war on the rocks

Conservative Internationalism in American Foreign Policy

February 12, 2014

Henry R. Nau, Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton University Press, 2013).

In Conservative Internationalism, Professor Henry Nau rethinks the conventional categories of U.S. foreign policy schools of thought (realism, liberal internationalism, and nationalism) by identifying a fourth paradigm: conservative internationalism.   But, conservative internationalism isn’t new, he argues.  Rather, it is a well-worn tradition that explains the strategies of at least four consequential presidents: Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan. Moreover, Nau argues that conservative internationalism offers the best grand strategic framework for addressing America’s foreign policy challenges by providing a “middle way between a realist retreat to offshore defense, which spurns the advance of freedom, and a liberal internationalist commitment to open-ended diplomacy, which spurns the assertive use of force.” Nau is at his best when explaining conservative internationalism through historical examples, but his specific policy recommendations for contemporary problems leave something to be desired.  Regardless, the book’s innovative assault on the conventional wisdom dominating the foreign policy literature and its timely strategy recommendations make it a must-read for academics and policymakers alike.

What distinguishes conservative internationalism (CI) from other traditions? Nau groups the tenets of CI into three main propositions:

  1. Spread freedom disciplined by threat;
  2. Respect the constraints of domestic politics and public opinion;
  3. Integrate force and diplomacy.

After examining the historical record of the four presidents listed above and convincingly showing how they followed these tenets, the author draws on these lessons to recommend the contours of a conservative internationalist grand strategy for the future.

Conservative internationalism rests on a theoretical understanding of the international system that “privileges ideas as causal factors, while liberal internationalism privileges institutions, and nationalism and realism privilege power.” Therefore, in terms of overarching goals, the United States should focus on promoting freedom as the key to a more secure world, because “despots are the source of repeated violence in world affairs, not anarchy as realists believe or diplomatic misunderstandings as liberal internationalists assume.” Hence, conservative internationalists aim “to change the balance of existing domestic regimes, not just manage the external balance of power or strengthen international institutions.” For example, Nau contends that Truman in the beginning and Reagan at the end of the Cold War explicitly linked the nature of the threat to the ideological nature of the Soviet regime, not merely to Soviet material power as the “realists” did.

But, how should one decide where and how to promote democracy most vigorously? For conservative internationalists, public opinion is the final arbiter of America’s policy choices, and Nau underlines that maintaining public support requires “setting priorities to spread freedom and knowing when to compromise.” Reagan, for example, pushed for freedom in Eastern Europe, but not in Lebanon or Central America, and he compromised with Gorbachev when the time was ripe despite his aggressive stance against Communism. Similarly, the domestic politics of other countries based on their cultural and national diversity represent constraints to the rapid spread of freedom and therefore one should expect a difficult process of political liberalization, even in states that open up economically. These internal and external constraints led Nau to recommend an inkblot strategy of democracy promotion in places more hospitable towards it, such as on the borders of other free states, and a separate ratchet strategy (repeated forcible regime-change interventions if necessary, but no long-term effort to install democracy and nation-building) for other places where democracy-building is too costly.

In today’s world, the author argues that America’s efforts to strengthen democracy should focus on geopolitically important countries that border other free nations, states like Pakistan, Turkey, Ukraine, or even North Korea at some point, as opposed to Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, Nau criticizes the second Bush administration for engaging in democracy-building projects in distant lands where the prospects of democracy were slim, instead of using a ratchet approach. Nau’s desired endgame for a ratchet approach, however, (“leaving behind a somewhat more open and humane government than the one that existed before”), is quite similar with what the Bush administration eventually tried to accomplish with its counterinsurgency campaigns in both places. For most of his second term, Bush’s powerful democracy rhetoric expressed a long-term aspirational goal for Iraq and Afghanistan, but in practice the U.S. military and diplomats looked to build moderately functional and representative local governments rather than American-style full-fledged democracies. This is a weakness of Nau’s argument that is left insufficiently addressed. As alluring as it may be to think that the U.S. military could engage in such conflicts at a relatively low cost if it foregoes democracy-building in favor of hand-picking a more tolerable authoritarian leader, recent experiences cast doubt on how practical such military regime change operations can be in the absence of a costlier longer-term commitment to institution-building. This does not necessarily mean that regime-change missions should be avoided at all costs, as many in the Obama administration apparently concluded, but it does mean that their costs should be expected to be higher than Nau’s “ratchet” strategy implies.

Another potentially tricky problem with Nau’s framework lies in its apparently commonsense approach to limit oneself to actions that the public can tolerate. This advice is not as persuasive as it first sounds if the public’s attention to foreign policy is limited and easily manipulated by the media or by the domestic opponents of a president. Was Bush wrong to go against the public mood and order the military surge that greatly reduced violence in Iraq in 2006/2007? Or was Clinton right to decide against taking more aggressive military action against Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1990s at least partly because he had little political support for such action? It is of course preferable for a president to have as much public support for his war decisions as possible, but sometimes statesmen really do need to lead rather than follow public opinion, as cliché as that may sound.

As to the main policy tools for spreading freedom, conservative internationalists use force and diplomacy in tandem rather than utilizing force as a last resort after diplomacy or economic sanctions fail. The use (or threat) of force is a

…parallel resort that accompanies diplomacy at every step of the way – demonstrating resolve, creating policy options, narrowing the maneuvering room of authoritarian opponents outside negotiations, and providing bargaining chips to conclude favorable deals inside negotiations.

Backing one’s diplomacy with the threat of force is more likely to make it work, and successful conservative internationalist leaders like Reagan knew when to “cash in” their military leverage and reach diplomatic objectives by making timely compromises. Military force is thus always in the service of diplomacy and must be disciplined by compromise. Having said that, conservative internationalists also expect to employ smaller uses of force earlier and more often than other schools of thought: “the early use of force before an attack through deterrence, preemption or prevention saves lives compared to the later use of force after an attack.”

Unsurprisingly, Nau criticizes the current administration for failing to integrate force and diplomacy in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program: Obama does not use his military leverage for fear of disrupting the negotiations, thus harming the prospects for a successful outcome. The administration’s reluctance to seriously prepare for the possibility of air strikes, and the mixed messages sent through press leaks, make it hard to persuade the Iranians and their Russian allies that the military option is truly “on the table.” And, at the end of the day, a conservative internationalist approach would favor air strikes to destroy (or at least temporarily delay) Iran’s program as opposed to accepting a nuclear Iran as some realists like Barry Posen advocated.

Nau offers a persuasive account of a neglected tradition in U.S. foreign policy and shows how following these principles led to a series of important accomplishments in the past. However, this otherwise excellent book would have been even better if Nau had spent more time addressing counterarguments to his recommendations and the main risks that U.S. leaders should be aware of when adopting the ambitious conservative internationalism strategic framework.

Lastly, the book can be especially important for the future of the Republican Party’s foreign policy debates going into the 2016 election cycle. Conservative internationalism provides the intellectual foundation for a renewed hawkish Reaganism in foreign affairs, in contrast for example to Colin Dueck’s recent book Hard Line that advocated a shift towards realism.  The first approach is the one more appealing to candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio or Rep. Paul Ryan, while the second one is likely to be adopted by libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul. The result of this debate could be as significant to the Republican’s foreign policy views held by the Millennial generation as the debate between Kissingerian realists and the hawkish Reaganites had been in the 1970s.


Dr. Ionut C. Popescu is an Assistant Professor in the Robertson School of Government. He earned a PhD in international relations from Duke University, where he wrote a dissertation on design and emergence in the making of American grand strategy. His articles appeared in Orbis, Armed Forces Journal, Joint Force Quarterly, and Contemporary Security Policy.


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