Friday, July 07, 2006

Who's The Conservative?

There have been a number of divisions in the Republican party that have emerged in recent years. In foreign policy, some claim that the Bush administration has betrayed conservatism by running around the world trying to solve the world's problems. They argue that democratization is not conservative, that democracy can not take hold in every society on earth. These conservatives generally make up the realist foreign policy camp. These conservatives also generally include everyone at the CATO Institute and even some people at Heritage. Many of these conservatives probably voted for Bush in 2000, but then voted for Kerry in 2004. On the other side of the foreign policy divide are the neoconservatives, who have great faith in the power of democracy to solve the world's problems. These conservatives are the ones you find at AEI, Weekly Standard and on the Project for the New American Century list of signatories. These are also the ones who have been accused of not really being conservative. On social policy, you have the more libertarian-minded Republicans on one side and the social conservatives on the other. Then there are the Republicans who count themselves as fiscal conservatives above all else.

I've been reading Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, written by two British writers from The Economist. (It came out a couple years ago; I'm just getting to it now). The authors' powers of observation are simply astounding, and the Introduction alone has enough information and insight to spend hours considering. One point I want to mention, however, is their description of the roots of modern day conservatism, namely Edmund Burke.
"The creed of Edmund Burke, [conservatism's] most eloquent proponent, might be crudely reduced to six principles: a deep suspicion of the power of the state, a preference for liberty over equality, patriotism, a belief in established institutions and hierarchies, skepticism about the idea of progress and elitism."
The writers argue that modern day conservatives still adhere to the first three, but have taken opposite positions on the last three. Modern day conservatives in America, they argue, are generally suspicious of the establishment and elites, and have an endless supply of optimism about the future. They offer one exception to the idea of optimism, however, saying that the neoconservatives, which they call "Straussians," are, like Leo Strauss, inherently pessimistic about modernity.

This had me thinking back to a grad school class I took, in which the professor (a leading realist) tried to push the same point: that neoconservatives are inherently pessimistic about America's future. This was generally the realists' attempt to lay claim to the (optimistic) Reagan legacy that the modern and neoconservatives were also trying (more realistically, in my opinion) to claim. (The best example of realists trying to claim the Reagan legacy was the book America Alone) I always had trouble accepting this, because if you read stuff written by neoconservatives, they are full of optimism about what they think they can accomplish. They don't have a pessimistic view of America itself, but simply think it's been taken in the wrong direction (just like every other political/ideological group thinks). Instead, it is many realists who are the pessimists.

Realists are generally broken up into two camps, the human-nature realists and the structural realists. The human-nature realists, like Hans Morgenthau, argue that man is inherently evil, and as such, war and conflict will be an inevitable occurrence in international relations. Structural realists, which include many of the modern-day realists, argue that the structure of the international system, namely that it is anarchic, makes it a self-help system in which each state will be looking to maximize their power at the expense of the power of other countries. (There are of course, the defensive and offensive split within the structural realist camp, and even more subtle distinctions beyond that level, but for our purposes this generalization will suffice).

Read "Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War. by John Mearsheimer for an apocalyptic vision of Europe in which every country has nuclear weapons pointed at each other from all directions (and this after the Cold War was over!). Read anything by Kenneth Waltz, who has argued for years that the end of American supremacy was just around the corner. Read the self-flagellating accounts of liberals and realists about everything America has supposedly done wrong, read the accounts of how the European Union is supposedly becoming the new superpower. Many realists are also all too often big on criticism and short on solutions. In fact, their solutions are often to just not do something. Many, such as Mearsheimer, see war between other states as inevitable regardless of whether American troops are there to prevent such an occurrence. As such, we should draw down troop levels at bases overseas so that when war does break out American troops aren't in the middle of the fight. Other solutions include to not expand NATO because it would risk antagonizing Russia. They have little faith in the changing power of democracy, and as such see little need for an organization like NATO now that the Cold War is over.

Many neoconservatives, however, see democracy less as an ends in and of itself, and more as a powerful tool to shape the world for good. Many liberal hawks take similar positions, but neoconservatives and those allied with them have a much more lasting faith in democracy than even liberals. Democracy has changed countries for the better, it has taken root in countries of all cultures, civilizations, levels of political and economic development and means of implementation. Democracy has taken root in some countries at gunpoint, as well as through means of general change. This reality, therefore, negates the realists' claims that democracy cannot take hold in certain countries. Their opposition to democratization, therefore, is the result of a greater pessimism towards the power of democracy to enact change. With the record of what democracy has done in the last couple decades, who is really being pessimistic here?

Neoconservatives, and their political allies, therefore follow the first three attributes of Burke's conservatism (you can, of course argue against the first one given the current administration's record on government spending, but that's been the one area where he's attracted the most criticism from his supporters. In any case, that's for another time), and have rejected the latter three attributes of Burke's conservatism, namely the rejection of the establishment and elites and a pessimistic view of man and progress. Therefore, modern conservatives, including neoconservatives, embody all the positive attributes of Burke's conservatismm (suspicion of the state, patriotism, liberty over equality) and reject the old and outdates attributes, namely pessimism about America and mankind, support for the establishment and elitism). That sounds pretty good to me.

I recommend The Right Nation if you have not read it. As I said, it gives you a lot to think about, and I'm sure I'll have more comments as I go through it.


Post a Comment

<< Home