from the Cold,” Professor Carey writes,

The steadfast opposition of traditionalist conservatives to the War on Terror initiated by a Republican president stands in sharp contrast to the stance they assumed during the Cold War, when they justifiably earned an image as hardliners implacably committed to the elimination of the Soviet Union and willing to take bold measures to ensure this end. How can these seemingly inconsistent positions be reconciled?

From my perspective, as a politically aware traditional conservative during the entire Cold War era, the obvious answer is that traditionalists believed that the Soviet Union posed an unprecedented threat to the very existence of Western civilization, whereas the stakes involved in the War on Terror are nowhere near as monumental. While the Cold War called for an active and, at times, militant interventionism, handling our present difficulties requires different and far less drastic measures.

But Professor Carey’s point is not merely to argue about whether the Bush foreign policy was “conservative.”  The point is to sort out the question of what our foreign policy should be in the future.  According to Professor Carey, the Cold War paradigm misled too many conservatives in the first decade of the twenty-first century:

During [the Cold War], individuals were habituated to think in terms of a determined enemy, an “evil empire” intent upon imposing a totalitarian order. In keeping with this state of mind was an unquestioned acceptance of aggressive foreign interventions. American exceptionalism supported and justified our militant policies. If the U.S. was “the last best hope of mankind,” our crusades were inherently righteous.

Though the Soviet Union collapsed, the mindset that had been nurtured over a period of 40 years was so ingrained in our political culture that it simply could not be uprooted overnight. Nor were we given much time for reorientation, for American intervention scarcely stopped, resuming swiftly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union with the first Gulf War, whose presumed purpose was to restore “democracy” to Kuwait.

. . . With the “axis of evil,” we found a familiar brand of enemy. More imaginative neocons fanned the flames with a nearly endless list of potential foes, even suggesting that we were now in the midst of “World War IV”—the Cold War being World War III—a titanic struggle for the survival of Western civilization against the forces of “Islamo-fascism.”

The principal cost of this off-the-shelf response to Islamist fanaticism has been a systematic bias toward bellicosity.  Professor Carey notes that LBJ knew disengagement from Vietnam would have been the most prudent policy, but it was not on the table because it would have been an act of political suicide.  He believes President Obama’s policies in Afghanistan “were likely formulated against a similar backdrop.”

Happy as I was to have Professor Carey’s permission to persist in calling myself an antiwar conservative, the May issue of The American Conservative gave me fresh cause for satisfaction.  Under the heading “Old and Right,” TAC reprints a classic statement of the non-interventionist views of “Mr. Republican,” Robert A. Taft.  Here is what Senator Taft said in 1951:

I do not believe it is a selfish goal for us to insist that the overriding purpose of all American foreign policy should be the maintenance of the liberty and the peace of the people of the United States, so that they may achieve that intellectual and material improvement which is their genius and in which they can set an example for all people. By that example we can do an even greater service to mankind than we can by billions of material assistance—and more than we can ever do by war.

Just as our nation can be destroyed by war it can also be destroyed by a political or economic policy at home which destroys liberty or breaks down the fiscal and economic structure of the United States. We cannot adopt a foreign policy which gives away all of our people’s earnings or imposes such a tremendous burden on the individual American as, in effect, to destroy his incentive and his ability to increase production and productivity in his standard of living. We cannot assume a financial burden in our foreign policy so great that it threatens liberty at home.

It follows that except as such policies may ultimately protect our own security, we have no primary interest as a national policy to improve the conditions or material welfare in other parts of the world or to change other forms of government.  Certainly we should not engage in war to achieve such purposes.  I don’t mean to say that, as responsible citizens of the world, we should not gladly extend charity or assistance to those in need.  I do not mean to say that we should not align ourselves with the advocates of freedom everywhere. We did this kind of thing for many years, and we were respected as the most disinterested and charitable nation in the world.

Nor do I believe we can justify war by our natural desire to bring freedom to others throughout the world, although it is perfectly proper to encourage and promote freedom. In 1941 President Roosevelt announced that we were going to establish a moral order throughout the world: freedom of speech and expression, “everywhere in the world”; freedom to worship God “everywhere in the world”; freedom from want, and freedom from fear “everywhere in the world.” I pointed out then that the forcing of any special brand of freedom and democracy on a people, whether they want it or not, by the brute force of war will be a denial of those very democratic principles which we are striving to advance.

If we confine our activities to the field of moral leadership we shall be successful if our philosophy is sound and appeals to the people of the world. The trouble with those who advocate this policy is that they really do not confine themselves to moral leadership. They are inspired with the same kind of New Deal planned-control ideas as recent Administrations have desired to enforce at home. In their hearts they want to force on these foreign people through the use of American money and even, perhaps, American arms the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles and the force of persuasion. I do not think this moral leadership ideal justifies our engaging in any preventive war, or going to the defense of one country against another, or getting ourselves into a vulnerable fiscal and economic position at home which may invite war. I do not believe any policy which has behind it the threat of military force is justified as part of the basic foreign policy of the United States except to defend the liberty of our own people.

—Robert A. Taft, A Foreign Policy for Americans, 1951

Can we recover this understanding of our role in the world?  I hope so.

2 Responses to “Toward a Conservative Foreign Policy of Non-Interventionism”

  1. Jim Walsh Says:

    Thanks for that wonderful quotation from Senator Taft. Besides the refreshing good sense of what he says, it is a pleasure to see the word “disinterested” used correctly.

    George Carey’s phrase “traditionalist conservative” is telling. That he would have to use the qualifier indicates what we have come to in our political discourse, as well of course as the philosophical incoherence of what is thought to represent “conservative” thought (without more) in 2010.

  2. George Peacock Says:

    I do not believe that we can recover this understanding of our role in the world.

    We have been persuaded for generations that we must intercede around the world (FDR said it and we have come to believe it) and that we must make people “free” and live under democratic rule.

    We have been further persuaded that we must take the fight to them (the terrorists) to prevent them from ever striking here (an impossible goal — as the SUV in Times Square should surely remind us). Republicans have used fear to build the military complex and to strike around the world. The Deomcrats have extended the nanny state mentality to the rest of the world to remind us of of our obligations to make everything right. Together, we intervene and there is no credible candidate offering an alternative. Certainly not one that is being heard in the mainstream.

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