By Henry Nau, Professor, George Washington University
Review by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
In a recent talk promoting his new book at the Heritage Foundation, Henry Nau, who served on the NSC staff during the Reagan Administration explained his concept of “conservative internationalism.”
Nau sees conservative internationalism as a bridge between the foreign policy traditions of “realism” and “liberal internationalism.” Nau believes that realism and liberal internationalism have produced a historical cycle of U.S. overreach and withdrawal in world affairs that has cost us dearly in blood and treasure. He warned that we are repeating that cycle today as the Obama administration withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s overreach.
The solution, he says, is to approach the world like Jefferson, Polk, Truman and Reagan did—with a dose of realism and a more prudent internationalism. This approach has the same goal as the liberal internationalists—the spread of freedom in the world—but it approaches that goal with a more realistic appraisal of what is possible.
Nau’s approach is interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying. He is correct about the historical cycle of overreach and withdrawal dating back to the First World War. This cycle, however, was not caused by “realism,” but by domestic political reaction to “liberal internationalism.” It was, after all, realists who decried Wilson’s international League that would make the world “safe for democracy;” realists who warned against placing too much hope in the United Nations; and realists who doubted the U.S. ability to transform Iraq or Afghanistan into stable, functioning democracies.
Nau claims, like President George W. Bush did, that the spread of freedom abroad is essential to freedom here at home. That was precisely the aspect of the Bush Doctrine that led to the overreach that cost so much in blood and treasure that Nau decries. Reagan, who he holds up as the archetype of conservative internationalism, was, rhetoric aside, a realist in foreign policy. It is unlikely that he would have sought the demise of the Soviet Union if it did not pose a national security threat to the United States.
Protecting and promoting U.S. geopolitical interests, not crusading for freedom abroad, is the proper goal of U.S. foreign policy. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had it right when he said that American was the well wisher of freedom to all, but the guarantor only of her own.