Present Laughter or Utopian Bliss?

By Rose, Gideon | The National Interest, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Present Laughter or Utopian Bliss?


Rose, Gideon, The National Interest


WHEN THE Democrats captured the White House in 1992, after a dozen years in exile, foreign policy was not at the top of their agenda. Many observers felt this a blessing, because clear and mature thought on the subject had not been one of the party's strong suits for many years.

Yet for all the criticism heaped upon it, the Clinton administration has actually not done too badly. When they received strong cards from the Bush administration, as with NAFTA or the Middle East peace process, the Clintonites have played their hand reasonably well. Trouble has come when they have tried to think for themselves, as with the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, or when they have subordinated everything to domestic politics. On balance, as the editor of this journal wrote much earlier in the administration's life, "Clinton's foreign policy is not an unmitigated disaster. It is not even a mitigated disaster. It is merely quite bad in certain ways that have limited consequences." And while Gore or Bradley could always surprise if given the reins, the odds are that a successor Democratic administration would probably offer more of the same.

On the other side of the aisle, the situation is more complex and, given current polls, perhaps more important. As with the Democrats of yore, the question with regard to Republicans today is whether they will emerge from their years in the presidential wilderness ready to exercise power responsibly. On this score, the record of recent Republican Congresses is a national embarrassment and gives cause for alarm rather than reassurance. Arms control, defense policy, economic sanctions, alliance diplomacy--all have been treated cavalierly, as if they were simply local pork, pure symbolism or opportunities for partisan advantage. The gratuitously blunt rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October is the latest example, but the nadir may have been reached last April when the House of Representatives voted simultaneously not to send ground troops to Kosovo, not to support the air campaign in progress there, and not to pull out. Just what practical guidance such votes were meant to offer is unclear.

Still, foreign policy wisdom is hardly to be expected from legislators, especially during good times, and so their frivolities may say little about how a future Republican administration would perform when faced with the task of running the nation's external affairs, rather than merely yapping at the heels of those who do. Here the views of scribblers and aspiring place-holders might be a better guide, and among Republicans these fall into four distinct camps: populist, libertarian, neoconservative and realist.

The first two can be dismissed quickly because they have few adherents within the professional foreign policy establishment. Buchanan's pitchfork-wielding followers may be an important constituency in the heartland, but in Washington opposing globalization while rehabilitating Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin is considered unsound. The Cato Institute's night watchman-state isolationism, meanwhile, has never caught on with the managers of the world's largest foreign policy apparat. The battle for the next Republican administration's soul thus comes down by default to a fight between the neoconservatives and the realists--although, as we shall see, on different grounds than might at first be apparent.

BOTH CAMPS derive their views from a comprehensive theory of international politics, with the difference being that neoconservatives emphasize ideology while realists emphasize power. Neoconservatives view global affairs as a clash of systems, with nations competing not only for themselves but also on behalf of larger ideological movements. Realists view international affairs as a struggle for power among states, with national interests trumping ideological concerns most of the time.

Neoconservatives believe that realists fail, as James Burnham once said of Kennan, Lippmann and Morgenthau,

Realists believe that the causes neoconservatives embrace vary over time--from Trotskyist world revolution in the 1930s, to anti-communism during the Cold War, to democracy promotion today--but that their ideological passion remains constant and dangerous. …

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