Friday, August 04, 2006

A bit from the early middle of my draft essay: Goodbye to All That? A requiem for neoconservatism

A bit from the early middle of my draft essay - full draft available from SSRN, here.

As a positive political doctrine, Fukuyama says, neoconservatism is one of four principal approaches to American foreign policy. The others are realism in the mold of Kissinger, emphasizing power, stability, and tending to “downplay the internal nature of other regimes”; liberal internationalism, hoping to “transcend power politics altogether and move to an international order based on law and institutions”; and finally, in Walter Russell Meade’s term, “Jacksonian” nationalism, tending to a “narrow, security-related view of American national interests” and distrust of multilateralism. (F 7) What characterizes neoconservatism by comparison to the others in this schema? Fukuyama answers by laying out seven interconnected propositions that, as he says, form neo-conservatism’s fundamental ideological base.[1] It is an unimpeachably intelligent analysis.

First, neo-conservatism arose as a highly specific moralizing doctrine for promoting American security in the ideological struggles of the Cold War. In the late Cold War, it played idealist antagonist to Kissingerian realism and, more precisely, that Kissingerian realism in the days of Nixon and Ford preaching (how quickly we forget) accommodation to the “inevitable” spread, appeal, and success of Communism. This was the doctrine of “declinism,” embraced by the endlessly cynical Nixon and hopelessly na├»ve Carter alike, and which was only decisively rejected (to the amazement and derision of most of America’s elites, whether cynical or naive) by the great hero of the neoconservative movement, Ronald Reagan. Second, however, although neoconservatism is about ‘security’ in the broad sense of preserving America, both its power and its ideals, it was and is never about power alone, let alone merely the maintenance of state-to-state realist stability. It is, rather, a belief in the power of ideas, ideals, and ideology as necessary conditions of victory in the Cold War, an understanding that the “mere” words of Pope John-Paul II were as necessary to the victory over Communism as Nato’s battalions. Third, neo-conservatism asserts that the internal affairs of states – their attachment to democracy, human rights, and liberal values – are overall indicators of external state behavior; predictors, even if imprecise ones, of their tendencies to war and peace. Fourth, neo-conservatism conjoins simultaneously a belief in the universal validity and appeal of fundamental American ideals with an equally firm belief in American exceptionalism.

After the Cold War, neo-conservatism asserted American exceptionalism as an American legitimacy to hold and wield power – not merely as a fact of American power, but as a legitimate ordering of power in the world, power wielded by a manifestly imperfect yet reasonably just and moral superpower bearing reasonably well the moral responsibility of the powerful to provide a minimum level of order in a messy world. Fifth, therefore, neo-conservatism is unapologetic that American power can and should be used for moral and ideal purposes – sometimes directly involving US security interests, such as the Cold War itself, sometimes in defense of basic propositions of international order, such as the defense of Kuwait’s sovereignty and indeed existence in the First Gulf War, but also sometimes in circumstances where, in the neoconservative view, America should act even from morality alone and even if its security is not directly at stake – neoconservatives made the muscular moral case, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, for armed action in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, East Timor, Kosovo and, today, Darfur. Sixth, neoconservatism shares with American realism an abiding skepticism of international institutions, at least those that go beyond a certain minimum state-centered multilateralism to invoke high minded visions of global governance and the decline of sovereignty. Neo-conservatism not only adopts the realist critique that, whatever countries high-mindedly say about international institutions, it is not in fact how they act – it goes a step further, into the realm of ideals, and says that democratic sovereignty, and America’s democratic sovereignty in particular, is also an ideal, with its own moral legitimacy and that insofar as international institutions seek to undermine sovereign democracy, they are wrong in principle. Seventh, and profoundly different from the six preceding propositions (this being the neo-conservative belief most derived from neo-conservative domestic policy), neo-conservatism holds a profound “distrust of ambitious social engineering projects.” The untoward consequences of ambitious efforts at social planning are a “consistent theme in neoconservative thought that links the critique of Stalinism in the 1940s with … skepticism about the Great Society in the 1960s.” (F 49)

The first six of these propositions roughly hang together as the lessons of victory in the Cold War. One may accept them or reject them, and they exhibit some tensions among themselves, but Fukuyama rightly sees them as a foreign policy vision broadly consistent with one other and in any case what the neoconservatives learned from the Cold War, the collapse of Communism, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union. Instead, he asks another question of these propositions. To what extent are these lessons of the Cold War right in guiding the US to war in Iraq and, more generally, in guiding the conduct of the war on terror? Are these principles perhaps instead the ideological equivalent of the oft-noted tendency of generals to re-fight the last war, all-too-often with disastrous results? And, going further, Fukuyama notes that the seventh proposition, the rejection of ambitious social engineering as usually doomed to failure and ridden with unintended and unanticipated consequences, is quite probably strongly at odds with the others. Fukuyama focuses great attention on what he argues, with considerable merit, is the deep inconsistency within the neoconservative world-view of believing either that the project of social-engineering democracy in Iraq could be achieved easily and in a short period of time by the external device of forcibly removing the wicked dictator or that the project could be pursued without unanticipated negative consequences.

Conjoining the two criticisms, Fukuyama argues that neoconservative principles led the Bush administration to re-fight the last war – the war for the liberation of Eastern Europe from Communism – and mistakenly to believe that the Iraq war would fundamentally be the same thing, a ‘release’ of pent-up social and cultural energy for democracy, liberalism, capitalism, civil society, and the rule of law. Take out the dictator, release the dictatorial check on these social goods, and they would all naturally assert themselves. On the contrary – and putting a Burkean spin on the seventh neoconservative principle – it should have been clear that the social and cultural pressures for democracy, liberalism, capitalism, civil society, and the rule of law in Eastern Europe were the result of very long term cultural pre-conditions that simply are not present in the Arab Middle East. They are not “natural”; they are the result of social forces at play over historically long periods of time and that, in releasing the grip of the dictator, the US opened the door for forces of sectarian, tribal, and other causes of violence and potentially civil war that were not in the lexicon of anticipated neoconservative consequences because they had mistakenly drawn their template from the fundamentally Western cultural examples of Europe and modernity.


[1] I come up with seven by analytically taking apart the four basic principles that Fukuyama expounds at pp. 48-49, and combining them with other elements of the book.

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