Chastened hegemon

Neoconservatism is dead. And, as Francis Fukuyama's latest book spells out, a new US foreign policy consensus is emerging. It eschews doctrine and combines elements of "realist" and "idealist" positions
May 19, 2006

In January 1998, as President Clinton's administration was engulfed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the question of America's role in the world seemed a distant concern, a recently-formed Washington think tank came out with a short statement on Iraq. The think tank called itself forthrightly the Project for the New American Century, and its recommendation on policy towards Iraq was blunt: the US should make it a central objective to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Military action against Iraq was probably legitimate under existing UN resolutions, the authors claimed, but in any case US policy should not remain "crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN security council." Adopting a tone of generous bipartisanship, the letter's Republican-linked signatories offered Clinton their full support if he chose to pursue this goal.

The formation of the Project for the New American Century—and its call for the overthrow of Saddam as its first policy position—marked the re-emergence of neoconservatism as a distinct and significant movement in US politics. The term had first been used to describe an influential group of writers and policy intellectuals, mostly from a Democratic or leftist background, who shifted rightwards during the 1960s and 1970s and helped give weight to an emerging conservative agenda. Now a younger generation of idealistic right-wingers was staking its claim with a call for an unapologetic exercise of US power. Those who put their names to the letter included the leading lights of the younger neoconservative crowd: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan. Another was the political analyst Francis Fukuyama.

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With his new book After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads, Fukuyama is effectively repudiating his signature on this notorious letter. Three years after Clinton's successor put the neoconservatives' blueprint into effect, Fukuyama has become the most prominent of the former supporters of regime change to acknowledge that the Iraq war was a mistake. Characteristically, Fukuyama doesn't confine himself to arguing that the war was badly handled or that there was insufficient planning for its aftermath (although he does recognise the truth of these familiar charges). Instead, his book interrogates the invasion of Iraq as an expression of genuine neoconservative thinking. A true understanding of the neoconservative tradition, Fukuyama contends, might have given pause to the Bush administration in its march towards war. However, the failed Iraq venture has become so identified with the notion of neoconservatism that he believes that any effort to reclaim the label "is likely to be futile." His book aims to set out an alternative framework for understanding America's place in the world.

Fukuyama's doubts about the war on Iraq surfaced long before the invasion was launched, and he is therefore better placed than other erstwhile hawks to portray it as misguided. In his view, the Bush administration greatly overestimated the risk that Saddam Hussein would pass unconventional weapons to terrorists, and thus needlessly embarked on the risky path of "preventive" war; failed to anticipate that the rest of the world would revolt against US "benevolent hegemony"; and was wildly over-optimistic about the ease with which democracy could be implanted in post-Ba'athist Iraq. In arguing that the mindset behind this reckless overreaching does not represent the only path that neoconservatism might have taken, Fukuyama seems to me overly indulgent towards the tradition he used to espouse. Nevertheless, by framing his discussion around the concept of neoconservatism, he performs a useful service: he allows us to see that the ideological arguments that dominated discussion of US foreign policy in the immediate post-cold war period are essentially played out. From Fukuyama and Condoleezza Rice to former Clinton officials like Madeleine Albright and liberal scholars like John Ikenberry, a new mainstream consensus is emerging that eschews grand doctrinal statements and merges elements of traditional "realist" and "idealist" positions.

In its original incarnation, neoconservatism was far more than a school of foreign policy thought. If anything, the first generation of neocons—made up of New York intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer—were initially more interested in domestic issues, but the movement soon came to encompass a broadly cohesive set of concerns and preconceptions that spanned political, social and global questions. The common strand was a kind of disillusioned liberalism, and in particular a feeling that liberal policies were based on wishful thinking and moral blindness in refusing to see that some ways of life were better than others. Kristol summed up this aspect of neocon thought in his famous crack that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been mugged by reality. While retaining a liberal sympathy for welfare provision, neocons thought it was important to consider the effect of social policies on the character of individual citizens and the quality of communal life.

Fukuyama presents neoconservative social thought as guided primarily by an aversion to large-scale social engineering, but while that captures an important part of the outlook, it does not give the whole story. It expresses the procedural side of the neocons' objection to great society-style welfare programmes, but understates its moralistic substance. The celebrated 1982 "Broken Windows" article by James Q Wilson and George L Kelling, which Fukuyama quotes as a touchstone of neocon social thought, was a plea for public policy to focus on the welfare of communities as well as the rights of individuals. Wilson's later book The Moral Sense was written to "help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality." It is in their claim that virtue and individual character are legitimate public concerns that neoconservative thinkers most closely mirror the thinking of their supposed intellectual godfather Leo Strauss. The influence of their arguments can be felt in the prevalence of communitarian thinking across the modern political spectrum, not least in the person of Tony Blair.

Neoconservative foreign policy thinking represented an extension of these concerns and attitudes into a global arena dominated by the confrontation with the Soviet Union. It was quintessentially a cold war product. As Fukuyama explains, the neoconservatives originally coalesced around the hawkish Democratic senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and the military strategist Albert Wohlstetter, who argued that the policy of détente pursued by Henry Kissinger under Nixon and Ford was short-sighted and immoral. Kissinger was a classic realist thinker, believing that the behaviour of states was determined above all by their external circumstances. He argued that the US could treat the Soviet Union as both rival and partner, making agreements with the Soviets where a mutual interest could be recognised. The neocons believed that such an approach understated the military threat posed by the Soviet regime, and that the west was in danger of sinking into complacency and military weakness. They also charged that Kissinger's deal-making with the Russians was achieved at the cost of turning a blind eye to their human rights record; Jackson fought to attach conditions to trade agreements with the Soviet Union that required them to allow a specified number of Jewish dissidents to emigrate.

Alongside their militancy towards the Soviet Union, cold war neoconservatives shared a deep distrust of the UN. As expressed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, two prominent neocons who served as ambassadors to the UN under Ford and Reagan respectively, the problem with the world body was its capture by anti-liberal forces. In 1975, Moynihan wrote in the neoconservative journal Commentary that the US must recognise that the general assembly was now dominated by third world countries espousing radical or socialist ideologies, and that this was leading to a "depreciation" of international liberalism that paralleled the attacks on domestic liberalism by the American counter-culture in the 1960s. Abroad as at home, neoconservatism based its appeal on the idea that liberals needed to be more assertive in proclaiming the superiority of their values over others.

A central tension ran through neocon foreign policy thinking from the start. Given the perceived urgency of the confrontation with the Soviet Union, it was essential to take all steps necessary to reverse the spread of Soviet-aligned or Marxist regimes. Everything was to be judged in relation to the overarching struggle. However, since the cold war was also a battle between freedom and unfreedom—waged explicitly by the neoconservatives in the language of morality and principle—how could the US justify its support for autocratic regimes in Latin America, the middle east, Africa and east Asia that were repressing domestic calls for reform? This question was addressed in the article that became the single most important text in the neocon foreign policy canon, Jeane Kirkpatrick's 1979 Commentary essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards." In marked contrast to most of today's neoconservatives, Kirkpatrick expressed scepticism about the belief that "it is possible to democratise governments… under any circumstances." Instead, she argued, traditional autocracies would move gradually toward liberalisation, while left-leaning totalitarian regimes would not. The US should encourage liberal reform where possible, but equally should intervene aggressively to oppose Marxist revolutionary insurgencies even if that placed it in unappealing company or involved the use of unilateral force.

From the movement's origins—rather more than Fukuyama acknowledges—the neoconservative mindset was comfortable with the notion of promoting forceful regime change in third world states like Nicaragua. Alongside the principled support for human rights in eastern Europe or the promotion of democracy in the Philippines and South Korea, cold war neoconservatives cultivated a sense of moral mission and disdain for timid consensus-seeking that could incline them towards military adventurism. While the cold war lasted, the idealistic and national interest tendencies of neoconservatism remained in uneasy alliance. However the downfall of the Soviet Union splintered the neocons by removing the rival power that was both an incentive for and a restraint on US action. Some, like Kirkpatrick, felt that the removal of an opposing pole of totalitarian activism could allow the US to become "a normal country in a normal time." Others, like Charles Krauthammer, called for the establishment of a quasi-imperial American hegemonic order. Others again, notably William Kristol and Robert Kagan, called for an aggressive programme of democracy promotion. Meanwhile the White House was occupied by George Bush Snr, whose clubby style of status quo diplomacy was anathema to most neoconservative instincts.

After Clinton became president in 1992, it fell to the Democrats to define their vision of US foreign policy for the post-cold war period. The formula that Clinton's administration came up with was "democratic enlargement": the US would work to spread democracy, human rights and market-based economics through peaceful negotiation and the expansion of free trade. Clinton and his team were liberal internationalists who combined the democratic idealism of the neoconservatives (and a belief in the US as "the indispensable nation") with support for the framework of international law and institutions set up by President Truman after the second world war. But Clinton soon found that his formula did not provide any guidance about when the US should send its army into action to back up its principles. Having failed to avert genocide in Rwanda and been slow to act over Bosnia, Clinton set moral principle above the UN charter when with Nato he attacked Milosevic's Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, with enthusiastic neoconservative backing.

As Fukuyama makes clear, the neocons were not at first a dominant group in George W Bush's administration. It was 11th September that gave them their break, by plunging the US back into what seemed to many an existential struggle with an ideological foe. Like the cold war, the struggle against al Qaeda was easily framed in moral terms. Moreover, it appeared to restore the link between idealistic militarism and US national interests. In Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taleban and the installation of a stable democracy were both a principled use of US power and a way to deprive the enemy of a base. In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam would begin to spread democracy across the middle east and remove the danger that he would pass weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. The democratic militarism of the neocons and the hawkish nationalism of traditional conservatives like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney found common cause in a unilateral preventive invasion. Traditional realists like Condoleezza Rice came to see the expansion of democracy as the best foundation of American security.

Much of Fukuyama's critique of the attack on Iraq reads as straightforward level-headed pragmatism. He points out unexceptionably that the Bush administration conflated the threat of terrorism with the much lower risk that Saddam would transfer unconventional weapons to a jihadist group, and that therefore a policy of preventive war—which Fukuyama does not rule out on principle—represented a poor calculation of probabilities. More unusually for an American writer, he argues that the danger posed by Islamic terrorism itself has been overstated; it does not pose an existential threat to the US (despite the counterproductive effect of the war in Iraq), but calls for sustained police and intelligence work. He also makes the sensible point that building a stable democratic political order in a country without established institutions or a high level of economic development is a complex and long-term undertaking. Fukuyama suggests that the neoconservatives were deceived by the ease with which democracy was established in post-communist eastern Europe into thinking the experience could be replicated elsewhere. More likely, they were too preoccupied with the wilful assertion of power to pay much attention to the aftermath. Fukuyama notes in one of his sharpest asides that William Kristol and Robert Kagan described the primary tool of democracy promotion as "first and foremost, the ability to project military power."

The area where Fukuyama departs most consciously from the neoconservative tradition is in his rejection of American unilateralism. It is possible that when he signed the Project for the New American Century's letter in 1998 he believed that a show of US force against Saddam would bring allies to its side. Paul Wolfowitz was making exactly this argument at the time, as the account in James Mann's book Rise of the Vulcans makes clear. In any event, After the Neocons contains a strong attack on the notion of US hegemony, which Fukuyama says other countries will not accept: it rests on "a belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible. The idea that the US behaves disinterestedly on the world stage is not widely believed because it is for the most part not true, and indeed could not be true if American leaders fulfil their responsibilities to the American people."

In an attempt to characterise his new outlook on America's role in the world, Fukuyama proposes the term "realistic Wilsonianism." This involves the gradualist promotion of democracy and state-building through non-military, soft power methods, an acceptance that regime change will be appropriate only in the most extreme circumstances, and a commitment to international institutions. In this last area, Fukuyama suggests a move away from reliance on the UN as an exclusive source of legitimacy on security questions in favour of a framework of overlapping institutions that he calls "multi-multilateralism." A wide array of multilateral institutions is becoming increasingly important in many aspects of international affairs, but how far they can contribute to legitimising the use of military force remains unclear. In any case, Fukuyama's attack on the UN for its failure over Iraq sits oddly with his view that the invasion was a mistake—if it was a mistake, then the UN security council was surely right to deny it international legitimacy.

Despite Fukuyama's presentation of these policies as a new vision for US foreign policy, what is most striking about them is the degree to which they mirror a new consensus. Condoleezza Rice has also been leading America back towards multilateralism. The new national security strategy, issued in March, says that America's "strong preference and common practice is to address proliferation concerns through international diplomacy, in concert with key allies and regional partners." It also says that "freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen," and that the US will "advance freedom's cause, while we balance other interests that are also vital to the security and well-being of the American people." Meanwhile, according to Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, Clinton's former secretary of state Madeleine Albright has taken to describing herself as a "realistic idealist"—a form of words that is almost identical to Fukuyama's and, one might add, equally vague.

If you wanted to adopt a Fukuyama-like approach to the current moment, you could say that America has finally arrived at the end of the end of the cold war. Since the Berlin wall fell, there has been a struggle to define the ideology that should guide the US in the aftermath of its victory. Under Clinton, the notion that the expansion of free markets and democracy could produce a harmonious resolution of the world's troubles was tried and found wanting. Under George W Bush, a revived neoconservatism that aimed to reshape the world through the unconstrained use of US power was tested to destruction. There are few true neoconservatives left in positions of influence now in Washington, and their efforts are mostly confined to pushing for aggressive democracy promotion. Outside politics it is possible to find hardcore realists like John Mearsheimer but their views have no political constituency. Within the administration itself, there remains an influential group of legal sovereigntists who drive policy on such issues as Guantánamo Bay, but their agenda—as Andrew Moravcsik pointed out in last month's Prospect—is a projection outwards of domestic political concerns.

In terms of true foreign policy ideologies, the only game in town right now is a chastened internationalism that clings to the idea of American leadership but accepts the lack of easy answers to problems like the Iranian nuclear programme, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan—or, for that matter, the mess in Iraq. While there remain differences of emphasis and inclination between conservative and liberal internationalists, these are limited by American political realities. No liberal internationalist could hope to win approval in congress for American membership of the international criminal court, or would go before the voters promising never to use pre-emptive force without UN approval. Within these basic limits, the problems of the immediate future are likely to be addressed in an essentially pragmatic spirit and with the use of military force as an extreme last resort.

The attention that Fukuyama has attracted for putting forward an essentially Clintonian worldview prompts the question of why the Democratic opposition has not made a better job of capitalising on the Bush administration's problems by pushing its own foreign policy vision. One answer is that the party itself remains divided—over whether to call for a pullout from Iraq, over how seriously to take the threat of terrorist attack, and over the question of free trade.

Another may be that the Democrats are still seen by many Americans as suspect on national security (though a recent opinion poll showed the two parties trusted equally on the subject). However much some Democrats may sympathise with Fukuyama's view that the threat from al Qaeda has been overstated, it is politically awkward to say so. Equally, Fukuyama's salutary point about the delusions of American exceptionalism may represent a step too far for many voters. The Democrats' best hope probably still lies in the prospect that foreign policy will loom less large in the next presidential election than it does now.