Conservative Internationalism

By Nau, Henry R. | Policy Review, August-September 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Conservative Internationalism


Nau, Henry R., Policy Review


SINCE WORLD WAR II international relations specialists have debated two main traditions or schools of American foreign policy, realism and liberal internationalism. Realism identifies with Richard Nixon and looks to the balance of power to defend stability among ideologically diverse nations. Liberal internationalism identifies with Franklin Roosevelt and looks to international institutions to reduce the role of the balance of power and gradually spread democracy by talk and tolerance. Generally speaking, conservatives or Republicans were considered realists--Eisenhower and Ford--while liberals or Democrats were seen as liberal internationalists--Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.

This debate broke down with Ronald Reagan. He opposed both the realist containment strategy of Richard Nixon and the liberal internationalist human rights campaign of Jimmy Carter. He adopted a strategy that used force or the threat of force assertively, as realists recommended, but aimed at the demise of communism and the spread of democracy, as liberal internationalists advocated. Reagan improvised and succeeded brilliantly. (1) The Cold War ended, the Soviet Union disappeared, and the United States emerged as the first preeminent "global" power in the history of the world. Even former critics now concede that Reagan was on to something. (2)

But what tradition did Reagan represent? The debate between realists and liberal internationalists leaves no explanation for Ronald Reagan's eclectic foreign policy choices and the extraordinary outcomes he achieved. The conventional foreign policy traditions don't fit. Realists and liberal internationalists try to claim Reagan but they distort and miss the novelty of his contributions. (3) Others conclude he is unique and "has become a transcendent historical figure," not terribly relevant to contemporary debates. (4) Still others argue Reagan's foreign policy had nothing to do with ending the Cold War and subsequently wound up in the hands of Reagan impostors, the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration, who ran it into the ground in Iraq. (5)

This essay rejects all of these conclusions. It argues instead that Ronald Reagan tapped into a new and different American foreign policy tradition that has been overlooked by scholars and pundits. That tradition is "conservative internationalism." Like realism and liberal internationalism, it has deep historical roots. Just as realism takes inspiration from Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt and liberal internationalism identifies with Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, conservative internationalism draws historical validation from Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan. These four American presidents did more to expand freedom abroad through the assertive use of military force than any others (Lincoln doing as much or more to expand freedom domestically by force). But they expanded freedom on behalf of self-government, local or national, not on behalf of central or international government, as liberal internationalists advocate, and they used force to seize related opportunities to spread freedom, not to maintain the status quo, as realists recommend. All of these presidents remain enigmas for the standard traditions. The reason? They represent the different and overlooked tradition of conservative internationalism. (6)

Jefferson is claimed by isolationists and liberal internationalists, but he was neither. He doubled the size of American territory, and although this expansion took place on the North American continent when America was militarily weak, Jefferson's policies can hardly be called isolationist or pacifist. In fact, he used all the military, especially naval, power that the United States had at the time and combined threats and diplomacy deftly to seize the opportunity to grab Louisiana. The Louisiana Purchase may have fallen into his lap, as some historians later argued, but he had to place his lap in the right later argued, but he had to place his lap in the right position to catch it.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Conservative Internationalism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?