The recently concluded National Conservatism Conference in Washington, DC, attempted to examine this post-liberal moment and the return to great power rivalry in foreign policy. It was no surprise that foreign policy realism billed one whole day at the conference—the realist outlook cuts across the political spectrum, and often unites national conservatives and libertarians against neo-conservatives and liberals.
For those who are uninitiated, realism in foreign policy is a school of thought reaching all the way back to Thucydides, which focuses on narrow national interests based on strategic concerns. In post-Cold War US politics, this usually translates into greater restraint and less activism abroad.
I spoke to Dr William Ruger, Vice President for Research at the Charles Koch Foundation, Cato Institute fellow, and a foreign policy realist, about what the conference reveals about the current moment in American politics, and the foreign policy challenges ahead.
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William Ruger: Neo-conservatism, interventionism, and primacy are tired vehicles that haven’t served American security, prosperity, or our way of life here at home. So rather than those types of voices being featured almost exclusively, it would have been better to have a broader set, including those in the realism and restraint camp. This is where the energy is right now. But where were these folks? Mostly in the audience rather than on stage, which shows why the response to John Bolton and to the foreign policy panel was pretty tepid.
Sumantra Maitra: Anything new that caught your eye at the panel?
WR: The conservative movement is in need of more introspection and greater debate about how it should move forward for the rest of the time President Trump is in office and beyond. The conference, as a whole, was a welcome addition to the conversation. I say this despite disagreeing quite vehemently with the intellectually thin, but emotionally strong, bashing of libertarianism on frequent display, as well as the excessive faith shown for government solutions to what are largely cultural challenges. But I’m an old-fashioned Lockean or Millian when it comes to how I value seeing more ideas floated and challenged in the intellectual marketplace—so I guess I’d say the conference was worth attending.
That being said, the foreign policy offerings were quite disappointing. It felt as if the failures of the last 30 years—from Somalia to our wars in Iraq and Libya to the Afghanistan nation-building project—hadn’t occurred. It was willful blindness to Patrick Henry’s “lamp of experience” in favor of a highly ideological and distinctively anti-conservative approach.
It is time for conservatism to fully embrace a prudential, restrained approach to foreign policy. This is consistent with conservatism’s emphasis on humility, wariness about big government projects like nation-building, understanding of the reality of unintended consequences, and fiscal responsibility—not to mention that war is the least conservative undertaking, given it has the potential to be a massive and sudden force of change. And national conservatism shouldn’t let neoconservatives and primacists hijack the future, unless it just wants to be the same old wine conservatives have drunk and got drunk on before, but in new bottles.
SM: There were a lot of polemics but a lack of actual policy in the foreign policy segment. What could be the three policies that need to be addressed urgently?
WR: One could say that the US has suffered from too many eager policy entrepreneurs since the end of the Cold War. For example, establishment hands in America became enthusiastic boosters of a fairly unthinking NATO enlargement policy. So, I’m tempted to say we just need to settle down. But there are real changes that need to be made. And way more than three, but I’ll give you three since you asked: First, the United States needs to end our “endless wars” in the Middle East. We should start with Afghanistan, where we long ago met our needs—decimating Al Qaeda and punishing the Taliban—and are floundering, to say the least, in meeting the massively over-expanded war aims. It is time to come home. Our continued efforts there are not worth the cost and are unnecessary at meeting vital national interests. I’m actually hopeful that the Trump administration can get a decent deal in the current negotiations for a speedy—a year to 18 months—and full withdrawal, while extracting some promise on anti-American terrorism.
Second, the US needs to put more emphasis on exploiting A2/AD [programs involving a series of interrelated missile, sensor, guidance, and other technologies designed to deny freedom of movement – Ed.] technologies and the defense dominant international system to meet our needs and those of our allies vis-à-vis China. We can do good and well this way, while avoiding some of the worst scenarios. Third, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, argued that our greatest national security threat was our debt and deficits. While domestic spending accounts for a big part of that problem, defense spending is also a key cause. Therefore, we need to get spending, including defense spending, under more control, or we are going to kill the golden goose—our economic strength—that allows us to be such a military superpower. The amount we are spending isn’t required by a prudential foreign policy of realism and restraint, so we can safely pare down spending, or at least the growth of spending.
SM: Foreign policy realists have differences even among themselves with regard to China, which is arguably the biggest geo-strategic challenge. Some argue Soviet-style containment, some argue buck-passing to regional powers and transfer of A2/AD platforms, some have even argued roll-back. You urge greater caution and restraint—why?
WR: I urge greater caution and restraint in regard to China because I think A2/AD technologies can help protect against some of the worst fears of the China hawks. I also think buck-passing is an underrated strategy which would be difficult to implement if our rhetoric and our actions look too much like we are trying to create a Cold War II posture in which the US agrees upfront to pay any price and bear any burden. Plus, we have to recognize that China faces serious internal challenges of its own and isn’t yet a military peer. At the same time, we have to take the rise of China seriously and deal with some key economic and security issues, like tech theft and IP protection.
So, I’m not naive about China either. But we certainly shouldn’t be wasting resources and focus on the Middle East and Europe if China is the most important competitor, and Asia the most important region outside the Western Hemisphere.
SM: You mentioned NATO enlargement. What should be done about NATO and the EU?
WR: Assuming NATO provides value to the US and should continue to exist, there are still a lot of things that need to be done in regard to this very old alliance. First, the US and NATO need to shut the door to further enlargement. Possible entrants like Ukraine and Georgia won’t make us any safer and instead would instantly become security challenges that would make dangerous conflict with Russia more likely rather than less. Their additions wouldn’t tier-up to any of our vital national interests and would instead be risky and unnecessary moves.
Second, the wealthy European member states need to quickly meet their spending targets. It is absurd that Germany, for example, isn’t sharing the burden of collective defense at anywhere close to the levels of what it should and could be doing. The American taxpayers are getting tired of footing the bill, so unless they want to see more drastic policy response out of Washington they need to step up to the plate financially.
Third, Europe should think more seriously about a common foreign and defense policy. And the US shouldn’t be so hostile to it. Europe has a set of interests that are often coterminous with those of the US. Both should be able to act independent of the other, and to avoid being chain-ganged by their partners. Moreover, as long as Europe isn’t capable of being an equal partner, it won’t be treated like one. So this would be better for both parties, especially since Europe could more capably deal with European challenges on its own and the US could focus on other pressing priorities at home and abroad.
SM: Is Trump a lost opportunity for realists?
WR: If Trump avoids any new wars, with Iran, for instance, gets the US out of Afghanistan, makes headway on alliance burden-sharing, and improves, even modestly, relations with North Korea, then is it really a lost opportunity? The biggest lost opportunity could be—and Trump isn’t done yet with his presidency—the inability of those who support realism and restraint to gain experience and be credentialed through service in the administration, at State, DoD, and the NSC. The problem might be more of demand than supply given who is doing the staffing, though the latter is a challenge, too. Regardless, this will have far-reaching consequences for the future of realism and restraint, and for the trajectory of the Republican foreign policy establishment.
If the president wants to make sure he has people in the executive branch who will faithfully execute a more realist approach, and not create problems for him due to their own agendas, then he’d be wise to bring on board people who share that vision. It would also have electoral benefits in 2020. If President Trump allows Bolton and others to lead him astray on Iran, then it really would be a shame. But then maybe there was less of an opportunity than there seemed to be in 2016, when then-candidate Trump really took it to the primacists during the South Carolina primary and into the White House.
Sumantra Maitra is a Ph.D. candidate in great power politics and neo-realism, with a special focus on Russia, at the University of Nottingham. Follow him on Twitter @MrMaitra