Shadow Government

Dump Realism. It’s Time For a Conservative Internationalism

It's time to devise a new middle ground foreign policy.


The American foreign policy debate is suspended between the ambitious-diplomatic-engagement-backed-by-little-military-power that President Obama touts, and the military-strength-without-significant-diplomatic-engagement proposed by Republican candidates like Rand Paul. The imbalances of those two options leave many Americans wanting.

For those seeking a middle ground, I suggest the path of conservative internationalism as outlined by my fellow George Washington University professor Henry Nau. This approach could serve a presidential contender well headed into an election in which foreign policy will play a key role.

Nau’s approach, the product of a fellowship at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, seeks to reconcile the dissonance created by the foreign policy agendas of both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

In his landmark book, Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger defined the pivot in U.S. foreign policy as between Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to spreading freedom through international institutions and Theodore Roosevelt’s embrace of realism, maintaining a balance of power to secure America’s interests.

Bush and Obama mixed up Kissinger’s elegant simplicity, Bush through his embrace of advancing freedom outside of international institutions and Obama by retreating to a pursuit of American interests, narrowly defined, but with great reluctance to use American power.

Nau offers a way to combine yet also discipline the Wilson and Roosevelt approaches. He identifies four distinct approaches along two intersecting lines – one between whether the goal is freedom or security, the other between whether the means is primarily diplomacy or force.

Nau labels the pursuit of security through force as nationalism. The nationalist response is to only act when attacked and to return to an inward focus once the attack has been addressed. Nau’s nationalism includes liberal (pacifist) and conservative (protectionist) strains.

The libertarian appeal of Paul’s approach emanates from nationalist urges. This approach promises short-term relief but long-term trouble, as mischief-makers, not peacemakers, step up to lead as America steps back.

The pursuit of security with more ambitious diplomatic engagement is the terrain of realists. Realists seek not to advance freedom, but to maintain a global balance of power to safeguard peace. Conservatives have historically embraced either nationalist or realist approaches. Paul calls his approach “conservative realism.” Yet, settling for simply balancing power in today’s world is not only unappealing to a more idealistic American public. It is also unlikely to make the world a better place. Just think what the world would look like today if no one had bothered to spread freedom to Germany and Japan after World War II.

At the intersection of the pursuit of freedom and diplomacy lies liberal internationalism. It relies mightily on negotiations and international agreements that reserve the use of force as a “last resort” to be used only after negotiations fail. Up until now, it has assumed a monopoly of those championing the advance of liberty. Nau’s contribution is to add a new strain of internationalism that advocates the spread of freedom but backs up diplomatic efforts with “the earlier and more frequent use of smaller force to deter, preempt, and prevent [necessitating] the later use of much greater force.”

The use of force during negotiations is useful in three ways: it sets the agenda, the way President Reagan used an arms race to persuade the Soviet Union to reduce (START) not just limit (SALT) arms; it counters efforts by adversaries to achieve their objectives outside negotiations (the purpose, for example, of Reagan’s freedom fighters in central America and Afghanistan); and it uses arms to bargain in negotiations, as Reagan used the deployment of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) weapons to secure their eventual elimination in the INF Treaty of 1987.

Conservative internationalism also differentiates itself from its liberal counterpart through its political vision “of limited global governance, a decentralized world of democratic civil societies or ‘sister republics,’ as Thomas Jefferson called them, not one of centralized [big government] international institutions [including democracies and despots alike] as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt advocated.”

Nau encourages an “inkblot rather than leapfrog strategy to expand freedom, oozing freedom outward from existing [democracies] rather than leaping over despotic regions” to try to plant democracy in infertile regions like the Middle East or South Asia. Such an approach disciplines the use of force by recognizing “the limitations of both resources and public will,” seeking only to advance freedom where it is most likely to succeed.

Nau credentials the success of the conservative internationalist approach by detailing how it was successfully applied by Thomas Jefferson to secure the Louisiana Purchase, by James Polk to round out our continental boundaries through engagement with Mexico in the southwest and Britain in the northwest, by Harry Truman in securing western Europe following World War II, and by Ronald Reagan defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Conservative internationalism offers a framework for American leadership to advance freedom while still respecting conservative skepticism of the ability of cultures to change and the desire to avoid over-extending beyond our means or will.

Nationalism and realism are too cynical for the American public; liberal internationalism too naïve. Conservative internationalism may offer the right mix between military restraint and diplomatic ambition.

Photo Credit: Pool

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He was previously president of the University of North Dakota, has served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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