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.