So a very kind and patient conservative wrote me on why THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE got so mad at me for merely summarizing the “neocon” position:
Well, they’re more excited about Hagel personally than I am. Still, it’s a symbolic victory for realist elements. Incidentally, nothing drives my colleagues crazier than being called isolationists, as you do in that remark. They really aren’t.
So obviously, if that’s the issue, I don’t want to drive anyone crazy. So in the post below, replace “isolationist” with “realist.” That not to say their realism is the same as the Thomistic realism you can find at the foundation of my book POSTMODERNISM RIGHTLY UNDERSTOOD.
When I was in graduate school, I mainly took IR courses. The disappointing part of IR as a discipline is its feeble attempt at theory.
If I remember correctly (and how likely is that?), the big contrast was between REALISM and IDEALISM. It was the contrast between a foreign policy based on defending one’s interests and one that projects one’s ideals. Hans Morgenthau, who was quite an able thinker, was studied as the realist guy. And Woodrow Wilson was the idealist guy. I wasn’t a fan of either—preferring the wisdom of Raymond Aron as the appropriate middle position.
It always seemed to me that Reagan too found that middle position—projecting both a prudent concern for interests (and so avoiding major military interventions and dealing with “authoritarian” regimes that were friendly to us) and unapologetic idealism—calling the “evil empire” out for what it really was and having confidence that the truth represented (note the Voegelinian use of represented) by our country would eventually set people free from the “lie” (see Solzhenitsyn and Havel) that was communist ideology.
That American idealism is actually true is viewed by some “traditionalist” or theoretically Eurocentric conservatives as gnostic pretentiousness that magically exempts us from the consequences of sin or not so different from communism. It does in fact—as it case of Wilsonian progressivism at its worst—occasionally become close to that. And did some neocons (see Bush’s over-the-top Second Inaugural) lose their marbles for a while in talking about the impending victory of American “natural right” everywhere? Well, sure. (I refer you to Dan Mahoney and Pierre Manent for measured criticisms of this excess. I also remind you that I’m on record in not being “theoretically” a neocon or a Strasusian or whatever.) But on the relationship between America and truth, I refer you to Chesterton on being “a home for the homeless”—a truth about who we are equal persons under God.
It’s worth adding that some Straussians (such as West Coaster Charles Kesler) have been big critics of neocon Wilsonianism in foreign policy. They have the merit of developing a more coherent theory of Wilson as evildoing progressive idealist. But they’re not as “realist,” I think, as the TAC writers. Those West-Coasters go much further than I would in praising my country by calling it “the best regime.” Kesler, for one, did encourage Romney to distance himself—in the name of prudence—from Bush’s idealistic screw-ups. I sure wish he had.