Could ‘Conservative Internationalism’ Improve U.S. Foreign Affairs?

Elliott School professor’s book examines method that balances national needs, international reality.
Henry R. Nau
Henry R. Nau's book, "Conservative Internationalism" outlines a different approach to the foreign policy methods of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
August 07, 2014

By James Irwin

Madeleine Albright recently offered a succinct analysis of international events, which includes an escalating conflict in the Middle East, a battle for sovereignty in Ukraine and a crisis along the southern border of the United States.

“To put it mildly: The world is a mess,” the 77-year-old former secretary of state told CBS’s Bob Schieffer during the July 27 edition of “Face the Nation.”

Does America need a new philosophy for foreign policy that differs from the defense-focused presidency of George W. Bush and the diplomacy-focused tenure of Barack Obama? George Washington Today spoke with Henry R. Nau, professor of political science and international affairs, about U.S. foreign policy and his book, “Conservative Internationalism.”

Q: What is “conservative internationalism” and what are some of its characteristics?
A: “Conservative” refers to the commitment to maintain a world in which nation-states are a priority and international governance is relatively small—in other words, limited government at the world level. Your foreign policy objectives are not necessarily to build new international institutions; instead, you try to build and maintain a world of separate, independent nation-states. But, you also hope—and this is the internationalist part—that those countries increasingly become more democratic, or what Thomas Jefferson called “sister republics.” Today we would think of that in terms of increasing the number of countries in the world that are democracies, understanding that if we have a world in which nation-states remain prominent but are increasingly republican, that would be a world of peace and accountability.

Q: What type of philosophical change would this mean for U.S. foreign policy?
A: The mood in the country right now is rather conservative, nationalist: “Let’s bring our troops home; we’re not responsible for everything that’s happening in the world.” On the other hand, the United States is the major power in the world and has established over the last century a legacy of internationalism. It’s difficult for us to extract ourselves from that. Our economic life is tied to it.

My approach offers an intermediate way of dealing with that tension. We have to stay true to our domestic needs and be internationalist without getting overextended. The American people believe today that we have become overstretched with our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You don’t try and promote freedom and democracy everywhere in the world at once the way George W. Bush said we should in his second inaugural address. You pick the places where the battle for freedom is most important.

Q: Where are those areas today? How would this approach change our policy in some current regions of the world?
A: Those places, I argue, are on the border of existing free countries—in Eastern Europe and the Far East. I would say that in today’s world, Ukraine and Korea are the two areas where there is a battle for freedom going on and we need to maintain our strength. That means maintaining our commitment to alliances in Europe and Asia, nurturing democracy in Ukraine and making sure that when and if Korea ever unites, it does so on democratic principles, not on principles of authoritarianism.

We do have a democracy in the Middle East—Israel—but it’s a very unstable region and we need to be cautious about what we can achieve. We need to push back, somewhat, on the insurrections, but avoid getting too deeply involved. It would be a mistake to reintroduce American troops in Iraq. Maybe you want to provide some targeted assistance to the Iraqi government to deal with the radical fighters active in the northern part of the country. You want to continue to isolate Iran, which is the biggest supporter of radicals in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. We need to be steady in the Middle East, but also careful.

Q: In his Washington Post column last week, George Will cited your book and mentioned “there is running room for a conservative internationalist.” Has foreign affairs become a larger campaign topic, and would this approach be a way for a candidate to stand apart?
A: I think so. All of these distinctions are common in the literature on American foreign policy, although the particular approach I developed in my book is relatively overlooked. It goes back to Thomas Jefferson, and I examined four presidents: Jefferson, James Polk, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. They seemed to practice this kind of approach. The most important aspect is to set priorities. In the world today everything can’t be important in terms of diplomacy or defense. I think George W. Bush made everything important in terms of defense; Barack Obama has made everything important in terms of diplomacy. You can’t do that and stay within the limits of your resources and public will. I think there’s an opening here and I think somebody is likely to fill that space.

Q: Are there domestic public figures who demonstrate traits of "conservative internationalism?"
A: At the moment you see representatives of the other approaches: Rand Paul of the nationalist approach; John McCain of the interventionist policy, where we are more actively engaged in promoting democracy around the world. And you have people who are in between, and maybe that’s where President Obama is—more of a realist but minimalist who wants to significantly reduce American commitments. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is that different from President Obama; she has a little more of a reputation for being an interventionist, but only in cases where it doesn’t matter as much, like Libya. I’m not sure she’s more eager to be an interventionist in Ukraine or sees the importance of pushing back against the kind of influence China is beginning to exert over South Korea. I don’t see anyone at the moment who has found this middle ground between nationalism and the overextended policies of the George W. Bush administration. Mitt Romney perhaps met some criteria, but foreign policy was not much of an issue in the 2012 election; it may well be a bigger issue in 2016.