Donald Douglas over at American Power weighs in with a laudatory post about Brian Rathbun’s recent article — an article in which neoconservatism is equated with and defined as “moral nationalism.” “Moral” here means that neoconservatism offers something other than a set of factual observations on which to base foreign policy, but instead spins out a normative justification for the rectitude of particular policies, particularly policies involving the use of military force in pursuit and promotion of American ideals and values. Douglas, an avowed neoconservative, is very much in favor of this characterization of his position, especially since “moral nationalism” arguably stretches back to the founding of the United States — if neoconservatism goes back that far, then it is clearly a venerable American tradition instead of a novel upstart doctrine. For support on this point, Douglas calls in the big guns: none other than Robert Kagan, who traces “the rhetoric of greatness, moralism, and mission” back through several hundred years of American foreign policy history in order to make just this argument.

Unfortunately for all three of these folks, the equation between “moral nationalism” and neoconservatism just doesn’t hold up. Moral nationalism — or, better, a moralistic tone or sympathy in American public policy — has in fact been characteristic of the United States since before its founding. But to call Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman “neoconservatives” is to strain the meaning of the term beyond all recognition, and certainly beyond any conceivable analytical utility. Sure, taking these important icons from the past into the neoconservative fold has important political implications. But analytically speaking, it’s nonsense — and ideologically slanted nonsense at that.

Setting aside for the moment the theoretical issues involved in Rathbun’s decision to equate the analysis of elite opinion with the analysis of foreign policy (more on this in a moment), the basic argument of the article is that not all US “conservatives” are realists. Given the historical association between realism and the political right wing, this is an interesting if not particularly earth-shaking claim. Rathbun evaluates the claim by running a factor analysis on a data-set of elite mail survey repsonses; the analysis reveals three clusters of responses, which Rathbun labels “realist,” “nationalist,” and “isolationist.” Right away there’s something odd here, because this looks like two apples and an orange: realism and nationalism are perspectives or attitudes, while isolation is a policy. Conceptually, one could be a realist or a nationalist and prefer either isolation or its opposite, and perhaps even prefer different policies under different circumstances. Along similar lines, one could only be an isolationist under this description if one always and eternally rejected involvement in global politics, and volumes of historical scholarship have made it abundantly clear that a) no one, even the so-called “isolationists,” ever actually argued that during a policy debate, and b) the very term “isolationism” was a piece of political labeling by the opponents of a policy of remaining uninvolved in European affairs during the 1920s and 1930s. And so-called “isolationists” were perfectly happy to press for US involvement in the Pacific and in Latin America; what they didn’t want to do was to get involved in a European war. So there never were any such people as “isolationists,” strictly speaking.

What there were — and what there have always been, and continue to be — were people who argued that the United States ought to retain its freedom of action in world politics, and not bind itself to multilateral or universal institutions and rule-structures. In other words, they preferred unilateral policies. That said, unilateralism vs. multilateralism describes not a policy debate, but the possible outcomes of such a debate. A state’s pursuit of unilateral or multilateral policies is the kind of thing that stands in need of an explanation; it’s not an explanation itself. Further, those preferring or advocating unilateral or multilateral policies rarely, if ever, do so in those terms; rather, the positions taken in a debate point in a unilateral or multilateral direction, and may not (indeed, probably don’t) actually use the terms ‘unilateral’ or ‘multilateral’ in so doing. If we want to account for different positions on US foreign policy. we have to look at the terms of the debates in which advocates engaged, and not simply look at the kinds of policies that supposed adherents of each side of the debate argued for or against — doing so is likely to get us into real conceptual trouble, because we might have mis-assigned a speaker to one side or the other prematurely and thus be confused at their advocacy of a position that they “shouldn’t” be advocating. (Or, even worse, we could find ourselves attempting to make logical sense of a coalition in support of a policy that was formed on more instrumental grounds, such as the “coalition” that voted to support the present Iraq war. Different people had very different reasons for voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and it would make a mockery of the term to claim that everyone who voted in the affirmative was, for example, a neoconservative.)

So if we shift our gaze from policies to policy debates, what do we find that might separate realists from nationalists, and from liberal internationalists and the other kinds of schools of thought we might find? I’d say that first of all we need to stop thinking in terms of “schools,” since positions on foreign policy are rarely coherent enough for that moniker. Individual policymakers also pick and choose among the elements of the supposed “schools” when the occasion seems appropriate. So we need to start with the content of policy debates, and look for ways of analytically parsing out their elements so as to make sense of the patterns and combinations that we see in practice. [This signals a methodological difference between Rathbun and me, in that the factor analysis he employs is a technique for inferring the existence of real-but-not-directly-observed variables that cause outcomes, where my ideal-typification of existing debates is a more pragmatic, or instrumentalist, use of data. But I’m going to forego that discussion for the present post.]

So what are those elements? Two of Rathbun’s proposed three analytical dimensions — whether the US should be more powerful than other countries (“rank”), and whether the US ought to remain distant from other countries (“separation”) belong, as far as I am concerned, in the same category as “isolation” — these are policies, not justifications for policies. Rathbun’s other dimension, “distinction,” strikes me as more promising, although Rathbun cashes it out in a way that is not as clear as it could be. The root of “distinction,” I would argue, is a claim that the United States is both exempt from those rules and exempt from them on the grounds that the United States represents something special, distinctive, higher — something that trumps the rules in force for merely ordinary polities. These two aspects combine to form a venerable commonplace in US foreign policy debates: exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism puts the US in a category all its own, and is reasonably contrasted with stances like realism that maintain that the United States is a state like other states and needs to play by the rules of international politics (the realists — the “rules” in question here are understood not to be social products, but are instead held to be more or less inevitable consequences of life in the anarchy of the international system). But realism is not the only opposite of exceptionalism, and in fact most anti-exceptionalists in the United States have not actually been realists. They are, instead, committed to a variety of positions that situate the United States within some larger polity or universal set of standards, making the US the agent of that broader perspective. Some anti-exceptionalists accept the universalism of the exceptionalist commonplace, but reject the exemption from the rules claimed by exceptionalists; we sometimes call these people “liberal internationalists” and we think of Woodrow Wilson. Of course, we also call these people “militant nationalists,” particularly when we’re talking about Theodore Roosevelt, but a closer look at TR’s actual policy justifications reveals pretty quickly that Roosevelt was more interested in a US-led club of “civilized nations” then he was in the sort of go-it-alone unilateralism preferred by exceptionalists when they felt the need to forcibly intervene in the affairs of other countries; the distance between TR’s club of civilized nations and Wilson’s League of Nations are considerably less than we sometimes recognize. Other anti-exceptionalists avoided the language of “civilization,” preferring the more exclusive civilizational polity of ‘the West’; the logic was similar (US submerged in a larger policy/group, albeit as that group’s leader), but the implications were different inasmuch as ‘the West’ was not something one could join by choice. Hence, a mutually armed standoff, which we now call “the Cold War” (yes, Truman and Acheson were Western-Civilizationists, not exceptionalists, as I have argued in detail elsewhere).

So where does neoconservatism fit in all of this? The really intriguing thing about neoconservatism is that it manages to rehabilitate exceptionalism, but do so in such a way as to detach it from its traditional association with policies of refraining from “entangling” involvement in European political machinations, and only reluctantly and unilaterally intervening in such high-level global political and military activity when absolutely necessary — “isolationism” — and join it to a vigorous promotion of universal ideals (“civilization,” as GWB said for the first time on 20 September 2001, and numerous times thereafter). Borrowing a page or three from Reagan — actually, scratch that, writing a page or three that Reagan used as a script — neoconservatism represents a reconfiguration of the basic elements that have been floating around US foreign policy discussions for generations. That reconfiguration uses elements, and thus has some similarities with, the older uses of exceptionalism, which implied something like “build the perfect democracy here at home and let human history gradually conspire to make the world like us” (which, contra Kagan, is more or less what both the US’s founders and Robert A. Taft were saying — the US needed to be powerful, sure, but only so that it could serve as a magnetic pole to attract and defend its universal ideals, and most certainly not so that it could invade other countries and force “regime change”). In contemporary parlance, exceptionalism, whether it’s the Clinton/Albright “indispensable nation” or the beacon of civilization so often referenced in discussions of the War on Terror(ism), means something like “actively intervene in the world so as to make it resemble the ideal, and do not be too troubled about the niceties — after all, the US is unique, and represents the best of humanity, so how could it do wrong?” Contrast even Wilson’s militant liberalism, which took the European powers to task and took the United States into the First World War mostly for violating neutrality rights. That’s no “coalition of the willing,” the preferred option of neoconservatives (and it has to be their preferred option, because an exceptional/indispensable nation can’t be bound by its alliance to less-perfect countries if those alliances get in its way). And Wilson — and TR, and FDR, and Truman, and Hamilton, and Washington — were certainly no neoconservatives.

As I said at the outset, I can certainly see and understand the political value of a claim that neoconservativism is as old as the republic. But this is mere propaganda, as is the neoconservatism recasting of all of US foreign policy history as debate between militant nationalists (like themselves, they argue) and conservative isolationists (which is quite ironic, since those conventionally labeled “isolationists” were the traditional upholders and utilizers of the very rhetorical commonplace — exceptionalism — now so central to neoconservative thinking). Exceptionalism is as old as the republic, but the implications that neoconservatives draw from it are relatively novel. What this implies about the desirability of neoconservatism I am not entirely sure about; I personally don’t think it implies much of anything, but others might disagree.

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