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Review by James L. Abrahamson

Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan by Henry R. Nau, Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford, 2013, ISBN 978-0-691-15931-7, xiii, 321 pp., $35.00 Hardcover, also available as an e-book.

Dr. Henry R. Nau, for more than two years a senior advisor on President Reagan’s National Security Council and prior to that Special Assistant to the Department of State’s Under Secretary for Economic Affairs, now teaches at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Drawing on his academic and governmental experience, he has written a truly remarkable book accounting for the principal diplomatic successes of four American presidents—Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan—and calling attention to their use of the too often overlooked foreign policy Nau describes as conservative internationalism.

His introduction and first two chapters describe that policy at length and favorably compare it to realism, nationalism, and liberal internationalism. According to Nau, realists and nationalists rely on force and the balance of power to guide foreign policy. They aim to promote stability in the world and defend their nation’s sovereign independence while remaining largely indifferent to the promotion of democracy abroad. Liberal internationalists, on the other hand, seek to spread freedom by working through inter–national institutions. They wish to limit threats or the use of force and reliance on the balance of power.(11)

Liberal and conservative internationalists agree on a lot: individual liberty, separation of governmental powers, equal opportunity, and self-government.(14) Moving beyond maintaining a balance of international power, they both seek to promote freedom abroad, i.e. increasing the number of the world’s democracies.

Liberals, like Woodrow Wilson, try to achieve that outcome by acting through large international organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations. If acting through such bodies at all, conservatives prefer temporary or less centralized arrangements. Nor do conservatives fear the use of force, applying it as needed to make diplomacy work. Liberals rely instead on diplomacy, hoping to make the use of force unnecessary.(23-24)

The heart of Nau’s book—though not its longest section—are the four chapters in which he describes conservative internationalism as employed by Jefferson, Polk, Truman and Reagan.

Jefferson used that foreign policy concept on two occasions: overcoming the Barbary Pirates’ depredations on American trade in the Mediterranean and in the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. In the early 19th century, the movement of free goods in free ships was an important national asset—to Jefferson an aspect of freedom—one the he was determined to protect and extend despite the small size of the U.S. Navy and a miniscule Marine Corps. Avoiding alliances with European powers, he initially dispatched three frigates and an armed schooner, which for several years made war on the pirates, eventually winning from the ruler of Morocco respect for U.S. seaborne trade and, following ground assaults on Tripoli from both land and sea, forcing that country to cease its attacks on American shipping.

In the case of Louisiana, Jefferson was able to open new areas for democracy in North America—an internationalist’s goal—by multiplying the power of his limited armed forces and the American militias being organized in the Mississippi Valley by making the French believe he was about to achieve an alliance with England that would enable the Americans to seize Louisiana. So, better that the French sell what might otherwise be lost to attacks on New Orleans from the sea or invasion from the U.S. mainland.

With the benefit of stronger arms, a weak (Mexican) opponent, and an (English) government willing to settle northwestern differences, James K. Polk became the second American president to blend force and diplomacy to vastly expand the area of eventual freedom—the entire region to the west of the Louisiana Purchase, bordered in the south by the Rio Grande River, and in the north by the Canadian border. His contemporaries—and many later liberal internationalists—condemned him for gaining new lands for slavery, though Texans already owned slaves. Realists deplored his risk of war with England as well as Mexico; nationalists claimed the Polk had gone too far, even for a protégé of arch-nationalist Andrew Jackson.

Whatever was held against Polk, he respected Congress, disciplined the demand of some for new territory (even All Mexico), and expanded democratic self-government by use of a thoughtful and patient blend of force and diplomacy, though he had hoped to achieve both his goals through purchase and diplomatic compromise.

The agreement annexing Texas occurred before Polk became president, and it fell to him, however, to define and defend its southern border. To acquire California and the region west of Texas, Polk repeatedly sought to negotiate a purchase. In time, he sent troops into California, used force in northern Mexico, and, eventually, invaded central Mexico via Veracruz occurred slowly. Meanwhile, Polk repeatedly sought a Mexican leader willing to negotiate. After long delays, his agent, Nicholas Trist, violated the president’s instructions but achieved a treaty at a price that both Polk and the Mexicans could accept. Though it took time and an apparent risk of war to get there, the obvious solution to another dispute, over the so-called Oregon territory, was to split it by extending the existing line of the Canadian border.

The 20th-century negotiations undertaken by Presidents Truman and Reagan were potentially more grave and if mishandled could have resulted in the Soviet occupation of all Europe or even the use of nuclear weapons. In the end conservative internationalism well served both leaders.

After some early indecision about his relations with Stalin, Truman moved boldly: calling for the containment of the USSR in March 1947, sending American warships into the Mediterranean, proposing the Marshall Plan for Europe’s economic recovery, using air power to face down Stalin’s 1948 attempt to drive the Western powers out of Berlin, and in 1949 following that with NATO, America’s first peace-time military alliance and the long-term stationing of troops overseas in peace. By the time of the Korean War, where he defended a future democracy, Truman had also realized that the UN Security Council could not keep the international peace. He had little choice but to back up his diplomacy with force.

To achieve his goals Reagan had first to prompt an American economic recovery sufficient to support an arms build up that the Soviets could not match lest they bankrupt themselves. That element of force in place, the president was ready to negotiate. Even so, he fell short of his intention to convince the Soviet leadership to eliminate all nuclear weapons, the MAD doctrine, and its related arms agreements and to then replace them all with a shared strategic missile defense. He nevertheless secured Europe by winning Soviet agreement to limit its intermediate nuclear forces in Europe. He also gained for himself, and for President George H.W. Bush, the trust of Mikhail Gorbachev’s. That proved sufficient to convince the Soviet leader to expand democracy by freeing states within the USSR’s European empire and Russia itself, unifying Germany, and ending the Cold War. [These negotiations are well covered in The Triumph of Improvisation, reviewed in the September 2014 edition of this journal.]

In this otherwise excellent book, Nau’s major shortcoming is the manner in which he makes all its major points several times over in various parts of the book—for instance repeatedly defining, redefining, and refining the meaning of conservative internationalism; describing the four presidents’ policies in as many fine chapters and then repeating much of the story in a very long conclusion; and more than once describing a long set of tenets. This reader wondered if the professor created his book by assembling, but without carefully pruning the result, his collection of lectures, speeches, and articles. Even so, his book is well worth reading—especially by future presidents and secretaries of state!bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

imageFollowing graduation from West Point (1959), James L. Abrahamson began a 27-year career in the US Army, during which he earned a master’s degree from the University of Geneva (1964) and a Ph.D. from Stanford University (1977).

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