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August 05, 2010

Why We Fight -- Countering the Conservative Foreign Policy Critique
Posted by David Shorr

A lot of debate lately on the question of whether conservative foreign policy thinking (and politics) have been taken captive by a wild-eyed form of neoconservatism. The recent round -- which has drawn the most response from conservatives themselves -- was sparked by Jacob Heilbrunn's piece on the Foreign Policy site, arguing that the current generation foreign policy Republicans have banished moderates and moderate ideas.  Among the reactions over on the Shadow Government blog, Jamie Fly's is fairly thorough. His last two paragraphs are especially action-packed:

What Heilbrunn fails to grasp is that his desired foreign policy (and President Obama's) is at odds with the views of the American public. Americans don't accept that the United States is in decline. They like the idea that there is something exceptional about their country. They have no problem cuting deals with China and Russia, but they want their President to make sure that we get the best deal possible and only cede as much as necessary. They want their president to speak out in support of those fighting for democracy and human rights. And they don't like to see their government neglect democratic allies while negotiating with repressive regimes.

Americans want a values-based foreign policy, not a cold, calculating one. This, not a neocon sponsored coup, is why there is a broad foreign policy consensus on the Right today.

Some of Fly's points offer a basis for constructive dialogue. On the other hand, the charges that the Center-Left embraces decline and rejects all notions of exceptionalism are self-serving caricatures -- which is ironic in a post that pushes back against caricatures of neoconservatives. The 'declinist' tag is one I've addressed before, so I'll summarize. A genuine declinist has serious doubts about American strength and power; our national strategic fundamentals are headed irreversibly downward. The point is that it's possible to retain faith in American dynamism and, at the same time, believe that changes in the world have made it harder for America to exert leverage over problems and achieve our aims globally.

Now, there are exceptionalists, and there are exceptionalists. I'm afraid our friends on the Right don't own the franchise. A hat tip goes to Greg Scoblete of RealClearWorld Compass Blog for highlighting David Frum's response to critics who took issue with the idea of US global leaderhip in Frum's mission statement for conservatives. As someone who considers myself a moderate exceptionalist, I largely agree with what Frum says, which he best summarizes as follows:

Just as even the most self-equilibriating markets need a lender of last resort, so even the most stable international system needs a security guarantor of last resort.

My one quibble is that I believe in the longer-term that global security public goods could be provided collectively by major powers, assuming they ultimately converge as responsible stakeholders. Since this is far from a safe assumption, Frum and I are unlikely to part ways on the basic idea for at least a decade or three.

But back to Jamie Fly's rallying cry. For me, the interesting underlying issue in the debate between Right and Left is the question of what we're really fighting about. There are a couple good ones here -- issues where liberal and conservative views could complement one another quite nicely. First, striking worthy bargains with China and Russia. As broad guidelines, let's agree that we have to deal with them, and we don't want to be pushovers. Recently there was another interesting Shadow Government post from Daniel Blumenthal on US-China relations emphasizing the need to deal with China from a position of strength.

Blumenthal may be right that the Obama administration hasn't gotten it quite right and has been a little too solicitous of Beijing. But let's not forget that down the they-only-respect-strength road lies no deal at all. I have my doubts about what deals conservatives might think can be squeezed from the other side. So lest we get too excited about getting tougher, I have a couple questions. Do conservatives believe that pressing Beijing more impatiently and publicly on letting the RMB float upward would have achieved the desired result? And don't their US sovereign debt holdings boost China's own bargaining power?

Last is the issue of "a values-based foreign policy" versus "a cold, calculating one." OK, there's definitely some calculating going on. Don't be so sure, though, that it's the heartless, national interests-focused calculations of the Realists. It might just be a clear-eyed assessment of pragmatists. For my part, I feel like an accidental Realist rather than a real Realist. I think I'd be much more enthusiastic about the values agenda if we didn't have these other gigantic problems like the economic downturn, fraying of the NPT, and global warming all staring us down.

Still, with that said, I take the point about the importance of pressing issues of human rights and democracy not only in China and Russia, but also Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Egypt. Heck, I've even (slightly) tempered my security mono-focus with regard to Iran. And I agree with Heather in her recent TNR piece that "the effort to find a post-Bush language for the promotion of democracy and human rights remains a work in progress." I'd only add that the Obama administration probably doesn't get credit for the things it is doing, owing not only to the conservative critique, but also the overloaded bandwidth of public diplomacy.


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