Saturday, March 10, 2012

Is the United States a ‘Neocon Nation’?

Debating the position of neoconservatism in the history of American foreign policy has, in the years following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, become a vibrant industry. Initially, an orthodox narrative emerged, which considered neoconservatism an imperialistic, militaristic and hubristic aberration in American history, which, having enjoyed a brief ‘moment’ of post-September 11 influence, was now consigned to historical irrelevance, having failed both theoretically and practically.[1] More recently, a revisionist school has surfaced which challenges these views, and places neoconservatism firmly within the traditions of American foreign policy. According to the revisionists, neoconservative foreign policy is proactive, theoretically robust, and is driven by a deep sense of moral virtue and a desire to spread universal values of liberty, freedom and democracy.[2] Crucially, as the revisionists’ arguably most prominent scholar Robert Kagan argues, the history of American foreign policy is one of consistent active liberal expansion, which is fuelled by the domestic character of the US and its foundation based on universal rights of all. Kagan concludes that in its dealings with the rest of the world, the US is an ideological, revolutionary state, viewed by others as a ‘dangerous nation’, with a ‘self-image at odds reality’.[3] Even though Americans may be reluctant to admit it, in Kagan’s view, the US is, and always has been, a ‘neocon nation’.[4]

This paper will assess this claim, by interrogating Kagan’s core argument that America’s liberal universalism drives its actions abroad. A tentative post-revisionist conclusion will be drawn, suggesting that America is a not ‘neocon nation’, but rather an idealist nation in a realist world: the US does pursue the extension of liberal capitalist democracy, but this idealistic goal must be reconciled with the realities of international politics, which compel states to primarily seek power, wealth and security in order to ensure their survival in an anarchic international system, as discussed in structural realist theories of international relations.[5] This reconciliation is necessary because of the centrality of liberalism in the formation of American politics and society, and takes place as foreign actions which are undertaken to satisfy parochial strategic interests are framed in moral terms, and particularly as part of an American mission to expand liberal democracy. This moral framing is not undertaken to provide a ‘fig-leaf’ to mislead the American people, but rather reflects the link between national identity and foreign policy. America may not like the realities of international politics, but if it must grapple with them and pursue its interests, it will do so in terms of liberty, freedom and democracy, in order to be consistent with its liberal political culture. In this sense, culture acts as a filter or ‘permissive causes’ on potential reactions to international pressures, deeming certain responses literally unthinkable for the US.[6] It is this reconciliation that explains America’s moral construction of its foreign policy, which Kagan confuses as the driving force behind it and thus his misleading label of a ‘neocon nation’. This view is consistent with the tenets of neoclassical realism: power determines state capability and its scope of interests, but ideas and state character determine how those interests are understood and pursued.[7]

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