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By Gabriel Scheinmann

American misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the somewhat heretical approaches of the Trump administration are belatedly spurring conservative foreign policy elites to reevaluate the rightness—and righteousness—of their convictions. The ensuing frenzy has failed to escape the Trumpian centripetal force, but has, nevertheless, shrouded, buried, and eulogized conservative internationalism, the dominant conservative foreign policy outlook of the last generation. While conservative internationalism ought to be reassessed, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. First, it remains the most natural manifestation of American conservatism. Second, despite its significant post-Cold War era achievements, it has suffered mightily due to the failures of both the Bush and Trump administrations. Third and finally, winning the competition with China will—to paraphrase both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump— make conservative internationalism great again.

What Is Conservative Internationalism?

Conservative internationalism is an ideological outlook that favors the advancement of human dignity and freedom against totalitarian forces through the preservation and projection of strength. It seeks to promote a world that favors individual liberty, republican government, and popular sovereignty and believes doing so would best advance the security, prosperity, and liberty of the American republic. It is the natural manifestation of four core conservative values.

  • Absolute truth: To believe in absolute truth is to believe in the existence of both absolute good and absolute evil, an inherently conservative proposition. Reagan’s clear-cut and straightforward view of the inherently evil nature of communism and the Soviet Union and the necessity of their defeat marked a sharp break from his Republican predecessors’ desire for containment and détente. If one favors containment of evil, one is more likely a conservative realist or a liberal internationalist—although the shared view would be held for different reasons. If one favors the defeat of evil, one is more likely a conservative internationalist.

  • Prudence: Conservatism means prudence, and prudence means selective use and measured judgment. The prudence of all major military commitments ought to be debated, even in the Unipolar Era, American military intervention has been fairly restrained by any historically hegemonic standard. Favoring the advancement of human dignity and freedom through strength is not synonymous with support for political revolution everywhere and at all times, as much as its critics like to portray it as such.

  • Respect and appreciation of the past: Conservatism believes in the importance of inheritance. It is heartened by America’s decisive victories over fascism and communism as well as chastened by its middling record against Islamism.

  • Man’s natural desire for individual freedom and his inalienable right to it, but also his fallibility: Just as conservatism acknowledges the imperfection of man in conjunction with his natural thirst for freedom, conservative internationalism accepts that the state of nature is the jungle, wherein the competition for power, prestige, and freedom rages.

Some have falsely cast realism as an alternative to or even antithesis of conservative internationalism. Such people misuse the term—sometimes purposefully—either to dismiss the roles of identity and ideology or to justify isolationism. Realism merely means accepting the situation as it is, rather than as we wish it were, which functionally means understanding that power is the defining feature and currency of our world. It is descriptive, not proscriptive. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) appropriately employs the term “principled realism,” but it is difficult to distinguish it from that of conservative internationalism. Today’s self-styled realists would likely condemn Republican presidents historically considered realists as globalist imperialists (for example, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush). Conservative internationalism is a realist outlook principally because it understands that American power is the necessary, but not sufficient condition to realize American aims.

Alive, Yet Bruised

Frustrations with the seemingly high costs and few achievements of American misadventures in the Middle East have naturally driven questions about a foreign policy realignment. After multiple apogees following the fall of the Berlin Wall and destruction of the Twin Towers, support for conservative internationalism might be at its nadir. Yet, the “victories” embodied by conservative internationalism are clear and significant. In the last 30 years, the United States has both expanded and strengthened the frontiers of freedom across the entirety of the European continent and across the entire Asian littoral, at miniscule cost to blood and treasure. Today’s difficulties with Russia and China are partly inevitable and partly the consequence of having neglected the “strength” part in “peace through strength” in the last generation. Examined on a generational timescale, the United States has executed a significant military drawdown from the Russian and Chinese frontiers, allowing these two powers to fill the void unchallenged.

In the Middle East, the failure of the George W. Bush administration to properly define the fight against Islamism did severe damage to conservative internationalism. Had it defined the nature and the threat of Islamism in the same clear way Reagan defined communism, the subsequent two decades may well have evolved differently. The Bush administration fought three separate wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terror. None of these wars involved both an ideological threat to the American way of life and sufficient power to effectively execute the war. Each war had one of these two elements but never quite both.

The Trumpian outlook is not the broadside against conservative internationalism it thinks it is. If it is simply that the nation-state is the sole arbiter of sovereignty and political authority, that the world is a competitive and dangerous place, and that the United States should look out for its own interests first, then this is nothing more than a new coat of paint on conservative internationalism. This would explain why the NSS’s rebranding exercise—principled realism—has received wall-to-wall conservative internationalist support. Moreover, if, as the Trump administration routinely states, the only legitimate source of sovereignty is from the people, then it follows that our respect for sovereignty only applies to fellow democratic regimes, a strikingly Reaganite or Bush position. Even the rise of so-called “nationalism” amid the conservative movement is not actually a critique of conservative internationalism. Unlike the fraught history of European nationalism, American nationalism is universal. It is particular because of the nature of our founding, but our founding also sermonized that these rights are God-given and inalienable. American nationalism is outward-looking, not inward-looking. Perhaps the Trump administration’s approach might be better termed “principled nationalism.”

“...today’s challenge is to get those who care about freedom to understand that it is dead in its tracks without American power.”

More accurately, the Trumpian critique is a dead-on assault against liberal internationalism. It derides liberalism’s view of global governance as the source of legitimacy and authority, it mocks liberalism’s dismissal of the concept of a national interest and its aversion to the importance of strength, and it disdains liberalism’s seemingly charity-work approach to foreign policy. It has inspired conservative foreign policy voices to “Trumpify” their rhetoric (see Messrs. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio), but it does not fundamentally challenge the core truths of their approaches. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt at a doctrine speech at the Claremont Institute, where he rolled out (for the first and only time) the three-chord note of realism, restraint, and respect, was at best old wine in new bottles. The nomenclature was overtly Obama-esque, but covertly Reagan-esque. Realism, restraint, and respect were translated to mean that the United States should be powerful, prudent, and principled.

The sharpest broadside against conservative internationalism under a Republican banner can be found in a speech given by Congressman Matt Gaetz to Concerned Veterans for America, a group principally supported by the libertarian Koch brothers. The speech echoes many of progressivism’s critiques of the George W. Bush administration and would be more at home under a President Bernie Sanders. Unsurprisingly, the Kochs have increasingly made common cause with progressive foreign policy goals that include a “restrained” America, with a small defense budget, and without a forward presence in the world. This outlook may rise in prominence, but it is more likely to remain on the fringes of conservative politics than at its center.

China Will Make Conservative Internationalism Great Again

So much of today’s questioning of conservative internationalism rests on the lingering legacy of the Iraq War. It calls for a wholesale reevaluation of a generational outlook due to a single effort that was relatively cheap by historical standards—i.e., it is backward-looking, not forward-looking. This criticism assesses that conservative internationalism led to failure in  Iraq,  not whether it would lead to success against China. The threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime will align conservative realists and internationalists in much the way the Soviet threat did. While no one has yet defined what “winning the competition” means, most conservatives would broadly agree that we are competing over the borders of political freedom. The increasing audacity of the CCP’s Orwellian surveillance apparatuses is triggering the same popular reaction among Americans that communism did. The United States is only at the beginning of a belated effort to counter Chinese subversion and coercion in the hopes of not having to counter Chinese invasion. This challenge will unite conservatives of all stripes behind what is essentially a conservative internationalist banner.

Moreover, the behaviors of totalitarian regimes such as China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and ISIS are more likely to irritate and trigger the sensitivities of a younger generation than people realize. Today’s young people are more aware of nefarious Chinese behavior in real-time than their parents were of Soviet behavior or their grandparents were of Nazi behavior. Whereas Reagan was able to convince those who cared about American power to harness it for freedom, today’s challenge is to get those who care about freedom to understand that it is dead in its tracks without American power.

"The Future of Conservative Internationalism," which is a collection of essays from the Reagan Institute Strategy Group, convened in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in July 2019.