Is conservatism a threat to national security?
Samantha Power (credit:
Samantha Power has an interesting essay in the August 14 New York Review of Books, “The Democrats and National Security.” She raises the question of whether conservative approaches to national security actually makes life more dangerous:

The first step toward undoing Republican dominance on foreign policy entails debunking the myth that conservative ideology enhances US national security. Here Peter Scoblic, the executive editor at The New Republic and former editor of Arms Control Today, does a great service in Us vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security. He considers five decades of arms control efforts in order to illuminate the common themes underlying hard-line conservative ideology on national security. He shows, most usefully, the continuity in conservative intellectual leadership across the years. John Foster Dulles wrote the Republicans’ foreign policy platform in 1952, denouncing the Democrats’ “futile and immoral policy of ‘containment,’ which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism.” Barry Goldwater denounced the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which William Buckley’s National Review termed a “nuclear Yalta.” And during his first term, Ronald Reagan and the Reaganauts appeared to argue that doing away with an evil regime was more important than preventing nuclear war.

Scoblic shows that these men had in common several core premises. One cannot coexist with evil-doers, who are irreparably “fallen,” and thus rollback is required. Negotiation is not merely pointless, it is costly “appeasement.” And the United States should participate in only those international institutions that are servants of American power; those that constrain American power are enemies of the national interest.

Scoblic’s book offers a terrifying glimpse of the persistent tendency of one militant strand of conservatism to pursue conflict over peace, arms races over arms control, and ideology over pragmatism. His analytic history is particularly strong in revealing how, in a world of uncontrolled forces, conservatives sought to impose complete control, whether by pursuing technological fixes (like the nuclear missile shield) or treating US security as if it were something that could simply be willed. Because many conservatives presume exceptional American virtue —and believe that this virtue is self-evident to others—they have also consistently failed to see how aggressive US actions can appear abroad, and how the fear they generate can give rise to threatening behavior by others, who believe they are acting in self-defense.

The whole piece is worth reading, as is Power’s interesting blog.


10 thoughts on “Is conservatism a threat to national security?

  1. Interesting thesis — one further supported by the ill-concealed glee with which the U.S. government has pounced on the opportunity to brand Russia as a mortal enemy once again after the Georgia/South Ossetia conflict. I heard through the grapevine, by the way, that Charles Krauthammer and Niall Ferguson out-debated Power and Richard Holbrooke at a recent Toronto event, on the very topic of whether U.S. security was in safer hands with Republicans or Democrats. Somewhat shocking that they convinced a group of Canadians that Republicans would be the safer custodians, but then again, our country has always suffered from an inability to find a happy medium between Lloyd Axworthy-style idealism and slavish loyalty to the English-speaking great power of the day. So perhaps the latter instinct won out this time.

    Just checked out Samantha’s blog. Why is it written in the third-person?

  2. I’ve listened to a little part of the debate, Ian. The pro-Republican historian made a pretty unsuspected point, in my view: that history showed that the world was less safe with a Democratic president, because Democrats had started many more wars than Republicans did in the last century.

    So starting wars should be considered dangerous for the safety of America ?

    Of course, none of the two pro-Democrats used that point later on.


    As for the subject of this post, well, I would argue a lot more simply that it is the scope of concern from the entire political spectrum in America that makes America fail. That scope is the entire globe. So long as there are calls for American hegemony, for the defense of freedom around the world, so long as politicans talk about America as the last best hope of Earth, the US is going to intervene and fail.

    Conservatism ideology in this way is solely a variant of US intervention. And therefore it is wrong to solely point the finger at them. Liberals too engage in the same kind of error.

    I was arguing over Afghanistan recently, with a guy whose nickname indicated he strongly supported the impeachment of George Bush. And he also said that he was happy I was only the fringe, because it was because of people like me that Democrats won the votes of — quote — the Joe Sixpacks. He went on to say that America needed to win the fight against the Talibans.

    So you see, while this article makes it seem as if Liberals were reasonable folks, this is not true.

    Scoblic shows that these men had in common several core premises. One cannot coexist with evil-doers, who are irreparably “fallen,” and thus rollback is required. Negotiation is not merely pointless, it is costly “appeasement.” And the United States should participate in only those international institutions that are servants of American power; those that constrain American power are enemies of the national interest.

    Liberals have this trait as well, Republicans are just more indiscriminate about their enemies.

  3. Little mistake:

    And he also said that he was happy I was only the fringe, because it was because of people like me that Democrats lost the votes of — quote — the Joe Sixpacks.

  4. All good points, Littlehorn. Certainly Samantha Power herself has long been a representative of the pro-intervention wing of the modern liberal intelligentsia, which has argued for military intervention across a range of actual and potential cases: Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur/Sudan, Myanmar. It’s why so many of them, including Michael Ignatieff, found themselves lining up with G.W. Bush in support of the Iraq invasion, which promised the liberation of a people from their non-liberal tyrant. And I’ve never believed that Obama would be a peacenik president — witness his repeated hints that Pakistan would not be immune to unilateral American attack if Osama bin Laden were spotted — merely that he’d be likely to invade fewer countries than John McCain would be. One can’t ask for everything, these days…

  5. Thanks for your comments Ian and littlehorn. I have no idea why Power’s blog is written in the third person. Maybe her assistant does the actual writing.

    There is no doubt that the Democrats have had a lot to answer for over the years. But if you look at who sought the nomination for the two parties this year, there is no question that the Republicans as a group were and are more dangerous than the Democrats. There is a big difference between Obama and Giuliani, for example.

  6. It’s a perennially fascinating question, isn’t it? You’re absolutely right, A.M., that at this time the Republicans, as a party, are more dangerous than the Democrats — which is not to say, of course, that the Democrats are not dangerous at all. And as we know, this balance has changed over time, with the Democrats leading the charge into WWI, WWII, and Vietnam, and the Republicans more recently initiating conflict in Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Yet both the Kosovo and Somalia interventions happened under a Democratic administration, so we’ve entered, I would argue, a more balanced era of bi-partisan interventionism. The remaining differences, I think, lie in the Republican party’s increasing tendency towards Manicheism (to which Power’s essay rightly pointed), and in the Democratic party’s abiding fear, which has lasted since the 1950s, of being portrayed as “soft”. But what both parties share is a belief in American virtue and uniqueness, and (as Littlehorn argued) in the global and unlimited scope of American interests. Both of these beliefs, on their own, are enough to make military interventions much more likely than not.

  7. Ian you and both opposed the Iraq war, and I share your skepticism about the idea that America has some unique virtue that licenses it to act as international police officer. Given that you and I agree on these key points, I am not sure how much daylight there really is between your position and mine. If we were to get into the nitty gritty, however, I suspect I might hold two views you do not.

    The first is that I am reluctant to frame the debate in terms of being pro or anti “intervention.” For one thing, not all interventions are created equal: as a 2003 Rand Corporation report noted, multilateral interventions have historically been more effective than those in which the U.S. goes in alone. For this reason, I would not put Kosovo in the same category as Iraq. Iraq has been a disasterous failure in a way Kosovo was not.

    The second belief is that misguided interventions such as Iraq often have much in common with failures to intervene, such as the one Clinton committed in regard to Rwanda. In both the case of Iraq and Rwanda a fundamental value underlying U.S. foreign policy was an indifference to human life. Given that Rwandan-style failures to intervene can be just as disastrous if not far worse than misguided interventions, I would not say that isolationism is the correct response to Vietnam and Iraq-style quagmires. In other words, we should not give up on the idea of humanitarian intervention (particularly when it comes in a multilateral form).

    I take you to be more inclined to frame the debate in terms of intervention as such, and less sympathetic to the idea of humanitarian intervention than I am. I know we are unlikely to settle the matter in this comment thread, but I would be interested to know if I’ve at least read you correctly.

  8. A.M.: You’ve nailed it. In my final comment I was indeed discussing only the American propensity to intervene, while intentionally leaving the question of merits to one side (it is easy to argue, clearly, that intervening in WWII had rather more justification on its side than intervening in Vietnam or Panama). But at the same time it is true that you and I have different beliefs about the concept of humanitarian intervention.

    We do not differ, to be precise, on how we see its effectiveness (or lack thereof); I fully agree that multilateral interventions often have a level of legitimacy that unilateral ones lack, and the very process of obtaining consensus and coordinating plans with allies increases the odds that the intervention will not be a disaster — though we’ll see in a few years if the Afghanistan campaign proves this out.

    Where we differ is in our beliefs about the principle of humanitarian intervention. I think that the concept of state sovereignty is one of the few things that keeps the world from rolling backwards into a neo-feudal condition in which wars are sparked by differences over values and left to burn by a lack of clarity over jurisdictions and responsibilities. Contrary to the neo-cons, I don’t believe we presently live in an international context of anarchy, which allows the strong to do what they wish. I do believe we live in an international context of potential anarchy, however, and the more we violate state sovereignty, whether to do good or evil, the more we create a world that is less ordered, more cynical, and more violent. I’m very concerned that in trying to do good in the here and now, we’re legitimizing and enabling a great deal more evil in the long run.

  9. Thanks for the clarifying reply, Ian. As it happens I’ve recently been researching the history of state sovereignty, and I quite agree that one of the major arguments in its favour is that, unlike previous arrangements, it is very clear on matters of jurisdiction. Medieval institutions such as the Hanseatic-style city-league, which were not based on the idea of state sovereignty, were quite confusing. Clearly there is a lot to be said for an international system of sovereign states, which in any event is not going to disappear any time soon.

    Nevertheless, I am a bit surprised by what seems an implication of your view. You say you are skeptical about the principle of humanitarian intervention because the more we violate state sovereignty, the more we create a world that is less ordered, more cynical and more violent.

    As I understand this idea, the objection does not have to do with any particular intervention’s effectiveness. A military operation might work in a given case, say Kosovo or elsewhere, but over the long run, it will inevitably lead to invasions and wars in other places and times with disastrous outcomes.

    This view would seem to have a counter-intuitive outcome when it is applied to situations like Rwanda: that is, to genocides committed within the borders of a sovereign state. The outcome is that even if there were reasonable evidence that an intervention would succeed, as Samantha Power and others argued in regard to Rwanda, it would still be wrong, as by doing so we would only be causing the deaths of even more people down the road.

    I find this a hard view to accept, for two reasons. One is that it seems to entail accepting the most violent scenarios imaginable in the name of non-violence. The other is that it seems to suggest that not intervening in Rwanda somehow made the world more ordered, less cynical and less violent. But it is hard to think of any group of 800,000 people whose lives were saved by Clinton’s decision not to intervene. Indeed, it is hard to think of any worse outcome than allowing genocide to unchecked.

    I think I’ve said my piece of this, and can live without having the last word, so over to you for any final thoughts.

  10. My argument is indeed one of long-run consequences vs. immediate outcomes, and of process and system vs. tangible results. And you’re perfectly right that the most difficult part of it is the implication that one must refrain from intervening in a Rwandan genocide, not out of indifference (that’s the easy route), but based on a hypothesis that somehow down the road such a precedent will make things even worse. Having the power to save people and yet deliberately not using it is probably the most grim (and frankly, almost impossible) decision a statesman would ever have to make.

    In a positive sense, in fact, my argument is irrelevant, as, in a similar way, is yours: no policy maker decides on intervention by coolly calculating the optimal outcomes for all the humans involved, taking careful account of both immediate and longer-term implications, and weighing the moral claims and counter-claims with a judicious eye. Instead, they make decisions in the heat of the moment, with limited information about the situation at hand and even less background knowledge, pressured by interest groups and government fiefdoms and ambitious advisors and panicky allies, and constrained by promises made back when things didn’t look bad.

    In this regard, both the notion of state sovereignty and the notion of humanitarian intervention are little more than costumes put on and taken off by the real actors in the play — whichever is most suitable for achieving the pressing needs of the moment. Want to free Kosovo and display American power? Humanitarian intervention is ready to serve. Want to isolate Russia and bolster a local ally? Claim Georgia is protected by the hallowed principles of state sovereignty. Ideas are often little more than instruments in the hands of the powerful.

    But this, paradoxically, is one of the bigger reasons why I’m so reluctant to let state sovereignty be trumped by humanitarianism, because it serves as one of the few thin ropes holding back the Gulliver of unrestricted power. Its strength only comes from persuasion and peer pressure, and the more we create exceptions to its rule, the more that it looks like no more than an ideal followed only by powerless nations. On reflection, I think we’ve quite broken the rope by now, so consider my argument more of a commemoration of what we’ve already lost, rather than a defense of something vital.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s