The Old—and Incoherent—Foreign Policy of the New Right
National conservatives make a case for restraint that is big on rhetoric and short on real-world ideas.
Last week, “national conservatives” Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin published a guest essay in the New York Times titled “Hawks Are Standing in the Way of a New Republican Party.” I have read this article carefully and I would like to offer a few observations. But first, allow me to briefly articulate the argument laid out by the authors.
A Painful Contradiction
The authors claim that too many on the so-called “new right” are undermining the project of a Republican realignment by holding onto a foreign policy of “liberal imperialism”—“the aggressive push to impose progressive values often joined to corporate power.” These hypocritical Republicans reportedly “oppose liberal imperialism in the United States” but are “contriving to spread the same order to the ends of the earth.” This “contradictory vision,” they argue, “presents a major stumbling block” because “hawkish ideologues”—specifically neoconservatives—pursue foreign policies that immiserate the “working-class,” unnecessarily provoke “revanchist powers like Russia and China,” create ungoverned spaces around the globe, and, most importantly, siphon precious resources and energy away from domestic renewal.
The authors cite the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as proof of this critique:
“Even Republicans sympathetic to the new right haven’t been able to resist the hawkish temptation. Among the loudest voices calling for escalation were Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, politicians who have otherwise tried to articulate a more populist domestic vision for their party. Senator Rubio resorted to inapt Churchill-Hitler parallels (though he later said he opposes deploying troops to Eastern Europe); Senator Cotton lambasted President Biden for ‘appeasing Vladimir Putin’ … Even on the new right, then, the goal of securing America by ‘making the world safe for democracy’ refuses to die.”
This, it is argued, is simply the latest in a long line of those who see the United States as a “crusader nation”—those seeking “to expand liberal democracy abroad, partly because they thought this would make America more secure and partly because they believed it was our destiny to baptize all nations in liberal ideals.”
To their credit, the authors do not simply complain; they offer a proposed way forward. Instead of a “crusader nation,” they aspire toward an “exemplary republic,” where liberty and self-government are best served “by perfecting domestic republicanism—without going abroad in search of ‘monsters to destroy.’” To do this, we must have “a new, more solidaristic and inwardly focused consensus to replace the old, broken fusion of pro-business libertarians, religious traditionalists, and foreign-policy hawks.”
This new consensus is to be built on two pillars.
The first pillar is a foreign policy predicated on “sound restraint, especially where the United States doesn’t have formal treaty obligations, and a general retrenchment of the Western alliance’s ambitions.” Such restraint would include the United States preemptively ruling out Ukraine’s admission into NATO and shifting the nation’s focus to East Asia. But even here we must “beware of mindless China hawkism” and find areas of cooperation with Beijing, which is our “civilizational equal.”
The second pillar centers around a “domestic industrial prowess and energy independence”—a “industrial capacity and widely shared solidarity—that would strengthen America’s defenses and ennoble its culture.”
Making their point clear, they conclude by observing, “The monsters that menace us don’t lurk abroad.”
It is unclear if the authors are aware that their argument is not new—but it is not. Those advocating for “restraint” have long dotted the landscape of mainstream foreign policy theory and practice. Frequently emanating out of the “realist” camp, these scholars and practitioners (though very few are actual practitioners) hold that the United States is too arrogant, has too many military commitments, and is constantly embroiled in “endless wars.” While a longtime feature of foreign policy debates, the restraint camp has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, most notably during the administration of former President Donald Trump.
It is in this context that Michael J. Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of the book Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy, authored his essay, “Rethinking Restraint: Why It Fails in Practice.” Importantly, Mazarr could be said to be “restraint friendly,” but I want to reference him extensively here because, I believe, his analysis deals decisive blows to the argument made in the New York Times last week.
Mazarr begins by critiquing the restraint camp’s simplistic view of American foreign policy and how it is developed:
The utility of the concept of restraint is limited by the literature’s often overly binary conception of US foreign and security policy. Much of this literature divides the worldviews that drive US strategy into two broad caricatures—primacy or liberal hegemony at one extreme, and restraint at the other. Such an approach overlooks a huge, untidy middle ground where the views of most US national security officials reside and where most US policies operate. That middle ground tends to reflect far more nuance, and indeed instinctive restraint, than the stereotypes offered by many restraint proponents would suggest. Bumper-sticker phrases like “liberal hegemony” simply do not capture either the views of most US national security officials or the actual behavior of the United States as a strategic actor.
Certainly, this mistake is reflected in last week’s essay, where everyone on the political right is said to support either the “crusader nation” concept bent on spreading “liberal imperialism” or those who desire a restrained “exemplary republic” focused on American defense and an ennobled culture. But this simplistic division is a fallacy, and Mazarr explains how it undermines the restraint cause:
This binary approach produces two essential flaws in the argument for restraint. One has to do with its diagnosis: in their attacks on current policy and the associated “national security elite,” advocates of restraint repeatedly descend into straw-person characterizations that exaggerate the degree to which concepts of primacy or militarized liberal value promotion grip the thinking of US officials or the outcomes of US policy. And when it turns to prescriptions, the school of thought cannot remain pure to its categorical rhetoric and still deal with the complexities and dilemmas that plague US foreign policy.
Put simply: There is no neoconservative cabal running Republican foreign policy, and the articulated restraint worldview cannot hold to its own rhetoric when it comes to doing real policy in the real world. In discussing the former weakness, Mazarr says:
The real “national security elite,” of course, comprises individuals with starkly opposing opinions. Some favor nuclear arms control, some oppose it; some want more US forces in Europe, some fewer; some continue to support humanitarian interventions, whereas most are now skeptical of them. As a result, profound arguments have erupted within this group over every major foreign policy issue of the last half-century.
While I agree that there is no grand neoconservative conspiracy in American policy, that is not to say that neoconservatives have not been influential at various times—particularly after the Cold War. They certainly have, and especially were during the administration of George W. Bush, and many of their presuppositions informed how our nation responded to 9/11 and conducted the invasion of Iraq. It is legitimate to ask neoconservatives to account for these policies and to afford them greater or lesser influence based on their answers. I, for example, believe the neoconservative position tends to ignore the cultural prerequisites that are necessary for democratic governance to take root and to flourish. I also believe this perspective tends toward an idealized understanding of man’s nature and minimizes the traditional conservative idea that it is flawed and fixed.
But Ahmari, Deneen, and Pappin root their entire argument in the existence of a neoconservative throng sitting atop American foreign policy, recklessly seeking to “enlarge the liberal empire.” This is not true, and even the most ardent neo-conservatives who enjoyed the highest levels of policy influence will tell you they were far from wielding unquestioned power.
Turning to the problem of consistency within the restraint camp, Mazarr argues the following:
The challenge with heeding the call for restraint begins with the fact that there is no clear or consistent idea of what it means. Many essays use the terms “restraint” and “retrenchment” without explaining them or the distinction between them. When authors do venture definitions, they tend to be abstract, referring to generic calls to slash foreign commitments and defense spending.
Okay, go on.
Some leading members of this school, for example, urge an effective end to the NATO alliance whereas others propose gradual troop withdrawals with some conditions. Some argue that the US “forward presence in Asia has lost its Cold War security rationale” and recommend an end to alliances with Japan and South Korea or a vaguely-defined “reduction in U.S. forward deployments” in the region; others … worry about the rising threat from China and exclude Asia from their restraint agenda. Some advocates appear to propose immediately abandoning the Middle East; others highlight the region as the exception to a global policy of retrenchment. Some suggest that “terrorism should still elicit a strong response,” without specifying what US engagement this would demand. Such a response would appear to call for efforts to develop partner capabilities and conduct limited counterterrorism operations with a minimal footprint—but this is exactly the sort of posture the United States has now adopted in Iraq.
This lack of coherence in foreign policy is not in and of itself a decisive argument against restraint. Geopolitics are difficult. They are made even more so by the fact that the other actors get a vote. These choices and actions often create situations where there is no absolute right or absolute wrong—only a spectrum of tradeoffs that must be constantly assessed and balanced. So, in this regard, those in the restraint camp are not unique in their inability to be perfectly consistent. Where they are peculiar, however, is in their insistence for consistency—and in this, they fail their own test.
Take for example what our authors say about Ukraine. On the one hand they argue the United States must resist the temptation to act beyond its “formal treaty obligations.” On the other hand, they decry the “hawkish temptation” to involve ourselves in the ongoing tensions along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus—despite our obligations to Kyiv under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, that provides American security assurances to Ukraine against threats to its territorial integrity or political independence.
How we honor these obligations is a matter of debate, but Ahmari, Deneen, and Pappin believe the United States has already overstepped its bounds when an honest assessment of the situation would say our response has been nothing if not restrained. The Biden administration has made clear that it will not be sending military forces to help repel a Russian invasion and is instead deploying troops only to existing NATO countries in the region as a political signal of where Putin’s aggression must stop (as a part of our treaty obligations to these countries). These actions are the bare minimum of meeting our “formal treaty obligations,” and yet even these seem too unrestrained for the authors.
But Mazarr shows how this incoherence is a strategic challenge, too:
Critically, most restrainers appear to agree that the United States could not sit idly by if a hostile Russia invaded Europe, if China began waging wars against its neighbors, or if Iran undertook large-scale attacks. Given the nature of US global interests, this concession is unavoidable, but it fatally complicates the coherence of any agenda for restraint: if the United States must be ready to fight such distant, short-notice regional wars, then it is not clear just how much its defense budget can be cut or its global posture eviscerated. Advocates of restraint often imply that reducing forward posture in and of itself will dramatically ease US defense burdens. But they misperceive the origins of US defense requirements, which flow from the contingencies that the United States decides it must be willing to fight (and how it plans to fight them). Withdrawing US forces from abroad will not change that essential equation. It could create new burdens, in fact, in two ways: by demanding added investments in power-projection capabilities to make up for the forces that are withdrawn, and by risking the truly enormous costs of major wars if US restraint invites new aggression.
Restraint advocates, and particularly those on the “new right,” speak eloquently of a United States awash in freedom and resources, but never explain how they intend to rid us of the inescapable foreign commitments and actions necessary to secure this domestic prosperity and tranquility. Nowhere is this clearer than the challenge of China.
In the New York Times essay, the authors concede that “the United States has real differences with Beijing. We must punish industrial espionage. We must defend treaty allies. And we must seek a more balanced trade relationship.” But they quickly add, “But we should also find areas of cooperation, exchange and shared interests, seeking to avoid any future wars and instead communicating with mutual respect for a civilizational equal.”
Let me start with that most heinous moral equivalency of China being our “civilizational equal.” These men indeed have an exceptionally low estimation of our nation’s current state if they believe that we have an “equal” in the People’s Republic of China—a nation currently imprisoning more than 1 million members of just one religious minority, a government who still implements a systemic program of forced sterilization and abortion, a country where political dissidents, journalists, and anyone who dares criticizes the government is jailed, tortured, or killed. This assertion is so ill-considered and demonstrably false as to call into question the entirety of anything uttered by the mouth that would dare vomit it out.
But let us assume this was a momentary lapse of judgment and engage the rest of their prescription for American policy toward China.
Regarding their call for “cooperation, exchange and shared interests,” what do they think the United States has been doing for the last 40 years? Our challenges with Beijing are not rooted in a lack of engagement or cooperation. They are the result of an uncritical assumption that by enriching that nation it will inescapably become more democratic. This was dead wrong, and we now have a totalitarian government that is a near peer militarily and which is increasingly belligerent toward American interests. Even noted restraint advocates John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt admit that China “is likely to seek hegemony in Asia” and that the United States will need to “throw its considerable weight behind” a regional balancing effort.
Here, Mazarr pounces:
A serious US effort to contest Chinese hegemony will demand significant and growing regional presence in an operationally demanding theater. It will likely require continued US troop deployments in Japan and Korea, deep engagement including extensive security cooperation activities with regional partners, and major financial commitments to counter Chinese economic statecraft. In sum, if the United States intends to balance Chinese power, it is not clear how restrained it will be able to be. The global outline of restraint would begin to look not unlike a supercharged version of the “rebalance to Asia” announced by the Obama administration, with reduced posture in the Middle East and Europe but a renewed commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. If that is all restraint amounts to in the most geopolitically significant region in the world, it would not imply much of a change.
It would seem, then, that the authors do not understand the natural and unavoidable implications of their own policy prescriptions. But foreign policy is about more than simplistic rhetoric: It must have concrete actions that inevitably demand the regional application of influence, power, and occasionally force. War with China is not inevitable, but it is possible, and it will not be won by retreating to our own shores. Such a strategy is not restraint, it is a commitment to failure.
I have tried to deal honestly and seriously with the proposals of Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen and Gladden Pappin. As noted above, their offerings fit within an established set of international relations theories that have been argued by serious people for a long time.
But, while they are serious, they are not compelling. Their entire argument is predicated on a neoconservative boogeyman, galloping around the globe wantonly sowing death and destruction. Such a notion is false and simply another manifestation of the authors’ proclivity for “us” versus “them” arguments. They also fail to move beyond the soft edges of self-righteous rhetoric by not offering even the most basic practical proposals or accounting for what their implementation would require. They claim “restraint” for themselves and condemn all others as “crusaders.” In short, last week’s essay in the New York Times is swollen with rhetoric but starving for applications to the real world.
If this is the best foreign policy the “new right” has to offer, I will gladly stand in the way.