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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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Desch’s ‘indictment of liberalism’ uses support of individuals identified as ‘liberals’ for Bush administration policies as its principal evidence that neoconservatism and liberalism are not only essentially the same, but are directly responsible for ‘illiberal’ US policies. This article has shown, however, that neoconservative and liberal first principles share little in common. The spread of democracy abroad is best described as a solitary liberal policy thrust among many illiberal ones stemming from neoconservatism’s profoundly realist assumptions.107 Neoconservatism posits states mired in a dangerous and anarchic environment. Unlike most forms of realism, neoconservatism believes it is especially dangerous to be a liberal state in such a system. Democracy may be a normatively superior system of government, but it suffers from profound constraints in this international competition due to its inability to convert its resources to power. Primacy, pre-emption, the revolution in military affairs and worldwide democratisation provide the means to manoeuvre around this power political handicap. Desch focuses on the ironic pursuit of illiberal policies by liberals. This article has sought to show that one can take a realist starting point and justify foreign policy that profoundly differs from the realist tradition. It concludes by discussing ways that neoconservatism shows the disturbing but logical extension of neoclassical realism’s approach to foreign policy. It also conveys the stakes of the debate for those in IR outside this squabble.

104. Randall L. Schweller, ‘Domestic Structure and Preventive War – Are Democracies More Pacific?’, World Politics 44, no. 2 (1992): 235–69.

105. Taliaferro, ‘State Building for Future Wars’, 345.

106. Randall L. Schweller, ‘Neoclassical Realism and State Mobilization:

Expansionist Ideology in the Age of Mass Politics’, in Lobell et al., Neoclassical Realism.

107. Desch, ‘Liberal Illiberalism’, 33–4.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38 (3) Neoclassical realism insists that the competitive international system remains the prime mover of foreign policy. In order to distinguish itself from liberal approaches, neoclassical realism tends to choose a privileged actor to represent the ‘state’ by assuming that ‘The national security executive... is best equipped to perceive systemic constraints and deduce the national interest.’108 This is, to say the least, a heroic assumption on a par with the traditional state-as-unitary-actor, but with far more dangerous consequences. The latter assumption merely implies that regime type does not matter, the former suggests that executive autonomy determines ‘whether states respond to international pressures in a timely and efficient fashion’ and is thus the recipe for success in international politics. The Kagans strike a similar theme, ‘It is not enough, however, to say of a democracy that it could not follow a particular policy because the people did not wish to do so. For the necessary and proper role of leaders is to lead.’109 Whereas Richard Ashley and others have criticised neorealism (and neoliberalism) for its dangerous reification of the state, neoclassical realism reifies a very specific embodiment of the state (i.e. the executive).110 The illiberal implications of such a move are clear from extending neoconservative logic; mitigating one’s own democratic mechanisms in order to advance them elsewhere becomes reasonable.111 While many have focused on threats to civil liberties in the Global War on Terror, a more troubling consequence could be attempts to decouple the decision to use force from the voter.112 An RMA military insulated from the pacifist pressures of a democratic electorate would undermine the democratic pacifism that allows the United States to be viewed as a Kantian peacemaker, triggering the balance of power politics that contrary to structural realist predictions have not yet developed.

Neoclassical realists may defend themselves against this article’s claims by observing that no one in their ranks has argued for spreading democracy. This article asks, ‘why not?’ While both neoconservatism and neoclassical realism focus on domestic aspects of power generation, to date the latter has generally taken a strikingly unstrategic approach to it. Neoconservatism acknowledges that if domestic factors affect a state’s ability to balance against threat or power, a strategic actor should incorporate other states’ domestic factors into its geopolitical calculus.

Intervening in other states’ internal affairs becomes a form of balancing.

108. Lobell et al., ‘Introduction’, 25.

109. Kagan and Kagan, While America Sleeps, 43.

110. Ashley, ‘The Poverty of Neorealism’.

111. Irving Kristol compares American prospects favourably to Athens’ fate because ‘the Athenian version of democracy had far fewer ways of shaping, refining, and even sometimes thwarting popular opinion’ than the American one.

Kristol, ‘A Post-Wilsonian Foreign Policy’.

112. Drolet, ‘Neo-Conservative Capitalism’, 262.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Caverley: Power and Democratic Weakness This more than any other aspect of neoconservatism appears to be a clear violation of the realist tradition, and yet neoclassical realism cannot reject such an implication in its current state.113 Incorporating what one author has called ‘as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations’ is no less reasonable than many of the ad hoc additions of neoclassical realism to its structural antecedent, and considerably more parsimonious than some versions.114 Lack of enthusiasm for democratisation is not really a logical proposition for neoclassical realists so much as a taboo left over from their ancestors.





Structural realism has long been criticised for being largely incapable of creating a theory of foreign policy. This article shows that neoclassical efforts to correct this are not an unalloyed improvement. Once one assumes the existence of a neorealist world – a conflict-prone, anarchic world of sovereign states – and attempts to bring the domestic ‘in’, little prevents a neoconservative approach to the world. Realists can justifiably claim that by and large they rejected the Iraq War. But the arguments against the war, best made by structural realists, were largely empirical: the limitations of military power, the history of Saddam Hussein’s containment and deterability, the lack of a connection to Al-Qaeda, the power of nationalism, and Iraqi societal divisions.115 If realism of any sort is to offer itself as a better guide to foreign policy than neoconservatism, it needs to better specify its theoretical differences.

Readers of Millennium may wonder why they should care about internecine bickering within a corner of American IR. To be sure, neoconservatism is fundamentally American-centric, but, like its cousins, neoconservatism’s focus on the role of regime type in international politics goes beyond the United States. The Kagans provide a neoconservative explanation for the decline of the British Empire (and to a lesser degree of France).116 Neoconservatives see Israel as an important policy realm that can profit from their theories.117 While William Kristol states that, ‘the only successful American foreign policy is a neoconservative one’, he

113. Of course, doing so would lead to an increasing inability to distinguish itself from liberal forms of IR theory, but since there is no theoretical barrier, the horse is already out of the barn. I thank David Edelstein for this important point.

114. Jack S. Levy, ‘Domestic Politics of War’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (1988): 653–73.

115. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, ‘An Unnecessary War’, Foreign Policy 134 (2003): 50–9.

116. Kagan and Kagan, While America Sleeps. Neoconservatives rarely address why the two most hegemonic states in modern history have been democracies.

117. Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and others influenced by neoconservative contributed to a famous conference report blaming Israel’s ‘socialist institutions’ for its ‘strategic paralysis’ and ‘A Clean Break: a New Strategy for Securing the Realm,’ report of the Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy toward 2000. The Institute for Advanced Strategy and Political Studies, Jerusalem, 1996.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at LIBRARY on December 6, 2011 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38 (3) also suspects that ‘the only successful European foreign policy would be a neoconservative one’.118 In essence, this article identifies a new ‘neo–neo’ debate, in which the disagreements are even more limited than those between neoliberal institutionalism and neorealism. Ole Wæver describes the earlier debate as veering beyond the ‘boundary of boredom’. A world in which neoclassical realism and neoconservatism are the two salient policy options for the state that remains by far the world’s most powerful will be plenty interesting, even if the science is not.119 Ultimately, we must care because the policy implications are great. If the parameters of the debate are so limited, we are unlikely to see real change any time soon, which explains why Robert Kagan could confidently predict that, ‘in 2008, as in almost every election of the past century, American voters will choose between two variations of the same worldview’.120 Jonathan D. Caverley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Northwestern University.

118. William Kristol, ‘Neoconservatism Remains the Bedrock of US Foreign Policy’, in The Neocon Reader, ed. Irwin Stelzer (New York: Grove Press, 2004).

119. Ole Wæver, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Inter-Paradigm Debate’, in International Theory: Positivism and Beyond, eds Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). It also reflects the failure of the decades-long attempt to broaden the debate beyond such theories; Robert W. Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, Millennium 10, no. 2 (1981): 126–55.

120. Robert Kagan, ‘Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776’, World Affairs 170, no. 4 (2008): 13–35.

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