What is “conservative internationalism”? According to Henry Nau, whose 2008 essay and 2015 book did so much to identify and publicize this tradition, conservative internationalism is a forgotten school of foreign policy that supports the expansion of freedom through the use of military force.
Unlike realists, conservative internationalists prioritize freedom over stability and the balance of power. Unlike liberal internationalists, they oppose international institutions and treaties that constrain popular sovereignty and self-government. They have some heavy hitters in their ranks. Nau says Thomas Jefferson, James Polk, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan were all conservative internationalists.
For Nau, conservative internationalism is a system of belief. He says conservative internationalists subscribe to core tenets. These include support for the growth of freedom, a concern with material threats to American security, an interest in the gradual and incremental expansion of democracy, a focus on states bordering democracies, belief in the utility and necessity of force, weighing force and diplomacy equally, skepticism toward international institutions, preference for free trade over foreign aid, the understanding that political liberty is the product of ideas and institutions rather than economic development, and a willingness to cut losses if public opinion turns against foreign interventions.
These are selective criteria. There is a reason so few presidents meet them. Oppose one and you become something other than a conservative internationalist. If you accept Nau’s typology, conservative internationalism is dead. Its last champion was Reagan, who left office 30 years ago. One day another president might come along who subscribes to the dogma. The current president does not, and neither do most Republican congressmen nor Republican voters.
Understood differently, however, conservative internationalism is alive and well. Let’s say “conservative internationalism” is nothing more than the “ism” of American conservatives who are also internationalists. And let’s conceptualize “internationalism” not as belief in abstract ideas but support for concrete practices— namely, the means the United States has used in the years following the Second World War to counter the Soviet Union and, in John F. Kennedy’s phrase, “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
These means include the forward presence of U.S. forces; alliances based on security guarantees with NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines (as well as a commitment to aid in Taiwan’s defense); protection of the global commons of air, sea, space, and cyber; free trade; membership and leadership in international institutions such as the UN, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund; foreign aid; large conventional and nuclear forces; promotion of democracy and human rights; and a willingness to intervene overseas if circumstances warrant. Many conservatives, especially foreign policy elites, support most, if not all, of these policies. Conservative internationalism is contested and under strain, but it also has followers throughout the Republican Party.
This was not always the case. For much of its history, the American Right was both suspicious of the ends and hostile to the means of liberal internationalism. The right-wing of the Republican Party in the 1920s and 1930s opposed immigration and permanent alliances and supported high tariffs. It saw no connection between the freedoms of peoples abroad and the freedom of the American people. The Right was particularly skeptical of intervention in and association with Europe and favored economic relationships with Pacific powers. The First World War was not looked upon as a success. It had led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans and the expansion of the federal government. A repetition under Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be a disaster. This was the Right of Charles Lindbergh, the America First Committee, the Hearst syndicate, and Robert Taft.
These attitudes began to change after the Second World War. Pearl Harbor delegitimized the arguments against U.S. intervention. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as the strongest military powers. Soviet forces occupied much of Central and Eastern Europe. The communist threat, both internal and external, became the dominant concern of the American Right. Right-wing former communists such as James Burnham, Frank Meyer, and Whittaker Chambers framed the incipient Cold War as a struggle for the world. They were willing to back standing armies and security agencies to defeat the Soviet Union. Burnham and Chambers exercised tremendous influence over a young World War II veteran and Yale graduate named William F. Buckley Jr.
The Cold War conservatives supported most elements of the internationalist policy mix, while downplaying or even opposing other ones. They emphasized hard power, while rejecting the UN, democracy promotion, and human rights. And they went beyond containment to advocate for rollback and liberation of captive populations under Soviet dominion. With the death of Taft in 1953, leadership of the anticommunist Right passed to Joseph McCarthy, who supported NATO and forward presence of U.S. forces. After McCarthy’s downfall, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan took the reins.
The Right’s turn toward internationalism accelerated after the 1972 election. The New Left’s capture of the Democratic Party with the nomination of George McGovern alienated the liberal anticommunists who subscribed to the Truman-Kennedy-Lyndon Johnson-Hubert Humphrey tradition of internationalism. They placed a higher emphasis on human rights and were more supportive of Israel than conservatives at the time.
These liberals attempted to retake their party. Their leaders were senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. They failed. Reagan’s repudiation of the Richard Nixon-Gerald Ford realist policies of détente and the 1980 campaign coincided with the gradual integration of the Cold War liberals, also known as neoconservatives, into the Republican Party.
It wasn’t a comfortable fit. Reagan’s championing of democracy and human rights drew skepticism not only from some of the National Review internationalists but also from elements on the Right that hearkened back to its pre-World War II identity. These so-called paleoconservatives fashioned themselves in opposition to the neoconservatives, opposing not only democracy promotion and foreign intervention but also Reagan’s positions on immigration, trade, and American exceptionalism itself. Paleoconservatism remained a vocal but minority tendency during the 1980s. The Reagan Revolution eclipsed it.
“The irony of the Trump presidency is that a chief executive opposed to internationalism oversees an administration that is nonetheless within the broad tradition of center-Right internationalism.”
Victory in the Cold War reopened intra-Right debates that had been suppressed by the Soviet threat. The first test case was the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. Opposition to the war crossed party and ideological lines. Patrick Buchanan led the paleoconservatives against it. He lost. The success of the war reinvigorated the Right’s view of America’s power-projection capabilities. Buchanan twice lost the Republican nomination to internationalists of the Right, who both went on to lose to an internationalist of the center-Left.
By the end of the twentieth century, the Right was divided between internationalists, realists, and paleoconservative nationalists. The events of 9/11 provided a temporary substitute for the Soviet Union in the form of jihadism. But this consensus against terrorism did not last. It broke apart against the shoals of the 2003 Iraq War. The long and bloody occupation of Iraq led Republican voters, especially young ones, to question not only military intervention but also the very structures of the liberal international order.
The erosion of support for internationalism on the Right was apparent in Ron Paul’s campaigns for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012. Barack Obama’s policies in Libya and Syria were met with derision and criticism. The Right, like much of America, was turning inward.
Despite all this, Republican presidential nominees since 1940 had supported the foundational policies of internationalism. That changed in 2016. The Republican nominee campaigned against foreign intervention, foreign aid, free trade, international institutions, and the alliance system. In his view, internationalism, whether liberal or conservative, had been a vehicle for weak allies to cheat the United States of its blood and treasure. His slogan was “America First.” The Republican Party, it was feared, was reviving the legacy of Lindbergh. Except this time, Lindbergh became president.
The irony of the Trump presidency is that a chief executive opposed to internationalism oversees an administration that is nonetheless within the broad tradition of center-Right internationalism. Tweets and outbursts are not the entire story. Many of the instincts Trump displayed on the campaign trail have been sublimated or thwarted under the pressures of the office. The question for conservatives who are also internationalists, then, is what the next four years might bring for the beleaguered policies and institutions that for 75 years have supported a balance of power favoring freedom.