Sunday, September 16, 2007

The trouble with neoconservatism

Francis FukuyamaWhile traveling back to the US recently, I ran across a recent issue of the American Interest, one of those "little" policy journals that populate the less-read shelves at Barnes & Noble. It was founded by ex-neoconservative Francis Fukuyama and seems to be a slightly right-of-center mag for and by other recovering neocons and the Otherwise Confused.

Walter Russell MeadOne of their main writers is the excellent Walter Russell Mead, whose review of Andrew Roberts' History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 appears in that issue (requires subscription). The review takes an interesting turn towards the end as Mead reconsiders the strange nature and career of neoconservatism and why it has proven attractive while turning nonetheless into a comprehensive failure. Reading it provoked me into putting together some long-churning thoughts on the subject. I'll use a narrow definition, restricting "neoconservative" to the students and followers of, and those influenced by, Leo Strauss and his peculiar brand of "Platonic liberalism." It encompasses various sorts of "right-wing liberalism" that accept liberal ends while embracing unilateral, authoritarian means and exhibit strong moralizing, crusading tendencies. The key places of congregation are the Weekly Standard and Commentary. Others use definitions so broad as to lose any distinctive meaning, or tendentious definitions ("Jewish conspiracy," "Bushitler," "Dick Cheney is a fascist") that are worse than useless.

Neoconservatives, Straussians, and rationalism. Neoconservatives have acquired the influence they have because of the rise of the academy as a center of American intellectual life. While superficially sounding the usual Anglo-American political themes, they are engulfed by a weird mix of academic theorizing and tough-guy-know-it-all cynicism, hold a virtually theological belief in unique American virtue and unlimited might, while remaining in reality naive about the nature and limits of power. Their style lands wide of the mark here: it routinely exhibits the vice of what philosophers call rationalism or apriorism (philosophical idealism). Here's an irony for everyone to contemplate: neoconservatives worship the standard pantheon of Anglo-American liberal ideas and personalities, but their intellectual style is anything but that. Sharply set off from the methodological pragmatism and anti-theoretical bent so characteristic of Anglo-American political culture, their style is distinctly Continental, with a strong whiff of Franco-German philosophical idealism and dogmatism. In both its liberal and conservative forms, modern Anglo-American political culture, in its 350+ year history, has been committed to an individualism that is more than social or political; it's a metaphysical individualism that starts with individual instances and moves towards generalities. The failures of Continental philosophy are due precisely to its pattern of starting with grand theories and work down toward individual cases, with a strong tendency to override real individual cases and manifest facts with heavy deductive logic and ideology. Neoconservatism is distinctly more "European" than "American" - sounds strange, doesn't it? But there you are.

Leo StraussThis is why neoconservatism, in spite of its proclaimed ideals, sits so uneasily in the American political landscape. While it won't do to blame Leo Strauss (who died in 1973) for the Iraq war, it is his style, not any particular idea, that has reproduced itself over time, as it so often does with philosophers. Whatever the master says, it what he does and how he thinks that have the real long-term influence.* Strauss worshipped Plato as the greatest of philosophers and had an ill-concealed contempt for empiricism and its progeny: science and the modern Enlightenment movement, of which America is the most important exemplar. He wished America well, but was deeply skeptical of the potential of Enlightenment liberalism to transform the world and improve the lot of the great masses of people. How that was transmuted into crusading neoconservative democratism is still a mystery, but it clearly has little to do with Strauss' specific beliefs and more to do with his style. Were he present at this time, he surely would be stunned.

Neoconservatives and existential panic. Furthermore, the spiritual grandfathers of neoconservatism, shaped by their refugee experiences, brought with them from their European exile a feeling of existential panic, made chronic by the continuing threats to Israel as the successor state to the now-defunct Jewish exile of the Old World. While this panic in its original context is perfectly understandable, it is not rational in an American context.** Israel is a small country in a permanent semi-war situation, facing political and existential threats the US does not now face: ruling over discontented Palestinian Arabs, and a nuclear-armed, fanatic Iran. It also faces lesser but still difficult threats of terrorism, or as we have learned to call it more accurately, jihadism. (In principle, the US did face such threats during the Cold War, although as a practical matter, only in one instance - the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 - did that threat almost become real.) Europe now faces political threats beyond anything the US faces, and it might face existential threats in another generation.

Precisely because the US does not - repeat, does not - face such threats - it faces the threat of physical attacks alone - it enjoys a position of greater detachment and a greater freedom of action that allows it to help other countries that do not enjoy these. More than any other single fact, this is the key to understanding the relative success of American foreign policy since 1945.

The neoconservatives have helped to inject into American political culture a panicked desperation about omnipresent threats and extreme measures, while tying a moralistic unilateralism to an idealized utopia of "Americanism." Some neoconservative writers have even absurdly proclaimed "Americanism" as a new and apparently crusading religion. Americans have it good (many don't realize how good), but "Americanism" cannot be exported to other countries in its original form, certainly not by force. If and when they decide to become "modern" and join the now-crystallizing global civilization, they have done so and will continue to do so in their own time, having made a collective decision that that's a better way to live. If they are threat to us or to friends and allies, they can be stopped by counterforce. But they cannot be "forced to be good" in a positive sense. They have to decide and walk that path themselves - no one else can be them for them.†

Neoconservative misunderstandings of American foreign policy and the present vacuum. Neither these criticisms nor Mead's are wholly original. Ever since the rise of neoconservatism in the 1970s, critics of all stripes have expressed exasperation with its tendency toward obsessive moralizing, preconceiving before perceiving, and rewriting American history and making all their heroes (who are an unobjectionable lot) into neocons avant la parole. They fail to appreciate that, after a fling with European-style imperialism in the early 20th century (the Spanish-American war), post-isolationist American foreign policy has been guided by a blend of liberal internationalism (where appropriate in dealing with other liberal-democratic societies or countries struggling to become such) and conservative realism (where a cruder balance-of-power calculus is all that's feasible). It's avoided imperial constructions, even of the liberal Anglo-French type ("white man's burden" or mission civilatrice) because they're wholly inappropriate in an American context and have become obsolete and illegitimate. The American-led world order is a system of alliances, institutions, and shared goals. It is not and cannot be a traditional empire. Attempts to build an empire today merely threaten the world order we actually have.

Of course, neoconservatism became dominant in these latter days because our standard foreign policy paradigms are in trouble. The current crisis of American foreign policy is not some arbitrary thing that popped out of nowhere or from the perverse pleasure of Paul Wolfowitz or George W. Bush.†† Our essential problem is twofold:
  • In a unipolar world, America's traditional allies have been transformed into whiny dependencies. We "do" foreign policy and military action for them, because they won't do it for themselves - and then they resent it. (This has started to change in the last couple years.)
  • The globalization paradigm, which is just liberal internationalism in action, has been pushed into regions of the world that are absolutely not ready for it.
Look at some specific instances:
  • In dealing with countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US and Britain have moved beyond limited intergovernmental contact towards a situation where private citizens (including jihadis) can freely move to and from those countries with almost the same ease that people move around Europe or the US.
  • Outside of Europe, North America, and northeast Asia, places like the Middle East have no regional mechanisms for achieving and maintaining peace or for dealing for bad situations like Iraq or Lebanon. (Iraq means not just after the 2003 invasion, but 1991-2003 as well. Lebanon means anything after the start of the civil war in 1975.)
  • In dealing with struggling countries with difficult economic and social problems trying to become modern (such as Mexico and Turkey), the globalization paradigm has been extended in a far too casual and careless way. Ordinary voters have woken up and taken notice (earlier and better than their leaders); they have reacted strongly against the trends initiated so heedlessly by politicians - with Turkey in the case of European voters, and with Mexico in the case of American.
The imperial alternative (pushing outwards into the uncivilized and half-civilized areas of the world to export and impose political order) is no longer a realistic option. The age of empire is over and, in fact, has been ending for several centuries.‡ For an international system based on nation-states (most of them successors to pre-existing empire-states), empire is culturally incongruous and prohibitively expensive. For nation-states, the logical path is to pull back from pell-mell globalization, impose quarantine where appropriate or reimpose barriers that should never have been dismantled, and develop better and deeper forms of cooperation against common threats and to exploit common opportunities. For America especially, the opportunity beckons to move away from unipolarity back toward a world where it has allies, not resentful dependencies.

POSTSCRIPT: The same issue of the American Interest has an interesting article by German writer Josef Joffe (requires subscription) considering these same issues from a similar point of view.
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* As evidenced by the very different cases of Plato and Marx.

It's also wrong to make a close identification of "Straussian" with "neoconservative." Strauss taught and influenced many students and others with a wide range of political and philosophical views. As far as the Iraq war goes, it's best to drop the obsession with Strauss and look hard instead at the personalities of the current administration who played a critical role in the earlier Persian Gulf war (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney), as well as the thinking of someone like Bernard Lewis. But the Iraq war is a subject only tangentially related to the argument at hand.

** Fukuyama has stressed this point effectively and repeatedly. See his fine recent book, America at the Crossroads, the fruit of his recovery from neoconservatism.

† This neoconservative tendency has a long history going back to the 1930s, when extremist ideologies had their peak influence in Europe and the Western world. The motivation was and is to create out of American politics and culture an equal but opposite political religion or ideology ("Americanism") having the same militant fervor that the great 20th century radical ideologies had in their heyday. They drew, consciously or not, on previous American crusades, such the Union against the Confederacy and US intervention in World War I. Whereas I think the real point of Anglo-American foreign policy - beyond self-defense, balance of power, peacemaking, and expansion of trade - was and is precisely to get people disenthralled from all such crackpot ideologies. Only then can they start paying attention to facts and use reasoning from those facts as a guide to a better life.

All this is by way of shooting down a favorite idea of the neoconservatives, that the United States is a "universal nation." It's an attractive and flattering idea, but it's wrong.

†† No matter what Michael Moore thinks :)

‡ That is not to say that empires were simply evil things in their day. Over a long period of human history, coincident with the era of monarchies and aristocracies, they were the only way to create large-scale civilizational units, and their constructive role in this respect is undeniable. (Of course, that's small consolation if you happened to be the roadkill of an imperial juggernaut bent on imposing its own sort of order.) My point here is simply that empires inhabited a now-antiquated historical epoch - it's like going to the museum to see reconstructed dinosaurs. The last such constructive empires (the British and the French) ended in a tangle of contradictions between liberal democratic culture at home and imperial practice abroad, with sharply escalating costs. The British acquitted themselves more honorably and sensibly in this transition than did the French, but neither case was particularly appealing, and Americans, of all people, should recognize this. (Mead's review takes Roberts to task on just this point, in connection with Britain's relation to Ireland and its imperial rule over India.)

On other traditional empires, brilliant achievements such as the Ottoman, Russian, or Austro-Hungarian, historical judgments must come down all the more harshly. And then their collapse phase, unencumbered by Enlightenment-liberal culture, ended all the more catastrophically in such phenomena as Nazism, communism, and the "pan" movements (pan-Arabism, pan-Turkism, pan-Islam, etc.) that spawned genocide, ethnic cleansing, and chronic terror as alternatives to peaceful decolonization.

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