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«Power and Democratic Weakness: Neoconservatism and Neoclassical Realism Jonathan D. Caverley While realists and neoconservatives generally disagreed ...»

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Millennium: Journal of International Studies Vol.38 No.3, pp. 593–614

ISSN 0305-8298; DOI: 10.1177/0305829810366473


Power and Democratic Weakness:

Neoconservatism and Neoclassical Realism

Jonathan D. Caverley

While realists and neoconservatives generally disagreed on the Iraq

invasion of 2003, nothing inherent in either approach to foreign policy accounts for this. Neoconservatism’s enthusiasm for democratisation would appear to distinguish the two but its rejection of all other liberal mechanisms in world politics suggests that the logic linking democracy and American security shares little with liberalism. Inspecting the range of neoconservative thought reveals a unifying theme: the enervating effects of democracy on state power and the will to wield it in a dangerous world. Consequently, the United States enjoys greater safety among other democracies due to a more favourable distribution of relative power. Viewing regime type through the prism of state power extraction in a competitive, anarchic world puts neoconservatism squarely in the neoclassical realist camp. The article concludes by suggesting why the rest of International Relations should care about this new ‘neo–neo’ debate.

Keywords: International Relations theory, neoclassical realism, neoconservatism, United States foreign policy No shortage of analyses of neoconservatism in International Relations (IR) exists; realists in particular have weighed in upon (and inveighed against) its flaws. Brian Schmidt and Michael Williams argue that ‘the core elements of the neoconservative Bush Doctrine stand in direct contrast to many of the fundamental tenets of realism’.1 John Mearsheimer states that ‘neo-conservatives and realists have fundamentally different views about how the world works and what American foreign policy should look like’. If anything, realists claim neoconservatism to be the The author would like to thank David Edelstein, Christopher Layne, Benny Miller, Nuno Monteiro, Jonathan Monten, Kevin Narizny, Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Menaka Philips, Keven Ruby, Brian Schmidt, John Schuessler, Todd Sechser, Stephen Walt, Michael Williams, Thomas Wright, Robert Zarate, two anonymous reviewers, and the participants and organisers of Millennium’s ‘After Liberalism’ conference.

1. Brian C. Schmidt and Michael C. Williams, ‘The Bush Doctrine and the

Iraq War: Neoconservatives Versus Realists’, Security Studies 17, no. 2 (2008):

191–220, 194.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38 (3) stepchild of liberalism. Schmidt and Williams claim that ‘neoconservatism embraces a liberal theory of international relations’, while Mearsheimer claims that ‘Neo-conservative theory – the Bush doctrine – is essentially Wilsonianism with teeth.’2 The difference between the relatively high consensus against the Iraq War by realists and its equally strong backing by neoconservatives surely contributes to this antagonistic relationship. Advocates and opponents of the war based their cases on ‘fundamentally different views about the basic dynamics of interstate relations’.3 Michael Desch links both liberalism and neoconservatism to the war, leaving realism as the only sensible foreign policy alternative.4 This article maintains that such claims are not only wrong, but ironic.

To do this, the article first argues that while neoconservatives vary in their interpretations of international politics and recommendations for foreign policy, the core tenets of neoconservatism are sufficiently consistent and its policy influence sufficiently clear to merit treatment as an IR theory. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘realistic Wilsonianism’ and Charles Krauthammer’s ‘democratic realism’ – as well as the ‘democratic globalists’ they both attack – agree on fundamentals: power continues to be the fundamental currency of international relations in a dangerous world, and the spread of democracy is not simply its own reward, but improves American national security.

While spreading democracy has been a long-standing element of most schools of American foreign policy thought, neoconservatism’s especially aggressive approach suggests that the neoconservative logic linking democracy and American security differs from its rivals. The reasoning behind the urge to spread democracy is apparent throughout neoconservative foreign and domestic policy writing: the enervating effects of democracy on the creation and use of state power. Consequently, the United States enjoys greater safety among other democracies because the resulting distribution of relative power is more favourable to American interests in a competitive, state-centric and anarchic world. To alter Krauthammer’s formulation slightly, neoconservatism can best be described as democratic neoclassical realism. To say the least, this complicates realism’s claim to be an alternative approach.5

2. Ibid., 202. John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq War: Realism Versus Neo-Conservatism’, openDemocracy (2005), http://www.opendemocracy.


3. Stephen M. Walt, ‘The Relationship between Theory and Policy in International Relations’, Annual Review of Political Science 8, no. 1 (2005): 23–48, 28.

4. Michael C. Desch, ‘America’s Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of Overreaction in US Foreign Policy’, International Security 32, no. 3 (2007): 7–43.

5. In this article, ‘realism’ refers to the larger theoretical tradition that encompasses classical, structural, and neoclassical versions; united by shared assumptions about international relations described in the article.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Caverley: Power and Democratic Weakness The remainder of this article seeks to accomplish four tasks. Firstly, it argues for a serious appraisal of neoconservatism as a theory distinct from the policies of the George W. Bush administration, and systematically lays out the sources for distilling a neoconservative theory.6 Secondly, it shows how neoconservatism and realism share identical starting assumptions and that neoconservatism rejects all but one of the liberal mechanisms that reduce international security competition.

Having isolated attention to regime type as the only feature distinguishing neoconservatism from its realist colleagues, the next section explores the neoconservative mechanism of democratic weakness. Thirdly, the article explores the considerable overlap between this approach and the recent ‘neoclassical’ attempts to create a realist theory of foreign policy.

The conclusion points out flaws jointly shared by neoconservatism and neoclassical realism, and suggests why the rest of IR should care.

How IR Should Address Neoconservatism

Despite the claims from neoconservative’s ‘godfather’ that ‘there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience’, IR should treat this school of thought seriously for three reasons.7 Firstly, as this article will show, neoconservatism is far from what Robert Keohane would describe as an ‘unexamined jumble of prejudices, yielding conclusions that may not logically follow from the assumptions’.8 Its core logic is quite consistent.

Keohane also argues that ‘the more seriously the maxims are taken, the more important is the task of critical analysis’, and by this standard, neoconservatism wins hands down over structural realism.9 Few would suggest that this school of thought has not affected recent US foreign policy. Even if one regards neoconservatism, to borrow Richard Ashley’s description of neorealism, as an ‘orrery of errors’, one should seek to rid oneself of these dangerous biases by ‘knowing thy enemy’.10 Finally, like much of IR’s foreign policy recommendations neoconservatism developed largely as a response to the failings of realism as a guide on the subject. Yet realists offer their foreign policy recommendations as the sane alternate to neoconservatism. It therefore behooves us to 6. ‘Bush’ refers heretofore to the 43rd President of the United States.

7. Irving Kristol, ‘The Neoconservatism Persuasion’, The Weekly Standard 8, no.

47 (2003).

8. Robert O. Keohane, ‘Realism, Neorealism, and the Study of World Politics’, in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert O. Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 4.

9. Ibid., 3. Walt, ‘Relationship between Theory and Policy’.

10. Richard K. Ashley, ‘The Poverty of Neorealism’, International Organization 38, no. 2 (1984): 225–86.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38 (3) systematically specify the differences between these two approaches, and this requires treating the former as a theory.

Identifying Neoconservative Theory To this end, this article reverses the present convention when discussing neoconservatism, focusing on ideas primarily, policy recommendations secondarily and personalities not at all. People identified as neoconservative tend to write prolifically. Anyone who edits a weekly journal, contributes a regular column to the Washington Post or simply has written for 50 years is likely to produce pieces that contradict the central premises of a theory. Not every piece written by a ‘neoconservative’ should be given equal standing in deliberating over neoconservatism.

The article therefore focuses on a moderate number of published articles and books on foreign policy widely cited as intrinsic to neoconservative thought by both self-identified neoconservatives and other intellectual peers. Unlike many recent reviews this article incorporates literature from its origins in the Cold War through to the post-9/11 era.11 To show the consistency of neoconservative logic I include the central works of contemporary neoconservatism, as well as many writings across Irving Kristol’s and Norman Podhoretz’s careers that selfconsciously refer to neoconservatism and foreign policy.12 This article

11. Norman Podhoretz’s (1999) survey is a valuable resource. It clearly states his interpretation of neoconservatism’s principles, it identifies other ‘neoconservatives’ whose thinking has remained consistent before and after the Cold War, and yet it acknowledges that they disagree on policy while sharing a common logic. Norman Podhoretz, ‘Strange Bedfellows: A Guide to the New ForeignPolicy Debates’, Commentary 108, no. 5 (1999): 19–31. The cited works used here are Robert Kagan and William Kristol, ‘Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’, Foreign Affairs 74, no. 4 (1996): 18–32; Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’, Commentary 68, no. 5 (1979): 34–45; Joshua Muravchik, The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1996). Interestingly, Podhoretz excludes Krauthammer from the ranks.

12. Donald Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan, While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000); Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Knopf, 2003); Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Knopf, 2008); Robert Kagan and William Kristol, ‘Introduction: National Interest and Global Responsibility’, in Present Dangers:

Crisis and Opportunities in American Foreign and Defense Policy, eds Robert Kagan and William Kristol (New York: Encounter Books, 2000); Charles Krauthammer, ‘In Defense of Democratic Realism’, The National Interest 77 (2004): 15–25; Charles

Krauthammer, ‘The Neoconservative Convergence’, Commentary, 120, no. 1 (2005):

21–6; Joshua Muravchik, ‘The Past, Present, and Future of Neoconservatism’, Commentary 124, no. 3 (2007): 19–29.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Caverley: Power and Democratic Weakness pays special attention to the ‘minority reports’ of Fukuyama and Jeane Kirkpatrick, which other reviews only cite as the exceptions that prove the rule. Just as examining the writings of various strands of realism allows us to hone in on its central tenets, Fukuyama’s explanation for why ‘actually existing neoconservatism’ has ‘evolved into something that I can no longer support’, is instructive for its own interpretation of neoconservatism’s core.13 While a limited number of works have attempted to distil neoconservatism into a social scientific theory, a far larger number conflate neoconservatism with the Bush Doctrine. Some explicitly describe the Bush Doctrine as ‘an operationalization of neoconservatism’. Others claim to examine neoconservatism while focusing almost exclusively on Bush administration speeches and policy documents.14 Such an approach is not limited to critics; Charles Krauthammer claims that ‘the Bush Doctrine is essentially a synonym for neoconservative foreign policy’.15 The Bush Doctrine certainly merits extensive analysis, but examining policy documents first and then linking these recommendations back to neoconservative writings is the wrong direction when considering the merits of a theory. Policy statements entail compromises among many camps and seek to communicate to a number of constituencies.

The Bush administration should not be conflated with neoconservatism any more than the Nixon and Clinton administrations with realist and liberal theory.16 Theory is necessarily prior to policy. Diverse theories can recommend the same policy. Conversely, Fukuyama based his apparent scepticism of the Iraq invasion on the same assumptions others used to support it. As in realism, these policy debates (rather than the policies themselves) are helpful in deriving neoconservatism’s hard core.17

13. Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). Irving Kristol also evinced scepticism over promoting democracy by the sword.

14. Jonathan Monten, ‘The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism,

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