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Whatever you want to call the doctrine that America must continue indefinitely to use its ideology as a tool in proactively working to shape world order, the key point is that such an effort may today be desirable and essential on the one hand and self-destructive and unsustainable on the other. There is nothing preventing such a paradox from being true, and much working in its favor. In particular, the paradox could be true if the alternative to Americanist interventionism was so risky, unmanageable, and dangerous that American leaders would be derelict to permit it. Indeed this is the root argument of the National Review and Weekly Standard wings of the Republican Party.

To compel and justify their approach, it is not enough — and I think Lowry and Ponnuru recognize this — for the United States to be possessed of a unique character in the world, or a uniquely salutary character, or for the United States to possess those things at a moment when we enjoy a particular kind of opportunity to spread it about the world. It must also be true that the fate of the world, including the US itself, is inescapably bound, right now, to the conviction among America’s leaders that these things are true and must be acted upon in comprehensive, unwavering fashion. Any leader who fails to have, and enact, those convictions is, on these facts, un-American, no matter how sharp, well-meaning, or even patriotic.

Arguing the merits of this case is important, but I’m more interested in whether thinking harder about the future than the present might shift the terms of the current argument in decisive ways. Specifically, I want to make the following claim: the fate of the world and the US does now demand something broadly similar to what Lowry and Ponnuru describe, but, a fortiori , it demands the re-creation of an international system in which the US stops playing the role Lowry and Ponnuru advocate, and ceases to require from its leaders the matrix of conviction and action they advocate as a matter of duty.

This re-creative project is apparently a challenge that daunts even the steeliest neocon. Yet it also offends the most principled paleocon. For international policy thinking on the right, this is a serious, perhaps fatal, problem, and it explains the relative sanity but also the limits of the realist approach many smart friends and colleagues put forth. I like realism a lot, but I am unconvinced that it can reconstruct an international geostrategic order that will free the US from an unsustainable, poorly borne burden on terms finally acceptable to us. Unfortunately, most idealists on the right seem convinced that no such project is possible because the rest of the world is not, in any combination, able to make up an order acceptable on our terms. I believe that such a conclusion, though perhaps all too valid now , must be made to change starting now: the most fateful task set before American policymakers since the height of the Cold War.

This is the frame in which our foreign policy debates should be taking place. As yet, we’ve utterly failed to adopt it — at great cost in resources and, even more important, time. Any takers?

More on: Foreign Affairs

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