The Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven thus far to be a difficult puzzle for the American right. The reaction of conservatives to the foreign policy of the Barack Obama years was to slam his decisions as unserious, naive, or weak, inviting America’s enemies to exploit us.
This is their natural posture, and one that has largely held despite Donald Trump’s very different approach to foreign policy. President Joe Biden’s administration has allowed conservatives to return to this posture in its first year, particularly in the misbegotten Afghanistan exit, which went so terribly and embarrassed Americans, even those who supported an end to the war.
The trouble with Ukraine for the right is that it cuts in several different directions, and leaves their leaders uncertain as to the proper and politically justifiable response. As I predicted last week, Trump himself is facing this difficulty today. But there is a path forward for conservatives that rejects both the reflexive anti-interventionism of the New Right and the reflexive interventionism of neoconservatism.
In illuminating that path, it must be acknowledged that the latter approach set the conservative national security agenda for a disastrous 20 years. Incepted in the debates over whether America should “go to Baghdad” in the 1991 war, the neoconservative domination of the right’s national security vision was rooted in two premises.
One was that America was positively obligated to advance the world toward the broad sunlit uplands of liberal democracy. (You might call it a progressive ethic.) The other premise was that America could do pretty much anything. This was an easy sell in the 1990s, in the golden moment when America actually could do nearly anything — outside the Mogadishu city limits, anyway. The reality of American power, the fact of what America could do, obscured the need for a debate on what America should do.
Sometime around the April 2004 battle for Sadr City, the limits of what America could do came into focus. That focus became increasingly sharp through the next decade, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on to no discernible purpose, as the ISIS threat flared up, as America involved itself in the Yemeni war, and as Americans found themselves fighting and dying in the remote Sahel.
Whatever sense of purpose attached itself to the post-9/11 wars ebbed away as Americans grasped that they were effectively locked into small and bloody conflicts, endless scraps with ferocious tribesmen and motivated fanatics, in faraway places of which they knew little and cared less. One of the neoconservative pillars was eroded, and eventually fell.
The other pillar — asserting an American mission to remake the world — experienced its apogee in January 2005, with George W. Bush’s second inaugural. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” said the president, and he committed America to “[t]he great objective of ending tyranny.” That commitment lasted just under 24 months. By the close of that president’s second term, American objectives had diminished from ending tyranny worldwide to pacifying Anbar.
As John Agresto wrote in a piece in Commentary magazine a decade ago:
“Don’t all people yearn for freedom?” we have asked. And we assume the answer is yes. But the answer is no. Some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods. Indeed, some people would rather be holy than free, or safe than free, or be instructed in how they should lead their lives rather than be free. Many prefer the comfort of strong answers already given rather than the openness and hazards of freedom. There are those who would never dream of substituting their will for the imam’s or pushing their desires over the customs and traditions of their families. Some men kiss their chains.
As good Americans, we may wish to say that all people deserve freedom. But to say that all people desire it is flat-out wrong.
Set against this record of squandered lives and opportunity, the New Right’s reaction to it — a full-on descent into anti-interventionism that would be familiar to a prairie populist of 1937 — is completely understandable. Whatever the objective merits, their reaction is a rational one. The New Right anti-interventionists note, correctly, that they bear little responsibility for the parlous state of America’s national security now. But they err in their belief that their policy and ideological preferences represent a road not traveled.
The destructive arrogance of neoconservatism is matched by the abysmal historical record of American isolationism and anti-interventionism, which took America out of the European tumult of the 1920s and 1930s, to no one’s benefit; and which also sank America into a brief period of quasi-isolationism in the post-Vietnam 1970s, culminating in real existential danger to America by that decade’s end.
If the twin premises of neoconservatism have been shown wrong by events, then the twin premises of the anti-interventionist New Right — that America will be fine without any engagement abroad, and the world will allow us a peaceful withdrawal from the same — are being proven wrong this very moment.
There is no purpose in recapitulating the scope and meaning of the Ukrainian war here. Suffice it to say that if a “border dispute between Russia and Ukraine” — to borrow a phrase deployed by the New Right in its arguments against American involvement — proceeds in less than a week to the Russian dictator obliquely threatening nuclear war upon the United States, then we may have no real choice but to be involved.
I don’t mean going to war: That would be insane, futile, and disastrous, and the chances for an actual nuclear exchange, whatever it is, would be unacceptably high. I do mean doing things the New Right doesn’t wish to do: taking sides, rendering moral judgments, and sending guns and ammunition to the people of Ukraine.
The American people agree with me. They didn’t one week ago. They do now. They do because the policy space in this sphere is shifting rapidly — right out from under the feet of everyone who believed that the inevitable conservative stance on national security was henceforth anti-war, anti-intervention, and isolationist. The New Right, focusing upon ideological and policy battles, failed to address the real arena where policy is made. It accurately took the measure of neoconservatives — and failed to take the measure of Americans.
It turns out that Americans grasp that it’s foolish to try to make people like themselves — but they sure are happy to lend a hand when they see people who are like themselves. It also turns out that Americans have a pretty good grasp of the national interest, and factor both sentiment and calculation into their preference on what ought to be done.
What we see illuminated in the rapid shift of Americans on Ukraine is actually the pathway toward a moderate, realist, interest-based American national security approach that falls into neither the cul de sac of the New Right, nor the dead end utopianism of neoconservatism. An America that has no messianic mission, does not automatically assume that it can do anything, and also possesses the self-confidence and competence to act as a force for good in the wider world, is an America that reflects what Americans actually want. It is an America where a real discussion of the national interest can be had, without the obscuring and distorting priors inflicted by neocons and New Right alike.
The signal quality of this approach — not non-ideological, but perhaps prudentially ideological — is its ability to allow circumstance to shape American engagements. Pull away the millennial ambitions of a perfected world, and it becomes possible to grasp that America need not squander blood and treasure in Niger, or Yemen, or Helmand. Discard the rigid strictures of a belief that America can do no good, and it becomes possible to understand that America can see to its own interest and be a force for freedom in places like Ukraine, Korea, and Taiwan.
What does this prudentially ideological, interest-based national-security conservatism look like now? It is probably a singular focus upon the threat from the People’s Republic of China — our only true peer competitor and existential threat — coupled with an understanding that the peace of Europe, frayed as it is, must be maintained so we can keep that focus.
It is probably a renewed attention to our southern border, where state collapse has rendered Mexico more antagonist than friend. It is probably the defense of a global order where America is the security hegemon, and the American dollar the currency of choice — not because we seek to rule, but because the benefits to Americans are so manifest, and so bountiful.
As in so many areas of American life, in the realm of foreign policy we have placed our trust in the experts, and see them squander and abuse it, leaving Americans feeling ignored and disrespected. It is time to listen to them, and in so doing, chart a path toward a clear-eyed foreign policy that maintains order, security, and peace, while seeking our national interest above all.