Robert Kagan examines the wide-spread belief that “Neoconservatism” was responsible for an unjust and ill-considered war in Iraq, and finds today’s foreign policy quarrels to be part of a very ancient pattern of American arguments pro and con a more expansive, ambitious, idealistic foreign policy.
The idea that todayâ€™s policies represent a decisive break from the past would certainly come as a surprise to the many critics of American foreign policy across the generations, for there has not been a single criticism leveled at neoconservatism in recent years that was not leveled at American foreign policy hundreds of times over the past two centuries.
The oldest, and in some ways most potent, critique has always been that of genuine conservatism, a powerful counter-tradition that goes back at least as far as the debates over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. The supporters of the new federal Constitutionâ€”George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madisonâ€”insisted that the concentration of energy and power in the federal government was essential if the United States was to become a world power capable both of protecting itself and achieving its destined greatness on the world stage. â€œLet Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!â€ Hamilton exhorted in the Federalist papers. But Patrick Henry, a leader of the anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution, accused Hamilton and his allies, not unfairly, of seeking to â€œconvert this country into a powerful and mighty empire.â€ This, Henry insisted, was a betrayal of the nationâ€™s true purpose. â€œWhen the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: liberty, sir, was then the primary object.â€
That quotation is a favorite chestnut of Patrick Buchanan and that ancient confrontation has recurred in almost every generation since the founding. At the core of this conservative critique has always been the fear that â€œempire,â€ however one might define itâ€”in Henryâ€™s day, it meant simply a wide expanse of land under a single, strong central governmentâ€”is antithetical to, and ultimately destructive of, American democratic and republican virtues. A big, expansive foreign policy requires a big, powerful central government to advance it, and such a government imperils American liberties. It also imperils its democratic soul. As John Quincy Adams memorably put it in 1821, America might become â€œthe dictatress of the world,â€ but she would â€œbe no longer the ruler of her own spirit.â€
In one way or another, all the major critiques of expansive, ambitious, idealistic American foreign policy have been shaped by this concern about overweening ambition and the temptations of power. It may not even be right to call this inclination â€œconservativeâ€ but rather, as Bernard Bailyn long ago suggested, a manifestation of American â€œrepublicanismâ€â€”a deep and abiding suspicion of centralized power and its corrupting effects on the people who wield it. Such fears have been expressed by conservatives, liberals, socialists, realists, and idealists alike over the past two centuries.
Read the whole thing.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.