[The piece was written in July 2020, but is published here – without any changes – for the first time. Today’s events in the world make the topic of this discussion particularly relevant.]
Neo-conservatism, generally defined as an approach in foreign policy that focuses on promotion of liberal democratic values and peace globally backed by action, certainly does not enjoy a lot of popularity today.
The term itself is mainly used as a negative and accusatory word by both sides of the political spectrum and is often misinterpreted to mean costly and reckless warmongering. If we examine its core principles, however, we’ll see that this view is not accurate: the principles of neo-conservatism in reality combine careful pragmatism with strong ethical principles. Moreover, its opposite, the de-facto isolationism towards which the Western world has recently gravitated, has proven itself to be inadequate and costly.
Today we are all experiencing the effects of events that took place far away from our borders. Many new sources of instability and security threats have emerged over the past two decades and many old ones remain unsolved. The COVID19 pandemic, China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and it’s kidnapping of Canadian citizens, Russia’s and China’s disinformation wars, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its involvement in Syria, the rise of extremist groups in the Middle East, Iran’s and North Korea’s threats and the crisis in Venezuela are but the most conspicuous examples. Others include international crime such as drug and human trafficking, cyber-crime, money laundering and corruption, all of which severely undermine our own political and financial institutions.
To cope with these, to be able to defend our own freedoms and security and to help maintain peace and human rights elsewhere we need to change our approach to foreign policy. We can no longer pretend these threats don’t exist or don’t affect us.
I contend that to deal with the growing international problems, the best alternative at hand for North America and our allies is to adopt some of the core principles of neo-conservatism. We need a policy that combines elements of both principled ethics and pragmatic actions.
The left portrays “neocons” as warmongers who want to impose exploitative Western control to other countries. The right pictures them as Cold War fossils who are naively mistaken they can achieve something good for the world by spending taxpayers’ money on other countries’ problems.
Max Boot, in his article “It’s time to retire the ‘neocon’ label” in the Washington Post from 2019 accurately summarized these and other caricatures neo-conservatism, including the popular misconception that neo-conservatives were the instigators of the war in Iraq. However, his conclusion was that because the term lost its meaning, we should reject it.
I think that whether or not we want to use this word or find a different term to refer the same set of principles is of little relevance, as long as we realize the importance of these very principles.
Initially, the term neo-conservative was used to refer to those Democrats in the US who joined the Republican Party in the 1980s because of the Democratic Party’s weakness in relation to the threat of Communist expansion. Their policies were most pronounced during President Ronald Reagan’s term and in his stance with respect to communist countries.
There are a number of distinctions about what precisely the self-proclaimed neo-conservatives of that time period believed in, but that is a question for historians to explore. More importantly, after the Cold War the term began to be used more generally to describe the policy of applying power to do good in the world and to defend our own interests.
Despite the common misconception that aims to portray neo-conservatives as warmongers, “applying power” rarely means military action – it can be a range of methods including diplomatic, trade, financial, investigative and other policies. President Ronald Reagan’s administration never went to war with the USSR, but used other powerful leverages.
The neo-conservatives of the 1980s well understood that the West could not bring change and democracy to other countries simply by force and military action. They were realistic and believed that such changes required complex and time consuming institutional and social processes. As Jeane Kirkpatrick once famously said, for democracy to work, “decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.”
There are, however, rare cases even when military involvement can be indispensable in ending a conflict started by an aggressive actor and in securing peace. While military action should always remain the last resort, in some circumstances it can the least costly way of preventing a huge catastrophe or a global crisis.
I believe the key principles that neo-conservatism stands for (even if one prefers to use a different term to describe them) can be most accurately summarized with the following 7 points:
1. The admittance that violent, repressive and dangerous entities do exist throughout the world and have considerable resources.
2. The view that these entities do pose a significant threat to our own countries. A local dictator or an extremist organization can ignite a conflict that can easily snowball into a large scale crisis that will cause massive destruction and will affect us all. A drug cartel or corrupt oligarchs from a faraway country can bribe politicians and make deals all over the world, thus undermining our own institutions and security.
3. The view that use of power and proportionate action can prevent and reduce these threats in an efficient manner. As said earlier, this rarely means military power, but a range of other leverages.
4. The pragmatic view that the cost of not taking appropriate actions can often significantly outweigh the cost of taking them. The cost of the inaction and indecision of the Allies on the eve of WWII is still a very convincing example. Yes, we may have to spend some of taxpayer’s money right now on dealing with some particular international problem, but it may prevent much greater expenditures for us later.
5. The ethical view that crimes should be deterred and violence prevented whenever possible. The same ethical principles that justify the need for a police force that can fight crime in a city, justify the need to exert power to deter and fight international crime and violence.
6. The view that peaceful and liberal political systems (not necessarily only democracies) that ensure their people’s rights and freedoms and maintain a decent level of economic prosperity need to be promoted and supported. On pragmatic grounds, because such systems have proven to contribute to world peace and prosperity the most, and on ethical grounds, because promoting human rights and freedoms and reducing suffering and violence are just the morally right things to do.
7. The view that any measures taken need to be effective and adequately enforced. Simply making statements of expressed concern or condemnation against a dictator will be of no use, unless these words can be backed up by action. Simply sending foreign aid money to a country in economic crisis will be of no use, unless it can be ensured the money is used properly. Similarly, helping establish a new political system and administration in a different country will also be of little use, unless these can be adequately reinforced and protected against collapse and corruption.
If we take this list of principles to explain the essence of neo-conservatism, we can see that it is neither the selfish immoral realpolitik that the left portrays it to be, nor is it the naïve impractical idealism that the modern right portrays it to be.
Over the past two decades we’ve seen a lot of toothless neo-Wilsonianism with its exalted and moralizing speeches, like those we hear often at the United Nations, and with its typical lack of action and practical measures to follow. It is a downgrade from original Wilsonianism, because at least President Wilson seemed genuinely to believe in the ideals he espoused, whereas today such speeches have become a mere token display.
We have also seen a lot of neo-Bismarckian realpolitik by politicians who make business deals with immoral and corrupt regimes and entities, thinking that such course of action is pragmatic and advantageous. It is also, however, a downgrade from the original concept of realpolitik, as I doubt Bismarck would have been this short sighted to help grow and expand the influence of his potential enemies and let them corrupt his own country.
Neither of the two approaches proved to be successful. They prove to be very costly to us, while also contributing to the growth of the influence of dangerous and corrupt regimes. To address the challenges of the modern world efficiently and to maintain our own security and prosperity, we need a new approach, one that combines strong ethical principles with realistic and pragmatic action.