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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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As Irving Kristol writes, ‘In the end the fundamental problem for American democracy is that its foreign policy is democratic.’47 Neoconservatism is a theory of democratic weakness in a realist world. The type of weakness that concerns neoconservatives is not a lack of economic power; the world’s richest states are almost uniformly democratic. Nor is it a lack of military power; most of the world’s largest military budgets belong to democratic states. Rather, neoconservatism seeks to point out the debilitating effects of democracy that prevent such a government from spending appropriate levels of its wealth on military power, and from employing any military power that it does possess.

Unlike their materialist counterparts, realists taking a constructivist approach avoid conflating liberalism and neoconservatism, and instead emphasise the latter’s emergence as a reaction to American liberalism.48 Neoconservatism’s origins lie as much in an ‘ambivalent attitude towards liberal modernization and the socio-cultural forces that the latter sets forth’, as in an enthusiastic resistance to Soviet communism.49 In linking the international and domestic spheres, neoconservatism advances an expansive conception of the ‘national interest’ as the domestic health of a society, finding a tendency towards self-destructive decadence inherent in liberalism. Unrestrained liberalism becomes, quite literally, an existential threat.50 Because of this dangerous side effect, the democratic state must pursue a ‘moral’ foreign policy, which is ‘an expression of [citizens’] values, and which they can identify with’.51

46. Muravchik, Imperative of American Leadership, 174.

47. Irving Kristol, ‘A Post-Wilsonian Foreign Policy’, Wall Street Journal, 2 August 1996.

48. Rapport, ‘Unexpected Affinities?’; Schmidt and Williams, ‘Neoconservatives Versus Realists’; Michael C. Williams, Realism Reconsidered: The Legacy of Hans Morgenthau in International Relations (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Michael C. Williams, ‘What Is the National Interest?

The Neoconservative Challenge in IR Theory’, European Journal of International Relations 11, no. 3 (2005): 307–37.

49. Jean-Francois Drolet, ‘The Visible Hand of Neo-Conservative Capitalism’, Millennium 35, no. 2 (2007): 245–78, 248.

50. Schmidt and Williams, ‘Neoconservatives Versus Realists’, 211.

51. Ibid., 323.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Caverley: Power and Democratic Weakness However, it is not apparent that most neoconservatives, particularly in the contemporary generation, regard foreign policy primarily as a means of ameliorating liberal decadence at home, nor that culture is considered the ‘defining element of politics’ even within a state. According to Kagan, culture cannot explain recent changes in US foreign policy behaviour, ‘Americans are no more or less idealistic than they were fifty years ago.

It is objective reality that has changed, not the American character’.52 Similarly, in comparing Europe and the United States, ‘these differences in strategic culture do not spring naturally from the national characters of Americans and Europeans’.53 This article argues that neoconservative works are more concerned with the opposite direction of causality – how domestic politics affect a state’s ability to compete in a self-help international system.

Neoconservatism advocates a ‘broad, sustaining policy vision’, because without it, ‘the American people will be inclined to withdraw from the world... they will seek deeper and deeper cuts in the defense and foreign affairs budgets and gradually decimate the tools of US hegemony’.54 More succinctly put by Irving Kristol, ‘in the modern world, a non-ideological politics is a politics disarmed’.55 Decadence can only be an ‘existential threat’ if society faces an external peril. Like realism, neoconservative foreign policy regards aussenpolitik as paramount. Liberal democracy makes states less capable of surviving in the competitive realist world posited by neoconservatism.

A World Unsafe for Democracy

Liberal publics are cost averse and inwardly focused; ‘[Americans] have continually searched for a way to reconcile their demand for a certain kind of world and their wish to avoid costs, including the moral costs, of imposing that world on others.’56 ‘Americans’, opens Krauthammer, ‘have a healthy aversion to foreign policy’.57 Kagan and Kagan make the point more broadly, ‘The record of liberal, democratic, commercial nations, no matter how great their strength, in keeping the peace over the long run is abysmal. The absence of an immediate threat permits democracies to focus on domestic comfort.’58 A democracy’s responsiveness to

52. Kagan, Paradise and Power, 83.

53. Kagan, Return of History, 7–8.

54. Kagan and Kristol, ‘Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’, 82; Krauthammer, ‘The Unipolar Moment Revisited’.

55. Irving Kristol, Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

56. Kagan, Return of History, 53.

57. Krauthammer, ‘Democratic Realism’.

58. Kagan and Kagan, While America Sleeps, 4.





Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38 (3) voters, neoconservative theory posits, produces unfortunate side effects that include: a perverse welfare state, an inattention to foreign policy and consequent military decline.

Neoconservatism acquired its name in part by eschewing mainstream conservatism’s disavowal of the welfare state. While generally agnostic on its virtue, neoconservatism accepts that ‘the welfare state is with us, for better or worse’.59 This modern welfare state produces some undesirable consequences. Government redistribution erodes economic growth – itself a crucial element of national clout – but how wealth is redistributed also matters. Irving Kristol seeks a return to an ‘older, masculine, paternalistic version of the welfare state’ to help shore up an economically powerful, militarily strong state well suited for international competition.60 While the first journal associated with neoconservatism specifically excluded foreign policy, Kristol describes the philosophy underpinning The Public Interest as ‘linking its work in economic and social policy to our national destiny as a world power’.61 The liberal welfare state underinvests in military power; voters choose butter over guns and consumption over the death and taxes entailed by military competition. While not as dire as Europe, Kristol and Kagan fear that ‘American civilians at home, preoccupied with the distribution of tax breaks and government benefits, will not come to [the military’s] support when the going gets tough.’62 Muravchik claims that ‘public illusions’ of wanting a ‘balanced budget but resist[ing] increases in taxes or reductions in benefits’ are likely to force politicians to cut spending on foreign policy.63 Kagan and Kristol describe the American military as ‘uncomfortable with some of the missions that the new American role requires’.64 Democracy makes states both weaker militarily and less willing to use the remaining power they possess, preferring to use meeker foreign policy tools. ‘Every [US] administration is attracted to economic sanctions as against military intervention, because although they are ineffectual...

they do give the appearance of attentive action.’65 In international security competition, democratic states play with a handicap.

Non-democratic states do not feel this redistributive, pacifying drag on their military power. Non-democracies are less shy about using the

59. Irving Kristol, ‘A Conservative Welfare State’, Wall Street Journal, 14 June 1993.

60. Irving Kristol, ‘The Two Welfare States’, Wall Street Journal, 19 October 2000.

61. Irving Kristol, ‘My Public Interest’, The Weekly Standard 12, no. 14 (2006).

62. Kagan and Kristol, ‘Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’.

63. Muravchik, Imperative of American Leadership, 39.

64. Kagan and Kristol, ‘Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’. On the timidity of democratic militaries, see also Kagan and Kagan, While America Sleeps; Kristol, ‘The Neoconservatism Persuasion’.

65. Kristol, ‘A Post-Wilsonian Foreign Policy’.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Caverley: Power and Democratic Weakness resources they have to advance their interests abroad. Irving Kristol

clearly draws the link:

In world affairs the poorer nations that are not welfare states, not nearly as risk averse since they have so little to lose, will be (as they are already becoming) the activist countries, the ones that create the crises and set the international agenda.66 Indeed, other regimes have domestic incentives to grow more powerful (rather than less). ‘Strength and control at home allow Russia to be strong abroad. Strength abroad justifies strong rule at home.’ In Kagan’s description, states like China and Russia have the principal, realist goal of defending their sovereignty.67 Threats to the United States come in the form of ideologies coupled with material power.68 Muravchik’s citation of Napoleon’s maxim, ‘in warfare, moral factors are three times more important than material ones’ shows neoconservatism’s approach to ideology as a lens through which state power is focused.69 Whereas fascism took German industry and focused it into a tight beam of military conquest, democracy takes American wealth and diffuses it or, worse still, reflects it back within in the form of destructive welfare policies.70 By this reasoning, militant Islam could take materially feeble Middle Eastern states and magnify their impact through terror.71 Far from a dissent, Kirkpatrick’s famous denunciation of the Carter administration’s focus on human rights promotion actually establishes the proposition that totalitarian regimes are inherently more threatening than authoritarian ones. Kagan uses this calculus to describe Russia, China, Iran and Syria as roughly equivalent threats.72 This fundamental link between latent state power and regime type, which as we shall see is accepted by many self-described realists, leads to the very implications to which they object.

The Pursuit of Pre-eminence, Military Power and the RMA: Fighting with one arm tied behind their backs, democracies require a lot of power to compete in a dangerous world. Irving Kristol compares the United States to ancient Athens, ‘where a democratic foreign policy

66. Irving Kristol, ‘The Lost Soul of the Welfare State’, in On the Issues (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1997).

67. Kagan, Return of History, 55. In a sense, Kagan’s explanation is a liberal theoretic one – regime type instigates expansion. But Kagan argues that all regime types are primed for expansion and thus power is trumps.

68. Fukuyama shares this basic premise. Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads, 29.

69. Muravchik, Imperative of American Leadership, 34.

70. Kagan and Kagan, While America Sleeps.

71. Krauthammer, ‘In Defense of Democratic Realism’; Muravchik, ‘Past, Present, and Future’.

72. Kagan, ‘End of Dreams, Return of History’.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38 (3) led to one disaster after another’, a pessimistic assessment to say the least. Fortunately, ‘Athens was never the great power the United States

is today.’73 Krauthammer echoes this analysis when describing ArabIslamic nihilism as a far greater threat than Soviet communism:

Were that the only difference between [the Cold War] and then, our situation

would be hopeless. But there is a second difference between now and then:

the uniqueness of our power, unrivaled, not just today but ever. That evens the odds.74 For a democratic state, only primacy will ensure its safety.

A patriotic culture of ‘national greatness’ is one means of mobilising state resources in a democracy, but neoconservatism does not take chances. Podhoretz writes of the need to exploit ‘our superior technology to minimize American casualties while inflicting maximum damage on the enemy, even if innocent civilians might be harmed or killed in the process’, in order to compete against ‘the callous indifference to their own casualties of armies like the Russian and the Chinese’.75 The ‘revolution in military affairs’ (RMA) allows the US to do more with less and – more importantly – not subject its constituents to undue physical risk.76 One can derive neoconservatism’s particular zeal for missile defence from this conviction. Missile defence is not designed to counter a nuclear threat per se; Robert Kagan acknowledges that ‘even the crazies are unlikely to fire a warhead at the United States’.77 Preventing the homeland from being held hostage will give the United States the political will to use its military abroad. ‘The sine qua non for a strategy of American global pre-eminence... is a missile defense system’, write Kagan and Kristol, ‘Only a well-protected America will be capable of deterring – and when necessary moving against – “rogue” regimes when they rise to challenge regional stability’.78 Democratisation: Fukuyama observes that the advocates of transforming Iraq into a Western-style democracy are the same people who question the ‘dangers of ambitious social engineering’.79 This apparent paradox becomes coherent given this idea of democratic enfeeblement.

Kirkpatrick points out that because totalitarian states are inherently more

73. Kristol, ‘A Post-Wilsonian Foreign Policy’.

74. Krauthammer, ‘Democratic Realism’, emphasis added.

75. Podhoretz, ‘Bedfellows’.

76. Kagan, Paradise and Power, 23.

77. Robert Kagan, ‘A Real Case for Missile Defense’, The Washington Post, 21 May 2000.

78. Kagan and Kristol, ‘Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’. This evokes Albert Wohlstetter’s insistence that the United States must have the ability to fight a nuclear war, due to the Soviet Union’s ideological willingness to accept casualties. Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads, 33.



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