I’m currently working on a few difference pieces that deal with the relationship between liberalism and empire. I also, as long-team readers of the Duck know, consider neoconservative understandings of international politics as a variant of liberalism that constitutes a specific flavor of the US commitment to democratic enlargement as transformative of international politics. Neoconservatives reject the idea that international institutions, at least as currently configured, and US self-restraint pacify global politics; their liberalism is strongly inflected by particular currents of American nationalist exceptionalism.

Most published international-relations scholarship concurs with this assessment, thus I read with great interest Jonathan D. Caverley’s “Power and Democratic Weakness: Neoconservatism and Neoclassical Realism” which appeared in Millennium: Journal of International Studies (May 2010, pp. 593-614) [earlier, but ungated, version]. Here’s the abstract:

While realists and neoconservatives generally disagreed on the Iraq invasion of 2003, nothing inherent in either approach to foreign policy accounts for this. Neoconservatism’s enthusiasm for democratisation would appear to distinguish the two but its rejection of all other liberal mechanisms in world politics suggests that the logic linking democracy and American security shares little with liberalism. Inspecting the range of neoconservative thought reveals a unifying theme: the enervating effects of democracy on state power and the will to wield it in a dangerous world. Consequently, the United States enjoys greater safety among other democracies due to a more favourable distribution of relative power. Viewing regime type through the prism of state power extraction in a competitive, anarchic world puts neoconservatism squarely in the neoclassical realist camp. The article concludes by suggesting why the rest of International Relations should care about this new ‘neo–neo’ debate.

Caverley contends, in consequence, that we should see neoconservativism as a form of neoclassical realism. After all, neoconservatives see anarchy as characterized by unforgiving power-political competition and worry that the domestic politics of liberal states render them vulnerable to authoritarian and totalitarian rivals. They recommend civic virtue and strong political leadership — along the lines of Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” — as an antidote.

This combination looks, as Caverley argues, rather similar to Gideon Rose’s description of neoclassical realism as holding that

The scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and foremost by the country’s relative material power. Yet it contends that the impact of power capabilities on foreign policy is indirect and complex, because systemic pressures must be translated through intervening unit-level variables such as decision-makers’ perceptions and state structure.

While most of Caverley’s claims are well-rehearsed in the “how to make sense of neoconservative foreign policy” debate, I’ve never before seen his argument that neoconservatives support democratizing other countries as a way of making them weaker. It turns out there’s a good reason for that: they don’t make any such claim.

Before I explain how Caverley’s arguments combine esoteric readings of neoconservative texts with both invocation of non-existant arguments and quotations taken plainly out of context, I should touch upon a set of even more basic problems with Caverley’s claim that neoconservativism isn’t liberalism. The crux of Caverley’s reasoning looks like this:

G. John Ikenberry identifies six ‘big ideas’ shared by Wilsonianism and modern liberalism. The first four cover various paths to peace: democracy, free trade, international law and international bodies, and collective security. The final two are a progressive optimism about modernity coupled with the need for American global leadership as a ‘moral agent’. Neoconservatism clearly accepts both the importance of democracy as an American national interest and of American moral global leadership, but explicitly rejects the remaining four points of liberalism/Wilsonianism [emphasis original].

First, liberalism, of course, is not identical to Wilsonianism; liberal internationalism represents only one of many ways of translating liberalism into grand strategy. In the United States, liberal principles have undergird foreign-policy approaches ranging from a complete rejection of foreign “entanglements” to the establishing of formal empire.

Second, it is a bit silly to say that neoconservativism isn’t liberal because it overlaps with neoclassical realism. Neoclassical realism is a somewhat amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories; in consequence, it provides a poor benchmark for assessing non-scholarly debates about the proper guiding principles for American foreign policy.

Third, the Hobbes-Locke debate over the relative unpleasantness of the state of the nature–which Hobbes distinguishes from the texture of relations between sovereign states–is an intra-liberal debate about the parameters of the social contract. Liberals can disagree about whether institutions such as the League or the United Nations are sufficiently robust to mitigate anarchy, let alone whether concessions of sovereignty necessary to create such institutions would be worth the consequent threat to domestic freedom and self-determination in liberal democracies.

Indeed, it isn’t difficult to understand why neconservative praxis is incompatible with realism:

  • It holds that relations among democracies are fundamentally different than those among democracies and non-democracies;
  • It holds that global politics should be understood as an ideological struggle between the forces of freedom and their antagonists; and
  • It sees no contradiction between the pursuit of liberal values, at least properly understood, and national interests.

Although specific academics who call themselves realists might accept one or more of these propositions, none are “realist” in any meaningful sense. No realist would, as many neoconservatives have, advocate a “League of Democracies” as a superior alternative to the United Nations.

Consider Caverley’s discussion of the neoconservative rejection of “liberal, transnational norms.” Caverley quotes Krauthammer as writing that “moral suasion is a farce,” but here’s what Krauthammer writes:

Moral suasion? Was it moral suasion that made Qaddafi see the wisdom of giving up his weapons of mass destruction? Or Iran agree for the first time to spot nuclear inspections? It was the suasion of the bayonet. It was the ignominious fall of Saddam–and the desire of interested spectators not to be next on the list. The whole point of this treaty was to keep rogue states from developing chemical weapons. Rogue states are, by definition, impervious to moral suasion.

Moral suasion is a farce. Why then this obsession with conventions, protocols, legalisms? Their obvious net effect is to temper American power. Who, after all, was really going to be most constrained by these treaties? The ABM amendments were aimed squarely at American advances and strategic defenses, not at Russia, which lags hopelessly behind. The Kyoto Protocol exempted India and China. The nuclear test ban would have seriously degraded the American nuclear arsenal. And the landmine treaty (which the Clinton administration spent months negotiating but, in the end, met so much Pentagon resistance that even Clinton could not initial it) would have had a devastating impact on U.S. conventional forces, particularly at the DMZ in Korea.

This is pretty par for the course in terms of US nationalist exceptionalism: bad regimes don’t care about their image in the “international community,” the US needs strength to pursue liberal ends, treaties with autocratic rivals only weaken US power, etc. Similarly, Caverley quotes Robert Kagan, who writes in “End of Dreams, Return of History” that “there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers.” But Kagan’s piece, with a title rebutting Francis Fukuyama’s claim that great ideological struggles are over, is a call for the US to recognize the new authoritarian threat to liberalism. And here’s the full context:

Today there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers. Quite the contrary: There is suspicion, growing hostility, and the well-grounded view on the part of the autocracies that the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their overthrow. Any concert among them would be built on a shaky foundation likely to collapse at the first serious test.

American foreign policy should be attuned to these ideological distinctions and recognize their relevance to the most important strategic questions. It is folly to expect China to help undermine a brutal regime in Khartoum or to be surprised if Russia rattles its saber at pro-Western democratic governments near its borders. There will be a tendency toward solidarity among the world ’s autocracies, as well as among the world’s democracies.

For all these reasons, the United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals. One possibility might be to establish a global concert or league of democratic states, perhaps informally at first but with the aim of holding regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day. Such an institution could bring together Asian nations such as Japan, Australia, and India with the European nations — two sets of democracies that have comparatively little to do with each other outside the realms of trade and finance. The institution would complement, not replace, the United Nations, the g-8, and other global forums. But it would at the very least signal a commitment to the democratic idea, and in time it could become a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address a number of issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations. If successful, it could come to be an organization capable of bestowing legitimacy on actions that liberal nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance — as nato conferred legitimacy on the conflict in Kosovo even though Russia was opposed.

Given such overwhelming evidence against neoconservativism’s illiberalism, much depends on Caverley’s claim that neoconservatives favor liberal enlargement as a way of weakening rivals by saddling them with democratic institutions. As I’ve alluded to already, some of this argument depends (fittingly enough) on a Straussian-style esoteric reading of neoconservative writings. Neoconservatives worry about the erosion of republican values in modern liberal polities. They advocate strong leadership and “new nationalism”-style programs to counter this tendency. They consider Europe as a cautionary example for the United States. But to read their various worries and exhortations as containing a hidden message that Washington should spread democracy for instrumental purposes–to enfeeble rivals–is, as one of my professors once noted of Straussian esoteric readings, “fascinating, ingenious, and totally wrong.”

How wrong it is becomes clear when Caverley moves beyond esoteric inference and claims to cite neoconservatives making this argument.

Fukuyama observes that the advocates of trans- forming Iraq into a Western-style democracy are the same people who question the ‘dangers of ambitious social engineering’. This apparent paradox becomes coherent given this idea of democratic enfeeblement. Kirkpatrick points out that because totalitarian states are inherently more threatening, the United States should focus its democratisation efforts there. Her famous essay does not criticise neoconservative enthusiasm for democratisation so much as connect it to a grand strategic logic. Because of the military advantage enjoyed by non-democracies, a United States interested in self-preservation should aggressively spread this cost aversion Muravchik succinctly states the core (and inherently power political) logic: ‘The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe.

But by this logic would not other regime types attempt to spread democracy, preferring to be the only autocrat in a world of Kantian peaceniks? Kagan and others address this question by claiming that the existence and success of democracies is inherently threatening to the stability of authoritarian regimes. This autocratic support (perhaps unlike democracy) is not based in ideological affinity but on self-preservation and the desire to maximise power. Moreover, autocrats:

see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located.

Why am I so dismissive of all of this? It seemed odd to me, so I checked the footnotes.

Kirkpatrick nowhere in “Dictatorships and Double Standards” argues that the US should focus democratization efforts on totalitarian states because they are “inherently more threatening” (at least in the sense Caverley implies). She argues that, in the struggle against communist totalitarianism, the US should support friendly anti-communist authoritarians as both, whatever their flaws, morally superior and more amenable to subsequent democratization than totalitarian regimes. The Carter Administration, as well as the American left, both weakens US interests and the cause of democratic liberalism insofar as its weakens its autocratic allies in favor of self-styled liberation movements. As she concludes:

For these reasons and more, a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation. It is not even necessary or appropriate for our leaders to forswear unilaterally the use of military force to counter military force. Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.

Caverley’s ‘smoking gun’ quotation from Muravchik, moreover, is completely out of context. When Muravchik argues that “The spread of demcoracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe” he has a specific foe in mind: militant jihadism. As Muravchik notes earlier in the article:

what is undeniable is that Bush’s declaration of war against terrorism did bear the earmarks of neoconservatism. One can count the ways. It was moralistic, accompanied by descriptions of the enemy as “evil” and strong assertions of America’s righteousness. As Norman Podhoretz puts it in his powerful new book Bush offered “an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs.” In contrast to the suggestion of many, especially many Europeans, that America had somehow provoked the attacks, Bush held that what the terrorists hated was our virtues, and in particular our freedom. His approach was internationalist: it treated the whole globe as the battlefield, and sought to confront the enemy far from our own doorstep. It entailed the prodigious use of force. And, for the non-military side of the strategy, Bush adopted the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East in the hope that this would drain the fever swamps that bred terrorists [emphasis added].

That’s right: Moravchik’s argument has zilch to do with Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” hypothesis. Rather, it amounts to a fairly standard neoconservative claim that democratization weakens radical Islamism.

There’s something perverse about using an out-of-context quotation from this particualr Muravchik piece. Here’s what Muravchik has to say about neoconservativism in the early pages of his article:

The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970’s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.

As a heretical offshoot of liberalism, neoconservatism appealed to the same values and even many of the same goals—like, for example, peace and racial equality. But neoconservatives argued that liberal policies—for example, disarmament in the pursuit of peace, or affirmative action in the pursuit of racial equality—undermined those goals rather than advancing them. In short order, the heretics established themselves as contemporary liberalism’s most formidable foes.

Two distinct currents fed the stream of neoconservatism. One focused on domestic issues, specifically by reexamining the Great Society programs of the 1960’s and the welfare state as a whole. It was centered in the Public Interest, a quarterly founded and edited by Irving Kristol. The other focused on international issues and the cold war; it was centered in COMMENTARY and led by the magazine’s editor, Norman Podhoretz.

The former current has little if any relevance to the controversy surrounding neoconservatism today. Much of the domestic-policy critique mounted by neoconservatives eventually became common wisdom, symbolized by President Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform program and his declaration that “the era of big government is over.” In the meantime, several of the seminal figures of the domestic wing—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer—drifted back toward liberalism.

It was the foreign-policy wing that was, all along, more passionately embroiled in ideological disputation.1 For one thing, the stakes were higher. If a domestic policy fails, you can try another. If a foreign policy fails, you may find yourself at war. Also, the battles that rived the Democratic party in the 1970’s, at a time when virtually all neoconservatives were still Democrats, principally concerned foreign affairs. These battles sharpened ideological talons on all sides.

The divisions stemmed from the Vietnam war. Not that all neoconservatives were hawks on this particular issue; some, including Podhoretz, were (qualified) doves. But when opponents of the war went from arguing that it was a failed instance of an essentially correct policy—namely, resisting Communist expansionism—to contending that it was a symptom of a deep American sickness, neoconservatives answered back. Whatever problems we may have made for ourselves in Vietnam, they said, the origins of the conflict were to be found neither in American imperialism nor in what President Jimmy Carter would call our “inordinate fear of Communism,” but in Communism’s lust to dominate.

Contrary to Carter and the antiwar Left, neoconservatives believed that Communism was very much to be feared, to be detested, and to be opposed. They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp. They took the point of George Orwell’s 1984—a book that (as the Irish scholars James McNamara and Dennis J. O’Keeffe have written) resurrected the idea of evil “as a political category.” And they absorbed the cautionary warning of the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against yielding ground to the Communists in the vain hope “that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough.”

Many in our history, both statesmen and scholars, had drawn a distinction between Americans’ sentiments and America’s self-interest. Where Communism was concerned, the neoconservatives saw the two as intertwined. Communism needed to be fought both because it was morally appalling and because it was a threat to our country.

And, as he notes a bit later on:

Even those traditional conservatives who distrusted the readiness of Nixon and Kissinger to make deals with the Soviet Union tended to share the underlying philosophy of foreign-policy “realism.” As opposed to the neoconservative emphasis on the battle of ideas and ideologies, and on the psychological impact of policy choices, realists focused on state interests and the time-honored tools of statecraft. That was one reason why, for the neoconservatives of the 1970’s, the great champions in American political life were not conservative or Republican figures but two Democrats of unmistakably liberal pedigree: Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO. When President Ford, on Kissinger’s counsel, closed the White House door to Solzhenitsyn upon his expulsion from Soviet Russia, these two stalwart anti-Communists formally welcomed him to Washington.

It was only with the accession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981 that the neoconservatives made their peace with Republican-style conservatism. Reagan brought several neoconservatives—notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, and Elliott Abrams—into pivotal foreign-policy positions in his administration (and, on the domestic-policy side, William J. Bennett and others). With time, most neoconservatives moved into the Republican fold. As for Reagan’s “belligerent” approach to the cold war, it was criticized as loudly by both liberals and conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment as it was cheered by neoconservatives. But there can be no question that it issued in a sublime victory: the mighty juggernaut of the Soviet state, disposing of more kill power than the U.S. or any other state in history, capitulated with scarcely a shot.

So, while Muravchik does describe neoconservativism as sharing elements with both ‘realism’ and ‘idealism,’ his account amounts to a refutation of Caverley’s core thesis:

The military historian Max Boot has aptly labeled it “hard Wilsonianism.” It does not mesh neatly with the familiar dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” It is indeed idealistic in its internationalism and its faith in democracy and freedom, but it is hardheaded, not to say jaundiced, in its image of our adversaries and its assessment of international organizations. Nor is its idealism to be confused with the idealism of the “peace” camp. Over the course of the past century, various schemes for keeping the peace—the League of Nations, the UN, the treaty to outlaw war, arms-control regimes—have all proved fatuous. In the meantime, what has in fact kept the peace (whenever it has been kept) is something quite different: strength, alliances, and deterrence. Also in the meantime, “idealistic” schemes for promoting not peace but freedom—self-determination for European peoples after World War I, decolonization after World War II, the democratization of Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria, the global advocacy of human rights—have brought substantial and beneficial results.

Belief in deterrence, alliances, and force does not a “realist” make if those instruments are deployed on behalf of a global crusade for liberalism.

Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that Caverley takes Kagan out of context in order to answer why, given “democratic enfeeblement,” autocracies don’t support democratization. Here’s the full pargraph, with the part that Caverley quotes underlined:

Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world. Moreover, they can see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian, or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located. Moscow knows it can have more influence with governments in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because, unlike the liberal West, it can unreservedly support their regimes. And the more autocracies there are in the world, the less isolated Beijing and Moscow will be in international forums such as the United Nations. The more dictatorships there are, the more global resistance they will offer against the liberal West ’s efforts to place limits on sovereignty in the interest of advancing liberalism.

I suppose there might be something to Caverley’s arguments; as I’ve noted, one can make a case for fitting “neoconservativism” under the rubric of “neoclassical realism.” But doing so requires us to ignore not only the evidence of intellectual DNA, but also to reduce “liberalism” to its Wilsonian variant. Still, his conclusions about academic neoclassical realism might have some punch. I just find it difficult to overlook the fact that Caverley’s novel claims concerning “democratic enfeeblement” find no textual support.

All of this dovetails in interesting ways with recent discussions of peer review. This article, at least in its present form, would not have survived adequate peer review. Any reviewer familiar with recent neoconservative writings should have wondered about some of these quotations, all of which come from articles available online. So either Millennium couldn’t find appropriate reviewers, those reviewers were too  “overburdened” to do due diligence, or they just didn’t care.

Update: my claim about this being a failure of peer review only involves the out-of-context quotations that I discuss at the end of my critique–those specific to Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” argument. Peer review is supposed to catch that sort of thing. The rest of the issues I raise are, I think, subject to debate; reasonable people will disagree about them. Reviewers should either have rejected the entire piece or suggested a revise-and-resubmit with either (1) better evidence for “democratic enfeeblement” or (2) an abandonment of that argument in favor of more general points about how neoconservatives work themselves into a place quite similar to that of some neoclassical realists. But the current “evidence” for that hypothesis should not have made it into a published article.