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. …